The Mystery of Choice

I’m a very streaky reader.

Some of this is due to external circumstances. For example, I’ll be spending the latter half of the year reading anthologies for The Best of British Fantasy 2019. Some of this is also due to the power of marketing. Just because I’m a professional nudge-crafter doesn’t mean I’m immune to them myself: Kindle’s ‘buy the next book’ pop-up is particularly effective, and means I tend to read my regency romances in series-long marathons.

Some of my streakiness is also by design.

I hate the ‘what do I read now?’ panic: the paralysis that comes from being surrounded by unread books but having none of them feel, you know, absolutely right. This may come as a surprise, but we have a lot of books (a lot of books). Late in the evening, when the Iguanodon has dozed off, or very early in the morning, when I’m dashing to the Tube - the one thing I don’t want to do is make a choice.

By deciding in advance that I’m only reading female fantasy authors, or books recommended by Dorothy Parker, or whatever, it makes the daily grind that tiny bit easier. Like all the Silicon Valley goofballs that famously wear the same expensive t-shirt every day. Except less annoying.

I don’t hold with the belief that we have a finite amount of decisions within us, but I do think choice can be stressful. That’s not only important when choosing something deathly important (a mortgage, a house, a ring), but also when we’re choosing how to relax. That’s why we still rely on the (terrible) suggestions that Netflix pushes on us, or the (intrusive) suggestions from Amazon, or the (oddly inaccurate) top picks on Just-Eat. Even relaxing can seem like work if we have to think too much about it.

* * *

My latest streak is a particularly odd one: Edgar Winners for Best First Novel.

I’m not even entirely sure how I wound up here. I had a vague awareness of the Edgars, which somehow(?) wound up looking at the Wikipedia list. I was surprised by how many of these debuts went on to become absolutely massive commercial successes: Jonathan Kellerman, James Patterson, Michael Connolly, Tana French, and Patricia Cornwell among them.

But, lest we crown the Edgars as kingmakers, the list also includes some total obscurities. 12 of the winners have less than 10 Goodreads ratings, including 3 with zero. And, in between, the list is punctuated with titles that have meandered along as, at best, cult reads.

As you can imagine, this strange inconsistency makes for an appealing reading challenge. Why did some of the books ‘make it’ and others disappear? Is there a secret formula?

I’m about a 1/4th of the way through the list (18/74), and no closer to an answer, but, hey, some opinions:

In the Woods by Tana French (2007) - What struck me most was how Secret History this was: unlikeable, chilly characters; classical references galore; themes of memory, belonging, and false identity. The same fragmented, poetic sense of storytelling, with long lucid descriptions of the deeply personal (and totally irrelevant) while the core mystery goes largely ignored. Whenever Anne asked me if I was enjoying In the Woods, I’d say ‘meh’. Yet, at the same time, my commute mysteriously got a lot shorter. One night I got home after a 45 minute delay and hadn’t even noticed. I’m still not sure if I liked this book, but, you know what? Behaviourally, I was super into it.

Don’t Cry for Me by William Gault (1952) - A ‘loser’ little brother of a society figure, at a loss on how and where he fits in, but too proud to trade on his family name. Framed for a crime he didn’t commit! Forced to play detective! Caught up between society (shockingly corrupt) and the mob (surprisingly honourable)! There’s a dame involved! It is fun to compare Don’t Cry with In the Woods, however spuriously. The two books play with many of the same themes (including a stylistic devotion to literary references). But Don’t Cry does the trick at 1/6th the length, and with a certain pleasing directness. I’m also proud of myself for guessing the whodunnit early on. Go me.

Go Lovely Rose by Jean Potts (1955) - I did not catch the whodunnit on this one - although the introduction on my edition did its very best to give it away (urgh). A young woman returns to her childhood home after the death of an elderly (and truly vile) family retainer. She’s soon caught up in small town intrigue: a crush of loves and losses. Like most of the older books on the list (and, in fact, many of the not-so-old), Rose showcases some pretty outdated, and thoroughly reprehensible, social norms as to race, gender, and disability.

Dorothy Uhnak’s The Bait (1968) is similarly problematic/intriguing. These are both books that are trying to push the boundaries of female protagonists, and, in many ways, are bold enough to address social and gender roles directly. But neither are able to move too far from the entrenched views of the time. Which is a shame. Incidentally, The Bait, on Amazon, is actually a totally different book (THE IRONY). The copy I picked up was actually Codes of Betrayal - Uhnak’s last novel. I got really into it before realising it was the wrong book. I went back and got The Bait as well, and, in conclusion: Codes is better.

When the Bough Breaks by Jonathan Kellerman (1985) - Speaking of reprehensible social norms, man, the 1980s weren’t that much better, were they? Alex Delaware is a young, sexy, vastly successful, preternaturally jaded burnout, who is avoiding the rat race with his sexy, awesome house and sexy, cool car. Also he plays guitar, because of course he does. Chicks dig him, and he totally loathes himself for how he uses women, except, you know, that doesn’t really stop him, and the book always gives him a free pass, and yeah, psychology, man.

I am a huge fan of John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee, but that doesn’t mean I give a free pass to every ultra-macho-but-secretly-sensitive detective with a penchant for introspective monologues. Delaware is simply ridiculous. There’s an awkward ‘try hard’-ness around progressive issues (he’s got a GAY FRIEND who he teases in an accepting way! He is totally happy to manipulate women of ALL RACES into sex) which somehow comes across as even more distasteful than the straight up misogyny and homophobia of earlier books. Plus, there’s peak 1980s plot that combines evil politics and evil business and evil do-gooders and child abuse - because, of course, every thriller for a fifteen year period was basically about child abuse. Kellerman’s debut is as much a historical artefact as the Gault at this point, and with much less upside.

The Last Billable Hour by Susan Wolfe (1990) - Billable is a procedural thriller set within the confines of a law firm - and predates The Firm by a year, so comparisons are inevitable. I think Billable is a sweeter, more enjoyable book. The mystery itself isn’t great, and the rushed resolution doesn’t have a lot of tension to it (contrast, again, with The Firm, which, despite its many flaws, somehow even makes photocopying dramatic). The more interesting contrast, I suppose, is Billable vs its 1980s counterparts: Howard Rickover - squidgy and lost, with a penchant for cooking shows is the polar opposite of the lean and hungry men of Kellerman.

Squaw Point by Ruth Shimer (1973) - A meandering novel set in the islands off of the Alaskan territory. A large cast of protagonists steal pelts, dodge storms, save relics, press flowers, and occasionally murder one another. It feels like an Elmore Leonard, although with less overt humour. Almost a Western in tone, Squaw Point captures the spinning moral compass of its unique setting, and how people juggle faith, law, morality and instinct in a search for what’s right. The ebook edition is cheap, but unfortunately produced. All the text is bold which makes for a very disjointed reading experience. It deserves better.

* * *

Given I’ve mentioned ebook production twice, here’s an interesting technical note.

Of the 74 books:

  • 44 are available as ebooks on Amazon.co.uk

  • 5 are available as audiobooks, but not ebooks

  • 25 are not available in any (digital) format

Of the 44:

  • The cheapest is 90p - Fredric Brown’s The Fabulous Clip Joint (1948)

  • The most expensive is £14.39 - Peter Blauner’s Slow Motion Riot (1992)

  • The mean price is £5.18; median £4.68.

  • 19 are at set at a ‘charm price’ - that is, something that ends in .49 or .99. The 25 others are priced messily at numbers like “£2.38” or “£6.43”.

Draw your own conclusions - and please share them - but a few I leapt to:

  • In an industry utterly devoid of NPD, audio has caused a gold rush for rights. A lot of books, especially older ones, will be out of contract - or on contracts that never even contemplated the existence of audio rights. Audible swoops in - and whammo, that’s five audiobooks on the market. We had the same rush a decade ago with ebooks, and, as shown above, there are still plenty of books/rights available. And as evidenced by this list, the inconsistency of production quality can be particularly maddening. Meanwhile, audio production is even more time- and resource-intensive, so… is this sustainable? Who knows?

  • The 25 books set at weird prices (£6.43? I mean, really?) will be books where the world digital rights are held by an American publisher. Which means the prices are all set in dollars by someone (or some database) in America, and not finessed to fit the local market. I find this oddly upsetting: even if it makes the smallest of incremental differences on sales, it simply looks better, and shows respect for the local market.

  • All of the ‘brand’ authors and series books are cleverly set at low prices to make them an entry point to the greater body of work. Quite a few of the older titles have been tidily converted, packaged with modern intros, and slapped with cheap, but not totally hideous, covers. And then sold at a low, commodity-type price. Because why not?

This is a better-than-random sample of books. As award winners (no matter how niche), these are, in many ways, books that have been pre-vetted for quality and potential readership. But there’s a bonkers amount of variance in:

  • how (or if) they are available

  • how they’re priced

  • how they’re formatted

  • even how they look (this is not ok, y’all)

Contrast all that with the relative uniformity and structure of a physical bookshop. Retailers are curators in a broader sense than simply selecting which products to carry. They choose how to present the content as well - price, display, context - the works. Amazon’s laissez faire approach is one extreme; perhaps something like an airport W.H. Smith would be the other, with every inch of shelf-space rigidly controlled.

All in all, I’m not sure what patterns I’ve picked out about the last half-century of popular mystery fiction, but I’m learning a lot about the digital market in 2019.

* * *

Quick links:

The Best of British Fantasy 2018 is now available (and so lovely, thanks Matty!)

The companion website is ticking on with recent articles about Andrew Lang, Terry Pratchett, and W.E. Bowman.

You can find me at the Bradford Literature Festival at the end of the month.

And an oral history of Veronica Mars.

If you don't have a strategy, just use bullet points

It has been a long time since the last newsletter. The drafts folder abounds with half-baked ideas, but none of them have fully risen yet.

Instead, some distractions:

  • a pretty picture

  • an invitation to a party

  • some reading recommendations

  • more upcoming events

Bulleted, to make it seem like I have a plan.


The Best of British Fantasy has a cover. The incredible work of Matty Long!

Behold!

It is both charming and clever. Matty has packed it with references to the stories hidden in the artwork. (And, yes, that is a Mario mushroom.)

Best of British Fantasy also has a launch date: please join us on June 1 at London's Star of Kings pub, from 1pm. There will be drinks, books, and a vast array of the ‘besties’ (sorry) in attendance.

For those that can’t make it, the best way to get your paws on a copy is still directly through the publisher.

A final note on Best of British Fantasy (for now): the companion website is now going strong, with lots of articles by neat people (mostly writers) about their favourite fantasy works (mostly books). Recent pieces include:

As always, I’m looking for further contributions. Details here.


What I’ve been reading:

  • Baghdad Burning by Riverbend. The collected blog entries of an anonymous female Iraqi blogger, 2003 - 2007. It is snarky and punchy and bloggy. Baghdad Burning is a striking combination: a cozy, nostalgic 00’s-epistelory style, but on a powerful, heart-breaking topic. Riverbend is writing for history, but also in a mode that already feels historical. It is an jarring combination and makes the author’s perspective more, not less, striking.

  • Anne on “Anastasia”. Part of her ‘Monsters & Mullets’ series - although it contains neither (zombie bugs?). Hilarious, and also a look into the power of nostalgia, history, Disneyfication, and humanity in art. (Also sexy cartoons, but in a non-disturbing way, mostly.)

  • The Gameshouse by Claire North. I read these individual novellas when they were first published, and have been longing for a collected (print) edition. Three stories of ‘players’ at an establishment where the games involve human lives. The stories increasing in scale, but the message - about what it costs to stay human - remains the same throughout.

  • This Buzzfeed article on an Alabama ISIS bride wanting to come home. Heart-breaking, and does a good job capturing the high stakes of one of our most pressing, and complex, challenges.

  • Radio Silence by Alyssa Cole. Cole is better known for the, more recent, Extraordinary Union (which is, indeed, exceptional) - she’s one of the most high-profile writers of colour in romance, and she’s also really, really damn good. (I really like her take on the Scottish rogue trope with A Duke by Default). Radio isn’t set in my favour milieu: I’m a little skeptical about post-apocalyptic romances by default. But Cole does a very good job of threading the needle between individual gain (romantic) and collective loss (apocalyptic). It is funny, and sweet, and scary and human - escapist (and saucy!) without being self-indulgent. [By contrast, I’m currently struggling to write a review of an apocalypse-themed anthology. Three dozen apocalyptic stories that are all directly and literally about the apocalypse simply aren’t as interesting.]


Finally - I’ll be lurking about the Bradford Literature Festival at the end of June.

I’ll be taking part in the Creative Sector Industry Day and several panels across the first week or so. This includes a discussion of ‘the night in literature’, featuring Cassandra Khaw, Maha Khan Phillips and Matthew Beaumont. (Maha’s “Gatsby” is one of the stand-out stories in The Outcast Hours, and I’m really looking forward to the panel.)

Lavie Tidhar’s near-future noir, “Bag Man” (also from The Outcast Hours), is up for a Dagger from The Crime Writers’ Association. A well-deserved nod for Lavie. Plus, it means that Mahvesh and I are now officially award-nominated crime editors. Thanks, Lavie! Next up: romance!

The Best of British Fantasy

An interesting book for interesting times

I’m delighted to announce the table of contents for The Best of British Fantasy 2018.

The anthology is released in May, from NewCon Publishing, in all normal formats, plus a sexy hardcover limited edition. It is available for pre-order now, directly from the publisher.

Without further ado:

  • "There's a Witch in the Word Machine" by Jenni Fagan (There's a Witch in the Word Machine)

  • "We Are Now Beginning Our Descent" by Malcolm Devlin (LossLit)

  • "The Dance of a Thousand Cuts" by Liam Hogan (Terra! Tara! Terror!)

  • "A Son of the Sea" by Priya Sharma (All the Fabulous Beasts)

  • "To Look Upon His Works" by RJ Barker (Art of War)

  • "12 Answers Only You Can Question" by James Warner (EPOCH)

  • "The Woman Who Turned Into Soap" by Harkiran Dhindsa (The Good Journal)

  • "Mushroom Speed Boosts" by Ben Reynolds (LossLit)

  • "The Guile" by Ian McDonald (Tor.com)

  • "We can make something grow between the mushrooms and the snow" by Kirsty Logan (The Puritan)

  • "The Moss Child" by Lisa Fransson (The Forgotten and the Fantastical 4)

  • "Boys" by Lizzie Hudson (Litro)

  • "The Farm at the World's End" by Helen McClory (Occulum)

  • "The Prevaricator" by Matthew Hughes (Fantasy & Science Fiction)

  • "The Small Island" by Heather Parry (F(r)iction Magazine)

  • "A Gift of Tongues" by Paul McQuade (Cōnfingō)

  • "Velocity" by Steph Swainston (Turning Point)

  • "Counting the Pennies" by Rhys Hughes (The Early Bird Catches the Worm but the Wise Worm Stays in Bed)

  • "The Councillor's Visit" by Beth Goddard (Finesse)

  • "Yard Dog" by Tade Thompson (Fiyah)

  • "Dark Shells" by Aliya Whiteley (This Dreaming Isle)

  • "Coruvorn" by Reggie Oliver (The Silent Garden)

  • "The Godziliad" by Adam Roberts (Self-published)

  • "Underground" by Archie Black (Pornokitsch) [Limited edition only]

The book’s 20-odd entries are selected from hundreds of stories that I received (or found, or was recommended) from anthologies, websites, literary and genre magazines, little presses, big presses, and the occasional chapbook. As well as the final table of contents, there’s also a supplementary ‘recommended reading list’, with some of the other highlights from my reading journey.

You can read more about the process here and the ‘brief’ here.

The authors come from the full width and breadth of the United Kingdom, including both immigrants and expats. And their stories contain lethal mermaids, sorcerous rogues, magic swords (a mandatory), city-stomping monsters, ghostly lovers, unreachable islands, several apocalypses, one particularly irritating local councillor, and bees.

We live in Interesting Times, and pulling together a book about mermaids and bees against the backdrop of (waves hands) all that, can like the ultimate act of fiddling.

It is also fair to say that, as well as swords and monsters, The Best of British Fantasy also contains Brexit, identity, politics and politics and politics, class, dysfunctional and functional families, capitalism, immigration, feminism, despair and hope, grief and coping mechanisms, and a few thoughts on the housing market.

Elif Shafak, in The Happiness of Blond People, explains the importance of fiction - particularly in what she describes as ‘angst-’ridden times:

Novels helped me to discover other lives, other possibilities. They gave me a sense of continuity, centre and coherence in my life - the three big C’s that I otherwise lacked.

That’s a tall order for the stories in The Best of British Fantasy - or for any work of art, for that matter. But there’s no better media for it than fantasy, and no better messenger than the simple magic of words. As something to strive for, providing ‘continuity, centre, and coherence’ is a fitting objective for what fantasy can do. Especially, not despite, when living in interesting times.


There’s a lot to discuss about British fantasy, and I’d like your help doing it.

The book has a companion website: The Best of British Fantasy. I’m already sitting, Smaug-like, on a pile of features from great writers that will begin appearing in April. And I’m looking for more short articles on ‘British fantasy’.

What’s your favourite ‘British fantasy’? Is it e a book, a game, a film, or some other work of art? This is a chance for you to write about a childhood favourite or a lost masterpiece or simply something you really, really like. The primary restriction is that it needs to be at least 5 years old, so we can avoid recency bias.

This is a (very lightly) paid gig, and you do not need to be a published author or critic to participate: the broader the view, the better.

If you’re interested, drop me a line at bestofbritishfantasy@gmail.com, and I’ll send you the brief. (Of course there’s a brief.)


Semi-Formal

Smash more Coke bottles

In Robert Calasso's The Art of the Publisher, the author, the chairman of the lauded Adelphi Edizioni, distills the art of publishing as the quest for form:

the capacity to give form to a plurality of books as though they were the chapters of a single book

The most overt demonstration of form comes from the books’ design. The Art of the Publisher dedicates a lot of thought to the role of covers across a publisher's list. Cover design is an art, and it is also the simplest, most blunt way of communicating form. Covers give a consistent visual identity that can create an immediate sense of union across a publisher’s body of work. Whether it is the famous Gollancz yellow jackets or anything at all from Penguin, a consistent cover style can give the impression of form, connecting very disparate books.

But… Calasso also goes on to explain that, although the visual component of form is very nice indeed, the first and foremost means of determining form should be ‘judgement’.

Calasso defines judgement as the publisher's choice of when to 'say no'. Accordingly, form requires a comprehensive understanding of what you are and what you aren’t. At M&C Saatchi, this is the essence of ‘brutal simplicity of thought’. Understanding what you don’t need to say, and focusing - ruthlessly - on what you do.

In most publishing houses there are specific editors - and sometimes specific imprints - each with their own vision and taste: judgement. But the larger the publisher, the more the taste-making is diffused across the organisation. And when the realities of commercial pressure become involved, form becomes less of a priority. Do you know who publishes Lee Child? John Grisham? Fifty Shades? The Secret? Would you buy a book by the publisher of Lee Child, because they also publish Lee Child? I suspect not. Lee Child has form with Lee Child, but not with Bantam’s list (saved you a Google).

Form is easier to spot in small presses. A small press generally has a single taste-maker involved, making consistency easier to mandate. Small presses also have to emphasise form because they don’t have brand authors or marketing budgets. They don’t have much else to sell besides their judgement.

Publishers with form that include (but go beyond) the visual:

  • A vintage example: Lin Carter's work with Ballantine Adult Fantasy.

  • More contemporary: Hard Case Crime, which, like the above, is a mixture of both commissioned and reprinted (curated) titles, striking cover art, and distinct editorial vision.

  • I think Comma and Strange Attractor are interesting as it is less editorial ‘taste’ and more philosophical consistency. Everything Comma does - from translation to writing workshops - is about surfacing new voices and new talent, a commitment to discovery that runs through the books and the organisations. Similarly, Strange Attractor ‘celebrates the unpopular’, and their almost-aggressive cultishness gives a sense of form throughout their list.

  • Harlequin and Mills & Boon have a different type of form, in that they’re organised entirely around audience need: tactically using sub-brands to help readers sift through a commoditised market by need. Everything - cover art, design, editorial selection - is judged based on fitting a specific reader taste. It is demand-led form.

  • Black Library - it helps when your form is largely dictated by your existence as a tie-in brand, but they don’t miss an open goal, which, by industry standards, is an impressive achievement. Games Workshop have a clear vision of what all their products are ‘about’, as well as a consistently grimdark, OTT, darkly comedic style.

The promise these publishers all make is their judgement: if you liked one book from Black Library or Hard Case Crime, you’ll probably like the next one, too.

Can Random House or HarperCollins (or Kindle Unlimited) make that promise? Probably not. The logo of a large publisher comes with certain guarantees of quality and professionalism, but a consistency of taste is not one of them.

In the world of advertising, form is another way of describing the ‘Coke Bottle Test’.

This is apocryphal, but the classic Coke bottle is designed so that, if you smash it, every single piece is supposedly instantly identifiable as to its origin. A handy metaphor for integrated marketing: every part of the campaign should be a meaningful microcosm of the whole.

The bottle is also a metaphor for how audiences consume a campaign: smashed. Yes, the social content and the TV work really well together - but what happens if the campaign is smashed? Does the hashtag make sense if they don’t go to the cinema? Are your out-of-home, direct mail, and PR activities connected solely by the presence of a meerkat, or is there something more meaningful that ties everything together?

Advertising has always understood form, or ‘integration’, as cover art. You don’t invest in meerkats, black horses, or singing blokes named Howard and not run them through everything. The challenge is to go deeper. Every aspect of the campaign should be part of ‘a single book’, linked by a consistent philosophy, a clear vision, a distinct style, a focused commitment on the audience, or a brutal simplicity of thought. Integration starts with judgement.

Get: Publishers of integrated marketing campaigns
To: Think beyond cover art
By: Being judgemental


Further reading:

  • You know a great illustration of form? The humble mixtape. One person’s judgement, carefully curated, craftily designed, highly focused around the needs of a single audience. (And with a specific objective in mind: PLS LOVE ME BACK)

  • Amazon is the enemy of form. The site lists a book’s publisher as a second-tier technical detail, hidden below the ‘Simultaneous Device Usage’ and ‘File Size’ information. This isn’t merely being passive aggressive about the ‘competition’, this is a commitment to atomising the market as much as possible to create a search-driven consumer.

  • Conversely, Foyles used to shelve its books by publisher, which strikes me as a Pyrrhic devotion to form: “Imagine Kafka had gone into the book trade”

  • Why does it matter? Amongst other things, books are still a status symbol.


Monsters & Mullets, critical (and very funny) reviews of nostalgic films, is now back as a newsletter. Get your quest on.


New book. Old book. Next book.

No good deed

Really ruining the fun for everyone.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed these emails are now coming via Substack, instead of TinyLetter.

I’m grateful to the latter for getting this little project started, but Substack is a much better mug for me. The visual editor is really straightforward and the code doesn’t look like it was written in Dreamweaver. I also find some of the little perks really satisfying: like being able to edit old emails, and a more convenient archive page. The one thing I miss: TinyLetter’s wordcount feature.

(There are also a lot of new subscribers, which is very gratifying. Howdy.)


Citymapper have launched a London “Super Pass” that’s cheaper than it’s Oyster counterpart. In peak 2019ness, they’ve explained their vision on Medium:

We believe ease of ticketing is essential for public transport to compete with private players, and this is important for the future of congested and complex cities.

On one hand, this is a lovely use of technology, and, somehow (magic?) TfL still get their share, so I’m not fussed about nasty long-term impact of money disappearing from the public coffers.

On the other hand, the “London” pass only covers Zones 1-2. If you (generously) interpret that as inner vs outer London, that means the pass is available to less than half (closer to a third) of London’s residential population, and a quarter of its area. Inner London is also better served by transport already - including the public bikes and largely more accessible (in every definition, but including basic ‘walkability’).

The “Super Pass” isn’t a bad idea - it is, in fact, a pretty good one. But it won’t reduce traffic, or pollution, or make the facilities of “London” (central London) any more accessible to the majority of Londoners (greater, or ‘actual’, London). When considering the socio-economic profiles of Inner and Outer boroughs, I’d much rather see the discount go to someone in Redbridge than Westminster. Access to transportation is critical for mental health, economic progress and social mobility. “Super Pass” is a lovely thing, but it stops short of meaningful impact, especially when contrasted with, say, the “hopper” fare. Great for tourists though.

This is all part of the greater conversation on the ethical use of technology. Unless you’re being deliberately dense, you’ve probably cottoned on to the fact that computers can, indeed, have biases. Technology only does what we ask it to do, and sometimes we don’t ask it the right - or fullest - questions.

Similarly, systems design can function the same way. Even with the best intentions, offering transport discounts (to Zone 1-2), free courses (to those at university), professional advice (to those who can pay £60 to attend a course in Central London in the middle of a workday)… can wind up reinforcing the same issues that they are meant to combat. Or creating another set of issues entirely.

I’ve written in the past about “wicked problems”. Another challenge of the wicked problem is that - in a Heisenbergery kind of way - they are impacted by the attempt to address them. That’s another reason we have to be especially careful. Pilot schemes aren't ‘sandboxes’; they take place in the real world.


The great Drew Magary on the marketing of ‘passion’:

The single stupidest comment to make online about something—and there is no shortage of choices—is “meh.” Proudly displaying your LACK of passion about something is basically announcing to the world that you’re an uninteresting person. You’re wasting everyone’s time, including your own. Why don’t you go sit and do crossword puzzles silently until you die? Why bother living if you’re not gonna care about shit either way? Passion is vital, which is why it sucks that techy dingbats have taken the concept and mutilated it into a disposable bit of self-branding.

The link - a discussion of the evils of ‘meh’ - is worth reading.

Magary arrived at this point in his typical round-about way, but he’s actually answering a reader question about using the phrase “to have a passion for”.

What he is illustrating the basic principle of ‘show, don’t tell’ - which is as true in marketing as it is in fiction. There are are certain… let’s call them “values”… that are undermined by the simple act of self-assigning them.

Again, there’s a wee bit of Heisenberg about this. There’s nothing, for example, as inherently untrustworthy as saying “trust me”. “Integrity”, “honesty”, “trust”, “transparency”… are in the same boat. They’re not simply better by being shown, but telling is counter-productive. I think this elevates them beyond another tier of values - “efficiency”, “ease”, even “value” - where telling is a more neutral act.

Is it because the former category are more subjective, or simply more personal? Or are they more emotional? Ease is a practical, rational concern. Honesty is, functionally- speaking, meaningless, but psychologically critical. (Interestingly, if you had to choose between an honest brand or an easy to use one, which would you choose? Would that matter depending on the sector? What if it were your bank? Your doctor? Your waiter?)

Whether it is ‘show, don’t tell’ or ‘practice what you preach’ or, whatever, it is simply the common sense that underpins virtually every approach to strategic communications. As importantly, ‘show, don’t tell’ also informs the limits of those communications: what happens when you say something you aren’t doing? Or stop doing what you are saying?

The big downer here: there can be harm in trying. Don’t claim what you can’t prove. Because it won’t simply fail, it’ll undermine your future attempts at success.

Get: Problem-solvers
To: Consider the cost of failure
By: Reminding them that nothing takes place in a vaccuum


Not to brag, but I was once a guest, on a podcast even, with Drew. My contribution - which was recorded at 4 am GMT - was mostly fawning. It is not my finest hour (or 42 minutes). Mostly I’m just confused about Chopped.


Further reading:


Last night was the second ‘launch’ of The Outcast Hours, at the beautiful Brick Lane Books, at 7 pm. Guests included Frances Hardinge, Karen Onojaife, Maha Khan Phillips, Will Hill and, everyone’s favourite: wine. Being a book about cities at night, having an East London event felt rather necessary, and the bookstore is one of my favourites. I’m not sure who does their buying, but all their books are really, really pretty, and it was nice to see Outcast hanging out in their company.

For the collector, it means that there are now signed copies at two different shops, with two different sets of signatures. Good luck with that.

The immediate Outcast events are all done, so… enjoy the silence. If you’re interested in a book, or simply hot takes, about ‘the people who live at night’ - get in touch. I know a few dozen authors I can recommend.

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