Why is writing so important? How can we pursue true independence as authors? How can we stay open to technological change while still focusing on the fundamentals of craft? Derek Sivers talks about these things and more.
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Derek Sivers is the author of four non-fiction books, as well as a musician, entrepreneur, and book publisher. His latest book is How to Live: 27 conflicting answers and one weird conclusion.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- Why focus on writing?
- Decentralization and why selling direct is so important for authors who value independence
- Tips for selling direct — for digital and print
- Taking the long-term view
- Thoughts of blockchain, GPT-3, and AI translation
- Giving everything to one book — and starting again for the next one
You can find Derek Sivers at sive.rs and on Twitter @sivers
Transcript of Interview with Derek Sivers
[Note: Derek provided his notes which have been added to the transcript, so we hope you find them useful!]
Joanna: Derek Sivers is the author of four non-fiction books, as well as a musician, entrepreneur, and book publisher. His latest book is How to Live: 27 conflicting answers and one weird conclusion. Welcome to the show, Derek.
Derek: Thanks, Joanna.
Joanna: I'm excited to talk to you today. So, my first question is, you are a multi-passionate creator and your bio says, ‘I'm ambitiously focused on creating.'
What part does writing play in your creative life and your business these days?
Derek: First, listeners should know I'm not doing any of this for the money. My cost of living is paid for by past investments, and I give all my profits to charity. So filter my answers accordingly.
If you're listening to this wondering how to get rich or something, I will not be giving a formula for how to get rich because I'm doing this for other reasons. So, what part does it play in my life?
I'm trying to better understand the world.
I want to figure out life.
I want to be smarter.
I want to learn.
I want insights into life.
How to work and live more effectively.
When I learn or invent an insight that feels USEFUL TO OTHERS, not just me, I feel I SHOULD SHARE IT with the world.
It would be easier to write it in my journal and keep it to myself.
But making it public can help other people.
So it's for the greater good.
It helps RETENTION.
Writing and editing for public consumption makes you hone and clarify every idea.
Whatever makes an idea easy to spread, also makes it easier to remember.
The easier it is to remember, the more likely you are to internalize it, and let it guide your daily actions out in the world.
So, I write for my own retention. And I post things publicly because I find that people's feedback can improve my thinking. Like, when I post an idea…and I say idea because I actually…I try to post things in little itty-bitty bite sizes so that we can shine a spotlight on each idea. I'd be happy to talk more about that later, but that's a tangent.
Their FEEDBACK can IMPROVE my thinking.
When I post an idea, people often reply with improvements.
They disagree, and show me where I'm wrong.
They point out an angle I hadn't considered.
It's an EGO BOOST.
We say ego boost like it's a bad thing, but it's fuel!
That motivation helps push you through the harder times.
You write better if you think many people are going to read it seriously.
We say ego boost like it's a bad thing. But guess what? It's fuel. That motivation, helps push you through the harder times. I don't mean hard times, like, laying in a gutter drunk. I just mean harder times, just struggling to squeeze out an idea that's half-formed. It takes work.
But the ego boost of doing it, when it's done people going, ‘Oh, my god. You're amazing.'
You write better if you think that many people are going to read this.
So, posting publicly helps you push through some of the harder aspects of thinking things through, whether that's creatively or even diligent thinking through a life situation.
For all of these reasons, I decided to take writing more seriously.
Which really means I decided to give it more time.
I put aside a few hours each day for nothing but writing for the public.
I try to post one idea at a time. When I post an idea, people often reply with improvements. They sometimes will disagree and show me where I'm wrong, or they agree but point out an angle that I hadn't considered. So that improves my own thinking of my own idea.
Sometimes I feel like an idea is finished, and I post it to the world and people go, ‘Uh. Uh. Uh.' And I realize it's not finished. So, I also write publicly as an ego boost.
It's NETWORKING FOR INTROVERTS.
Publishing your ideas instead of keeping them to yourself can help you meet other smart thoughtful people — people interested in the same things you are.
Ideally you earn respect from people you respect.
I'd rather earn the respect of ten people I admire, than a million people I don't.
It's a worthy drive, a worthy goal. So, for all of these reasons, I've just pretty recently decided to take my writing more seriously. You and I met in Oxford two years ago, was it?
Joanna: Well, it must have been in 2019, pre-pandemic.
Derek: Right. Okay. So, let's say, two-and-a-half years ago, you and I met in Oxford. And I think even at that time, I wasn't too sure. It was kind of one foot in one foot out. I was kind of calling myself an entrepreneur, a programmer.
Sometimes I would write and share my thoughts. But I was considering my writing to be on the side. It was on the periphery of what I was really doing. But since then, I've just given it more thought. And for the reasons I just said, I've realized that it's the most worthy pursuit for me.
I've decided to take it more seriously, which really just means giving it more time.
Turning off other things, and just doing this for a few hours each day.
Joanna: I love that. And it's so funny because, of course, you had these previous careers, which I will have talked about before the introduction. But I came to you through your writing, through Seth Godin, through Anything You Want, I think was that book. And so that's how I came to you.
As you said, connecting with introverts, I connected with your mind through your writing, and a lot of people, too. And that's almost how I think about it. It's almost telepathy, it's like, this is my thought. And it connects with you through time, through space.
We're never going to talk about all the things that we write about, but it's magic. I love that you mentioned ego, too, because I feel this is the difference. Because writing in your journal is one thing, but we publish because we want other people to read our work.
Publishing is a fascinating thing. And you've got a really interesting publishing history because you've worked with publishing companies. And then you got the rights back for Anything You Want, I think. And you are doing some really interesting stuff.
I think you're pretty much unemployable by anyone else, which probably shapes your decisions.
What are your thoughts on publishing these days, having tried different methods?
Derek: First, I often think in terms of what's best for the world, for the greater good.
De-centralization is good. Amazon should not be the only bookstore.
De-centralization will always be an uphill battle, but it's one worth fighting.
For some people, they don't feel it's worth fighting. For me, I'm willing to fight the decentralization battle. So, if you're an author that has fans, you should send your fans anywhere but Amazon.
Whether that's a small, independent bookshop or selling directly, you can help be the change to help show people that there are other ways to buy books besides Amazon and Audible.
In the late 90s there was this revolution in the music business when musicians were enabled to sell and communicate directly with fans.
They had been so screwed-over by the music industry for decades, so it was so empowering and liberating to bypass the entire industry.
But here we are 25 years later, and the independent spirit seems to be gone, especially in the book world.
Any talk of how to be an independent author seems to focus mostly on how to kiss Amazon's ass.
It's a smarter long-term strategy to deal directly with your thousand true fans, instead of blindly selling more units through some platform that captures most of the profits, and doesn't let you communicate with your customers.
When I used to run CD Baby, I had some clients that were formerly rock stars. They told me that it meant more to them emotionally to sell a thousand CDs sold through me and get at the direct contact information for their fans, because that's how my old company, CD Baby, used to work.
Every time you would sell something through CD Baby, I'd say, ‘Hey, here's who bought your CD today? Here's Joanna Penn in Bath, and here's her email address.' And for each person, I'd say, ‘Here's their name and email address.' And the fans knew this too. They knew that when you bought through CD Baby, that I'm going to ship you the CDs or give you the MP3s, but I'm going to put you directly in contact with the musician.
And the musicians would have the direct contact information for all these fans. And these former rock stars would tell me that it was emotionally more rewarding to be in touch with 1,000 people than it was to get some kind of sales report saying that they had sold a million copies.
So, I really took that to heart. And I really will just do everything to have direct contact with my fans, or readers, or whatever you want to call them.
All that being said….
My first book was written as a favor to Seth Godin. I had never intended to write a book, but Seth asked me to be the first author on his new publishing company, so I said OK, and wrote him a book in 10 days. He published it a week later. Five years later, he sold his publishing company to Penguin. So that's why my first book is on Penguin.
My main contact at Penguin is really sweet. We went out to dinner once. She's wonderful. I like all the people I've encountered there. They paid me fairly, and all was well. They were happy with the sales of my first book, and said they'd be happy to publish any of my future books.
But I wanted to sell directly to my fans, and it felt weird that I wasn't allowed to do that. I didn't like not owning the publishing rights to my own words. So I decided I would self-publish all future books.
I contacted Penguin and bought back the rights, or I'm just in the process right now. They say it's going to be done in 10 days, buying back the rights to my first book so that I will have the right to sell absolutely all of my books directly. I think that answers it.
I want to do some fun things that regular sellers can't do.
Personalize ebooks and audiobooks.
Sell at a weird price: $19 for the first one, $4 for each after.
Sell $15 for digital access forever, all future formats.
Sell autographed books.
Say yes to translations.
Own the translations.
But mostly the decision comes from thinking very long-term. I want the rights to adapt my past books to new technologies. To do whatever I want with them for all future time.
Joanna: Like a loyalty thing.
Derek: Yeah. And I like that, encourages people to buy 10, or 20, or 30 copies or… Well, anyway, I like selling my digital files for a flat $15, to say, okay, for 15 bucks, you get access to all digital formats for all future time. Even formats that haven't been invented yet, you got them. You pay me 15 bucks now, all digital files are yours forever.
I like to sell autographed books, which is an idea I got from you. I had never considered that. But sitting at a table on a sidewalk in Oxford, you said I should autograph them. And I think I sneered, I thought that sounded horrible. But then I thought about it and thought, ‘Okay, Jo is right. I should do that.'
And then I like to say yes to translations. I like to own the translations. But mostly…sorry, I'm giving you very long answers to your questions.
Joanna: No, no, it's great.
Derek: But mostly the decision comes from thinking very long-term. I want the rights to adapt my past books to new technologies, to do whatever I want with them for all future time. And that to me, at its core, was why self-publishing was just mandatory.
Joanna: I think we both prefer the term independent publishing because, again, you said before, maybe the independent spirit is dying a bit. I don't think it is. This show is definitely focused on long-term thinking. It is wide and all of those things.
I feel like those of us who really care about what independence actually means, what you're talking about is so true.
What I would say, though, is that you are a programmer, and obviously, I bought your books, and I like how I can log on to your website, and there are all the books I've bought. And you've basically hand-coded this whole thing.
Most authors are not like you. We're not programmers. So, there are tools that are emerging for this.
Any tips for selling direct, if people are not programmers, for people who might want to spin into this as well as selling on the other stores.
Derek: First, let's do the one more reason why I think it's so important to try to capture every penny you can, from the sale of your book.
I'm not a very money-focused person. I'm not saying this as in any kind of greedy way. But If you're in direct contact with a fan, who already wants to buy your book, then it seems fundamentally wrong to give Amazon a big cut of that sale.
I price my digital books at $15. I've made over a half-million dollars selling them directly to fans on my site. If I would have sold those same books through Amazon it would have been about $100,000. So $500,000 versus $100,000
It costs about $2000 to save a life. Charities like the Against Malaria Foundation will save about one life for every $2000 donated. I donate all of my profits, so that means 200 people will live instead of die because I sold my books directly instead of through Amazon.
Joanna: That's a good reason.
Derek: Yeah. Whenever I would consider like, ‘It'd be so much easier to just do KDP and be done with it.' And I think, ‘Come on. Even if I'm giving it all away, this is like $2,000 is a life that's somebody who dies if you don't donate $2,000.'
That in itself is a reason to ask all your fans to buy directly instead on Amazon. More profits which you can then donate to save people's lives.
That said, I will list them on Amazon very soon, but I won't send my fans there. If Amazon wants to generate new fans for my book, that's fine.
As for tips on selling directly….
You tried to scare me away from this because of customer support!
But I‘ve found that less than 1% of buyers said they had a problem getting their digital files to work on their device.
I wrote a form letter telling people how to get a mobi file on to their Kindle.
I wrote a form letter telling people how to open an m4b audiobook file on their phone.
Didn't need to be a programmer. Just walk through it once successfully, and note every step, and write it down.
Use Gumroad. Use PayPal. Use whatever. I built my own store but I'm a nerd like that. For most people just use whatever existing tools out there seem easy and appealing to you.
Joanna: Or just to say, and I think that's amazing. But for most of us, that $2,000 might pay the mortgage or our kids' school or whatever. So, what we're saying is making the money yourself is completely valid. However you choose to spend that money, and you've chosen that direction, which is amazing. We're not saying that you have to donate your royalties.
Derek: Right. I was just giving all this, I think, maybe I'm being a little extra defensive because I've heard people just sound really greedy when they're, ‘Why should I share?'
It's kind of almost like those people that don't want to pay any taxes. It's like, ‘Urgh, come on. Have you not thought this through in the bigger picture. There's reasons to pay taxes.' So, I don't mean to sound like nobody can take any piece of my transaction.
I just think for all these reasons I've said, decentralization and all that, I just think it's morally the right thing to do to try to keep as much of the profits from the sale of your sales directly to your fans as possible.
Okay. So, that, I just had to get that off my back or whatever you call it, but…
Okay. So, tips on selling directly. That's funny. When you and I talked at Oxford, you I want to say tried to scare me away, but you kind of tried to scare me away from selling directly because of the customer support, the tech support. You're like, ‘Derek, Derek, you don't want to be answering tech support from people that don't know how to get a file onto their phone, or don't know how to put a thing onto their Kindle. You don't want to deal with this. You don't want to spend your life with it.'
I want you to know how seriously I took your warning. I thought about that for months, and really considered that, and really let it shape some of my decisions because, I look up to you a lot. And you've been there, done that way more than I have. You're way more experienced in this field. So, I really was kind of deferring to your judgment.
But I just, I decided for me it was worth the uphill battle again. So, I ended up writing a form letter telling people directly, how to get a Mobi file onto their Kindle.
Like, here's the three ways to do it. I took an hour. And I wrote that form letter once so that anytime somebody says, ‘Hey, just bought your book, but how do I read it on my Kindle?' I just hit cut, paste, and here is the well-written form letter telling them exactly how to do it. Same thing with people who buy my audiobook in the M4B audio format, and they don't know how to get it to play in their phone, or their tablet, or their computer. I have a form letter for that, that I took an hour to write.
I have this feeling that every time I'm sending somebody that form letter, I'm actually doing a little bit of greater good for the world because now this is a person that hopefully knows how to do this for future use.
And one of your other listeners one day will benefit from this as that same person now feels a little bit more comfortable buying something directly from an author using PayPal, or Gumroad, or whatever it may be. So, to me, that was worth the uphill battle. I've been saying that phrase way too many times today.
Joanna: You are right because selling direct is an uphill battle. It is easier to just go on KU, whatever. I would say that I'm sure I must have mentioned BookFunnel.com, which does that. But you prefer to control all of your technology, don't you? You actually prefer kind of coding it that way than using a third-party service.
Derek: Yeah. It's kind of my favorite hobby. I really enjoy programming. Also, I've already got a really big infrastructure. Basically, I wrote all of the software that built and ran CD Baby. When I sold the company, I got to keep the backend software for my own use because I had written it myself. Like you said, I wrote every line by hand.
So, I've got this amazing backend infrastructure that already has the full contact information for a quarter-million people that I've emailed over the past 25 years.
Everybody that's ever left a comment on my site, or emailed me, or signed up for one of my things online, it all ties back into this one central database.
It just made sense for me to also tie in a bookstore into that same database so that I could say like, ‘Hi, Tracy. I've noticed you've bought my first two books, but not my newest two books.' I know who's bought what, and it helps me talk to people to say like, ‘ You, in the past, said that you really liked this post of mine, and that post of mine turned into this book. And I noticed you haven't bought the book based on this post that you said you liked.'
I'm able to communicate with people in a very personal way like that because I've kept everything in one central place. So, to me, it was worth doing that.
Joanna: I think the lesson there for everyone is, not that you need to hand-code everything but that long-term view, what you did with all of that is think about future. You designed a system that could be used for the long-term because you were thinking like that.
That's kind of your programmer's brain, I think, broke it down that way, which my husband's a programmer. I get that mindset of structuring things so you can do things in different ways.
I did want to ask, though, because I feel like in a way the eBook problem, it was easier than the print problem. Because you're also doing special hardbacks and all kinds of things.
What about selling the print books direct?
Derek: Luckily, one of my best friends is a paper book nerd. Her name is Saeah Lee Wood, and she is brilliant. In fact, you know what? I'm going to straight up give a plug. She is really an independent book producer now. Her first name is Korean. So, it's spelled strangely, it's S-A-E-A-H.
If you go to saeah.com, is Saeah's website. And she took care of everything of producing my paper book. She nerds out on binding, on edge pages, about the fabric on the hardcovers, about the spine. All of that stuff fascinates her.
She spent so many hours or so many months actually talking to so many different book printers, getting samples, printing samples with them, sending it back saying, ‘Not good enough yet.' After months and months and months of back and forth, she produced the beautiful hardcovers that you can get through me.
She has her own warehouse in North Carolina, USA, where she ships all of the books from. She has all of my books in a big barn on the east coast of the U.S. And anybody who orders a paper book through me, it gets a little message sent to Saeah to send them to where. That was worth the effort to me because I really wanted beautiful linen hardcover books.
Joanna: They're fantastic. And again, I think it's about systems, but also people. So, you've found the right person to work with.
Joanna: I'm kind of going this way now. And also there is a dropshipping. You can now sell direct, but then drop shipping a print-on-demand book, which is really emerging now. So you can still sell direct, but you don't have to have a warehouse full.
And, of course, the upfront printing cost is often a problem. So, this is what I'm looking at now is, okay, I can sell direct print and dropship at the same time, which is just fantastic. Time moves on and these problems, companies emerge and people emerge to solve these problems, don't they? Because people want to do this.
When people want to do something, the answer emerges somehow.
Derek: I agree. And sometimes it's worth doing a step backward. I ended up just doing a good old-fashioned, upfront printing 20,000 copies of my hardcover book because I estimated that's how much I think I'll sell.
I had to just kind of guess, which I know the more efficient thing would've been to just do them all print-on-demand. But I just found that I could get higher quality by doing this certain kind of, I forget what it's called, it's like not digital printing, but…
Joanna: Offset printing?
Derek: Offset. Thank you. That's the word. So, they're offset instead of computer printed, or instead of digital. And it was a slightly higher quality. And to me, that was just worth the upfront investment.
I had taken a gamble and pay them whatever that was, a few dollars per book for 20,000 copies upfront and warehouse them and all that stuff. A lot of people might not want to do that or might not care so much about the nerding out on the paper quality and font quality and things like that.
Joanna: I love that. I love that you've done that because, again, I guess you're known as the sort of digital guy, but you also now have these wonderful print books that your company's done.
I want to come back to, you mentioned earlier, decentralization is good. And looking at what the music industry or what's happening in the music industry now, we've got interesting decentralized, if one could call them that, options with blockchain and NFTs to split royalties. And then we've got changes like Spotify getting into Audiobooks.
There's a lot happening right now, I think, in music and audio space that we're starting to see emerge for authors. The royalty fractionalization thing is very, very interesting to me and many authors about, wow, this is kind of potentially the future of crowdfunding. There's lots of options.
What do you think about some of these emerging opportunities and challenges?
I can't emphasize this enough: Nobody knows the future, so focus on what doesn't change.
I've been in the music business since 1987. I've seen a ton of change. What I've seen in music is this:
People always love a memorable melody. You can’t know what instrumentation or production style will be in fashion. So it's best to focus on the craft of making great melodies.
People always want an emotional connection. You can’t know what technology will carry that communication. So it's best to focus on the essence of how to connect with an audience.
Writing lots of songs increases your chances of writing a hit. You can’t know which song will be a hit. So it's best to write as many songs as you can.
Instead of predicting the future, focus your time and energy on the fundamentals. The unpredictable changes around them are just the details.
The best investment of your time is on the timeless aspects of your craft.
This also drives a majority of the sales. Yes there's some activity in on the ever-trendy fringe of things, and it might be worth a bit of your effort, but appropriately small.
I think that even though it's newsworthy to talk about NFT stuff, and blockchain, and whatever's going on right now, it's interesting to the media because it's new. I think that it's actually driving a minority of the sales.
I think the majority of the sales you're ever going to get will come from the fundamental aspects of what you're doing. How great is your story? How memorable are your characters? How insightful is your writing? And yes, there's activity on the ever-trendy fringe of things. And it might be worth it a bit of your effort, but I'd say to proportion it, appropriately small.
But all of that being said, I think, whatever fascinates you, you should go do it. And if it doesn't fascinate you, that's kind of what I'm speaking to. If somebody's listening to this feeling like, ‘Blockchain, NFTs. Urgh. It's just, I guess I should be doing this, but I don't want to.' No.
Then I guess that's who I'm speaking to. If this doesn't fascinate you, then you could just skip it. It doesn't matter that much. It's the edge of things. And some people are fascinated by it. If you're fascinated with it, then go for it. But I really think that the most strategic use of your time is to focus on the fundamentals that don't change.
Joanna: I totally agree with you. And also, most people listening will be rolling their eyes at me asking that question because I am fascinated with it. But I guess I'm thinking about business models of writing.
Fifteen years now, I've been in publishing, not as long as you've been in music, but writing and publishing for 15 years. And again, how the business model has changed in 15 years is kind of crazy. I'm looking at another 15 years ahead and thinking, what is my business model going to look like in the next 15 years, into my 60s'? How can I position myself so that I'm ready?
I'm often early in adopting new ways of publishing. I think the smart contracts that are emerging with NFTs are really, really interesting for the future of intellectual property. [More on the future of creativity here.]
Coming back to what you said earlier, which is when you sell direct you're going to make sure you include the formats of the future. But the problem at the moment is that authors are signing contracts that have a clause in that say something like, ‘All format existing now, and to be created for the life of copyright.' Authors are signing that.
It means they can't take advantage of a new opportunity. I'm completely with you, right now is not the time to do NFT books as we record this in April, 2022, but maybe by 2025, if it's now the new thing, the thing that we are doing, if you've signed a contract, that means you can't do it, then you're going to be screwed.
That's what I'm thinking of is, yes, it's edge-case now, but what if?
Derek: Yeah. And that's a great argument to keep your own rights now, even if it means that you are giving up some sales.
By the way, I do just feel that I should give some kind of caveat that everything I'm saying, I realize is just one point of view, and I could argue against it.
Joanna: No, that's an interview, Derek. We know that!
Derek: Right. And what I'm saying is three of my friends, Tim Ferriss, Mark Manson, and James Clear, a few of my good friends have gone against everything I've said here and done astonishingly well, selling bajillions of books.
Joanna: Mark Manson just did the NFT drop as well. Didn't he?
Derek: Yeah. Everything I'm describing is just like, this is, you're asking me to talk about the way that I've personally chosen to do it. But I know that it's not the way for everybody. I'm not prescribing it to everybody, but for my temperament, my situation in life, even the very first thing that I started out saying, I'm not doing any of this for the money.
If I was to say, what's the best way to make a ton of money selling books, well, then I wouldn't say you should be hand-coding your own website and all that.
I do think that trying as much as possible to hold onto your own rights, even if it means losing some sales in the present is a smarter long-term strategy for the future of whatever is happening next.
Joanna: Absolutely. So, just staying on the technology side of things, I think we talked about AI translation when we talked in Oxford. I'm really fascinated with GPT-3, and GPT-4 is due out this year, and the kind of tools that we can potentially use as writers with AI.
What are your thoughts on how creatives can work with AI rather than fight against it and as a tool, rather than ‘it will write a book for me' type of thing.
Derek: I got to know GPT-3 quite well. I have an account with OpenAI, the company behind GPT-3. I wrote some programs to use their API. I worked with a hardcore expert of it for two weeks and he showed me how to do even more with it.
But GPT-3, I also really nerded on, I contacted the company that makes it, OpenAI.
Joanna: OpenAI. Yeah.
Derek: And yet after all that, I don't think it's a threat, and don't find it that interesting.
GPT-3 can complete a sentence for you. It can complete a paragraph for you.
But more words was never the point. To be a great writer, we need more insights, more emotional connection, more wow. Not more words.
You can use GPT-3 to finish sentences when you don't know how to finish it.
You can do it multiple times and it will finish it in multiple different ways.
So it's like asking strangers on the street. “How would you finish this thought?”
The answers are usually worthless but occasionally might spark an idea.
Ideas can come from anywhere. A song, an advertisement on a bus, an overheard snippet of conversation. So you can get ideas from GPT-3's auto-generated stuff.
Anyone listening to your show has nothing to fear.
GPT-3 can replace people churning out crap fodder just to fill search engine results.
But those people don't listen to your show.
And yet after all that, I don't think it's a threat, and don't find it that interesting.
I would plug it into GPT-3, and I'd say, ‘Give me 20 different endings to this sentence or this paragraph.' And I'd say ‘Go.' And it would return 20 different replies.
I would read through them for inspiration. Most of them were worthless. But occasionally, I would get an idea from GPT-3's strange completion of my sentence. But it's not that different from asking strangers on the street. How would you finish this thought? Because ideas can come from anywhere.
You can get an idea from a song, or an advertisement on a bus, or an overheard snippet of conversation. You can get great ideas from GPT-3's auto-generated stuff. I would highly recommend it for that.
If you can get an account with GPT-3 or find some way to use their API to let it complete your sentences or paragraphs that you are stuck on, it's wonderful. But I think anyone listening to your show has nothing to fear from it. It could replace people that were churning out…or it already has replaced people that were churning out crap fodder to fill search engine results. But those people do not listen to this show.
Joanna: Hopefully. And also marketing copy. Jasper, I think, is now using that to put out marketing and add text and things like that, which is an interesting use case.
Just before we talk about the translation on GTP-3, people listening, I've had Amit from Sudowrite. Sudowrite is a front-end on GPT-3. So, again, to use the API, you have to be quite technical. But Sudowrite is like a front-end.
I feel when you said strange, I was like, that's exactly right. I feel that my Sudowrite is like a strange co-pilot that comes up with things actually make me laugh. Sometimes I'm like, ‘That is just ridiculous.' But I don't laugh when I'm…well, sometimes I do sitting on my own writing. But maybe it's like, wow, it just comes up with stuff that makes me think in a different way.
I know it's not a mind, but it comes up with things that are different than what I would've come up with. And that's why I like to use it too. But I completely agree with you.
It's a massively powerful tool, but you have to drive it. You have to prompt it.
That's the key, right? It doesn't just do it on its own.
Derek: Yes. I think when I first heard of it, I was more excited for its potential. And then as I actually used it, I thought, ‘Oh, okay, this isn't as interesting as I thought.' Sorry, we didn't even talk about translation at all.
I think for translation, it's amazing. And I think that's a perfect use because that is something where there can be something close to a right answer. What was the Picasso quote? ‘Computers are boring, they can only give you answers.'
I like that a lot. So, I think translation is a wonderful use of it, at least for the first draft. What I've done for a lot of my books is I have this new service I created, or once again, me making my own tools. I created something called inchword.com that I've been using. It's basically just my tools I've been using to translate my books.
I break down all of my books into per sentence. So, every single sentence has its own entry in the database. And then they get merged together into the template to make the layout of the article or the book. I used a service called deepl.com to translate each one of those sentences at a time and return to me the translated sentence. And then I would store the translated sentence in the database.
But then I would always hire a human translator to use that as their starting point and improve it from there. They found that it saved them some time that, say, a quarter of the time, deepl.com returned a translated sentence that they felt was good enough as is, like, ‘okay, that's fine as is. So, I could just leave that one.' And then they can focus on tweaking the ones that could be better. I love that use of AI.
[Note from Joanna: Here's how I used Deepl for my books in German.]
Joanna: Absolutely. And again, tools that we can use to achieve our creative goal. That's, I think, what it comes down to.
On your now page, I want to look forward. Now, you say that How to Live is your best book ever. I love that. I love that you're so proud of it. And you were writing it when we spoke in Oxford. I remember then you were like, ‘This is the challenge.' But your face would sort of light up when you talked about it.
You say after four years that it's done. And it's clearly been special and challenging. But I know that you don't necessarily sit around going, ‘Hey, look at my amazing book. And I'm done, I'm finished now. That's perfect.' So, what are you doing next?
What are you excited about creating next? Or are you just going to rest on your laurels for a while?
Derek: Sorry, listeners, I'm not trying to sell you my book. But just saying that How to Live is my book that I think a lot of new parents I've heard have this feeling. When they have a kid, they think, ‘I really want to put everything I've ever learned into a book for my kid so if I die before my kid is old enough, somebody can just give him this book and I can say, ‘This is everything I ever would've told you.”
I gave How to Live everything. All of my thoughts. Everything I know. Each insight reduced to a single sentence. So I'm feeling like I've said it all.
It's time for me to generate new thoughts.
My book called How to Live is kind of like that. I compressed everything I've ever learned into one book.
The first draft of it was like 1,300 pages. And then my challenge is, I spent the next two years editing it down to only 114 pages. I did that by reducing almost everything down to a single sentence. Each idea was reduced to its essence in a single sentence.
Then the problem is I wrote this 114-page book that feels like I've now said everything I have to say on Earth. So, even though I haven't, because most of my ideas are just represented with this single sentence. It's put me into a weird position where everything I think of saying now it feels like, ‘Oh, but I already talked about that in How to Live. But I did it in only a sentence, but I already did it.'
Here's what I'm thinking. Stand-up comedians usually reuse their old material and slowly introduce some new material, but they keep the old laughs as they keep touring. If you go see them over the years, you'll hear them tell a lot of the same jokes, but some new ones.
Just a few of the most brilliant standup comedians challenge themselves to come up with all new material every year. It's a massive challenge, and only a few have ever done it. I want to challenge myself now to say, ‘Okay. Well, I just put everything I know into How to Live so I'm starting from scratch now.‘
It's time for me to generate new thoughts, lateral thinking, discovery, learning more, sharing more, not to just new material for books. The book is not the point, it's really more about new insights into life to say, ‘Okay. Well, everything I've learned before, How to Live, got put into my book called How to Live. And now everything I do next will only be the stuff that I learn after that.'
It's really about challenging myself to learn more.
Joanna: Didn't you just say that you're now in a hardcore reading phase. Is that on your blog?
Derek: I wouldn't say hardcore as much as I stopped reading for a few years of How to Live because of the nature of that book, where I was putting everything I learned into one book. So, it's like, ‘I don't want to learn something new right now. Otherwise, I'm going to have to add it to the book, the book's already long enough.' So, I had kind of stopped reading for a few years.
Now I'm reading this backlog. I've got like 120 books queued up on my Kindle, books that I bought from the last few years, but hadn't read yet. I'm reading them all now. I'm putting aside a few hours a day just to reading.
Joanna: That to me is the way to get excited about the next thing. I've been listening to, and we've talked about it on the show, it's a book called The Genesis Machine by Amy Webb. I know you don't want book recommendations, but it's about synthetic biology.
Now, I have no background in biology, and this book it's a non-fiction book, but it's like science fiction because it's a topic I know nothing about. I'm listening to it going, ‘Oh, my goodness. I didn't know. I didn't know that. That's amazing.'
Derek: I love that.
Joanna: And it's so funny, and it's just like, ‘Wow,' That just sets off all these fireworks. That's how I feel when I'm excited about a topic is like fireworks in my brain. And then you never know how it's going to pop up again, right?
I imagine that's kind of where you are going is, where do the fireworks come up next for me?
Derek: Yes. I actually just last night started reading the Essays and Aphorisms of Arnold Schopenhauer, this German philosopher that I've heard of for years. I've never read his stuff. I'm only like 10 pages in, and I'm like, ‘Ooh, this is good.' Today I'm still thinking about the 10 pages I read last night.
As for what's next to me, yeah, my challenge is to learn a lot more so I will have more insights into life and maybe have something new to share with the world.
Where can people find you, and your books, and your blog, and everything you do online?
Derek: Oh, just go to Amazon! Sorry. No, my website is sive.rs. It's my last name, but with a dot in it. So, yeah, sive.rs is my website, and everything's there.
And really, honestly, part of the reason that I do interviews like this, instead of you and I just talking at a cafe, is I really like the kind of people that listen to your show. So, if you're somebody that listened all the way to the end of this interview, my email address is in a big font on my website. Just send me an email and say hello and introduce yourself.
I actually really, really, really love meeting other writers, especially from around the world. There's a reason you're doing this podcast too. It's like meeting other writers. You have so much in common. It's such a great kindred feeling to talk about writing with people.
Joanna: Oh, indeed.
Derek: Any other writers, please send me an email. Say, hello. Let's connect.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Derek. That was great.
Derek: Thanks, Joanna.