199: Why Books Still Matter

199: Why Books Still Matter


My recap of Interintellect's The Future of Publishing conference

Sit down for a dialogue with me and a creativity expert on on my new book (May 6 on, what else) Interintellect

Last Saturday I attended The Future of Publishing, cohosted by Interintellect and Infinite Books, by O'Shaunessey Ventures (OSV). Anna Gát asked me to write a recap of the event which was originally published on the Interintellect Substack.

My biggest tweet from 2023 was a frantically thumbed quote at an Interintellect festival and I hope you all enjoy this event write up even more.


original title:

Worthwhile Words: Jason Shen’s Recap of The Future of Publishing Festival

Interintellect’s The Future of Publishing festival last Saturday in New York: Our panelists Sahil Lavingia, Coleman Hughes, Kyla Scanlon, Tina He — Dylan O’Sullivan, Shadi Hamid, Bria Sanford, Tamara Winter — Jennifer Banks, Renée DiResta, Tara Isabella Burton, Nathan Baschez — Eric Jorgensen, Jesse Finkelstein, Saeah Lee Wood, Jimmy Sony, and Liberty

This past Saturday, April 13th, Interintellect put on The Future of Publishing (#FOPE), a festival co-hosted with Infinite Books by OSV meant to bring old and new media together to explore how words and writing are evolving in the age of algorithms and AI. Oh, and quietly take on the august but aging Frankfurt Book Fair!

For those of you unfamiliar with Interintellect: it’s an organization that reinvents the French literary salon in the age of memes, viral think pieces, and remote work. Both virtually and in cities all over the world, intellectually curious souls gather not just to hear one expert speak but to explore fascinating topics and questions collectively.

It’s no secret that founder Anna Gát is obsessed with books and the written word. The What to Read This Weekend roundup she sends every Sunday features a stupefying 30+ long-form essay recommendations on topics ranging from humanity’s use of tools to medieval methods of addressing burnout to the fragility of monarchies. (No one knows when she sleeps!)

Interintellect founder and CEO Anna Gát

As an Interintellect salon host, business author, and founder coach, I often find myself at the intersection of language, ideas, and technology. There was no way I was going to miss The Future of Publishing, and the event did not disappoint. So please allow me to convey a fraction of its magic here, in—what else?—a long-form essay. Much of the discussion at the festival focused on recapturing the power of books and valuing timeless wisdom over fleeting discourse.

Arrival: Stories of Your Life

As I power walked down 86th St. under overcast skies, I had a thought about expectations. While I recognized many of the attendees slated to speak at The Future of Publishing: Nathan Baschez of Lex, Tamar Winter of Stripe Press, Eric Jorgenson of The Almanack of Naval Ravikant, and TikTok’s favorite economist Kyla Scanlon, I had no idea what they would be talking about.

Kyla Scanlon, Sahil Lavingia, and Coleman Hughes — the festival’s headliner panel talk about the pleasure and perils of book writing, the purpose of physical books for an online creator, and where intellectual media careers are going (Station’s Tina He moderates)

Alongside them in the program were folks who were new to my eyes yet surely worth knowing—Washington Post columnist Shadi Hamid, Yale Press editor Jennifer Banks, Stanford internet researcher Renee DiResta, journalism professor Musa al-Gharbi, and Gothic fairy-tale thriller and cutting edge nonfiction author Tara Isabella Burton.

Books and the internet have had an on-again, off-again relationship since they first met. We bemoan the idea that no one reads anymore, yet Bezos’s everything store first sprung forth, promising to carry even the most obscure titles in their infinite warehouse in the sky. This speaker lineup promised a collision of ideas around publishing that, like good makeup sex, would take you somewhere unexpected and leave you a little sore and out of breath.

Yale University Press’s Jennifer Banks, Stanford Internet Observatory’s Renée DiResta, and Every and Lex co-founder Nathan Baschez talk about the reader or the future

When I learn of a movie I know is going to be good—my favorite actors shot by a director I love (cough Dune 2)—I would almost rather not watch any trailers or learn anything else about it. Going into something with no expectations leaves you open to possibility.

So when I arrived at Pratt Mansions, I was ready for anything. The festival was held at an elegant three-story estate built during the Gilded Era of American materialism: wall-to-wall carpet, fireplaces, and intricate patterns carved into the walls. Conversing in the main lobby was like hanging out in the living room of your Parisian grad school roommate’s family manor—cerebral, clubby, upscale. 

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between

Arriving early, I had time to kill. A friendly face soon emerged—Edward Rooster, who knew me through an online writing cohort we had all done several years ago. Festival co-host Infinite Books would be publishing his first novel, which stitched together a series of magical realism stories that reimagined both the past and the future. 

Bria Sandford from Penguin Random House, Tamara Winter from Stripe Press, and Shadi Hamid from The Washington Post and Wisdom of Crowds discuss editorial curation, publishing prestige, and online communities (Dylan O’Sullivan moderates)

The main stage lineup of the festival was on the 3rd floor and was organized like an Interintellect salon: broad topics like The Reader of Tomorrow and Pixel vs Paper hinted at where the conversation would go and each 30-45 mins panel was moderated by an author/editor/publisher with questions and takes on the topic at hand.Meanwhile, on the ground floor, the speaker’s lounge was designed for picky or fidgety attendees who wanted to pop in and out based on what interested them. A series of 10-minute lightning talks with slides for those wanting prepared remarks and intentional articulations of new ideas rather than emergent thoughts borne out of dialogue.

In the main lobby outside the speaker’s lounge, several tables featured books authored by a speaker (In This Economy? by Kyla Scanlon) or published by one (The Coaching Habit from Page Two). But as the day went on, several enterprising attendees had slipped in their own titles—I spotted several copies of my friend Herbert Lui’s Creative Doing along with an early edition of The Path to Pivot by yours truly. 

The Murmur of Bees

Anna kicked off the festival by telling the story of how she founded Interintellect. In her opening remarks, she talked about how her curiosity and desire for intellectual companionship led to her creating a sprawling global community of writers, philosophers, inventors, critics, artists, scientists, and polymaths.

Downstairs in the Speakers’ Lounge, Works in Progress’s Nick Whitaker, the technologist and “Status as a Service” theorist Eugene Wei, recollect:AI’s Alice Albrecht, and the journalist-sociologist Musa al-Gharbi gave excellent talks, among many others

From there, the day went by quickly—as I moved from panel to talk to hallway conversation, the topics bounced around from the power of books to shape discourse, to the shortening attention span of readers, the expanding long tail of independent publishers, whether we need to kill the 5 star Goodreads rating system, and the impact of books not only on readers, but authors themselves.

Over the course of the next few hours, I spoke to the new events lead at Substack (maybe next year’s co-sponsor??), listened to an AI founder argue against the file cabinet mental model of knowledge, debated book title ideas with a popular Bookstagram account (alexandbooks_), learned about the movement to genetically engineer mice that don’t feel pain, heard about a finance newsletter pivoting into the meaning of money, and grooved out to sets by a philosopher cum DJ.

A Matter of Life and Death

Disruptive change, whether from TikTok or large language models, seemed inescapable. But what struck me most was how much things don’t change (shoutout Morgan Housel) about publishing.

Publishing has always been about bringing important ideas by credible thinkers to relevant audiences packaged in accessible formats via effective distribution channels. Readers have always hungered for “low brow” material and parents have always worried about their kids overconsuming immoral content (in 1898 these were “dime novels”). Meanwhile, far more people have wanted to be writers than those who could truly make a comfortable living doing so and trying to have original ideas that sell while competing in a sea of trendy material has never been easy.

Perhaps what’s changed the most is the formats in which ideas are delivered today are more multisensory than ever. Books that take years of research, editing, printing, and distribution have to compete with free, real-time, short, interactive, visual, auditory, and viral content that pours out of digital screens, watches, phones, monitors, and earbuds all around us.

And yet, books still endure.

Print book sales in 2023 topped three-quarters of a billion units in the US alone. While not the high watermarks of 2021 and 2022—likely due to pandemic-induced digital overwhelm—the figures are still higher than all of the 2010’s (which reflects of course the proliferation of the smartphone). People are very much buying and reading books. Factor in audiobooks and ebooks and the numbers are even more staggering.

One value that all the attendees, speakers, and guests shared was an appreciation and admiration for the written word. One of the earliest recorded instances of the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” comes from Ahiqar, an Assyrian sage who is thought to have lived around the 7th century BCE.

Twenty-six centuries later, the pen cannot always prevail. Some time during the festival, sobering news broke that Iran had launched a large-scale missile strike against Israel in retaliation for a suspected Israeli attack on an Iranian consular building in Damascus—causing at least one attendee to take his leave.

You will find on any list of the world’s greatest inventions both the printing press and the internet—both powerful technologies for distributing ideas that might seed a movement or plot an insurrection. All technology, whether word, weapon, or software, are merely instruments used to reach human ends. It is upon us to make those ends just. 

The Lindy effect, popularized by quant trader-turned-author Nassim Taleb, suggests that the longer an entity has been around, the longer it will stay around. Which is good news for those who love written words and bound volumes.

Otterpine’s Saeah Lee Wood, Page Two’s Jesse Finkelstein, and Scribe’s Eric Jorgenson discuss independent publishing (Jimmy Soni moderates)

Printed books have been around for over 500 years. As much as the world might change, smart money would bet books aren’t going anyway anytime soon.

Eyes on the Prize (Williams)

Just for fun, here are some totally unofficial and nonexhaustive awards from the festival:

Most insights per minute: 

Eugene Wei. The author of Status as a Service had to cut his talk short, but the number of laughs, slides photographed, and Twitter quotes underscored his mastery of the idea nugget.

Deepest thinker:  

Coleman Hughes. In an age of trend hopping, the author of The End of Race Politics made strong points about following your curiosity, avoiding what’s popular at the moment, and writing to change yourself as much as your audience.

Most incongruous attendee:

I forgot his name now, but the soft-spoken and bespectacled web3 investor in town from Miami for NFT NYC and stuck around an extra week just to see what was going on.

Most memorable quote:

“Reading a book is like doing a hero dose of mushrooms” - Sahil Lavingia

Most thoughtful moderator: 

Tina He. The Station Labs founder brought depth and nuance to her questions in the final panel “The Future of Publishing” that belied her well-read background as a designer, investor, and comparative literature major.

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