Tim writes a book

Tim wrote a book. The title of Tim’s book is The Twitter Book. Tim didn’t use a pen to write his book. Tim didn’t even use a word processor to write his book. Tim used PowerPoint to write his book. Tim wrote his book very fast, as fast, he says, as he writes “a new talk.” There are pictures in Tim’s book. Pictures, Tim says, “are a memorable, entertaining way to tell a story.” Tim says he is “reinventing the book in the age of the web.” Tim’s book was a lot easier to write than an old-fashioned book would have been. “All I needed to do,” Tim says, “was to write down some notes equivalent to what I’d be saying if I were giving this as a talk.” Sometimes, says Tim, old-fashioned authors “lose track of their plot details.” That didn’t happen to Tim. It’s “much easier,” he says, “to work on things in standalone units.” Tim’s book is a lot easier to read, too. “Most books still use the old model of a sustained narrative as their organizational principle,” Tim says. Tim’s book uses “a modular structure.” Following “a sustained narrative” is hard. With Tim’s book, each page “can be read alone (or at most in a group of two or three).” Tim says that “modularity isn’t the only thing that publishers can learn from new media.” The web, he says, “provides countless lessons about how books need to change when they move online.” I like the web. I’m glad that books are going to be more like the web. I’m glad that Tim wrote a book.

24 thoughts on “Tim writes a book

  1. Tim O'Reilly

    I am Tim, and I found this very funny too.

    Of course, it’s always easier to criticize than to do.

    I’ve written lots of books in my time, lots of different ways, for different purposes. You pick the hat to fit the head.

    I challenge Nick to write a “sustained narrative” about how to use Twitter effectively. The format I chose was designed for its purpose.

    This blog uses different conventions and styles than Nick’s books. That’s news?

  2. SDC

    Your review is good. I bet Tim’s book is good. I like the web. There are funny pictures of cats on the web. Will Twitter help me meet people who can tell me where more funny cats are? I hope so. If the pictures are pretty, that’s nice. Why are there 2 r’s in your name? Goodbye.

  3. Jon Collins

    Very, very good. I’m happy that Nick wrote about Tim’s book. I’m happy that Tim wrote about Nick.

    All in all, it’s an interesting topic. I noticed this morning that mobile stories are becoming a hit in Japan – that is, ‘books’ written for mobile phones. There is undoubtedly a place for choosing the right format to meet certain requirements – which puts pressure on the whole notion of a ‘book’ even while vindicating it as a format which will undoubtedly outlast some of the content delivery mechanisms we are testing right now.

    Thanks for the laugh Nicholas, and to agree with Tim I would ask, if it hadn’t been such a publication, what would it have been? Even the thought of 140,000 words written about Twitter does fill me with horror…

  4. Kirby Ferguson

    I think you can make anybody look like an idiot with this technique.

    Jim wrote a book. The title of Jim’s book is Ulysses. Jim says a man’s errors are “the portals of discovery.” etc.

  5. Tim O'Reilly

    Hey Nick, we should put together a debate and go on the road. I can just see us on late night TV. It would be fun.

    FWIW, I wonder if you were writing about the web early enough to make some of the same snarky comments about blogging. I’m amazed that the people making fun of twitter don’t remember how long ago exactly the same comments were made about blogs.

    It’s worth noting also that many books of “sustained argument” are actually just inflated blog posts. I remember when Clayton Christensen told me that he thought the original HBS article of The Innovator’s Dilemma was better than the book. He had to add a lot of “sustained narrative” to fit the format, and to make it marketable, not because he needed more room to make his point.

    That’s one reason why I never expanded What is Web 2.0? into a book. I had a better way both to persuade people, and to generate revenue from the concept, namely by highlighting in my conferences the people who were actually putting it to work.

    I’m also remembering the talk that Bram Cohen gave at my first Web 2.0 Conference, in which he ridiculed my contention that we were building an Internet Operating System. Web 2.0 was nothing like an operating system, he said. He did it in fun, and I took it that way. But it’s also worth remembering that while it was easy to make fun of the idea, it was right, and the future has been unfolding pretty much as I predicted.

    This is a long way of saying that there could be some real meat in such a debate, not just sophistry, in the sense that Socrates so wonderfully defined, as “making the better appear the worse.”

  6. Kevin Arthur

    Very nicely done. I love Tim’s company’s books but I’m not understanding why books need reinventing. Online media are different, to be sure, and valuable, but maybe they’re not books anymore. Isn’t The Twitter Book just a web site (with a price tag)?

  7. Tom Lord

    An open letter to O’Reilly the firm and to Tim:

    Pastiche books produced on the cheap tracing a fast moving fashion trend are nothing new. They were pretty popular in the consumerist pseudo-counterculture, for one, but I’m sure the history is much, much longer than that.

    It’s hard to imagine the book not turning a profit if the project is modeled in a suitably simple-minded way. There’s the Tim and employee hours spent on it, there’s some opportunity cost in the advertising space dedicated to it, and there’s probably some set-up and tiny-tiny inventory costs for what amounts to a JIT printing and fulfillment operation.

    The topic is topical enough and Tim is Tim enough that probably a fair number (couple of K) of people will feel obligated to buy the book just to know “what is being said” so it is almost certainly going to come out “in the black”.

    A *windfall* is doubtful, however. We’ll see, but I don’t think this is likely to be “the book people didn’t know they needed until they heard about it.” Twitter’s half-life looks a bit short to me, too, though that’s more controversial, I realize.

    What I’m struck by, speaking of long narratives, is the path O’Reilly has taken over the years.

    The early days of things like manuals for the X11 window system or Unix or Perl were responsive to the news. X11, Unix, Perl, those kinds of things developed outside of O’Reilly and created the latent demand for a nicely made copy of decent docs for these things. This Twitter book, though, to me, looks like a thing more aimed at *making* rather than *reporting* news. It smacks of the desperation of a publisher facing sketchy demand and a sketchier-still stream of manuscripts submitted. It can help keep the lights on and the presses rolling a little bit, for a short time, but…

    In that sense I think it’s a mistake in terms of tending to the brand. The brand’s key strength in book markets is the perception of “doesn’t completely suck”. Someone needs a tech book about this or that and their are five likely one’s to pick from – the O’Reilly brand is a good bet because while many of the books have real problems almost none of them completely suck whereas the median for tech book industry as a whole is something like “visible effort but completely sucks”. Toss-off books and pandering, self-promoting would-be-news-making efforts about fashion trends and echo chamber fascinations – doesn’t reinforce that image. It’s not my business, of course, I’m just trying to say how it looks from the outside.

    I think O’Reilly should go high-brow. Way high-brow. You see, there’s an interesting form of latent demand for tech books *today*, too – but not manuals or HOWTOs for this or that. The very palpable problem is that the median young professional programmer today, er, sucks compared to the median young professional programmer prior to the first big “Internet bubble”. We had to draw people into the field faster than we could train them, starting around that period of time.

    On top of that, professional programmers of all ages have an economy-driven and avocation-driven and professionalism-driven need to seek out opportunities for continuing education and lifelong learning about their craft. I’ll tell you that where there are the few very precious great blogs that offer up hard CS stuff – people respond with great enthusiasm and care. The audience is *starved* for that kind of stuff.

    On top of that there are a lot of older generation academics and industry luminaries with exquisite taste in disciplinary foundations and excellent ability to generate and recognize forms of communication that are broadly accessible. I can help hook you up with that society of actual and for true alpha hackers (not complicated, just introductions). (Yeah, that’s my “angle”.)

    That would signal O’Reilly’s humility with respect to expertise and enthusiasm for bringing much desired, scarce tech resources to a large and hungry audience.

    Modularity and such are still an option. I would suggest thinking roughly along the lines of the format (articles) of the old Usenix “Computing Systems” journal but instead of a serial publication do it as a series of continuously updated titles, each dedicated to a particular subject matter.

    If you’re a marketing genius, you’ll make one of the first generation of titles about lisp and you’ll use CC-BY licensing, imo.

    Play your cards right and you can just take over academic publication and greatly improve it. Talk about “things that matter”….



  8. Luciano Fuentes

    Hilarious. I LOL’d lots.

    Grwn men tweetn n usng ppt n scribd to wryte with baby wrds books bout twttr. Den gettn ngry wen dey lk stoopid.

  9. Tom Lord

    Yish there is a problem. The problem is with your case. The problem is that the Tractatus is a pretty dumb book. It was a book taken seriously by some. It was taken seriously at some times. It was taken seriously in some places. That changed, though. It’s not taken very seriously. It is regarded as a mistake. Some of Ludwig’s other works are better regarded. The Tractatus is quaint crap. It expresses deep confusion, mostly.

    Perhaps it works as poetry.


  10. Michael Josefowicz

    A book is a physical object and a meme. The physical object is a toy, a tool or a token. Words on paper, bound in one of the book forms, fix words in time. It’s like Audobon and birds or studying butterflies.

    If you want to think about what is really going on you have to make the words stop so you can compare, contrast, and find new patterns.

    Go Tim!

  11. Tien Tzuo

    Does anyone else think that reading this post and the comments is like watching an episode of Ali G?

  12. wendywhite

    Do you use twitter Nick? Perhaps Tim’s book is well targeted at an audience with a limited attention span, think 140 characters bursts.

  13. Tom Lord


    I had never heard of him before but then checked out some of his material. Thanks. I would say: “a little bit.”


  14. Claudio Soares

    Tim’s proposal is good but not the execution. A narrative on the web should incorporate its interactive features. Since April,1st I’m rewriting my 2006 novel on Twitter [@sd8], creating an enviroment, linking tweets with other social networks. I believe that social networks are another space for the creation of narratives. 8 profiles tells the story of “Santos Dumont Number 8: The book of superstition” and interact with themselves [and soon, with the public]. Teleread has an article about @sd8 experiment. I’ll appreciate any comments and/or suggestions. Best regards.

  15. Bertil

    I loved the tone gave to ‘bits’ of elementary sentences, but anyone could tell you that Twitter doesn’t sound like that, at all. Twitter sounds like a medium with extreme limits on what to write, with contrived abreviations, sophisticated references piled one on top of the other. I had to explain it to an very wordy intellectual recently (I do that, yes — and I was’t a little proud) and the closest epiteth that came to me was ‘lapidary’: the most similar example to Twits must be Roman engravings, where every letter was enough work to encourage brevity and contractions.

    Talking about stone engravings, contractions and text less the 140 characters, I can see one from my window, on top of a bulding. It reads:


    I really hope that kind of concision doesn’t contaminate the building and forces anyone inside to speak an any less sophisticated language.

  16. Elizabeth Hunt

    A mock-Tim review. Hilarious. Really I laughed out loud and was reminded of the infamous D Parker review of The House at Pooh Corner. Kudos for skewering Tim’s ridiculous assertions about “books” and reading and audience attention. Thanks from a book lover, former university instructor, and interaction designer.

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