Lying: Sam Harris and the $1.99 book


Over at the Daily Beast, neuroscientist Sam Harris threw down the gauntlet, and I picked it up.  For $1.99 I bought Lying, his book on radical honesty, and downloaded it to my Droid.

This makes me something of an anachronism, apparently, in an era where everyone wants everything now, free.

Where publishing is concerned, the Internet is both midwife and executioner. It has never been easier to reach large numbers of readers, but these readers have never felt more entitled to be informed and entertained for free. I have been very slow to appreciate these developments, and yet it is clear even to me that there are reasons to fear for the life of the printed book. Needless to say, many of the changes occurring in publishing are changes that neither publishers nor authors want.

The bestselling author points out that a Christopher Hitchens‘s article in the glossy Vanity Fair, praising the work of Joan Didion, gets fewer tweets and Facebook “likes” than one of his own blog posts – sometimes by a factor of ten. What’s worse, a heavily trafficked blog gets more hits than the entire splashy Vanity Fair magazine website.  It’s a sign of the impossible plight of my beleaguered profession:

Journalism was the first casualty of this transformation. How can newspapers and magazines continue to make a profit? Online ads don’t generate enough revenue and paywalls are intolerable; thus, the business of journalism is in shambles. Even though I sympathize with the plight of publishers—and share it by association as a writer—as a reader, I am without pity. If your content is behind a paywall, I will get my news elsewhere. I subscribe to the print edition of The New Yorker, but when I want to read one of its articles online, I find it galling to have to login and wrestle with its proprietary e-reader. The result is that I read and reference New Yorker articles far less frequently than I otherwise would. I’ve been a subscriber for 25 years, but The New Yorker is about to lose me. What can they do? I don’t know. The truth is, I now expect their content to be free.

So how does this get back to Lying?  In the “All Free, All Now” era, “If your book is 600-pages-long, you are demanding more of my time than I feel free to give. And if I could accomplish the same change in my view of the world by reading a 60-page version of your argument, why didn’t you just publish a book this length instead?” Harris’s response: the unprinted book that can be absorbed in one sitting.  In this case, Lying, a book about the need for absolute honesty in all aspects of one’s life.

It’s an interesting topic.  I would go further than he does, however.  Someone once defined lying as speaking about something one doesn’t know, as if one knew or could know.  For example, adhering to this standard would eliminate most political discussions, which would be a mercy.

I find that most lying, if not all, is an attempt to manipulate someone else’s reality to one’s own benefit – to control their choices by limiting the information they need to make informed choices, while keeping the full range of options for oneself.

It is said that no lie is innocent.  I thought of one exception: the lie to conceal a surprise birthday party.  But it pretty much stops there.

However interesting his topic, Harris’s gambit didn’t work, at least not entirely.  People still griped.

Some did not understand the format—a very short book that can be read in 40 minutes—and expected to get a much longer book for $1.99. Many wondered why it is available only as an ebook. Some fans of ebooks were powerfully aggrieved to find it available only on the Kindle platform—they own Nooks, or detest Amazon for one reason or another. However, the fact is that Amazon made it extraordinarily easy for me to do this; the Kindle Single is the perfect format for so short a book; and Kindle content can be read on every computer and almost any handheld device. I decided that it was not worth my time or other people’s money to publish Lying elsewhere, or as a physical book.

On the surface, the launch of Lying has been a great success. It reached the #1 spot for Kindle Singles immediately and #9 for all Kindle content. It is amazing to finish writing, hit “upload,” and watch one’s work soar and settle, however briefly, above the vampire novels and diet books.

I would be lying, however, if I said that I wasn’t stung by some of the early criticism. Some readers felt that a 9000-word essay was not worth $1.99, especially when they can read my 5000-word blog posts for free. It is true that I put a lot of work into many of my blog posts, but Lying took considerably longer to write than any of them. It is a deceptively simple book—and I made it simple for a reason. Some of my readers seem not to have appreciated this and prefer to follow me into my usual thickets of argument and detail. That’s fine. But it is, nevertheless, painful to lose a competition with oneself, especially over a difference of $1.99.

It didn’t quite work for me, either.  I still haven’t finished it.  If reading is confined to the in-between moments when I happen to have my Droid with me, not much more than an email message can be read in “one sitting.”  Moreover, aren’t all the health articles nowadays urging us not to sit on our cans for more than a few minutes at a time?

Everything seems to conspire against reading, nowadays.




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3 Responses to “Lying: Sam Harris and the $1.99 book”

  1. TOPTOUS Says:


    […]Lying: Sam Harris and the $1.99 book | The Book Haven[…]…

  2. Kojraj Says:

    Let’s not forget to mention the biggest perk of owning an eReader in that you’re saving a LOT of trees. =)

  3. Hans Werscht Says:

    great article, great blog…
    Greetings, Hans
    Kindle eBook Bestseller