Passive income from ebook writing isn’t passive – reflections from Avalon

Funny old game, this passive income lark. I personally define it as income that you get regardless of what you are doing. The classic dream is steady income paid while you are lying on the beach. Wikipedia defines it in somewhat US-centric terms as

Passive income is an income received on a regular basis, with little effort required to maintain it

I spent a few days soaking up the sun in the atmosphere of Glastonbury, enjoying a chilled time and exploring the place.I came just before the well-known festival, to appreciate the summer solstice – the closest I have come to the festival was a distant view of it 7 miles from Glastonbury Tor.


Unlike the festival-goers I had decent weather. I was looking for some of the background story, bought some books, but I have a predilection for books in electronic form these days. Following up the Glastonbury connection, passive income is the Holy Grail of the idler, and there are an awful lot of Knights of the Round Table chasing it. It’s bad enough that people who have at least earned the money first behave like teenagers in love:

People looking for investment income home in on bad ideas like Premier League footballers sniffing out WAGs with loose morals.

Dunno what he’d say about the wretched river of humanity out of Eden seeking the Free Lunch without Consequences, but the old boy Mephistopheles is in business in different garb offering Passive Income to the penniless, the poor, and the pecuniarly challenged.

Sometimes I wonder if these good people would use their time better getting a job and saving some of their hard-earned, but then I think that any time I stand in line behind somebody buying a lottery ticket in the Co-Op. There is something irresistible about the concept of something for nothing. It’s been there since time immemorial in the search for the Philosopher’s Stone[ref]I am aware that there are many esoteric personal transformation aspects to the story of the search for Philosopher’s Stone, but it is the profane rather than sacred that fits my narrative :)[/ref] that turns lead into gold. The story metamorphosed into the search for the perpetual motion machine in the Victorian era, and turns full circle in the search for a passive income, that turns the leaden hours of the idle into a stream of gold. I’m hassling the Calvinist work is good for you doctrine there – I for one don’t find the workless hours leaden and indeed I would regard humanity’s development of robots to do all the work leaving us to a life of leisure the pinnacle of engineering success, if only we could build a human society that didn’t start to look like a winner-takes-all Gilded Age which seems to be where we are headed at the moment.

The ebook proposition – wresting the medium and the message away from Facebook. Into Amazon – oh boy…

One of the tragic things about the Internet is that the original open platform has been taken over by corporations like Facebook, Google and Amazon , who drove out the universality of the end-to-end principle because we readers are idle, want a uniformish UI, and are suckers for attention-grabbing trivia that the platform can monetise the shit out of. In Web 1.0 ISPs tried and failed to hold customers on their ‘portal’ to save you the graft of looking for interesting stuff, but now we hire Facebook and Google to do that very job. Once upon a time it was possible to get a copy of vi, grok some HTML, create a website with useful information, serve some ads and make a modest income. I still have some website real estates from the 1990s that even after 20 years do provide a modest income this way but the trend is long-term decline. Some of this is, of course, that the topics age – let’s face it what was newsworthy/interesting in 1995 is often less riveting twenty years later on, the effort to maintain some of these with other people dropped away around ten years ago. One of the sites performs a technical service which still seems to have some fans judging by the pleading to fix I get if my web hosts changes the version of PHP and it goes titsup, it seems to have got embedded into the processes of some communities. I even tell them they can get the facility easier and more prettily using OS getamap but they don’t switch[ref]correctly, it seems – I was there before getamap and may be there after it’s been deprecated[/ref]. It provides enough revenue to be worth Googling the error code and fixing the code or third-party library to keep people happy.

It’s harder to establish a modest website on a topic now – the Internet is much larger but there are also winner-takes-all effects that raise the barrier to entry, so it’s basically a go-large-or-go-home world. The Amazon ebook seems to be the place where some of the small fry information providers have gone to, if the topic is suited to a write once read many and non-interactive format. For many to many discussions we used to have forums (before that we had Usenet and email mailing lists, but the latter scale terribly), but with the demise of the medium-sized website vis-a-vis the big beasts many of these are dying out, moving to Facebook groups

I don’t regularly use Facebook, and it’s a source of sadness for me when a forum I’ve used goes down for some reason and the topic migrates to Facebook. Facebook fosters the narcissistic and the voluble, there seems no threading or fine topic capacity, and to be honest I’d rather read people’s thoughts on the topic rather than endless trivia about their children, pets and minor ailments. As the old forums die, the wall of noise increases. Life is too short to strip out the tales of lives of quiet desperation from a Facebook group topic feed[ref]Facebook is designed to narrate everyday trivia and that’s fine – but trivia seems to pollute group topics to a degree that it never did on forums and bulletin boards, these usually had a separate section like MSE’s Money Savers’s Arms off-topic section.[/ref]

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Reading with a Kindle

Over the past month or so I’ve acquired a bunch of PDFs of books on finance and investment, and stared with the first one, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefevre, a fictionalised biography of the legendary trader Jesse Livermore, who was notable for shorting the market in the Great Depression.

However, reading it on laptop is the damnedest way to read anything that was designed as a book or other long-form document. I learned to read before I went to school, so I have a higher reading speed than most people. However, probably because I didn’t learn to read from a computer screen, my reading speed drops dramatically on the laptop, and it costs me 20 W of power just to hold the page on my screen. I can’t read it in anything other than a sitting position, the whole thing is a pain.  Paying for Stock Operator in book form almost starts to look attractive, but I have another 20 or so books to read like this. The reading experience needs to get better, and a Kindle could do it.

I’ve come across the Kindle before, though I hadn’t seen one, and my first reaction was along the lines of

this is like a games console or similar consumer thneed designed to create a locked down consumer space to part the simple-minded from their money.

If used as intended, that’s exactly what you get. You can get a Kindle version of Reminiscences of a Stock Operator for £9, and off you go. That’s not bad for this book if you compare the dead-tree versions, though the secondhand market will come up with the goods in real form for £6.42 at the time of writing. My copy is a PDF, and was the result of a Google search. The book was from 1923.

Monevator’s Kindle books on investing article made me think about this again, particularly as I have now collected even more PDFs from the fascinating period between 1900 and 1930 when the Haber-Bosch process of creating artificial fertiliser from natural gas hadn’t been refined, and all sorts of bizarre methods were tried in agriculture using electrical discharges.

At the same time Martin Lewis’s moneysaving expert website warmed me up to how to get a WiFi Kindle for £75-ish so I figured it was time to revisit this, so I bought one, and loaded it with PDFs. You get a 30-day trial during which you can return and get your money back less delivery if you don’t get on with it, so I figured I could take a flyer.

Kindle on a paperback book set in 10.5pt
the total Kindle area is similar to the book, but the screen is a lot smaller

As the picture shows, a Kindle isn’t the same as a paperback, because the screen is smaller than the page of a typical paperback. And though I am middle-aged I can see easily enough that the resolution of the screen isn’t the same as a paperback, but it is far, far, closer to it than my laptop.

It’s good enough. I’ve got my normal reading speed back, it’s a lot more convenient and I can read anywhere. I’ve only read PDFs on the Kindle apart from the instruction manual, and the image quality of the result with PDFs isn’t as good as with a true Kindle book. To get a whole A4 page onto the Kindle screen results in a small and ill-defined font. However, you can spin the Kindle through 90 degress and read in landscape mode. It doesn’t reformat automatically, I would have thought an orientation switch would have been an easy win, but it can be done manually. The result is much sharper than reading the same PDF on my laptop, even though the screen is physically much larger on the laptop.

Landscape mode is easier to read on this PDF
Landscape mode is easier to read on this PDF and matches the book font size more closely

So I’m a convert – but I won’t be buying from Monevator’s list yet. I don’t like paying for what I can’t touch in terms of media, and there’s no used market for Kindle books, because they’ve presumably stitched things up so you buy a license and not a product. Embodying your media in Real Stuff has the advantage of giving such monoplistic control freaks the shaft, they surrender control of the secondhand market as soon as they let go of the physical embodiment. Hoever, if I don’t buy ebooks I don’t get to eat that crow. The Kindle works well for PDFs, and Google can turn up all sorts of good stuff.

The go anywhere appeal is the best part of the Kindle, in all sorts of surprising areas. At the electronics bench, once upon a time you could have databooks with device pinouts and application data. Since the 1990s you had to print out the PDFs, and datasheets aren’t concise. With a Kindle, all the datasheets are to hand at the bench. That go anywhere feature is what makes this transformational. For other people it will be having recipes in the kitchen to hand, or workshop manuals in the shed – all places where taking a laptop is doable, but a right pain.

Oh an if you haven’t got a PDF creator, Google docs creates PDFs if you want to print something, as the cloud hasn’t got access to your print drivers. The Kindle can take these too, so you don’t have to pay the Adobe corporation for the privilege of using your Kindle. Two proprietary closed shops designed to part the punter from their money circumvented at a stroke 🙂

The Kindle works for me. I have my reading speed back, I don’t have to put up with the intermittent noise of a fan and I can focus on what I’m reading as I used to be able to with paper. There are things wrong with the Kindle, colour would be nice, the screen could be 1.5 times bigger, the sturm und drang on the screen associated with a page turn isn’t so great, though it is over quicker than a page turn. It would be nice if it would slowly scroll the page itself as you can do in Word. But I’m carping here – the overall experience delivers.