Press ESC to close

Or check our Popular Categories...

Guten Abend, German readers! Just a quick update to let you know that, via a note from my agents, I now know that the Deutsche edition of 1414°, also titled 1414°*, will be published on 20th April next year by Goldmann, part of Penguin Random House.

This is very exciting. I’ll share a link etc when I have one.

*But, I’ve just realized, pronounced eintausendvierhundertvierzehn Grad, which is much better than the English.

       Read Full Post

During my flying visit to The Writers’ Block in Vegas this week, co-owner Scott asked me if I’d read the new book about Tony Hsieh.

I didn’t even know there was a new book about Tony Hsieh. So I bought a copy, and yesterday read it in a single sitting.

A quick disclosure: A couple of years ago, I put together a proposal for my own book about my old friend/investor/journalistic subject, and the years I’d spent in the Downtown Project witnessing first hand his genius and his (ultimately deadly) obsession with turning the world into a giant college campus with him at the center. The book was rejected by two dozen publishers, all with variations on the same blunt theme: A previous book about Tony and the Downtown Project didn’t sell and we’re not convinced readers care enough about him to warrant another one.

Happy At Any Cost, written by Wall Street Journal reporters Kirsten Grind and Katherine Sayer, seems determined to prove those skeptical editors right.

The subtitle of the book is “the revolutionary vision and fatal quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh” but in reality the focus is heavily on the second part of that title: Tony’s “fatal quest” to Park City, Utah where, enabled by a gaggle of parasitic and sociopathic hangers-on, he spiraled deep into drug addiction and mental illness before suffocating, alone, in a locked, burning shed surrounded by empty whippet canisters.

In telling that story, the reporters have done an excellent reporting job: Speaking at length with Tony’s “friends” who were with him in Utah in the weeks and months before he died, and the local officials tasked with piecing together the tragic events of November 17 2020. They also had access to family members, and even the mental health professional who tried to perform a “wellness check” on Tony in his final months. The result is a meticulously detailed account of Tony’s death that at times feels like a report from an official enquiry – laying out the facts and letting readers make their own judgement as to who was to blame.

If I were one of those hangers on – one of two in particular – I’d be (unjustifiably) furious about the book, and deeply panicked given the impending lawsuits. Grind and Sayer paint a stark picture of how some of the people closest to Tony extracted more and more cash from a clearly deeply troubled man as he was spiraling towards oblivion. Anyone who spent a jot of time in Tony’s world – even during the good times – will believe every word is true.

As COVID sent everyone into isolation, the only people who still wanted to cram themselves onto a tour bus or indulge in “cuddle puddles” were those for whom the potential financial rewards of proximity to Tony outweighed the risks. As he spiraled further into obvious mental illness, even many of those fell away, leaving just the most willfully blind, or unforgivably cruel.

The scene where the last members of his entourage sit, shocked, as Tony’s lifeless body is carried away on a stretcher reads like Lord of the Flies as written by Æsop: A group of monstrous children who suddenly realize their golden goose is dead.

And yet.

Reading as someone who knew Tony, both as a friend and sometime fiercest critic, the rest of the book felt both unsatisfying and unfair. By starting at the end of Tony’s life, the authors deny readers the context of the “real” Tony – the one most of us knew and loved, long before the drugs and mental health crisis took hold. Instead, with images of messianic episodes and pyromania firmly planted, we are stuck with the impression of that same drugged, deranged cult leader/victim somehow building LinkExchange, Venture Frogs, Zappos (2.0) and the Downtown Project.

Holacracy wasn’t a terrible idea because Tony was mentally incapacitated when he adopted it (he wasn’t), Jody Sherman didn’t die because his key investor was on ketamine (he wasn’t) and Amazon, for all its flaws, certainly didn’t buy a company built by a shirtless man who believed he had the secret of the universe scribbled inside a small cardboard box. The Tony at the end of his life was unrecognizable from the earlier “revolutionary visionary” who could and should have changed the world.

I get it. And publishers get it. Tony was not Steve Jobs: neither by impact, nor fame. There is already a book about the Downtown Project, and it sold only a handful of copies. Fans of Tony’ entrepreneurial triumphs have already read Delivering Happiness. His death is what makes his story gripping to readers, and potentially to Hollywood.

But if mass appeal was the goal for “Happy At Any Cost”, then the book has an even bigger flaw. Despite conducting more than two hundred interviews with Tony’s friends and associates, the authors still failed to find a single likable, relatable participant in the story for readers to identify with, to make them feel the tragedy of Tony’s death rather than simply to acknowledge it. Without that person – without letting us inside their head as the story unfolds – the book reads like a very, very long Wall Street Journal article rather than the tragic, human, gripping book it could otherwise have been.

We never learn what lies Tony’s entourage had to tell themselves to watch a man slowly killing himself as they sing and clap along to Jewel. Tony’s family members – who tried desperately to intervene and save his life – are rendered flatly and factually on the page. Even Steve-O, Tony’s loyal and tireless driver for more than a decade, is confined by the group, and the narrative, to a succession of motel rooms. (Sidenote: If any of Tony’s employees deserves a giant payout from his estate, it is Steve.)

Speaking of Jewel, she is the nearest person the book has to an emotional hero. Briefly we see the singer arrive at Tony’s compound and witness first-hand the squalor, the fire hazards, the madness. She extends her trip, stages a intervention with his entourage, then ultimately returns home defeated…

“Before Jewel left, she told the head of security, Shawn Kane, ‘If he kills himself and everyone else in there from a huge fire, you can’t say you weren’t warned.”

She later wrote Tony letter, begging him to seek help. Tony’s friends stuck the letter to a cork board, annotated with mocking post it notes.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting Jewel should have been the protagonist of the book. Nor that family members should have set aside their grief to play that role. Just that someone should have played that role – even if it was the two reporters themselves, trying to chase down the story when so many of their sources were sociopathic, complicit liars.

Maybe the authors felt that inserting themselves into the story would be tacky, or a cliche (although they do insert themselves briefly at the end, with an odd anecdote about calling Zappos customer service and everyone being very nice.)

Maybe their decision not to focus on any one particular “character” in Tony’s life for more than a few pages was a deliberate one, made for journalistic or even legal reasons.

I hope one of those explanations is true, because the alternative is too tragic to contemplate: That, despite all those interviews and all that reporting, the authors tried and failed to find a single person in Park City, at the end, who wasn’t related by blood to Tony but still cared deeply enough about his life or death to make readers do the same.

       Read Full Post

Fun day trip to Vegas today, to visit Scott and Drew’s brilliant Writers’ Block bookstore. How brilliant? This brilliant…

I drove there (and back) in the new electric Volvo, with one charging break for forty minutes in Barstow. It would have been thirty minutes but the charger was blocked by a line of cars waiting to buy fuel at the next door gas station.

       Read Full Post

If there ever was a technology designed to invite scorn and skepticism then surely it’s the metaverse. 

A decades-old empty buzzword, freshly co-opted to distract from Facebook’s data abuse scandals. A vapid, badly rendered, laggy, buggy magnet for every NFT scammer and crypto-Ponzist, presided over by Mark Zuckerberg and hyped by Paris Hilton. 

And then there’s the dorky goggles.  

It’s little wonder that the very mention of the “m” word prompts the same eyerolls amongst tech observers as are triggered by crypto, NFTs, DAOs, and all that other web3 bollocks.

But it really shouldn’t.

Because, unlike those other things, the metaverse is going to be amazing.

To understand why I’m so bullish about it, you first have to forget all the crap I listed above. 

Read on…
       Read Full Post

If you missed my Zoom conversation last night with John “The War Nerd” Dolan then – hoo boy – did you miss a doozy. 

The stated theme of the event was how John turned his ‘Radio War Nerd‘ podcast into one of the most successful paid shows on Patreon, with around 5500 subscribers paying as much as $200 a month to listen. 

But our conversation quickly expanded to a much bigger topic: The power of independent media and why, for perhaps the first time in history, any writer with deep knowledge of their subject can get paid a pile of money without giving up any editorial freedom. 

Read on…
       Read Full Post

I’m writing this on the edge of delirium. After two years of pandemic bingeing, I needed to reset my diet so Sarah has paid for us to go on a five day spa retreat in the middle of the desert. No food for the week, just juice and supplements and hiking and yoga and something called a ‘sound bath’. 

Today is day four and I’m close to eating my laptop. 

The good news is that not having to prepare or eat food has freed me up to catch up on a whole pile of outstanding admin, including writing this week’s newsletter. The bad news is that forming complete sentences is an epic struggle. Paragraphs an impossibility. So we’re going to do this one with bullet points!

Read on…
       Read Full Post

Hi all,

The world’s shortest update this week as I’m on deadline for three different projects. 

BUT!

I wanted to share the exciting news that the audiobook of 1414º is finally availableon Audible, narrated by the brilliant Emily Lawrence.

The Amazon/Audible links are…

USA: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09YSZF6T6

Canada: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B09YT3TJ8T

UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09YT6QN5B

It should also show up on iTunes and other outlets in the next few days. 

I am so pleased with how the audiobook turned out, and it’s hard to describe how brilliant and weird it is to hear Lou, Helen, Elmsley, et al actually come to life. 

If you haven’t read the book yet (*cough* Publishers Weekly Starred Review *cough*) then now you don’t have to: For just the price of a single Audible credit, you can have the whole thing acted right into your ears!

Hope you like it. 

More next week!

       Read Full Post

I started drafting this newsletter before news broke of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. I could write an entire essay about how Parag Agrawal’s apparent strategy – adding Elon to the board so he’s banned from buying more than 14.9 of Twitter’s common stock – will backfire spectacularly, but I can do it in a sentence…

You don’t stop the big bad wolf from blowing your house down by inviting him inside. 

Read on…
       Read Full Post

Hi all,

Reader David K emailed me earlier this week with a question…

Did you promise an update / “what the hell happened to clubhouse”? Curious.

I did promise that! But then I got distracted with book stuff and completely forgot. Thanks for holding me accountable, David!

So, Clubhouse.

Read on…
       Read Full Post

My whole life I’ve devoured mystery novels by golden age authors: Dorothy Sayers, GK Chesterton, Agatha Christie. Even more so, impossible crime stories by writers like John Dixon Carr and Edmund Crispin.

Hardly surprising, then, that I’ve always wanted to write a murder mystery of my own.

Quite separately, I’ve been longing to write a non-fiction book about the underbelly of Silicon Valley, telling the real story of how gross and dangerous and sociopathic tech moguls have become, based on my 20 years covering these powerful monsters. A  book, in other words, that no lawyer-fearing publisher would touch with a ten foot pole.

It took me a long time to realize the obvious way to scratch both of these itches: To write about the true awfulness of tech brociopaths through the plausible deniable lens of crime fiction.  All I needed was the right story hook.

Then, in 2014, Uber infamously threatened to spend a million dollars to hire a team of journalists to “go after” (their phrase!) Sarah and our family after she dared to write about the company’s treatment of women.

While most commentators wondered out loud how a company could be so nakedly evil, I became obsessed with another question: How f*cked up would a journalist’s life have to be from them to actually take that gig?

With that simple question, my protagonist snapped into life: A journalist forced to take a job at the worst company on earth in order to save her own life, and that of her family. A few days later, I had my first murder victim. I was off to the races.

It was a long race.

Seven years later, the resulting novel – 1414º – is about to land on bookshelves. Here’s the blurb, ripped from the back cover (a blog exclusive!)…

Read on…
       Read Full Post