Stripe Press and Curation
July 16, 2020,
I just finished The Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri. It’s an incredible book with the most prescient view I’ve heard yet of what’s been going on in the post-postmodern world of history. I’m already sure it will be one of the best books I’ll read all year. If you want to know why the internet is going crazy, why Trump happened, why Brexit happened, why the Arab Spring happened, this is the book for you. Seriously, everyone should read it.
It was also the second book I’ve read by Stripe Press. The first was Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments, which I came to because I’ve really enjoyed Tyler’s podcasts and interview style. I found his writing just as interesting and approachable. I was also struck by the book itself. The binding is gorgeous and the colors are bold reds and blues. It stands out and you know it’s a Stripe Press book. Martin Gurri’s purple and pink book is even more garish, yet somehow works.
But what really intrigued me is Stripe Press itself. In the midst of building one of most important multi-billion dollar companies out there (Stripe), the Collison brothers also decided to launch a publishing house. Why?
Well, they’ve got a great answer ready to go:
Stripe partners with millions of the world’s most innovative businesses—organizations that will shape the world of tomorrow. These businesses are the result of many different inputs. Perhaps the most important ingredient is “ideas.”
Stripe Press highlights ideas that we think can be broadly useful. Some books contain entirely new material, some are collections of existing work reimagined, and others are republications of previous works that have remained relevant over time or have renewed relevance today.
Stripe says that their mission is “to increase the GDP of the internet.” The Collison brothers are some of the most breathtaking - and unknown-to-most-of-the-public - thinkers of our era. They have a very strong and clear interest in economics and in first-principles thinking. And they’ve created Stripe Press to showcase and proselytize useful ideas from other strong thinkers.
Now that I’ve read two Stripe Press books, I want to read the entire collection. I’m convinced they’ll all be just as good and make me think and question the world just as much.
That’s an interesting statement to make about publishing in 2020. The only other publishing house I can even name is Tor for Sci-Fi, and that’s only because I saw the name when trying to find when the next John Scalzi books were going to come out.
We don’t think of publishing houses as driving content anymore, but they do. They are in the business of curation. They seek out new or exciting authors that fit their milieu and they build deals with them to publish books that will cater to the audiences they know how to sell to.
Publishing houses are an old way to do things. Before the communication revolution of the internet destroyed their monopolies, publishing houses were how you became an author. They were the gateway between the coffee-store writes and the published authors on book tours. They decided whose words and ideas got out to the world. Today, any Joe can go write a book and self-publish wherever they like, and it’s easy to forget how radical that change really is.
Stripe Press was conceived after the internet age, in the middle of the internet age, by people fully indoctrinated in the culture and information democratization of the internet. Gurri’s book is an example. He originally self-published The Revolt of the Public, it received some notice, the Collisons learned about it, and they brokered a deal to increase it’s reach by publishing through Stripe Press. In the middle of the 21st century, they still believed the act of curation was valuable.
Curation is incredibly valuable and sometimes we don’t even realize it’s happening. Very frequently, my friend Matt asks me what I’m reading and I say the name of a book and he says “Oh I haven’t listened to that Econtalk episode yet.” It took a few instances of this before I realized that Russ Roberts was curating a significant portion of my non-fiction reading list.
This was me. I don’t personally use ML-powered recommendations, i.e. no Facebook, Netflix, Spotify, etc. Developing taste is a fun and worthwhile process. Avoiding echo chambers is somewhat necessary to maintain sanity and personality. https://t.co/QUaMblrism— Ash Fontana (@ashfontana) November 25, 2019
In 2020, there is almost no more counter-cultural act than to spend the time to consciously curate taste yourself. Information has been totally unleashed in the last several decades, and there’s so much of it that we’ve been forced to cull content by using machines and algorithms to point us to interesting things. The problem with these algorithms is that they’re based either on ourselves and our past habits (and thus novelty becomes rare and nuance becomes lost) or on statistics and averages (and thus our tastes revert to the mean, which sometimes isn’t pretty).
A better tactic is to find interesting people and follow their tastes and interests. This is why Stripe Press is so compelling: it follows the meanderings and interests of Patrick Collison, a wildly intelligent and interesting self-made 31 year old billionaire. You could make the same arguments for Peter Thiel (the memetics of Girard, Straussian thinking, investments), or Tyler Cowen (everything on Marginal Revolution), or Russ Roberts (his guests and interviews), or Peter Robinson (and his guests and interviews), or Sam Harris (his views, guests and interviews) or Paul Graham (his essays) and any other number of interesting people.
It’s the adjective interesting that makes this compelling. Most people have quotidian tastes. They’re not often drawn to deep thinking and don’t look for contrarian or Straussian views on different areas of study. Following the tastes of the average person won’t get you far. As Jim Gaffigan says, we all like a whole lot of McDonalds:
I’m tired of people acting like they’re better than McDonald’s. It’s like you may have never set foot in McDonald’s, but you have your own McDonald’s. Maybe instead of buying a Big Mac, you read Us Weekly. Hey, that’s still McDonald’s. It’s just served up a little different. Maybe your McDonald’s is telling yourself that Starbucks Frappuccino is not a milkshake. Or maybe you watch “Glee.” It’s all McDonald’s—McDonald’s of the soul: Momentary pleasure followed by incredible guilt eventually leading to cancer. ‘I’m lovin’ it.’
Look for the people that can appreciate a good steak and bottle of red wine for the soul. Follow where their trains of thought lead. It will take you to far more interesting places than the ML-powered algorithms of our age.