Reason and Persuasion – I think it’s a pretty good book

by John Holbo on February 26, 2016

A little over a month ago Belle and I published the new edition of Reason and Persuasion, our Plato book. (She did the translations of three dialogues; I provided the commentary, illustrations and bookmaking.) Ta-DA! Well, actually it was more what one calls a soft launch. Since then I’ve got all the publication outlets squared away for the time being. You can get it on Amazon, in paper or in Kindle format. Making a workable Kindle version was an education in itself. Reflowable text and approximately 500 spot illustrations is a tough combo. It’s like practicing the fine art of flower arrangement in a sloshing bucket. It’s like trying to arrange all the little marshmallows inside the jell-o. But enough about my lifestyle choices. I set up Kindle matchbook so this thing that almost overwhelmed me is free if you buy the modestly-priced paper version. Good deal! I think the nicest-looking edition may actually be the fixed layout iBooks version (same as the GooglePlay and Kobo versions, if that’s how you like to play it.) Graphics are all very crisp.

As I was saying: we launched, and, since our lawyers told us we couldn’t use Harry Potter in the title, sales have been … modest. (Hey, it’s the fourth edition of a Plato book that is also available as free PDF’s. Did I mention: free PDFs?) We’ve been bobbing along in the low 6-digits, sales-wise, on Amazon. Checking Amazon rankings more than once a month is a thoroughly unhealthy form of fetish worship. Yet I confess to a moment of depression when we slipped below the 1,000,000-mark, albeit only briefly. Would it be too much to ask for the world to acknowledge that there are maybe not a million books better than mine? But then I checked Amazon UK and, like Spinal Tap in that scene in the film, was cheered to see we were charting! (Presumably 2 people bought the book in a matter of hours, producing this anomaly.) I screencapped, in case glory never came again:


Also, this, along a different selling axis:


You see, it’s not just that Wittgenstein is a genius name. When I was in grad school, reading Ray Monk’s biography, The Duty of Genius, together with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was an intensely intellectually transformative experience for me. My dissertation came out of that. More generally, it was one of those rare moments when some thinker or work or idea or argument you are quite familiar with – which never meant much to you before – suddenly opens out as an intensely wonderful and interesting prospect. I had always liked the later Wittgenstein, but I just didn’t get the Tractatus. Then, suddenly, I did. Has that happened to you? Not just that you found something new. We’ve all been there, I trust. Rather, something old, familiar, tossed carelessly to the back of the lumber room of your mind – something that seems a waste of space, even if you can’t bear to permanently discard what is, after all, a valuable antique – is suddenly radically reassessed? You get it! It’s solving problems, opening doors! Well, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was all that, for me. For a time. And that experience was even the seed of our Plato book (well, my portion of it.) I never liked Plato as an undergraduate. To tell you the truth, he almost prevented me from being a philosophy major. Plato just seemed dumb. Then later, thanks to getting it about the Tractatus, Plato finally made sense, after all those years. He grew on me, and I was teaching him to undergraduates, and then I wrote a very weird book about it, with cartoons.

So it was nice to see my book in honorable proximity to the early Wittgenstein and Ray Monk, if only in UK sales, if only for a day or even just an hour.

And if you, too, are an author who suffers less than sterling Amazon sales ranking, I recommend the following illogical procedure. Keep going down the lists until you find a book that is much better than yours, which has an even lousier ranking. The implicit injustice you are perpetrating on that superior soul shall be a balm to the injustice worse authors are inflicting on you! (The ridiculousness of this thought is, in its way, very Wittgensteinian. The desire to be a genius, experienced as something between duty and a daydream, getting wires crossed with the vain desire to be recognized alongside genius, though you know you are anything but.)

Possibly you will also want to reread the opening to Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety:

Concerning my own humble person, I frankly confess that as an author I am a king without a country and also, in fear and much trembling, an author without any claims … When it comes to human authority, I am a fetish worshipper and will worship anyone with equal piety, but with one proviso, that it be made sufficiently clear by a beating of drums that he is the one I must worship and that it is he who is the authority and Imrimatur for the current year. The decision is beyond my understanding, whether it takes place by lottery or balloting, or whether the honor is passed around so that each individual has his turn as authority, like a representative of the burghers on the board of arbitration.



Plume 02.26.16 at 5:33 am

Congrats to you and Belle, John!!

Well done!!

I just downloaded the free version — apologies. And thanks.


Bought and read the Monk bio years ago and got a ton from it as well. Thanks for the reminder. Need to reread it and Wittgenstein too.

Btw, was Belle influenced by Wittgenstein via the language poets? Marjoe Perloff’s writings, Rosemarie Waldrop and Lyn Hejinian, etc. ?

LW said:

“Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry.” And that “all the rest is silence” part reminds me of Edmond Jabes and his Book of Questions . . . . if I can binge on name-dropping here for a second or two or three.


Meredith 02.26.16 at 5:40 am

I just ordered a copy. I AM curious how Belle translates but must confess an odd classicist’s indifference to Plato. Indifference is way too strong by outsiders’ measures, probably. I mean, I love Plato’s Greek as language. Which love only makes me supremely irritated with his claims about language, poets, genres, and mostly with his claim that philosophy absorbs and improves the other genres…. Anyway, I am to bed with classroom thoughts of Horace and Homer. Thinking though, that, while Plato is not orienting for me, he is in fact disorienting. Not a bad thing.


Plume 02.26.16 at 5:46 am

Any thoughts on Michael Schmidt’s The First Poets? I think he does all of his own translations. Have it on my shelf but have not read it.

Looking forward to Belle’s translations. Do you both have translators of the Greek that you revere? Shoulders you’ve stood on for your own work, etc.?


Maria 02.26.16 at 9:13 am

Whoot! Just ordered. I had a quick squint at the pictures and they are terrific. Can’t wait to read it. OK, in truth, can’t wait to enjoy the illustrations… Well done, J&B.


John Holbo 02.26.16 at 9:19 am

Thenk you thenk, we’ll be here all week. You are all too kind!


John Holbo 02.26.16 at 9:23 am

“I just downloaded the free version — apologies. And thanks.”

No need to apologize. This was an entirely foreseeable consequence of the free PDF model we adopted.


Ronan(rf) 02.26.16 at 3:17 pm

Nice. As I’m on a bit of a spending splurge at the minute, consider it bought, devoured and,eventually, incoherently critiqued.


Ronan(rf) 02.26.16 at 3:25 pm

Having said that, Although I have been known to write angry letters to authors of books I disagreed with, I probably wouldn’t shell out for the postage stamp to Singapore. And critiquing an author in a non handwritten form seems vulgar. I’ll have to give this some more thought. (I’m still buying it though, don’t worry)


Glen Tomkins 02.26.16 at 4:08 pm


In my own inherently limited understanding of Plato, irritating us is pretty much the whole point of the exercise. If you’re not supremely irritated, you’re not paying attention. What takes a bit of faith is the idea that if you do the work to get through all the layers of the 11-dimensional irony, the irritation has a point, making it in that respect different from the irritation caused by the common troll. The real genius involved is that he knew where people several millennia later would still need irritating.


Glen Tomkins 02.26.16 at 4:21 pm

Book sales figure are like exchange rates and share prices. None are an even approximate gauge of worth.


Anderson 02.26.16 at 7:29 pm

Ordered. Looking very much forward to it – I’ve scarcely read any Plato since, oh, 1992.


Gary Othic 02.26.16 at 8:42 pm

Just contributed to the effort to push you up the sales rankings :)

Interested to read it – every book on Plato I have has been translated by a different translator so I’m intrigued to see how this one compares. Love the drawings as well; I’m a great believer in philosophy books/lectures having added cartoons


js. 02.26.16 at 9:17 pm

Holbo — I love this post, it speaks to me. Oddly, while I still don’t really get Plato at all, I had a very similar trajectory of experience with Kant and the Tractatus. Hated Kant (the Groundwork in particular) in college, completely fell in love (and that is the right term, I think) with the Tractatus early in grad school, having really liked the Investigations earlier, and then when I encountered Kant again, I got so caught up with it that I ended up writing my dissertation on him. There’s an obvious connection, of course, re how the unthinkable/unsayable can still be an object of inquiry in some sense, and the attempt to find a method suitable for that. But in some weirder and less easy to explain way, I think engagement with the Tractatus was partly responsible for me getting somewhat obsessed with Kant’s metaphysics of action (broadly speaking).


js. 02.26.16 at 9:18 pm

And of course: congratulations! May you climb the Amazonian heights.


PJW 02.26.16 at 10:06 pm

Bought it. I miss those mind-expanding Plato posts you used to write with some frequency here at CT a few years ago. Looking forward to the new book!

@ Plume: Those Jabes quotes are great.


John Holbo 02.26.16 at 11:41 pm

Thanks, all, for your support. Briefly – I fear it shall be but a moment – we have ascended heretofore unscaled (but hardly undreamed of) Amazonian heights. At the moment: 20,000 sales ranking.


marek 02.26.16 at 11:46 pm

While I hate to puncture your moment of amazonian glory, particularly for a book that sounds eminently deserving, Amazon best seller status is really not an honest currency – and being below a million in the ranking certainly doesn’t show that there are a million better books, since even Amazon don’t pretend that that’s what they are measuring.

Coincidentally, just a few days ago, Brent Underwood started an article:

I would like to tell you about the biggest lie in book publishing. It appears in the biographies and social media profiles of almost every working “author” today. It’s the word “best seller.”

This isn’t about how The New York Times list is biased (though it is). This isn’t about how authors buy their way onto various national best-seller lists by buying their own books in bulk (though they do). No, this is about the far more insidious title of “Amazon Bestseller”—and how it’s complete and utter nonsense.

Here’s what happened in the book industry over the last few years: As Amazon has become the big dog in the book world, the “Amazon Bestseller” status has come to be synonymous with being an actual bestseller. This is not true, and I can prove it.


John Holbo 02.27.16 at 12:37 am

“Amazon best seller status is really not an honest currency”

Just to be clear: I think Amazon sales probably mean something over the long-haul, but any data based on just a few days is noise. Per the post, I’m pretty sure the reason I overtook Wittgenstein, briefly, was that two people in the UK bought the book in a few hours time.

If you have a book that is selling 2 copies a day, every day, year in and out, you have a tidy little earner, if not exactly a blockbuster best seller. You are probably going to rank pretty high on some sales chart, relatively. But you are going to be absolutely outsold during that 6-12 hour period during which someone publishes – and gets someone else to buy three copies of – his joke book, published to prove how to game Amazon. That’s why you only check your sales rank once a month, max, unless you are a fetishist. Which, currently, I am. But I’m trying to be better.


JanieM 02.27.16 at 1:09 am

Will buy the Kindle version over the weekend. As someone who has been the editor, technical helper, and stats keeper for an indie author for more than four years, I can’t tell you how much I admire you for publishing a book with lots of illustrations. That’s crazy!

I was obsessed with watching rankings for the first couple of years. Then I mostly switched to keeping track of KDP reports on the # of books sold. Rankings are interesting to watch when you do a promotion, or publish a new book in a series, , and they do have some vague connection to sales, obviously. But the books sold #s are ultimately more useful, especially when you get asks for stats after a promotion. (Although I just looked on Bookbub and they don’t have a category for philosophy books. Sigh.)


JanieM 02.27.16 at 1:11 am

If I were trying to make $ as a freelance editor, I would certainly spend more time proofreading my blog comments (and emails) before hitting the Submit/Send button. ;-)


Plucky Underdog 02.27.16 at 10:50 am

Time well-spent, John. The book is a real find: thanks to you both for getting it into a stable form. I ordered it through my local indie bookshop: I hope they got some of Amazon’s cut.

I tried to do the Coursera course from the PDF, but the complexity and unusual format made it just toooooo annoyingly fiddly, and I dropped out after the first week. First time I ever did that on Coursera! They’ve put the course onto anytime availability, so now I’ve got something I can scribble on and bookmark I’ll be going back in.


John Holbo 02.28.16 at 5:49 am

Thanks, Plucky, yeah the PDF option as the ONLY option was really ideal, although for many people it works ok. I do think, for course purposes, it’s good to have the paper option as a focus, so long as it’s reasonably priced. The sheer solidity of it in your hand, or in your bag, is an enouragement to discipline and commitment. This is a pedagogy point that isn’t much discussed. These days I personally mostly want just ebooks rather than paper. But for students it’s often good to have paper yet also have the e-option to backstop it; hence the free Kindle version, and the PDF. PDF without paper is a bit free-floating. Paper without e-option is lacking in obviously convenient features. You want both.


NomadUK 02.28.16 at 9:03 pm

Kindle version purchased and in my virtual pile. I’m impressed even just skimming the intro at the effort made specifically to support the Kindle’s idiosyncrasies; I wish everyone bothered as much.

Looking forward to the read, which I confess is outside my usual range, having been the victim of a computer science degree and an engineering career. I’m trying to make amends.


John Holbo 02.28.16 at 11:17 pm

Thank you kindly, Nomad. I worked hard on that – the formatting. It was, to put it mildly, a giant headache. There are so many Kindle devices and formats by now that it’s a huge, ungainly exercise in display compromises.

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