Ebooks vs. Paper

I’m a chronic over- and early-optimizer.

Like so many things in my life, my desire to read more has often been blocked by my need to figure out the exactly optimal way to get that done. Similar to times when I’ve tried to learn to code, I come up to this blocker before I even start. When it’s coding, it’s: which text editor is best, which course is strongest, what fundamentals do I need to have down before I even start (should I learn discrete math if it will help me be a better coder), I should learn how to use the terminal effectively, I should master Git before I write code so I don’t have to take a break to learn that after I start. Starting with this mindset is exhausting. I know, deep down, that starting is the key to starting, but sometimes I get stuck.

Like reading.

How am I ever supposed to read more if I haven’t made the completely optimal decision between ebooks and paper books? How has anyone in the world ever felt comfortable just … opening a book, without properly thinking through whether it should be on paper or bytes?

Both sides have strong arguments.

The main theme of ebooks is convenience. I’ve got a Kindle Oasis, which I love reading on. I can cram any number of books I might want to read at any time on it. It syncs with the Kindle app on my phone and tablet, which helps facilitate reading when I might not otherwise, such as in a line at the store or an impromptu Uber ride. It makes notes easier – I don’t usually have a pen on me, so having highlighting and note taking built in is nice. I can get any book, whenever I want, without any delay. There’s a bunch of services that integrate nicely with Kindle, such as ReadWise. It’s also a gadget, which I fundamentally love. In my obscene vanity, it lets me “have the best of something” by buying a new Kindle in a self-satisfying way that book ownership can never provide. The privacy of a Kindle is nice – I can think of nothing more anxiety-inducing than someone beside me on a plane wanting to strike up a discussion about what I’m reading and realizing that I haven’t actually absorbed enough to have an intelligent conversation.

Now, books. Most of the arguments for books – for myself, at least – rely on a sense of idealism. I love the idea of reading a book and enjoying it so much that I know someone who _has_ to read it. Giving it to them fresh from my bookshelf would be very satisfying. In fact, the bookshelf itself sums up almost everything I find appealing about paper books. The idea of the {anti-library}, the lending of books, my future children going through my collection of books – all of this feels so much more real on paper. That being said: what price do you pay for this vague benefit that, quite honestly, may happen a handful of times in your lifetime, or a couple of times a year (if you’re lucky)? You lose out on all of the benefits of ebooks, while being able to give yourself a pat on the back for helping further the knowledge of your friends and offspring, maybe, someday.

It feels like the answer is both. I’m lucky enough to be able to budget enough money towards books that I can have the best of both worlds. What feels right is to buy everything on Kindle first. Then, when I read something that deserves a place on the shelf, I can buy that too. It’s going to look like I own a bunch of books that I’ve never read, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe reading needs to be about me, and not about looking smart or giving books away. Maybe.

Writing More

When I was growing up, I always knew I would be a writer. I shouldn’t say always – it got solidified when I was eight.

I had just moved back to Ottawa, my home town. My family had moved to Pittsburgh for my dad’s work three years prior, but we ended up coming back. It was a new city, a new school, a new grade. I was a fairly nerdy kid, although not the type with no friends – just a bit of a dork, but not so much of a dork as to spend most of my time ass up in a garbage can. The type of dork that probably could have been cool, if he didn’t have a speech impediment that made him super nervous in social situations.

I wrote a story in English class that year that blew my teacher away. I remember her getting in touch with my parents to encourage them to get me to keep writing. My parents took this to heart – I remember being excited to go meet a favourite local author at the library, and I bought her adult book on writing that year. I was all-in.

Of course, I never really wrote again after that. My writing career had peaked when I was eight years old. That’s how many things in my life have gone – undoubtedly, the lives of many eight year olds. Bursts of passion and activity, followed by complete abandonment.

I ended up, eventually, in business and software. That’s okay – I love what I do, but I’ve always felt like I should have been a writer. I don’t know what type of writer I would have been. I’m not sure I have the artistry for creative writing, not the organization for non-fiction. Journalism could have been interesting, but I didn’t have the grades to support that nor foresight to realize that maybe I didn’t need to go to college for that to make it work.

I’ve started a dozen blogs over the past 10 years that I’ve been in love with startups and business, and I don’t think I’ve ever posted more than once or twice. I know it’s played out to start writing with a post announcing your intention to start writing, but that’s what I’m doing, with an asterisk. I don’t care if nobody reads this – honestly, I don’t even really want them to. I’m not focusing on distribution, I’m not sharing with my social following. I just want to write because I want to see if I get better at writing by writing more. It seems inevitable, but I want to prove it to myself. My writing will almost certainly be super shitty to start, and that’s okay. There’s no goal here other than improvement.

Taking care of the merchants, the apps, and the reviews

In his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz recounts a quote from his old boss, Jim Barksdale: “We take care of the people, the products, and the profits… In that order.”

Working on the App Store at Shopify, we operate under a similar philosophy: we take care of the merchants, the developers, and the App Store… In that order. Merchant’s experiences with the apps they install is paramount. If we don’t earn — and maintain — the trust of merchants, it doesn’t matter how developer’s feel and it certainly doesn’t matter if the App Store exists. Without merchant trust, developers don’t get installations of their app. Without app installs, the App Store has no purpose.

Merchants put a huge amount of faith in other merchant’s app reviews. Reviews also influence our ranking algorithm, which determines the long term success of an app, making reviews all the more important. Developers know this, and this knowledge has resulted in the pursuit of positive reviews at any cost. So much so, that occasionally, you’ll see reviews like these:

because it’s making me do this before I even try the app (3/5)

Jury still out … (1/5)

What we’re looking at in this example is an app that requires merchants to leave a review part way through a tutorial in order to advance. This is insanity — I truly have no idea how a developer thinks this is a good idea. Nevertheless, this is rampant, and it’s something that we’re taking very seriously. How can merchants trust anything — the reviews, the apps, the App Store — if this is what it’s turned into?

This week we took a fairly large step in maintaining merchant trust. We implemented a minimum character count for all reviews going forward (30 characters), and removed all reviews that don’t meet that standard. What does this look like? It’s removing about 18% of the almost 100,000 reviews across the App Store. It’s removing 0% of some app’s reviews, and 70% of others. There is a significant percentage of the removed reviews that are simply “great app” — that’s it. This isn’t helpful to other merchants, and it’s obvious that in almost every case, this review was obtained in a way that isn’t good for anyone.

It’s easy, when given a role like “Developer Advocate” or “Developer Relations”, to think that serving developers is what’s most important. It is my job to make sure developers are happy with our platform. I believe, fundamentally, that the best way to do this is to make merchants happy first.

Some developers aren’t happy about review removal — it’s interesting, because the ones I’m hearing complain are the ones who are having the most reviews removed. Maybe if they had focused on the people (the merchants), the product (the app), and the profits (the reviews), in that order… Things may have been different for them. I’m excited to continue rewarding the developers that build with a merchant-first attitude.

Thank you to Josh Gosse and Liz Couto for their editing help.

This post was also published on Medium.