The Backstory…and What We’re Reading

I started Clyde Hill Publishing in 2013 because I’m really bad at small talk.

When I turned 50, it occurred to me that meandering conversations about sports, family and weather left me feeling empty. I’m as much a sports fan, family man and weather nut as anyone, but talking about them is fleeting. Talking about books, however, brings ideas to mind that remain, marinating, developing, expanding. And that excites me. It always has.

Living in Seattle, both a literary and an entrepreneurial city, I found that very often conversations steered inexorably toward books – one read or, better, one that should be written. Aha! What if I could help turn these conversations into action? What if these nontraditional authors – the founders, innovators, thinkers and tinkerers – had a publishing partner?

One such conversation was with John Rossman, a former Amazon executive whose son was a player on the Little League team I coached. After reading a white paper he’d written, I suggested we expand it into a book. This became The Amazon Way on Leadership, which has since been translated into numerous languages. That was followed by The Amazon Way on IoT, and just recently McGraw Hill signed on to publish Rossman’s third book, Think Like Amazon. So, that little white paper years ago became a Clyde Hill Publishing hit, eventually attracting the attention of major New York publishers.

This summer, Clyde Hill Publishing has new books underway with a boundary-busting university president, the founder of a venture capital firm, global bankers, an artificial intelligence executive, blockchain designers, a sports historian and a major philanthropist.

In some cases we are co-authors or editors. Sometimes we are the literary agent, and occasionally we are the publisher. I hope you will follow us on Twitter @ClydeHillPub for news and updates.

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This blog will keep you abreast of our progress. It is also a venue for editor Claudia Rowe and me to share with you what we’re reading.

Our reading is eclectic, as you might expect. The books that attract me most are those containing insight into innovation. I love stories about the spark that led to something brilliant.

For example, I was in New York City last week and picked up a copy of Chopin’s Piano: In Search of the Instrument That Transformed Music by Paul Kildea at one of my favorite independent bookstores, Three Lives & Company, in the West Village.

The book meticulously documents Frédéric Chopin and George Sand’s journey in 1835 to Valldemossa on the Spanish island of Majorca where Chopin composed his Preludes for piano. It tracks the history of the instrument Chopin had shipped to him and what happened to it in the years afterward. Kildea writes a great story, but what I was hunting for in the book were insights into the composer I’ve long admired.

And there it was: while Chopin is known as a great composer, he was in fact a genius improviser. “When he attempted to write down his inspired original thoughts he spent days of nervous strain and desperation,” Kildea writes. But when he improvised, virtuosity emerged. Chopin’s friend, the great French painter Eugene Delacroix, likened the pianist’s improvisations to preparatory sketches for a painting. In fact, his improvisations were somehow better than the finished works – less guarded, more inspired.

What Delacroix had noticed was “what neurologists would much later analyze: a musician’s brain does unusual things when he or she improvises. It switches off personal and music inhibitions to allow virtuosic experimentation without the creative process being shot down by the very human instinct to control and formalize.”

Earlier this year I read a similar historical exploration by Miles J. Unger, Picasso and the Painting that Shocked the World. I read it on a trip to Spain to work on a manuscript, and left my copy there so I no longer have my highlights. What I am left with is an appreciation of what happens when genius is allowed to run unfettered by the doubt and self-criticism created by experts in so-called creative centers like New York and Paris.

 

Finally, I am ending the summer with David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. This incredible scientific investigation follows the virtuoso and outsider Carl Woese (“the most important little-known biologist of the twentieth century”) among others who reexamine the history of life. Woese was not among the elite group of scientists known as the RNA Tie Club with its embroidered neckties and individual tiepins, each representing an amino acid. No, Woese had other ideas about evolution, and those ideas inspired the book’s title about a tangled tree. In short, Darwin did not invent the tree of life, which visually presents the workings of evolution, but his Evolution of the Species cemented that image in science history.

And then, suddenly, a small group of scientists would discover: oops, no it’s wrong. Quammen explores the story of scientists in the 1970s who began using DNA sequences to discover that life’s diversity and interrelatedness is due to horizontal gene transfer at the molecular level, or the movement of genes across species lines. The tree of life does not just grow from the bottom to the top, but in fact from branch to branch. The implications are immense.

Why Woese and a small group of scientists diverged from Darwin makes a great book, and it’s the kind of thinking we’re look for at Clyde Hill Publishing.

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Next Up: The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading by Edmund White, and an advance peak at Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work by Alex Rosenblat