# 147

Below is a list of EA project ideas which I've been thinking a bit about over the last few months. I'd be interested if people think I should take turn any of these ideas into top-level posts or shortform posts (and in future whether posts for individual ideas are better than a long list like this).[1] Thanks!

I expect I'll write a couple more 'project ideas list' posts like this by the end of the year. Note that the order is mostly arbitrary.

If you could see yourself actually working on one of these, please do let me know. I might be able to connect you to other people who could work with, elaborate on details, or help you find funding.

## Longtermist visualisations

Imagine a ‘timeline of everything’, showing major events (astronomical, geological, historical) from the Big Bang to the end of time. Users can zoom in and out, much like existing apps that show the scale of the universe.

Appreciating the vast amount of time ahead of us, and the relatively brief period of time that all of recorded human history makes up, is a key underlying intuition for longtermist arguments. The website could explain longtermist ideas as link to relevant reading, like The Precipice.

Various timelines of the universe have been made in video or graphic form, such as here. But I suspect being able to navigate through different scales of time yourself might be a very different experience.

Ultimately, you could imagine a website hosting a series of visualizations illustrating various longtermist ideas. These visualisations and graphics, some interactive, some updated with live data, could be tied together with essays about key longtermist topics, amounting to a kind of undirected, highly visual introduction to ideas from effective altruism and longtermism. You could imagine a handful of ‘tracks’ (e.g. big history, existential risks, technological progress, human progress) which tie together these graphics, once enough are made. I am excited by the prospect of Our World In Data adding new charts which could be of special interest from a longtermist perspective. But I do think this project could be different enough to warrant being separate, because the visualisations could be more creative, various in form, and perhaps less squarely data-driven.

I made a small start on this idea last year, and made plans to hire for it, but left it by the wayside because I got distracted.

## Meta book ideas

### Book grantmaking

As I understand it, a lot of involved work is required to secure a book deal, and ∴ to start on the process of writing the book. Before you can get an advance from one of them, you need to shop an idea around publishers, or find an outside agent you can trust to do so. The author typically needs to put a lot of their own time into this process, and in any case will need to wait before a deal goes through to begin writing with the confidence that their time is being put to good use. First-time or more obscure authors have it especially bad, since they have little to show to prospective publishers. This is presumably bad, at best because it uses up the time of people who's time is valuable and could be used just writing the book; and at worst because it makes potentially impactful books less likely to happen in the first place, for this reason.

In this new context for EA where money appears to be much less of a constraining factor, I wonder if this problem can be fixed. Imagine a group of evaluators with (i) a good amount of context on EA ideas, and (ii) a decent understanding of the world of publishing. As a prospective EA author, you apply with your book idea to this team, and if the pitch meets a basic threshold, then you quickly receive an advance. After that, the work of finding a publisher falls to this team of specialists, rather than the author herself. But the author retains the rights to the book if/when it is eventually published. If the group cannot find a publisher after some period of time, they have the option to self-publish, e.g. as a free ebook.

The major effect of such a scheme is that it would very likely make more valuable books happen.

Primarily, this is because the bar for which books get approved would be lower: more valuable book ideas would be quickly approved by this group than by the average publisher. The main reason the bar would be lower is that the group would not prioritise profits; up to and including the point where it could make sense to commission books which will not take a profit in expectation (but would nonetheless benefit the world as e.g. a free ebook). Another reason is that some ideas related to effective altruism might be hard to properly convey to a publisher without much context — the book could be saying something very important, and important enough that the idea could catch on and sell well, but there's a greater chance that a conventional publisher misses this. Superintelligence might count as an example — it ended up catching on in a way that was very hard to predict, a grantmaker with a lot of context on the ideas might have anticipated that better than a mainstream publisher.

The other reason this scheme might help more valuable books happen is because it just eliminates much of the administrative faff of each prospective author figuring out on their own how to get started.

When it comes to books and other media like films and social media accounts, I think a hits-based approach is best. I would guess that (i) the impact of books is roughly power-law distributed,[2] and (ii) the expected impact of a book doesn't scale linearly with the amount of money you put into it. These two things would suggest that it would make sense to roll the dice on many book ideas which could plausibly do well.

Centrally, then, the idea is to install a middleman between EA authors and publishers, capable of smoothing out the risks for the authors by handling multiple books at once and being less sensitive than individual authors to losing money.

What's the case against? Maybe I've overrated how much hassle it is to find a publisher in order to get started on a book. Maybe I have also overrated how many potentially very valuable EA books there are waiting to happen, but which don't happen for the reasons discussed. It might also just be the case that nearly all the most promising potential authors would do better to spend their time another way, and that there aren't so many other promising potential authors.

I consider a couple similar ideas below.

10 years after the publication of Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save, the organisation of the same name bought back the copyrights to the book. As a result, they could distribute the book for free, and record and release a free (and star-studded) audiobook.

As I understand it, some of the legal/administrative aspects of the deal posed a major and time-consuming difficulty. But the difficulty per book will decrease the more books we do this for (assuming there are ways to learn from and systematise the process). So perhaps we should try doing this for more books for which it would be really valuable to hand out free copies (or hand out physical copies with much less hassle).

### Translations

The Precipice doesn't have a Spanish translation. It should.

As I understand it, the way books typically get released in new languages is that a publisher in a new language will make a bid on the book and supply the translator(s) themselves. If the bid makes sense, the book's agent (sometimes in consultation with the author) will sell the copyrights for that region, and the book gets republished.

Translating important books just seems extremely worthwhile. Try thinking of your list of the ten most important books of the last couple decades — the books you wish everyone would read. Imagine one of those books lacks a translation in a language with > 50 million first-language speakers. What's the expected impact, as a fraction of the impact of the original book? Is it greater than 1%? That seems plausible in at least a handful of cases. Now how much should an altruistic planner have been prepared to pay to make the original book exist? What is 1% of that cost? Likely still very high.[3]

So the default course of waiting for offers to come around seems improvable — partly because we could help make translations happen which might never happen otherwise, but also to accelerate their arrival where they would have happened anyway. But that's not all: the impact of a translated book can depend on the accuracy of its translation. Terms of art and arguments are typically crafted with some care, and fragile to small errors in translations. So in taking matters into our own hands, we might also select translators trusted to get the finer and more idiosyncratic details right.

In practice, I'm imagining something like proactively approaching major publishers in (typically) non-English speaking countries and introducing them to a translator who we trust will do an excellent job, and who we can commit to paying ourselves. But I'm sure there are plenty of variations.

### An EA publishing house

The question that spawned these book-related thoughts was: what if EA started a publishing house?

I'm not sure this is a good proximate aim, because It's unclear why you'd want to replace many of the functions that established publishers already serve. For instance, many publishers are well-known, and getting your book published by them counts as free credibility and publicity. And as mentioned, publishers operate through relationships which take a long time to establish.

But it would be very cool to have close to an end-to-end publishing operation. To begin with, this would get rid of some of the friction and frustration associated with grappling with an outside editor over content, cover imagery, and so on. And it would be very easy to reprint classics[4] in the public domain, in order to bring them to a wider audience. Collected blog posts, also.[5]

Plus, you could spin up your own badass brand, and shape it however you like. You could quickly earn 1,000 true fans who automatically buy the next book you release. I think that the real impact you get from books is heavy-tailed in the sense that almost all the impact comes from a small number of readers. If you can cultivate the brand to appeal to those few readers, you don't need a very large audience to get the 'impact-adjusted reach' of a well-established publishing house.

Some people did successfully publish some highlights from LessWrong, and they just did it again. But I imagine this would have been easier, and potentially reached more people, if a specialised initiative had existed with some of the infrastructure and expertise already in place.

The obvious and standout inspiration here is the (hopefully not) inimitable Stripe Press.

A spin on this idea could be to start an 'imprint' instead — a new 'trade name' for an existing publisher. For instance, Viking Press is an imprint of Penguin Random House.

In the meantime, I expect it would also be obviously good for prospective EA authors to pitch ambitious book ideas to existing badass publishing houses like Stripe Press.