BookMachine is a site about publishing. We run events and we post news, views & interviews. Join us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up to our Mailing list.

From Jeffbots to editorbots

Piers Blofield

This is a guest post from Piers Blofeld. Piers is an Agent at Sheil Land Associates where he represents both fiction and non-fiction clients. He represented the Frankenstein app by Dave Morris which topped the app charts on both sides of the Atlantic this summer. A recent success is Jamie Thomson’s Dark Lord: The Teenage Years, the winner of the Roald Dahl Prize.

The most amazing thing – of all the amazing things – that Amazon has done is to have gathered a wholly unprecedented body of data about the world’s reading habits. Traditionally, publishers and booksellers have simply known what people buy. Once the book is in the hands of the reader and out of the store it is, quite literally, a closed book to them. For Amazon it is different. They not only know what people buy, but when they buy, and, much more importantly, how they read.


Reading has always been the quintessentially private cultural experience – all others are shared to a greater or lesser degree, reading, even in a room full of other people, is a solitary pursuit.

 

Amazon watch you while you read. They know at what times of day you read, what bits of which books you found boring and skipped – where you just gave up. They know if you have read five romance novels on the trot (despite telling friends you are reading the new Donna Tartt). They know exactly what proportion of avid thriller readers also buy literary or science fiction. They know which books are keeping reader up past their usual bedtimes.

 

It is an amazing achievement – possibly the most important part of their entire business and one of the least remarked upon.

 

The question is, what are they doing with this data? There are the obvious things – like the ability to market books with incredible accuracy and the ability to build a list that really does reflect reading tastes. But it is still early days yet – their data is only just beginning to mature and properly represent their section of the book buying public, so one has to suspect that there is a long way further to go.

 

Given that it was (is?) apparently a sign of favour for senior Amazon executives to be deemed Jeffbots, it is hard not to suppose that Amazon’s goals might not be similarly robotic. Will their be editorbots who have books inputted into them and who will spew out logarithmic analyses of the books commercial viability.

 

And why stop there – if you can have editorbots, then it is a relatively short step to writerbots, capable of writing commercial fiction which tick all of the boxes the market demands. It is a scary prospect – however viable these outcomes are in the short term, there is little doubt in my mind that if it was possible then they would be doing it. Who knows, perhaps there is already a lonely writerbot in a computerised garret in Seattle turning out page after page of turgid prose (and no doubt dreaming of the great novel it’d love to write if it only had the time…).

 

Luckily though, while there has always been a certain role for editorbots in sections of the market (Mills and Boon’s entire business is predicated on providing their readers with a wholly repeatable experience) I believe that as our capacity to build machines to understand our needs grows, so with it grows our understanding of our need for the human element.

 

Sections of the market will be more automated – editorial decisions will partly be made by machines: they already are, but I suspect that instead of heralding the death of the editor and the curated list, it heralds the dawn of a new golden age where publishers lists become more personalised and where the human factor will be an all important part of the success of a book.

Tags: , , , , ,

Trackback from your site.

  • Peter Rubie

    Piers, have to say this does not make me regard the future of books with passionate enthusiasm. Surely, the whole point of creative art (yes, I understand the commercial aspects of publishing, music creativity and even fine arts painting) where the rubber meets the road is the quality of the book, or painting or movie or piece of music. And as it is the result of PERSONAL perception, and interpretation, how is it possible to effectively replace an idiosyncratic process (of which in writing editing is clearly a part) with a templatized one and get anything more back than a regurgitated facsimile of what was once considered decent editing? Are we starting to confuse the work of the copy editor with the work of the editor? And what of the writer who would create A Clockwork Orange, or a novel in dialect? Would the editbot know to take that into account? And do justice by it even if it did?

    And while it’s true that Amazon has some rather startling stats on us and our reading habits do I really want others to know without my consent that I read Malcolm Gladwell, Chris Hitchins, The Story of O, and Tropic of Cancer, along with Das Kapital, or even Mein Kampf? And this is a good thing they know that given the trend the Snowden revelations has underscored?

    Amazon is also not about to share a scintilla of this data with the rest of us; (a good thing for the industry [Snowden lines of thought here], or bad [unfair commercial advantage concentrated in too few hands with too much money = potentially the Koch brothers and their ilk as "taste makers" for the rest of us]) though they will exploit it themselves quite mercilessly. So how does that help the rest of us in publishing, except to have to battle even more a corporate philosophy that consider it more important to make as much money as possible by undermining the concept of creating viable art into work by people who are not yet ready for prime time, helped by soulless machines, who create a bunch of pictures of puppies with big eyes (ah yes, we all love those don’t we?) in order to make money, or put another way generic genre novels written in the style of past successful writers on the notion that Ironside with Raymond Burr (at a time when any character with a disability was considered edgy), is the same as Ironside with a black cop in a wheelchair struggling to be idiosyncratic enough to stand out from competitors and lasting 4 episodes.

    And when we eventually can’t tell the difference between robot art and real human creativity is that a good thing that we are so numbed to critical thinking that the popularity of art created not to offend but to sell is a sign that we have finally lost any real respect and regard for individuality, however offensive it may be to some.
    Peter Rubie, CEO FinePrint Literary Management

Get BookMachine in your inbox

Given email address is already subscribed, thank you!
Oops. Something went wrong. Please try again later.
Please provide a valid email address.
Thank you, your sign-up request was successful! Please check your e-mail inbox.
Please complete the CAPTCHA.
Please fill in the required fields.