Algorithms could save book publishing, but ruin novels

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The ability to know who reads what and how quickly also motivates the Berlin startup Inkitt. Founded by Ali Albazaz, who started coding at age 10, the English-language website invites writers to post their novels for all to see. Inkitt’s algorithms look at reading habits and levels of engagement. For top performers, Inkitt offers to act as a literary agent, pitching the works to mainstream publishers and retaining the standard 15% commission if agreed. The site went public in January 2015 and now has 80,000 articles and over half a million readers worldwide.

Albazaz, now 26, sees himself democratizing the world of publishing. “We never, ever, ever judge the books. It’s not our job. We check that the formatting is correct, the grammar is in place, we make sure that the cover is not pixelated”, he specifies. “Who are we to judge if the plot is good? It is the work of the market. This is the job of the readers.

We are about to find out if the approach works. Inkitt recently announced its partnership with Tor Books, part of Macmillan Publishers, to publish the young adult fantasy novel *Bright Star* next summer. Author Erin Swan, a 27-year-old marketing copywriter who lives in Spanish Fork, Utah, couldn’t get the attention of an agent or publisher when she tried the traditional route, but Inkitt dubbed Shining star a winner and now he’s heading to the stores.

From Google search to Amazon

And then there’s the idea of ​​not even waiting for the book to be written. Five-year-old Callisto Media, based in Berkeley, Calif., uses big data analytics to find out where an audience is clamoring for a non-fiction book that doesn’t yet exist, then hires someone to write it .

Benjamin Wayne, founder and CEO of Callisto, says his company collects about 60 million pieces of consumer data per month. For example, Callisto studies the search terms suggested by Amazon when users start typing the first few letters and found that people frequently search for something that leads to no results. “Consumers are looking for information, but no product exists to satisfy that consumer demand,” says Wayne. The approach yielded titles ranging from obvious (The medical marijuana dispensary: ​​understanding, healing and cooking with cannabis) at least (Everyday Games for Sensory Processing Disorders)*. *

Wayne says that, based on his own analysis, acquisitions editors pick a winner about 3% of the time. “In the world of near-infinite consumer data, the idea that you can’t tell precisely what a consumer will want to buy seems frankly ridiculous,” he says.

Callisto eagerly pursues niche topics, hence titles like Hashimoto’s 4 week plan, which is aimed at readers suffering from the autoimmune disease. “We can be profitable on a book that sells about 1,500 copies,” says Wayne. “The traditional industry has to sell a multiple before it starts to break even.” Callisto authors follow a plan dictated by data analysis and write quickly – the company aims to bring books to market in as little as nine weeks. After all, readers search for this information on Google. at present.

Weekly editors named Callisto Media one of the fastest growing independent publishers for 2015 and 2016, so the company seems to have proven its point. But it’s worth asking: do we only want to read about the things we’re already looking for? Do we not risk losing the distinction between what is important and what is popular? As NPR noted last year, books nominated for prestigious awards like the Man Booker Prize or the National Book Award typically don’t sell many copies.

“There might be books that aren’t on the bestseller list, which are most books, and they still have a huge impact,” says Flynn, the literary agent. “They change the field of history or science, or they have a political impact, or they are experimental in some way and inspire other writers.”

The fear of data

As Archer and Jocker purchased the *Bestseller Code* manuscript from acquisitions publishers, word of their powerful algorithm spread, and so did concern and suspicion among publishing professionals. “The fear is that we might homogenize the market or try to take their jobs away from them, and the answer is no and no,” says Archer. “What the best-selling indicator is trying to do is say, ‘Hey, pick that new author that you might not dare take a chance on with your acquisitions budget. Their luck is really good.” Archer, now a writer in Boulder, Colorado, insists that she and Jockers, now an English professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, are “friends of literature” and want good books succeed.

Andrew Weber, the global chief operating officer of Macmillan Publishers, whose St. Martin’s Press publishes *The Bestseller Code—thinks that algorithms should be seen as additional information, rather than an excuse to fire publishers. “Whether it’s in acquisition, whether it’s in pricing, whether it’s in marketing, whether it’s in distribution, there seems to be plenty of opportunity to improve the quality of our decision-making.and so I hope that our results—*by feeding data into the equation,” says Weber. “I would say we’re still in the early days of this journey, but that’s the direction we’re headed in.”

Archer and Jockers eagerly watched to see which novel would be their algorithm’s favorite. It turned out to be The circle, a 2013 technothriller by Dave Eggers about working for a hugely powerful internet company. The circle spent several weeks on both The New York Times Lists of hardcover fiction and paperback commercial fiction bestsellers. A film version starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks is expected in theaters this year.

The computer found a lot to like: a young and strong female protagonist whose most used verbs are “need” and “want”. A three-act plot that mimics the satisfying one found in *Fifty Shades of Grey. *A focus on three themes (modern technology, employment and the workplace, and human proximity).

There was one thing, however, that the algorithm failed to pick up. “The irony, of course, is that his book is about suspicion of big data,” Archer says. “And here is a large cache of data smiling at him.”

Susanne Althoff is an assistant professor at Emerson College in Boston.

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