The End of the Human Publisher? Introducing the First Novel to Be Chosen by an Algorithm

3 May 2016

From Flavorwire:

[Y]esterday, the Berlin-based company Inkitt announced a partnership with Tor Books that will bring about the first ever book chosen by predictive data.

The novel chosen by Inkitt’s “artificially intelligent” algorithm is Erin Swan’s Bright Star, a young adult fiction submitted to the publisher through a writing contest called “Hidden Gems.” Part of a multi-book “Sky Rider” series, it tells the story of the “fantasyland” Paerolia, “where war and conflict has created strong divides,” and where a a rebel leader named Kael helps a slave named Andra “discover the strength that has always been within her” and “fight to win back what Fate kept beyond her reach” — namely a dragon “that should have been her own.” Bright Star is expected to be released in 2017.

Inkitt, the company responsible for discovering the novel, is an online writing platform where “budding authors” share their work with “inquisitive readers.” It relies on an “artificially intelligent” algorithm to bring the two together with the purpose of uncovering “blockbuster books.” This description calls up a number of questions. Did Inkitt invent artificial intelligence? Should we be surprised that the first artificially intelligent being prefers genre fiction? If you put aside Inkitt’s overheated claims about artificial intelligence, you’ll find a publisher that just wants to do the write thing: “Inkitt’s goal is to remove the middle person so that a blockbuster book is never rejected by a publishing house again.”

. . . .

“This book deal sends a clear signal to the publishing industry that predictive data analysis is the way of the future,” says Albazaz. “Inkitt is at the forefront of the movement to use predictive data in publishing, and this deal shows that our business model works.”

. . . .

Still, it’s hard to say whether Inkitt’s first major deal is a function of its algorithm or its status as a thriving online world, which “stretches from the US to Australia.” By its own account, Inkitt has a community of half a million loyal readers. And its business plan – now seeing its first moments of success — is to bring the “future bestsellers” validated by this community to publishers, like Tor. It also plans to independently publish ebooks of selected novels from its own platform, “with supporting in-house marketing campaigns.”

Link to the rest at Flavorwire and thanks to Dave for the tip.

“Inkitt’s goal is to remove the middle person so that a blockbuster book is never rejected by a publishing house again.”

For PG, Tor is a classic example of a “middle person” which stands between a book and its readers. Is a literary agent a middle person? Or an acquiring editor employed by Tor? If Inkitt is going to “independently publish ebooks,” it’s a middle person as well.

Suspecting that the awkward “middle person” terminology might be a poor translation, PG did some brief Google research on the German term for middleman (he knows it’s politically incorrect, but nothing came up for middleperson) and found Vermittler,  Mittelsmann and  Zwischenhändler. Similar terms appear to be used for the English word, intermediary.

PG also discovered that a person who would be called a real estate agent in the US is a  Grundstücksmakler.

In preparing this comment, PG has approximately tripled his knowledge of the German language.

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The Shocking Tale of the Penny Dreadful

2 May 2016

From The BBC:

In a television schedule pulsating with supernatural mystery and melodrama, Penny Dreadful, the transatlantic production now entering its third season, has managed to carve out a niche as a smart, exuberantly ghoulish guilty pleasure. Unfurling against a pitchy Victorian backdrop, its blood-spattered plot has so far taken in vampires, werewolves, she-demons, Egyptology, prostitutes, an explorer, body snatchers and a sharpshooter from the American Wild West.

. . . .

Classic literary allusions abound, with roles for Frankenstein, Dracula and Dorian Gray, but the show’s title derives from an altogether more ephemeral branch of literature: the cheap and sensational serials that were variously dubbed penny awfuls, penny horribles and penny bloods. Penny dreadful is the term that’s stuck, describing a 19th-Century British publishing phenomenon whose very disposability (the booklets’ bargain cover price meant they were printed on exceptionally flimsy paper) has made surviving examples a rarity, despite their immense popularity at the time. What endures is a louche frisson that the show exploits to atmospheric effect, but as for those forgotten original penny dreadfuls – were they really all that scandalous?

. . . .

The penny dreadful emerged in the 1830s, catering to an increasingly literate working class population and made possible by technological advances in printing and distribution. Its heyday came in the 1860s and 1870s, when these booklets papered the nation’s newsstands. At a penny apiece, they cost as little as a twelfth of the price of an instalment of a Charles Dickens novel, and historians estimate that there were as many as 100 publishers in the business, paying authors by the line to crank out tales with titles such as Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood and The Black Band; or, The Mysteries of Midnight. Some writers juggled multiple works simultaneously, each one unfolding over the course of months or years and packing in a telenovela’s worth of kidnappings, poisonings, larceny, bigamy, revolution and all manner of gruesome revelations.

. . . .

According to George A Sala, a successful journalist and sometime protégé of Dickens, the penny dreadfuls offered access to “a world of dormant peerages, of murderous baronets, and ladies of title addicted to the study of toxicology, of gipsies and brigand-chiefs, men with masks and women with daggers, of stolen children, withered hags, heartless gamesters, nefarious roués, foreign princesses, Jesuit fathers, gravediggers, resurrection-men, lunatics and ghosts”.

. . . .

The most popular works could shift 30,000 copies a week, but they weren’t popular in all quarters, especially when they started to target younger readers. While initially read by men and women of all ages, penny dreadfuls later began to be aimed specifically at children. This made commercial sense – already in the 1820s nearly half of the UK’s population was under 20 – but it also fanned the flames of moral panic. Commentator Francis Hitchman wasn’t alone when he declared that penny dreadfuls were “the literature of rascaldom”, responsible for peopling Britain’s prisons and penal colonies.

. . . .

Eventually, the debate evolved to question the extent to which literature can shape character. When 13-year-old Robert Coombes, the subject of Kate Summerscale’s new book, The Wicked Boy, was arrested for murdering his mother in London in 1895, the prosecution naturally sought to scapegoat penny dreadfuls. But this time most of the media agreed that they played little part in his matricidal actions. As the Pall Mall Gazette noted: “The truth is that in respect to the effect of reading in boys of the poorer class the world has got into one of those queer illogical stupidities that so easily beset it. In every other age and class man is held responsible for his reading, and not reading responsible for man. The books a man or woman reads are less the making of character than the expression of it”.

Link to the rest at The BBC and thanks to J.A. for the tip.

Karl Ove Knausgaard Became a Literary Sensation by Exposing His Every Secret

2 May 2016

From The New Republic:

Before he quit doing public events in his home country, the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard took the stage one night at the House of Literature in Oslo, a stately five-story building across from the Royal Palace. It was December 2009, a few months after his six-book autobiographical series, My Struggle, began publication. Across its 3,600 pages, Knausgaard recounts the banalities and humiliations of his life, the private moments of pleasure, and those dark thoughts that most people can’t bear to articulate even to themselves. The books were an immediate sensation. The line for the event curled around the corner, and Knausgaard’s appearance in the main auditorium had to be simulcast to other rooms to handle the overflow crowd. For nearly two hours, he was interviewed live by another author, Tore Renberg, a friend of his since their days doing student radio together in the early ’90s. The two talked about the books and what it took to write them.

Afterward, almost no one wanted to go home. A huge group packed into the building’s restaurant. The space is chilly and over-lit, with the feel of a museum café, but people stayed for two or five or six beers, talking about how much they identified with Knausgaard and telling intimate stories from their own pasts. Cathrine Sandnes, the 42-year-old editor of the prestigious Oslo journal Samtiden, thought to herself, “What is happening?”

By now the response in that room has become widespread. Speak to Knausgaard’s devotees and you will hear a persistent theme: that by writing about himself, Knausgaard has really written about them, that reading My Struggle is like opening someone else’s diary and finding your own secrets. In Norway, where the hardcover editions cost more than $50 each, nearly a half-million copies of the books have sold, or one for every nine adults in the country. Grown men and women, Sandnes says, have the same kind of relationship with My Struggle that they had with Nirvana when they were teenagers: “You know, when you live it and you breathe it?” The series is available or forthcoming in 22 languages and counting. Ladbrokes began tracking Knausgaard’s odds for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012—when he was only 43 years old. In the United States, where the third book will appear in May, he counts Jeffrey Eugenides, Zadie Smith, and Jonathan Lethem among his many admirers. “Knausgaard pushed himself to do something that hadn’t quite been done before,” Eugenides told me. “He broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel.”

Sparing nothing, however, has brought consequences. Although originally categorized as fiction, the series is an unflinching self-portrait that has Knausgaard as its protagonist and his relatives and loved ones as the supporting cast. Almost all of them are identified by their real names, and the vast influence of his work has changed their lives, too. People close to him have leveled bitter and public accusations that he has trespassed on their privacy and damaged their reputations.

. . . .

Today Knausgaard and his family live on a rutted lane in a tiny village near the southern tip of Sweden, where they moved in 2011. The wind blows hard over the surrounding farmland. Flocks of geese break the morning silence. “Nobody cares about literature around here,” he told me when I visited in February. That suits him well. He is trying to protect his wife and four young children from the ongoing storm of attention.

It is too late to shield himself. For all the success of My Struggle, Knausgaard speaks of its impact with more regret than pride. Sitting in his rustic studio across the yard from his modest house, he looked down and said, “It fills me with sadness every time I talk about it.”

His best friend, the author Geir Angell Øygarden, says, “Karl Ove, he can’t cope” with the idea “that he has done something wrong—or more correctly that somebodythinks he has done something wrong. He can’t. He can’t cope with it.”

. . . .

That vivid intimacy is also what made My Struggle controversial. Knausgaard fell for his wife, the Swedish author Linda Boström Knausgaard, at a writers’ conference he attended while still married to a journalist named Tonje Aursland, though Linda rejected his advances at the time. In Book Two, he describes Linda’s outfit on the day he met her, how she twisted a blade of grass in her fingers, the way he drunkenly cut his own face when she turned him down. Aursland found out about all this when she read the passage along with the rest of Norway. She was enormously wounded, as she recounted in an emotionally raw radio documentary she collaborated on called “Tonje’s Version.” Knausgaard agreed to participate in the production (how could he say no?) and Aursland confronted him on air. He did not acquit himself particularly well.

. . . .

When Knausgaard finally gets together with Linda, his wild elation—he faints during their first kiss—is not tempered by retrospect; we are right alongside him in the throes of bliss. And we are right there with him when the two are married and grappling with strollers in roadside exhaust and carping at each other. “I would have left her,” he writes, “because she was always moaning, she always wanted something else, never did anything to improve things, just moaned, moaned, moaned.” That is a merciless remark about Linda, but Knausgaard comes off even worse. What kind of person would publish such a thing about his wife?

. . . .

As he began what would become My Struggle, Knausgaard wrote in a combination of naïveté and willful denial about how the people close to him might respond. “I was kind of autistic,” he has said. “I didn’t think of the consequences.” He never imagined that all of Scandinavia would be talking about what he was typing. But as he wrote the passage about his grandmother, describing her grease-stained dress and ruined mind, he felt the risk: “ ‘Can I write this?’ I thought. There I knew.”

Link to the rest at The New Republic

Australian government: Local books cost too much; why not let stores import them?

1 May 2016

From Chris Meadows via TeleRead:

The Melbourne Herald Sun has a brief story on an Australian government report suggesting that books cost too much Down Under and recommending lifting parallel import restrictions. The report from the Australian Government Productivity Commission looked at book prices in Australia, the US, and the UK over two years and found that, for titles available both locally and abroad, it was often cheaper to import titles from overseas than to buy from local publishers.

The report recommended allowing retailers to order books in bulk from overseas, rather than being legally required to order from local publishers. This would effectively duplicate the Kirtsaeng ruling, in which the US Supreme Court found it was legal for a student to import and resell cheaper foreign editions of US textbooks from overseas. It’s currently legal for Australians to buy books individually from overseas, but not for commercial entities to buy in bulk.

That only applies to physical books, of course. Because e-books have their own territorial rights issues, Australians can only buy e-books from Australian e-book vendors—who charge the same high prices down there as the publishers do for paper books.

Link to the rest at TeleRead

For me, traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way

27 April 2016

From The Guardian:

A few days ago, I wrote a piece on my blog exploding the myth of the rich writer, and laying out (in terms the Royal Literary Fund described as “ruthlessly mathematical”) what authors actually receive when you buy their books. The simple answer for many of us is nothing at all, after that heady advance in the case of my most recent novel, which was £5,000 for two years’ work.

. . . .

Now, I understand that “indie publishing” is all the rage, but you might as well be telling Luke Skywalker to go to the dark side. Despite royalty rates of 70%, I think self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists (by which I mean, novelists who take writing seriously, and love to write). Here’s why.

You have to forget writing for a living

If you self-publish your book, you are not going to be writing for a living. You are going to be marketing for a living. Self-published authors should expect to spend only 10% of their time writing and 90% of their time marketing. The self-published author who came to my blog to preach the virtues of his path, claiming to make five figures a month from Kindle sales of his 11 novels, puts his writing time percentage in single figures. If that sounds like fun to you, be my guest. But if your passion is creating worlds and characters, telling great stories, and/or revelling in language, you might want to aim for traditional publication.

. . . .

 Gatekeepers are saving you from your own ego

Imagine you are a cabinet-maker. You look at a few cabinets, you read a few books about how to make a cabinet, you practice the technicalities of things like dovetail joints. Then, with hope in your heart and breakfast in your sawing arm, you grab some wood and set to work. But because you are new at this, your tools are a starter set. In your ignorance, you chose wood that wasn’t properly seasoned. Wow, those dovetail joints take some precision, don’t they? This cabinet-making thing is hard! Nevertheless, with persistence and effort you complete your cabinet. It wobbles a bit. The drawers stick. The finish isn’t perfect. Buy hey, it’s a cabinet! You try to sell it to several furniture shops and they all politely decline. So are you going to sell it yourself? Or heave a sigh, make another cabinet, and see if you can make a better one?

. . . .

You risk looking like an amateur

Good writers need even better editors. They need brilliant cover designers. They need imaginative marketers and well-connected publicists. All these things are provided by a traditional publisher, and what’s more, it doesn’t cost you a penny. They pay you! If a self-published author wants to avoid looking like an amateur, they’d better be prepared to shell out some serious dosh to get professional help in all the areas where they don’t excel. And I mean serious. Paying some poor bugger in the Philippines a fiver, or bunging £50 to your PhotoShopping nephew will not result in a distinctive, professional-looking cover. And don’t get me started on the value of good editors, copy-editors and proof-readers, and how many times they have saved me from looking like a twonk. Providing these services to indie authors is a lucrative business. Indeed, many indie authors keep themselves afloat financially by offering these services to other indie authors: the new “authorpreneur” pyramid scheme. Which is all very well if what you’ve always wanted to do is start your own writing-related business. But if you’d rather be an author, why not practice your skill until you’ve written something a publisher will pay for? And enjoy the fact they’ll also foot the bill for everything else.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Stephen for the tip.

PG says “£5,000 for two years’ work” sounds like an amateur.

UPDATE: PG didn’t notice that this was a double-post.

He’s alerted Mrs. PG that she will need to double-check his appearance before he goes out the door today. And maybe hide the car keys.

Paul McStay to self-publish his autobiography The Maestro

27 April 2016

From The Glasgow Evening Times:

Celtic legend Paul McStay’s revealed he’s turned down publishing deals to write his autobiography – because he wants to release it himself.

The former Hoops and Scotland captain is crowdfunding the book with a Kickstarter campaign and will use his graphic design skills to create it.

. . . .

McStay now runs a coaching software firm in Australia after retiring from football in 1997, and thinks he’s got the tech know-how to put out the book himself.

So far the 51 year old’s raised more than £9,000 of his £53,000 target by offering memorabilia from his career, and taking pledges in return for signed copies of the autobiography.

Link to the rest at Glasgow Evening Times

The woman who is trying to create a Netflix for books

26 April 2016

From The Times of India:

You’re pitching Juggernaut as India’s first phone publisher. Did you have to rethink the book for the small screen?

When the idea of Juggernaut first came to me in December 2014, I thought about what the phone can do that the book can’t, and I thought Sunny Leone – delicious stories on the screen. But we’re also turning her stories into a physical book. The idea is – Can the physical and digital talk to each other? Can I take the knowledge of who is going to buy our books on the phone and sell them other books?

Sunny will be appointment reading – one story on your mobile at 10pm every night for a week. But there’s a range of reading on the app, including short works of non-fiction, long serialized forms, and a set of short stories that you can buy one of. The cost will be around half of a physical book’s.

What will be your physical vs digital mix?

If we bring 100 books to digital, about 30 or 40 of those will have physical copies too. It will depend mostly on the book and the writer. When we publish authors Arundhati Roy, Prashant Kishore, Twinkle Khanna, Svetlana Alexievich, we’ll publish both physical and digital. But young authors will be tried and tested on digital first. On the phone, we think, people will come for areas around love, sex and romance – stuff you want privacy for. Crime and fantasy tend to naturally move to electronic so it will be a big part of our list. And there’s always going to be a big component of celebrities. Also, I think the only way to get great books in India is to make them up – I did that in Penguin (she was editor-in-chief) too. For instance, I knew I wanted a book on Aarushi so I went in search of a writer.

. . . .

Why would an author publish with Juggernaut and not self-publish with Amazon?

The question you should be asking is: why is an author coming to me and not, say a Penguin, Harper or a Picador? We’re not competing with Amazon; we’re a traditional publisher who is asking interesting questions about digital.

Link to the rest at Times of India and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Egypt takes harsh line towards artists and authors

23 April 2016

From the BBC:

If Egypt’s cultural elite had hoped that the overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 would usher in an era of creativity and freedom of expression, they must be deeply disappointed.

Over the past two years, the authorities have jailed writers, closed cultural centres and cancelled events.

Many Egyptian writers, intellectuals, and artists had supported the protest movement against Morsi, which culminated in his removal by the military.

Commentators say convictions on charges such as “indecent dancing” and “contempt of religion” suggest that the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi wants to behave as a guardian of “public morals”, in the same way as Morsi and his Islamist supporters did when they were in power.

. . . .

In February, the author Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years in prison for “violating public decency” after “sexually explicit” excerpts from his novel, The Use Of Life, were published in a state-run literary magazine, Akhbar al-Adab.

“The current government, which came after removing its Islamist predecessor, wants to prove through harsh means that it is not against religion or morality,” Naji’s lawyer, Mahmoud Othman, told the BBC.

. . . .

Samir Sabry, a lawyer who brought the case against Ahmed Naji, wished the court had “handed him a harsher sentence”.

“I challenge those who claim this novel is a creative piece of art to give a copy to their wives or daughters, if they dare… The novel is decadent and contradicts all standards of behaviour,” he said.

“If freedom of expression exceeds its limits, it then turns into obscenity and impropriety,” Mr Sabry added.

Link to the rest at BBC and thanks to Joshua for the tip.

When Copyright Protections Are Weakened: Canada’s Warning for Australia

22 April 2016

From Publishing Perspectives:

What Copyright Clearance Center’s (CCC) Roy Kaufman characterizes as “a strong push by US technology giants to relax copyright laws” can “water down the rights of thousands of Australians who create stories and education material.” And he points to Canada as an example of the kind of damage Australia is courting.

. . . .

In 2012, Canada amended its Copyright Act to add the word “education” to the list of exceptions that allow the use of material without seeking permission from, or paying, the copyright owner.

Until that year, Canadian educational institutions paid royalties to creators and publishers for copying content, either directly, or through a local collecting society called Access Copyright. This is similar to procedures in Australia, where the education systems pay license fees to an organization called Copyright Agency, allowing use of a wide range of education material.  The Copyright Agency then distributes those fees to the owners of copyright: publishers, authors and artists. In that way, it ensures compensating publishers and education authors, and underwriting production of new works.

. . . .

The effect of the change on Canada’s publishing industry has been direct.

The Access Copyright collecting society’s Executive Director, Roanie Levy, says that educators believe they can now take what used to be paid for under a collective licence and use that content free—and they’re doing that. With an estimated loss of $50 million a year in royalty payments to content producers — plus an even more insidious but hard-to-quantify disincentive to buying books — an important component of Canadian culture is suffering.

. . . .

John Degan, Executive Director of the Writers Union of Canada puts it this way for us: “Going by the 10-percent interpretation” used by educational institutions, “they could take one story out of each book, copy it free, and turn it into a course pack for ‘Canadian Short Stories 101’. Alice Munro wouldn’t have to be told about it, and neither she nor her publisher would see any money for it.”

In other words, Munro would not only cease to receive royalties for copying, but sales of her books would decline, too. For Munro this would be unfortunate, but the consequences of a similar situation for new Canadian authors would be far worse.

. . . .

Access Copyright’s Levy tells us that a systematic use of content without compensation has cost small- to medium-sized publishers 20 percent of their revenues. That means that their profit margins, which already were very slim, are going away.

What’s more, diversity is also being curtailed: the creation of Canadian books by Canadian authors on the country’s history, politics, literature and more is disappearing, paving the way for international publishing firms to saturate Canada with non-Canadian books.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG would be interested on the perspective of Canadian visitors to TPV on this subject. Has the change in Canadian copyright law cost authors money?

In the US, Section § 107 of the Copyright Act sets forth the manner in which individuals or organizations may use portions of a copyrighted work without the consent of the copyright holder under the Fair Use doctrine. Here’s more information on Fair Use if you can’t restrain your enthusiasm for the concept.

The Copyright Clearance Center makes its money by processing copyright permissions to use part or all of copyrighted works. It provides a useful service as a clearing house where someone who wants to use a wide range of copyrighted material can go to pay a fee and legally use the copyrighted material without hunting down the author or publisher. Copyright owners and publishers appoint the CCC as their representative to provide permission to use their copyrighted material. Here’s a link to the CCC.

However the CCC has an interest in broader copyright protection because that means more people and organizations will be paying fees to CCC for use of protected materials. PG is interested to know whether the change in Canadian law has caused problems for authors.


Government gives illustrated publishers July deadline

22 April 2016

From The Bookseller:

The government has given publishers just three months to comply with new legislation which industry figures have warned threatens to decimate illustrated publishing, refusing requests for a longer transition period.

The Publishers Association has said it is “very concerned” by the decision.

The legal changes are extending the length of protection of 2D representations of “design objects” from 25 to 70 years to bring design law into step with copyright law. This means that publishers of books containing mere images of such objects – for example, a photo of a chair – must either pay (in many cases in addition to fees for copyright) to licence design rights or otherwise get permission from the design rights holder; otherwise, the inclusion of the photo is no longer legal for publication. The design object must be over 70 years old to be exempt.

The government has refused to differentiate between the treatment of 2D images in publications from those of 2D design objects themselves: a decision that will dismay illustrated publishers. They now face the unpalatable prospect of shelving publications in progress and pulping stock in order to be compliant with the legislation by 28th July, whenthe amendment will come into force.

The repercussions of this legislation are particlarly far reaching for arts and illustrated publishers whose books may contain hundreds of such images in any given tome. This, according to publishers in the space, could make them too expensive to produce at all.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

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