The Publishing Ecosystem in the Digital Era

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN 1995, I WENT to work as a writer and editor for Book World, the then-standalone book-review section of The Washington Post. I left a decade later, two years before Amazon released the Kindle ebook reader. By then, mainstream news outlets like the Post were on the ropes, battered by what sociologist John B. Thompson, in Book Wars, calls “the digital revolution” and its erosion of print subscriptions and advertising revenue. The idea that a serious newspaper had to have a separate book-review section seems quaint now. Aside from The New York Times Book Review, most of Book World’s competitors have faded into legend, like the elves departing from Middle-earth at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Their age has ended, though the age of the book has not.

Nobody arrives better equipped than Thompson to map how the publishing ecosystem has persisted and morphed in the digital environment. An emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge and emeritus fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, Thompson conducts his latest field survey of publishing through a rigorous combination of data analysis and in-depth interviews. Book Wars comes stuffed with graphs and tables as well as detailed anecdotes. The data component can get wearisome for a reader not hip-deep in the business, but it’s invaluable to have such thorough documentation of the digital publishing multiverse.

. . . .

One big question animates Thompson’s investigation: “So what happens when the oldest of our media industries collides with the great technological revolution of our time?” That sounds like hyperbole — book publishing hasn’t exactly stood still since Gutenberg. A lot happens in 500 years, even without computers. But for an industry built on the time-tested format of print books, the internet understandably looked and felt like an existential threat as well as an opportunity.

Early on in his study, Thompson neatly evokes the fear that accompanied the advent of ebooks. The shift to digital formats had already eviscerated the music industry; no wonder publishers felt queasy. As Thompson writes, “Were books heading in the same direction as CDs and vinyl LPs — on a precipitous downward slope and likely to be eclipsed by digital downloads? Was this the beginning of the end of the physical book?” That question has been asked over and over again for decades now, and the answer remains an emphatic No. (Note to pundits: Please resist the urge to write more “Print isn’t dead!” hot takes.) But publishers didn’t know that in the early digital days.

The words “revolution” and “disruption” get thrown around so often that they’ve lost their punch, but Thompson justifies his use of them here. He recalls the “dizzying growth” of digital books beginning in 2008, “the first full year of the Kindle.” That year alone, ebook sales for US trade titles added up to $69 million; by 2012, they had ballooned to $1.5 billion, “a 22-fold increase in just four years.”

Print, as usual, refused to be superseded. Despite their early boom, ebooks didn’t cannibalize the print market. Thompson uses data from the Association of American Publishers to show that ebooks plateaued at 23 to 24 percent of total book sales in the 2012–’14 period, then slipped to about 15 percent in 2017–’18. Print books, on the other hand, continue to account for the lion’s share of sales, with a low point of about 75 percent in 2012–’14, bouncing back to 80­ to 85 percent of total sales in 2015–’16. (Thompson’s study stops before the 2020–’21 pandemic, but print sales have for the most part been strong in the COVID-19 era.)

For some high-consumption genres, like romance, the ebook format turned out to be a match made in heaven; Thompson notes that romance “outperforms every other category by a significant margin.” But readers in most genres have grown used to choosing among formats, and traditional publishers have for the most part proved able and willing to incorporate those formats into their catalogs. That’s a net gain both for consumer choice and for broader access to books.

. . . .

Thompson quotes an anonymous trade-publishing CEO: “The power of Amazon is the single biggest issue in publishing.”

It’s easy to see why. With its vast market reach and unprecedented access to customer data, Amazon has made itself indispensable to publishers, who rely on it both to drive sales (often at painfully deep discounts) and to connect with readers. For many of us, if a book’s not available on Amazon, it might as well not exist. “Given Amazon’s dominant position as a retailer of both print and ebooks and its large stock of information capital, publishers increasingly find themselves locked in a Faustian pact with their largest customer,” Thompson writes.

That pact has proven hard to break. “Today, Amazon accounts for around 45 percent of all print book sales in the US and more than 75 percent of all ebook unit sales, and for many publishers, around half — in some cases, more — of their sales are accounted for by a single customer, Amazon,” Thompson points out. That’s staggering.

Does Amazon care about books? Not in the way that publishers, authors, and readers do, but that doesn’t change the power dynamic. Amazon derives its power from market share, yes, but also from what Thompson calls “information capital” — namely the data it collects about its customers. That gives it an enormous advantage over publishers, whose traditional business approach prioritizes creative content and relationships with authors and booksellers.

Workarounds to Amazon exist, though not yet at scale. Just as authors have learned to connect with readers via email newsletters and social media, so have publishers been experimenting with direct outreach via digital channels. Email feels almost quaint, but done well it remains a simple and effective way to reach a target audience. Selling directly to readers means publishers can avoid the discounts and terms imposed on them by Amazon and other distributors.

. . . .

Authors can now sidestep literary gatekeepers, such as agents and acquiring editors, and build successful careers with the help of self-publishing platforms and outlets that didn’t exist 20 or even 10 years ago. Self-publishing has become respectable; we’ve traveled a long way from the days when book review editors wrote off self-published books as vanity press projects. Newspaper book sections have mostly vanished, but book commentary pops up all over the internet, in serious review outlets like this one and in the feeds of Instagram and TikTok influencers. It’s a #bookstagram as well as an NYTBR world now. To me, that feels like a win for books, authors, and readers.

. . . .

Some authors hit the big time in terms of sales and readers without relying on a traditional publisher. Thompson returns several times to the example of the software engineer-turned-writer Andy Weir, whose hit book The Martian (2011) got its start as serialized chapters published on his blog and delivered to readers via newsletter. (Newsletters represent another digital-publishing trend unlikely to disappear anytime soon.) “The astonishing success of The Martian — from blog to bestseller — epitomizes the paradox of the digital revolution in publishing: unprecedented new opportunities are opened up, both for individuals and for organizations, while beneath the surface the tectonic plates of the industry are shifting,” Thompson writes.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Book Wars

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 2000 the RAND Corporation invited a group of historians—including me—to address a newly pressing question: Would digital media revolutionize society as profoundly as Gutenberg and movable type? Two decades later, John Thompson’s answer is yes, but not entirely as predicted. And our forecasts were often wrong because we overlooked key variables: We cannot understand the impact of technologies “without taking account of the complex social processes in which these technologies were embedded and of which they were part.”

Mr. Thompson provides that context in “Book Wars” (Polity, 511 pages, $35), an expert diagnosis of publishers and publishing, robustly illustrated with charts, graphs, tables, statistics and case studies. An emeritus professor at Cambridge University, Mr. Thompson published an earlier dissection of that industry, “Merchants of Culture,” in 2010, but now he finds that capitalist landscape radically transformed.

Not long ago everyone thought (or feared) that ebooks would sweep the ink-and-paper book into the recycle bin of history. But they peaked in 2014 at just under 25% of U.S. book sales, then settled back to about 15% in the U.S. and roughly 5% in Western Europe. It turned out that the printed book had unique advantages (easy to navigate, no power source needed, works even if you drop it on the floor). Another consideration is that bookshelves stocked with physical books serve the essential purpose of advertising our literary tastes to visitors. And far from devastating the publishing industry, ebooks boosted their profits even as their revenues remained more or less flat. (Compared to printed books, they are cheaper to produce and distribute, and they don’t burden publishers with warehousing and returns.)

For anyone bewildered by the transformation of the book world, Mr. Thompson offers a pointed, thorough and business-literate survey. He tracks the arcane legal battles surrounding the creation of Google Books, and explains why the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Apple and the Big Five publishers, but not (so far) against Amazon. He rightly regrets the shrinkage of newspaper book reviewing: the first decade of the 21st century saw newspapers from Boston to San Diego pull back on book reviews. That said, Mr. Thompson could have devoted more attention to the rise of reader-written online literary criticism, a populist substitute for the Lionel Trillings and F.R. Leavises of the past.

In spite of worries that small independent booksellers would disappear, they are still with us. But they were challenged in the 1960s by the shopping-mall chains of B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, which were superseded by Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores. These in turn were eclipsed by Amazon (founded 1994), triumphing largely because it sold all books to everyone, everywhere. Though we romanticize corner bookstores, they were numerous only in the largest metropolitan centers. In 1928, a city like Cincinnati had seven bookshops. Small-town America bought books at department stores, at pharmacies, or nowhere.

Mr. Thompson insists that “the turbulence generated by the unfolding of the digital revolution in publishing was unprecedented. . . . Suddenly, the very foundations of an industry that had existed for more than 500 years were being called into question as never before.” I would be careful with the word “unprecedented.” Print-on-demand has been with us for some time: the Chinese did it for centuries with woodblocks. The modish practice of crowdsourcing to finance books has a precursor in 18th-century subscription publishing, as readers pledged in advance to buy a forthcoming book. Amazon today dominates bookselling, but Mudie’s Lending Library enjoyed an equally commanding position in Victorian Britain, and raised in its day serious concerns about corporate censorship. (Mudie’s puritanical acquisitions policies meant that novelists like George Meredith were penalized for honest treatment of sex.)

In fact, the 19th century witnessed a transformation of the book business as dizzying as our own: New reproduction technologies dramatically drove down the price of books and increased print runs by orders of magnitude, creating for the first time a global literary mass market, bringing Walter Scott to Japan and Harriet Beecher Stowe to Russia. Today, the absorption of family-owned publishers by conglomerates has raised questions about whether there is still a home for literary and controversial authors with limited popular appeal, but that change was complete before the full impact of digital media. If you’re worried about media concentration (and you should be), the fact remains that all the great Victorian novelists were published by a half-dozen London firms. The desktop computer has vastly expanded opportunities for self-publishers, but there were plenty of them in the past: think of Martin Luther, Walt Whitman, Leonard and Virginia Woolf or countless job-printed village poets and memoirists.

. . . .

While Mr. Thompson is entirely right to conclude that the transformation of publishing in the past 20 years has been bewildering, that’s nothing new. In a dynamic capitalist economy, the dust never settles.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link to the WSJ original. However, PG isn’t sure if there’s a limit on the number of times various visitors to TPV can use the free link and whether the link is geofenced for the US, North America, etc. If the link doesn’t work for you, PG apologizes for the WSJ paywall.)

And thanks for the tip from G and several others.

PG agrees that there have been several disruptive technology changes that have impacted the book business in the past.

However, he doesn’t think that the WSJ reviewer gives adequate attention to the difference between the development of ebooks vs. the various disruptions of the printed book world that preceded it.

No prior technology change immediately opened up the potential audience for a particular book or a particular category of books like ebooks has.

Absent Amazon’s establishment of different book “markets” – US, Canada, Britain, etc., etc., anybody in the world can buy and download an ebook from from anyplace else in the world.

There’s a legal reason (among others) for Amazon’s multiple home pages for books in different countries – the right to publish and sell under an author’s copyright can be sliced and diced by national market. I can write a book and use a UK publisher to publish to the UK market and an American publisher to publish to the US market with each publishing agreement setting bounds on where the publisher can publish and sell the book.

Side note: A long time ago, PG went through the process of signing up for an account on Amazon UK and did so with no problem. He never used the account, but wandered around among the British-English product descriptions and Pound-based prices enough to believe that, particularly for electronic goods, he could purchase and receive anything he liked there. From prior trips to Britain, PG knows his credit cards work just as well for spending pounds as they do for spending dollars.

All that said, any indie author knows how easy it is to simultaneously publish an ebook every place where Amazon sells ebooks.

Other ebook distributors also offer an even broader publish-everywhere feature. PG just checked and Draft2Digital allows an indie author to publish all over the world, through D2D because D2D has agreements with Rakutenkobo, Scribed and Tolino for them to sell an indie author’s book to the zillions of places they’re available.

Rakutenkobo lists its markets as Turkey, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Philippines, Taiwan and Mexico and PG bets readers in other countries can also access the company’s websites, so an indie author has a very easy path to publishing ebooks in each of those places.

So that’s why PG thinks the ebook revolution can’t be easily compared to any prior technology disruption that involved printed books.

Continuing on, after PG read the WSJ review of Book Wars, he immediately went to Amazon to buy the ebook.

BOOM!

Idiotic corporate publishing screwed everything up.

The hardcover edition of the book lists for $29.30 on Amazon and the ebook edition sells for $28.00!

$28 for an ebook!

The publisher is Polity Publishing.

Per Wikipedia, Polity is an academic publisher in the social sciences and humanities that was established in 1984 and has “editorial offices” in “Cambridge (UK), Oxford (UK), and Boston (US)” plus it also has something going in New York City. In four offices, Polity has 39 employees (no mention how many are student employees or part-time contractors).

PG took a quick look via Google Maps Streetview at Polity’s Boston office, located at 101 Station Landing, Medford, Massachusetts. Streetview showed a photo of a multi-story anonymous-looking modern building that could be an office building or an apartment building. PG had never heard of Medford and doesn’t know anything about the community, but on the map, it doesn’t look terribly close to the parts of Boston with which PG has a tiny bit of familiarity.

So, PG doesn’t know how Mr. Thompson, the author of Book Wars chose his publisher, but, in PG’s extraordinarily humble opinion, he made a giant mistake.

A Wall Street Journal review of a book like this should send sales through the roof. Per Amazon, Book Wars is currently ranked #24,220 in the Kindle Store.

Imagine how much better it would sell if it was offered at a reasonable price.

Three Crucial Changes to the Book Publishing Industry

From Writers Digest:

The new book Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing documents in detail the changes in the book publishing industry in recent years. Author John B. Thompson gives a glimpse of three crucial changes.

When I set out, around 10 years ago, to study the impact of the digital revolution on the world of books, there was a great deal of uncertainty—and, in some quarters, considerable apprehension—about what might happen when digitization took hold in the oldest of our media industries. Many people in publishing were looking over their shoulders anxiously at what had happened in the music industry and thinking: This could happen to us too. The print-on-paper book could suffer the same fate as the vinyl LP—why not? The textual content of books could be digitized just as easily as music could, and the physical book could be swept aside by cheaper and more efficient forms of content delivery. Like the vinyl LP, the old-fashioned print-on-paper book could become a collector’s item, still cherished by the aficionado but banished to the margins of the industry.

In the years immediately following the launch of the Kindle in 2007, it looked to many like the physical book could indeed suffer the same fate as the vinyl LP, as e-book sales surged. But it soon became clear that the e-book surge was going to be short-lived: By 2012, the rapid growth of e-books had come to an abrupt halt. For some kinds of books, especially genre fiction like romance, mystery, and sci-fi, e-books were by then accounting for a sizable proportion of sales—as much as 40–50 percent. But in other genres, like nonfiction and children’s books, e-books represented a much smaller percentage of sales, and that percentage was either leveling off or declining. If the digital revolution in publishing was about e-books, then it seemed that this was, at best, a stalled revolution. In any case, it certainly didn’t look like a re-run of what had happened in the music industry.

However, the digital revolution in publishing was never only, or even primarily, about e-books: E-books were just one aspect of a much more complex and varied series of transformations that were disrupting the publishing world. In Book Wars, I take the reader on a journey through the decades of disruption that began around 2000 and continues unabated today, a period that has witnessed an enormous proliferation of new ventures and initiatives which, taken together, have radically altered the landscape of contemporary publishing. The world of books today looks very different from the way it looked 30 or 40 years ago. Among the many changes, three stand out as particularly significant.

. . . .

1. Amazon Online Retail

First was the rise of Amazon and the transformation of the retail side of the book business. Amazon was a child of the digital revolution—it wouldn’t have existed without digitization and the internet. In an astonishingly short time period, Amazon grew from its humble origins as a small tech startup in a Seattle garage to become the most powerful organization the world of books had ever known. Today, Amazon accounts for around 45 percent of all print book sales in the US and more than 75 percent of all e-book sales, and for many publishers, around half—in some cases, more—of their sales are accounted for by a single customer, Amazon. Never before in the 500-year history of book publishing has there been a retailer with this kind of market share, and with market share comes power, including the power to negotiate favorable terms with suppliers and to command the attention of readers. It’s hard to over-state the significance of this development: Its consequences are profound, not only for publishers and for other booksellers who struggle to compete with Amazon but also for the whole ecology of the publishing world, including the ways in which books are made visible to readers and discovered by them.

. . . .

2. Self-Publishing Boom

A second enormous change has been the explosion of self-publishing. Of course, self-publishing is not new: It can be traced back to the so-called vanity presses that emerged in the early and mid-twentieth century. But the new age of self-publishing that was ushered in by the digital revolution is very different from the old vanity presses. The key idea that underpins this new age is the idea that authors who want to self-publish their work should not have to pay for the privilege, and the organizations that facilitate self-publishing should not be making money by charging fees to authors. On the contrary, self-publishing organizations or platforms should be there to help authors publish their work, and these platforms would pay authors if and when their work sells, taking a commission on sales to cover their costs. It was this simple but fundamental idea, turning on its head the relationship between author and self-publishing organization, that underpinned the explosion in self-publishing that occurred from the early 2000s on, starting with pioneering organizations like Lulu and Smashwords and continuing through the establishment of Amazon’s self-publishing platforms, CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing, and including many other platforms and services. The world of self-publishing is now an enormously complicated world in its own right—a parallel universe that exists alongside the world of traditional publishing and that has grown enormously in recent years. Quite apart from the sheer volume of self-publishing output, the growth of this sector has altered the traditional power structures of the publishing world. The established publishers and agents who have long acted as gatekeepers in the publishing world, deciding which authors and projects should be published and on what terms, could now be bypassed by following entirely new pathways to publication that had been opened up by the digital revolution. Of course, publishing a book is one thing, getting people to notice and buy it is quite another, and traditional publishers continue to have much more marketing and sales clout than most self-published authors. But there are many indie authors who have managed to earn appreciable amounts of money from their writing, even if the commercially successful indie authors still represent a tiny fraction of the total. Apart from the financial rewards, the growth of self-publishing has massively increased the range of options available to writers, creating a more varied publishing environment in which authors can move back and forth between traditional publishing and self-publishing, depending on what they want to achieve and the options available to them at the time.

. . . .

3. Reader-Centric Business Model

The third change is in many ways the most fundamental: the digital revolution transformed the broader information and communication environment within which publishing existed, thereby creating both the necessity and the opportunity for publishers to adapt to a new and rapidly changing world of information and communication flows. For centuries, publishers had thought of themselves primarily as B2B businesses: They produced books and sold them to intermediaries in the book supply chain—to retailers and wholesalers. Publishers didn’t have a direct relationship with readers and they didn’t know much about them: The job of dealing with readers was left to the booksellers. But this traditional model of the publishing business was radically disrupted by the digital revolution. As competition from Amazon led to more and more bookstore closures, publishers realized that they could no longer count on physical bookstore to do what intermediaries in the traditional book supply chain had always done: make books visible and available to readers. They realized that they had to jettison the old model of the publisher as a bookseller-focused business and become more reader-centric: in other words, they had to re-orient their businesses in such a way that readers were not an afterthought but rather a central focus of their concern. And just as the digital revolution forced this shift upon publishers, it also made available to them a variety of new tools with which they could build direct channels of communication with readers and do so at scale. It is this fundamental shift in publishers’ self-understanding that is likely to be one of the most significant consequences of the digital revolution in publishing, one that will continue to play itself out in the years to come. 

Link to the rest at Writers Digest

Email Use Worldwide

Source: Statista

To save visitors to TPV any mental over-exertion, it would appear that, on a world-wide bases, individuals send and receive an average of 76 emails per day.

Makes PG seem like less of an outlier than he thought he was. Who says people don’t read any more?

‘The Spotify Play’ Review: Better Than Piracy

From The Wall Street Journal:

Neil Young, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham owe Daniel Ek an enormous debt of gratitude right about now. The rock legends have all recently sold their song publishing rights for gigantic sums, sell-offs that can partially be attributed to the surge in digital revenue that accounts for more than half the global recorded-music market. One man saw all this coming before anyone else: Mr. Ek, the 37-year-old co-founder of Spotify, the world’s largest streaming service with 320 million users and counting.

For those of us who regularly call up almost any song we desire with a tap on our phone screens, it’s easy to think of streaming music as an inevitable development. But for Mr. Ek, streaming’s triumph was more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having endured years of pushback, Spotify has been at the vanguard of a global revolution in the way music is consumed. It’s quite a turnabout for the Stockholm native, who has endured heaps of negative press, the enmity of underpaid musicians everywhere, and the looming threat of competing services from Apple, Jay-Z’s Tidal and many others.

. . . .

A rabid music fan as a teenager, Mr. Ek’s exposure to Napster was a profound conversion experience. Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker’s file-sharing service was the shrapnel blast that tore holes through the web’s commercial firewalls. “Napster is probably the internet service which has changed my life more than anything else,” Mr. Ek once told an interviewer. What if he could merge Napster’s peer-to-peer technology with commercial content? What if he could draw file-sharing out of the shadows?

Even while Mr. Ek was rapidly moving up as a programmer in Stockholm’s hot tech market, the notion of a legal answer to Napster’s music streaming never left him. In 2006 Mr. Ek’s tiny startup Advertigo was acquired by Tradedoubler, a digital marketing company whose co-founder Martin Lorentzon was enamored of Mr. Ek and his ideas. The savvy, flamboyant Mr. Lorentzon would become both partner and cheerleader. When he came to visit Mr. Ek in his raffish Stockholm neighborhood, Mr. Ek quoted “The Godfather” at him: “Put your hand in your pocket like you have a gun.”

Mr. Ek knew that what made Napster so revolutionary was its decentralized protocol, its ability to transform everyone’s hard drives into public servers. Mr. Ek’s idea was to use similar technology in an improved experience that would be “better than piracy.” There was only one man for the job: Ludvig “Ludde” Strigeus, Sweden’s leading file-sharing technologist and the inventor of uTorrent, a program for ripping content from illegal sites. Mr. Strigeus and his team of engineers one-upped Napster, devising a system that eliminated glitchy downloading. Mr. Ek was on his way.

It was an inauspicious time for Mr. Ek to be stirring the pot. The music world was squirming its way through an uneasy transition into a digital future, and the great file-sharing panic of the early aughts was still in effect. Thousands of file-sharing users were slapped with lawsuits, while record labels fretted over the cannibalization of CD sales by a method of music consumption they likened to stealing cars from showroom lots in broad daylight. What Mr. Ek envisioned was a “freemium” music service in which ad revenue would be paid to the labels in exchange for the use of their catalogs. Customers would, in theory, eventually convert to the paid subscription service.

Record labels were cold to the ad-revenue model, and insisted on cash on the barrelhead before opening their songbooks. The pursuit of music licenses, Mr. Ek’s biggest hurdle, runs through “The Spotify Play” like a Holy Grail quest. In order to get, Spotify had to give, which is how, according to this book, behemoths like Sony BMG were paid tens of millions in non-recoupable advances and negotiated deals that gave them big equity stakes in Ek’s company.

It wasn’t just the music companies that Mr. Ek had to contend with; Steve Jobs wanted him marginalized, as well. By the time Spotify was founded in 2006, the iTunes store was the most successful music retailer on the planet, creating a proprietary system of MP3s for sale that drove consumers to Apple’s iPods. Spotify was bad for business, and Apple mounted a campaign against Mr. Ek, at one point threatening to remove Spotify from its app store. A fusillade of litigation between the two companies followed—and continues unabated. Eventually, Apple would see the wisdom of Mr. Ek’s model and offer streaming, though Spotify currently has more than five times as many paid subscribers as Apple Music’s streaming service.

So what about the musicians themselves? Spotify is still regarded as an evil empire among artists who feel they are grossly underpaid by the service. Does Spotify in fact shortchange performers to maximize profits? Not according to Messrs. Carlsson and Leijonhufvud, who claim that the labels, with their fat Spotify sinecures, choose to hoard the revenues (70 cents of every dollar Spotify makes is paid to master and publishing owners).

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG notes that the music business exploits its creators just as much as the traditional publishing industry exploits its creators.

PG also notes that, in it’s infinite marketing wisdom, the publisher has not enabled Look Inside, but the links take you to Amazon for a preorder. Given the price, you can expect pirated versions of the ebook to appear shortly.

Did a Person Write This Headline, or a Machine?

From Wired:

The tech industry pays programmers handsomely to tap the right keys in the right order, but earlier this month entrepreneur Sharif Shameem tested an alternative way to write code.

First he wrote a short description of a simple app to add items to a to-do list and check them off once completed. Then he submitted it to an artificial intelligence system called GPT-3 that has digested large swaths of the web, including coding tutorials. Seconds later, the system spat out functioning code. “I got chills down my spine,” says Shameem. “I was like, ‘Woah something is different.’”

GPT-3, created by research lab OpenAI, is provoking chills across Silicon Valley. The company launched the service in beta last month and has gradually widened access. In the past week, the service went viral among entrepreneurs and investors, who excitedly took to Twitter to share and discuss results from prodding GPT-3 to generate memes, poems, tweets, and guitar tabs.

The software’s viral moment is an experiment in what happens when new artificial intelligence research is packaged and placed in the hands of people who are tech-savvy but not AI experts. OpenAI’s system has been tested and feted in ways it didn’t expect. The results show the technology’s potential usefulness but also its limitations—and how it can lead people astray.

. . . .

Other experiments have explored more creative terrain. Denver entrepreneur Elliot Turner found that GPT-3 can rephrase rude comments into polite ones—or vice versa to insert insults. An independent researcher known as Gwern Branwen generated a trove of literary GPT-3 content, including pastiches of Harry Potter in the styles of Ernest Hemingway and Jane Austen. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a broken Harry is in want of a book—or so says GPT-3 before going on to reference the magical bookstore in Diagon Alley.

Have we just witnessed a quantum leap in artificial intelligence? When WIRED prompted GPT-3 with questions about why it has so entranced the tech community, this was one of its responses:

“I spoke with a very special person whose name is not relevant at this time, and what they told me was that my framework was perfect. If I remember correctly, they said it was like releasing a tiger into the world.”

The response encapsulated two of the system’s most notable features: GPT-3 can generate impressively fluid text, but it is often unmoored from reality.

. . . .

When a WIRED reporter generated his own obituary using examples from a newspaper as prompts, GPT-3 reliably repeated the format and combined true details like past employers with fabrications like a deadly climbing accident and the names of surviving family members. It was surprisingly moving to read that one died at the (future) age of 47 and was considered “well-liked, hard-working, and highly respected in his field.”

. . . .

Francis Jervis, founder of Augrented, which helps tenants research prospective landlords, has started experimenting with using GPT-3 to summarize legal notices or other sources in plain English to help tenants defend their rights. The results have been promising, although he plans to have an attorney review output before using it, and says entrepreneurs still have much to learn about how to constrain GPT-3’s broad capabilities into a reliable component of a business.

More certain, Jervis says, is that GPT-3 will keep generating fodder for fun tweets. He’s been prompting it to describe art house movies that don’t exist, such as a documentary in which “werner herzog [sic] must bribe his prison guards with wild german ferret meat and cigarettes.” “The sheer Freudian quality of some of the outputs is astounding,” Jervis says. “I keep dissolving into uncontrollable giggles.”

Link to the rest at Wired

Algorithms Could Save Book Publishing—But Ruin Novels

From Wired:

Jodie Archer had always been puzzled by the success of The Da Vinci Code. She’d worked for Penguin UK in the mid-2000s, when Dan Brown’s thriller had become a massive hit, and knew there was no way marketing alone would have led to 80 million copies sold. So what was it, then? Something magical about the words that Brown had strung together? Dumb luck? The questions stuck with her even after she left Penguin in 2007 to get a PhD in English at Stanford. There she met Matthew L. Jockers, a cofounder of the Stanford Literary Lab, whose work in text analysis had convinced him that computers could peer into books in a way that people never could.

Soon the two of them went to work on the “bestseller” problem: How could you know which books would be blockbusters and which would flop, and why? Over four years, Archer and Jockers fed 5,000 fiction titles published over the last 30 years into computers and trained them to “read”—to determine where sentences begin and end, to identify parts of speech, to map out plots. They then used so-called machine classification algorithms to isolate the features most common in bestsellers.

The result of their work—detailed in The Bestseller Code, out this month—is an algorithm built to predict, with 80 percent accuracy, which novels will become mega-bestsellers. What does it like? Young, strong heroines who are also misfits (the type found in *The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, *and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). No sex, just “human closeness.” Frequent use of the verb “need.” Lots of contractions. Not a lot of exclamation marks. Dogs, yes; cats, meh. In all, the “bestseller-ometer” has identified 2,799 features strongly associated with bestsellers.

What Archer and Jockers have done is just one part of a larger movement in the publishing industry to replace gut instinct and wishful thinking with data. A handful of startups in the US and abroad claim to have created their own algorithms or other data-driven approaches that can help them pick novels and nonfiction topics that readers will love, as well as understand which books work for which audiences. Meanwhile, traditional publishers are doing their own experiments: Simon & Schuster hired its first data scientist last year; in May, Macmillan Publishers acquired the digital book publishing platform Pronoun, in part for its data and analytics capabilities.

While these efforts could bring more profit to an oft-struggling industry, the effect for readers is unclear.

“Part of the beautiful thing about books, unlike refrigerators or something, is that sometimes you pick up a book that you don’t know,” says Katherine Flynn, a partner at Boston-based literary agency Kneerim & Williams. “You get exposed to things you wouldn’t have necessarily thought you liked. You thought you liked tennis, but you can read a book about basketball. It’s sad to think that data could narrow our tastes and possibilities.”

They Know What You Did Last Night

Once, publishers had to rely on unit sales to figure out what readers wanted. Digital reading changed that. Publishers can know that you raced through a novel to the end, or that you abandoned it after 20 pages. They can know where and when you’re reading. On some reading sites and apps, users sign in with their Facebook accounts, opening up more personal data. There’s a wrinkle, though: Companies such as Amazon and Apple have the data for books read on their devices, and they aren’t sharing it with publishers.

London-based startup Jellybooks offers a workaround. Publishers can hire Jellybooks to conduct virtual focus groups, giving readers free ebooks, often in advance of publication, in exchange for their sharing data on how much, when, and where they read. Javascript is embedded in the books, and at the end of each chapter, readers are asked to click a link that sends the data to Jellybooks. In almost two years, the company has run tests for publishers in the US, England, and Germany, and uncovered one sobering fact: Most novels are abandoned before readers are halfway through them. Jellybooks’s findings can guide publishers on their marketing, and even whether it’s worth signing an author again. “Hollywood moguls might do test screenings for movies to decide on how much [marketing] budget a movie should get,” says Andrew Rhomberg, the founder of Jellybooks. “That was never done for books.”

The ability to know who reads what and how fast is also driving Berlin-based 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 examine reading patterns and engagement levels. For the best performers, Inkitt offers to act as literary agent, pitching the works to traditional publishers and keeping the standard 15 percent commission if a deal results. The site went public in January 2015 and now has 80,000 stories and more than half a million readers around the world.

Albazaz, now 26, sees himself as democratizing the publishing world. “We never, ever, ever judge the books. That’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 says. “Who are we to judge if the plot is good? That’s the job of the market. That’s the job of the readers.”

. . . .

The Data Scare

As Archer and Jocker shopped the *Bestseller Code *manuscript to acquisitions editors, word of their powerful algorithm spread—as did worry and suspicion among those in the publishing profession. “The fear is we can homogenize the market or try and somehow take their jobs away from them, and the answer is no and no,” says Archer. “What the bestseller-ometer is trying to do is say, ‘Hey, pick this new author that you might not dare take a risk on with your acquisitions budget. Their chance 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 “literature-friendly” and want good books to succeed.

Andrew Weber, the global chief operating officer for Macmillan Publishers—whose St. Martin’s Press is publishing *The Bestseller Code—thinks algorithms should be viewed as an additional piece of information, rather than as an excuse to fire the editors. “Whether it’s in acquisition, whether it’s in pricing, whether it’s in marketing, whether it’s in distribution, there just seem to be many, many, many opportunities to improve the quality of our decision-makingand therefore hopefully our results—*by bringing data into the equation,” says Weber. “I would say we are still in the early days of that journey, but that’s the direction we’re headed.”

Archer and Jockers watched eagerly 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 massively powerful Internet company. The Circle spent multiple weeks on both The New York Times hardcover fiction and paperback trade fiction bestseller lists. A movie version starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks is expected in theaters this year.

Link to the rest at Wired

It appears that PG missed this when it first appeared in 2016.

He suspects the almost-universal phobia towards computers, algorithms, quantitative analysis, sophisticated metrics, etc., among the indwellers of traditional publishing is related to the widespread incidence of innumeracy among English majors.

Worship of The Golden Gut is the state religion of this group. For them, no collection of numbers and formulae can ever replace The Hunch. That’s one reason why so many books fail to earn out their advances, how many mega-sellers are first rejected by every major publisher before stumbling into the market and finding success.

Indie authors include a much wider slice of humanity than either publishers or traditionally-published authors. That diversity of talent and background combined with Amazon’s relentless pursuit of customers and, thus, numbers, analytics, categories, sub-categories and sub-sub categories fosters the creation of niches within niches all the way down to the micro-reader level.

PG just checked a random book on the Zon and discovered that it encouraged drill-down and discovery as follows:

Books
* Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
*Thrillers & Suspense
* Suspense

With broad categories mentioned:

Book Fiction Moods

Book Mystery Characters

Some Authors:

Author

(PG is not certain how much of this collection of information is presented as result of PG’s and Mrs. PG’s past buying habits.)

Finally, if you prefer, you could check out 383 different categories, series, spinoffs, heroes/heroines, etc., etc., etc., (including, 盗墓笔记, El cementerio de los libros, Svartåsen and Die Krimi-Serie in den Zwanzigern as follows:

1900-Zombie-Thriller (1)
2A Cotten Stone Mystery (1)
3A Department Q Novel (1)
4A Jonathan Grave Thriller (2)
5A Topsail Island novel (1)
6Aaron Falk (2)
7Against Series / Raines of Wind Canyon (1)
8Agatha Raisin Sammelband (1)
9Agent Juliet (1)
10Agent Pendergast (4)
11Alex Cross (4)
12Alex Delaware (13)
13Alex Devlin (1)
14Alex Hawke (6)
15Alex McKnight (1)
16Alexandra Cooper (5)
17Alfonzo (1)
18Ali Reynolds Series (15)
19All Souls Trilogy (1)
20Allison McNeil Series (1)
21Alo Nudger (1)
22Amos Decker (5)
23An Elvis Cole Novel (3)
24An FBI Thriller (1)
25An Isaiah Coleridge Novel (1)
26An Under Suspicion Novel (1)
27Anderswelt John Sinclair Spin-off (18)
28Andreas Gruber Erzählbände (1)
29Anna Pigeon Mysteries (1)
30Annie Carter Series (3)
31Ash Henderson (2)
32Asher Benson (1)
33Auftrag: Mord! (3)
34Beartooth, Montana (1)
35Ben Abbott Mysteries (1)
36Ben Hope (20)
37Blood on Snow (2)
38Bob Lee Swagger Novels (4)
39Breaking Free (1)
40Camel Club (2)
41Cape Charade (3)
42Carl Mørck (1)
43Carriage House (5)
44Carson Ryder (9)
45Casey Woods (1)
46Cat Who… (1)
47Cate Austin (1)
48Charlie Chan Mystery (1)
49Chefinspektor Tony Braun (2)
50Cherokee Pointe (1)
51Chet and Bernie Mystery (16)
52Chronicles of The One (7)
53Cold Justice (1)
54Commandant Martin Servaz (1)
55Commissario Brunetti (8)
56Conrad Yeats Adventure (1)
57Cork O’Connor (17)
58Cork O’Connor Mystery Series (12)
59Cotton Malone (2)
60Covert-One (1)
61Crissa Stone (1)
62Cutler (2)
63D.I. Callanach (1)
64Dagny Gray (1)
65Dalziel & Pascoe (1)
66Dalziel and Pascoe (14)
67盗墓笔记 (1)
68Dark Iceland (1)
69Dave Gurney (1)
70Dave Robicheaux (8)
71David Stein (1)
72David Wolf (1)
73DCI Matilda Darke (1)
74Dead series (1)
75Detective Erika Foster (2)
76Detective Josie Quinn (2)
77Detective Mark Heckenburg (3)
78Detective Max Rupert (2)
79Detektei Lessing Kriminalserie (3)
80DI Fawley (2)
81Die ARES-Reihe (2)
82Die Cormoran-Strike-Reihe (1)
83Die Dead-Silencer-Saga (1)
84Die Irene-Huss-Krimis (1)
85Die Krimi-Serie in den Zwanzigern (23)
86Dirk Pitt (1)
87Dismas Hardy (15)
88Divine (1)
89Dr. Lazlo Kreizler (1)
90Dr. Marissa Blumenthal (1)
91Dr. Samantha Owens series (1)
92Drake Ramsey (2)
93DS Heckenburg (6)
94DS Imogen Grey (2)
95Dunkle Begierde (1)
96Dynam (1)
97Ed Eagle Novel (2)
98Ein Fall für Engel und Sander (2)
99Ein FBI Thriller mit Dillon Savich und Lacey Sherlock (3)
100Ein Jack-Reacher-Roman (1)
101Ein Mike-Köstner-Thriller (1)
102El cementerio de los libros olvidados (1)
103EL SECRETO DE LOS ARTISTAS (1)
104Emma Fern (4)
105Enrico Mancini (2)
106Essex Witch Museum Mystery (2)
107Eve Diamond Mystery (1)
108Eve Duncan (2)
109Event Group Thriller (1)
110Fatal Insomnia Medical Thrillers (6)
111FBI Profiler (1)
112Final Theory (1)
113Fiona Griffiths Crime Thriller Series (1)
114Forensic Instincts (1)
115Fort Aldamo (57)
116Frank Wallerts Fälle (7)
117Frankenstein (1)
118Franz Eberhofer (3)
119G. F. Unger Sonder-Edition (102)
120G.F. Unger Classic-Edition (11)
121Gabriel Allon (1)
122Geisterjäger John Sinclair (6)
123Gideon Crew (2)
124Giordano Bruno (1)
125Go-get-’em Women (1)
126Good Lawyer (3)
127Grant County (3)
128Graveyard Falls (1)
129Griffin Powell (1)
130Guardian (1)
131Hackberry Holland (3)
132Harrison Investigation (2)
133Harry Bosch (4)
134Harry Palmer (1)
135Hart and Drake (8)
136Hector Cross Series (1)
137Hercule Poirot (20)
138High Country Heroes (2)
139Hold On! (1)
140Holly Barker (1)
141Honeymoon Series James Patterson (1)
142I Heart (1)
143If I Run (4)
144In Death (2)
145Inspector Barbarotti (2)
146Inspector Lynley (3)
147Inspector Montalbano (2)
148Inspector Montalbano Mysteries (1)
149IQ (1)
150Iron Lace (1)
151Isas Requiem (1)
152Jack Noble (1)
153Jack Paris (1)
154Jack Reacher (2)
155Jack Sigler Thrillers (Chess Team) (1)
156Jack Stapleton & Laurie Montgomery series (1)
157Jacqueline Kirby (1)
158Jake Brigance (7)
159Jake Ransom (1)
160James Blake (2)
161Jane Harper Horror Novels (2)
162Jane Hawk (2)
163Jericho Quinn Thriller (8)
164Jerry Cotton Sammelband (5)
165Jerry Cotton Sammelbände (14)
166Jerry Cotton Sonder-Edition (84)
167Jerry Cotton Sonder-Edition Sammelbände (3)
168Jet (4)
169Joanna Stafford (1)
170Joe Dillard Series (1)
171Joe Pickett Series (2)
172Joe Pike series (1)
173Joe Sixsmith (3)
174Johannes-Hornoff-T… (1)
175John Reeves (2)
176John Sinclair Collection (18)
177John Sinclair Gespensterkrimi (1)
178John Sinclair Gespensterkrimi Collection (9)
179John Sinclair Großband (13)
180John Sinclair Sammelband (8)
181John Sinclair Sonder-Edition (67)
182John Sinclair Sonder-Edition Sammelband (7)
183Joona Linna (2)
184Judith Kepler (1)
185Jungle Beat (7)
186Karin Slaughter Thriller-Bundle (2)
187Kate Brannigan (4)
188Kate Ivory (14)
189Kate Maddox (2)
190Kathryn-Dance-Thri… (1)
191Kay Scarpetta (11)
192Kick Lannigan (2)
193Kimmo-Joentaa-Reihe (1)
194King and Maxwell (9)
195Kirstmann und Freytag (1)
196Kitt Lundgren (1)
197Kolt Raynor (1)
198Lassiter 2101-2200 (3)
199Lassiter 2201-2300 (10)
200Last Option Search Team (3)
201Last Stand (1)
202Leo Demidow (1)
203Leverage (2)
204Liam Devlin series (1)
205Lizzie Martin (2)
206Logan McRae (5)
207Logan McRae Collection (2)
208Louis Kincaid (1)
209Louise Rick series (2)
210Lucy Clayburn (3)
211Lucy Guardino FBI Thrillers (3)
212luebbe digital ebook (5)
213Luke Carlton (1)
214Luna Maiwald Rügenkrimi (1)
215Maddrax (4)
216Marc Dane (1)
217Marcus (1)
218Maura Ryan (2)
219Maximum Ride: The Manga (2)
220Maximum Security (1)
221Medical Thrillers (Gerritsen) (1)
222Mercy Kilpatrick (1)
223Mia Quinn (1)
224Michael Bennett (3)
225Michael Herne (1)
226Midwife (2)
227Miss Marple Mysteries (1)
228Mississippi (2)
229Mitchell & Associates (4)
230Monster Hunter International (1)
231Nameless Detective (3)
232Natalie King, Forensic Psychiatrist (1)
233Nick Hall (2)
234Night Soldiers (1)
235Nils Trojan (1)
236Nomad (1)
237NYPD Red (2)
238Odd Thomas (2)
239Operation: Midnight (1)
240OPSIG Team Black Series (1)
241P.I.D. (2)
242Penn Cage Novels (2)
243Peter Decker & Rina Lazarus (4)
244Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus (4)
245Petra Connor (1)
246Pilgrim (3)
247Predator & Prey (1)
248Prey (5)
249Privatdetektiv Marten Hendriksen (1)
250Private (2)
251Promise Falls Trilogy (1)
252Raines of Wind Canyon (2)
253Random House Large Print (3)
254Relatively Dead Mysteries (1)
255Richard “Dick” Moonlight (1)
256Rizzoli-&-Isles-Serie (2)
257Robert Langdon (1)
258Robicheaux (7)
259Rocky Mountain Bounty Hunters (1)
260Rocky Mountain K9 Unit (4)
261Ryan Archer (1)
262Sakura Warrior – Reihe (1)
263Sally Harrington (1)
264Sam Berger Series (1)
265Sam Capra Mysteries (2)
266Samson (1)
267San Francisco (1)
268Sandhamn Murders (2)
269Sanela Beara (1)
270Sarah Pauli (2)
271Scarlet Falls (1)
272Scope (2)
273Sean Dillon (5)
274Search and Rescue (4)
275Second Opportunities (1)
276Selena Alvarez/Regan Pescoli (1)
277Shane Schofield (1)
278Sharon McCone (3)
279Sharpe & Donovan (2)
280Shaw and Katie James (7)
281Sigma Force (7)
282Simon Vaughn (2)
283Sisterhood (3)
284Six Stories (2)
285Skink (1)
286Smoky Barrett (3)
287Smoky Barrett Sammelband (1)
288Soko Hamburg – Ein Fall für Heike Stein (18)
289Sonderermittler der Krone (5)
290Spilling CID (1)
291Split Second (1)
292Stalking Jack the Ripper (1)
293Stephanie Plum (4)
294Stephanie Plum Between the Numbers/Holiday Novels (1)
295Stillhouse Lake (6)
296Stone Barrington (7)
297Stranger Things Novels (2)
298Superintendent Battle (4)
299Svartåsen (1)
300Talisman (5)
301Tall, Dark & Dangerous (1)
302Temperance Brennan (6)
303Teodor Szacki (2)
304Texas Rangers (2)
305Texas Trilogy (2)
306The Annie Graham series (1)
307The Avalon Chronicles (3)
308The Awakening Series (1)
309The Bening Files (2)
310The Bill Hodges Trilogy (3)
311The Blaine Trilogy (1)
312The Butlers (6)
313The Cal O’Connor Series (1)
314The Cards in the Deck (2)
315The Cat Who… (23)
316The Cemetery of Forgotten Series (1)
317The China Thrillers (3)
318The Clifton Chronicles (10)
319The Color of Distance (1)
320The Commandant Camille Verhoeven Trilogy (2)
321The Cooper & Fry Series (1)
322The Cousins War (4)
323The Dark Iceland Series (1)
324The Dark Tower (6)
325The Death Trilogy (3)
326The End Series (1)
327The Flovent and Thorson Thrillers (1)
328The Immune (4)
329The Kate Lange Thriller Series (2)
330The Keepers (3)
331The Men Of The Sisterhood (1)
332The Mitch Rapp Prequel Series (8)
333The Mitch Rapp Series (31)
334The Oxygen Thief Diaries (2)
335The Paul Chavasse Novels (2)
336The Pieter Van In Mysteries (1)
337The Psychic Detectives Series (1)
338The Restoration Series (5)
339The Retreat (2)
340The Roth Trilogy (3)
341The Sara Winthrop Thriller Series (1)
342The Scot Harvath Series (45)
343The Sean Coleman Thriller series (1)
344The Talisman (5)
345The Tallow Series (1)
346The Warm Bodies Series (1)
347Thomas Eickhoff ermittelt (1)
348Thomas Kell (3)
349Thomas Knight (1)
350Tina Boyd (5)
351Todeslächeln (2)
352Tom Thorne (2)
353Tom Thorne series (1)
354Tommy and Tuppence (6)
355Tracers Series (1)
356Troubleshooters (1)
357Turbulent Desire Series (2)
358Twin Ports (1)
359Ty Hauck (3)
360Under Suspicion (1)
361Undercover Cops (1)
362Unit 51 (1)
363V.I. Warshawski Novels (2)
364Vampire Chronicles (1)
365Vampire Federation (1)
366Vintage Contemporaries (1)
367Virgil Flowers (1)
368Wayward Pines (6)
369Wegner & Hauser – Hamburg: Mord (2)
370Wegners erste Fälle (8)
371Wegners schwerste Fälle (9)
372Will Lee Novels (1)
373Will Robie (2)
374Will Trent/Atlanta Series (1)
375Will-Trent-Serie (1)
376William Sandberg (1)
377Wired (2)
378Wired & Dangerous (1)
379Wishbone (1)
380Women’s Murder Club (9)
381World War I (1)
382World’s Scariest Places Occult & Supernatural Crime Series (7)
383Wyman Ford (7)

Communication Re-Imagined with Emotion Ai

From ReadWrite:

There has long been a chasm between what we perceive artificial intelligence to be and what it can actually do. Our films, literature, and video game representations of “intelligent machines,” depict AI as detached but highly intuitive interfaces. We will find communication re-imagined with emotion AI.

. . . .

As these artificial systems are being integrated into our commerce, entertainment, and logistics networks, we are witnessing emotional intelligence. These smarter systems have a better understanding of how humans feeland why they feel that way.

The result is a “re-imagining” of how people and businesses can communicate and operate. These smart systems are drastically improving the voice user interface of voice-activated systems in our homes. AI is improving not only facial recognition but changing what is done with that data.

. . . .

Humans use thousands of subverbal cues when they communicate. The tone of their voice, the speed at which someone speaks– these are all hugely important parts of a conversation but aren’t part of the “raw data” of that conversation.

New systems designed to measure these verbal interactions are now able to look at emotions like anger, fear, sadness, happiness, or surprise based on dozens of metrics related to specific cues and expressions. Algorithms are being trained to evaluate the minutia of speech in relation to one another, building a map of how we read each other in social situations.

Systems are increasingly able to analyze the subtext of language based on the tone, volume, speed, or clarity of what is being said. Not only does this help these systems to identify the gender and age of the speaker better, but they are growing increasingly sophisticated in recognizing when someone is excited, worried, sad, angry, or tired. While real-time integration of these systems is still in development, voice analysis algorithms are better able to identify critical concerns and emotions as they get smarter.

. . . .

The result of this is a striking uptick in the ability of artificial intelligence to replicate a fundamental human behavior. We have Alexa developers actively working to teach the voice assistant to hold conversations that recognize emotional distress, the US Government using tone detection technology to detect the symptoms and signs of PTSD in active duty soldiers and veterans and increasingly advanced research into the impact of specific physical ailments like Parkinson’s on someone’s voice.

While done at a small scale, it shows that the data behind someone’s outward expression of emotion can be cataloged and used to evaluate their current mood.

Link to the rest at ReadWrite

Barnes & Noble Takeover Shows Retail Theme Is Technology Change

From Seeking Alpha:

  • Takeover of Barnes & Noble highlights the importance of technology change in media retailing.
  • Lessons from Borders and Blockbuster bankruptcies are still relevant.
  • Loyal customer base supports ongoing Barnes & Noble mall presence.

Barnes & Noble, largest US book retailer with a total of 620 stores, announced plans this month to be acquired by Elliott Management (a $34 billion New York private equity hedge fund) for $683 million (including transfer of debt),

. . . .

The important benefit of this takeover for Barnes & Noble shareholders (as well as Barnes & Noble’s landlords, the Retail REITs) is that this is a takeover in anticipation of a turnaround. Elliott Management also owns UK book retailer Waterstones and plans to put Waterstones successful CEO, John Daunt, in charge of both companies. It appears that Barnes & Noble has found a good home.

With 627 Barnes & Noble stores in the US and 280 Waterstones locations in UK, Elliott Management is facing off against Amazon, online juggernaut that is believed to sell as much as 50% of all new hard copy books as well as a large share of e-books and used books. Barnes & Noble has a successful website allowing loyal customers to purchase books, movies, music, toys, and games, but cannot compete with Amazon in size or selection, customer history or ability to take advantage of cross-selling and financing opportunities.

Still, Barnes & Noble knows their customer base well, having used loyalty programs to reach out to their frequent shoppers and should be able to take advantage of their friendly environment for book lovers at well-established stores. I think we won’t see many Barnes & Noble stores close, at least not at first; we are far more likely to see discounting and special offers at Barnes & Noble. Customers should feel upgraded.

. . . .

Although the greatest threat to Barnes & Noble’s future remains Amazon (both for online sales of hard copy books and e-books sold on Nook), I think the true threat is technology change, as we have seen over the past 12 years of change in the way media is delivered and consumed by today’s shoppers. These 2 retail failures – Blockbuster Video and Borders – still have something to tell us about current retail challenges.

Link to the rest at Seeking Alpha

The Rise of Robot Authors: Is the Writing on the Wall for Human Novelists?

From The Guardian:

Will androids write novels about electric sheep? The dream, or nightmare, of totally machine-generated prose seemed to have come one step closer with the recent announcement of an artificial intelligence that could produce, all by itself, plausible news stories or fiction. It was the brainchild of OpenAI – a nonprofit lab backed by Elon Musk and other tech entrepreneurs – which slyly alarmed the literati by announcing that the AI (called GPT2) was too dangerous for them to release into the wild, because it could be employed to create “deepfakes for text”. “Due to our concerns about malicious applications of the technology,” they said, “we are not releasing the trained model.” Are machine-learning entities going to be the new weapons of information terrorism, or will they just put humble midlist novelists out of business?

. . . .

GPT2 is just using methods of statistical analysis, trained on huge amounts of human-written text – 40GB of web pages, in this case, that received recommendations from Reddit readers – to predict what ought to come next. This probabilistic approach is how Google Translate works, and also the method behind Gmail’s automatic replies (“OK.” “See you then.” “That’s fine!”) It can be eerily good, but it is not as intelligent as, say, a bee.

Right now, novelists don’t seem to have much to fear. Fed the opening line of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” – the machine continued the narrative as follows: “I was in my car on my way to a new job in Seattle. I put the gas in, put the key in, and then I let it run. I just imagined what the day would be like. A hundred years from now. In 2045, I was a teacher in some school in a poor part of rural China. I started with Chinese history and history of science.”

. . . .

Did the AI do any better with Jane Austen? The opening phrase of Pride and Prejudice – “It is a truth universally acknowledged” – provoked the machine to gabble on: “that when a nation is in a condition of civilization, that it is in a great measure the business of its leaders to encourage the habits of virtue, and of industry, and of good order among its people.” This does sound rather like some 19th-century political bloviator, even if a slightly broken version. (The second “that” is redundant, and it should read “in great measure” without the indefinite article.)

. . . .

Is there greater cause to worry further down the literary food chain? There have for a while already been “AI bots” that can, we hear, “write” news stories. All these are, though, are giant automated plagiarism machines that mash together bits of news stories written by human beings. As so often, what is promoted as a magical technological advance depends on appropriating the labour of humans, rendered invisible by AI rhetoric. When a human writer commits plagiarism, that is a serious matter. But when humans get together and write a computer program that commits plagiarism, that is progress.

. . . .

The makers’ announcement that this program is too dangerous to be released is excellent PR, then, but hardly persuasive. Such code, OpenAI warns, could be used to “generate misleading news articles”, but there is no shortage of made-up news written by actual humans working for troll factories. The point of the term “deepfakes” is that they are fakes that go deeper than prose, which anyone can fake. Much more dangerous than disinformation clumsily written by a computer are the real “deepfakes” in visual media that respectable researchers are eagerly working on right now. When video of any kind can be generated that is indistinguishable from real documentary evidence – so that a public figure, for example, can be made to say words they never said – then we’ll be in a world of trouble.

. . . .

Perhaps a more realistic hope for a text-only program such as GPT2, meanwhile, is simply as a kind of automated amanuensis that can come up with a messy first draft of a tedious business report – or, why not, of an airport thriller about famous symbologists caught up in perilous global conspiracy theories alongside lissome young women half their age. There is, after all, a long history of desperate artists trying rule-based ruses to generate the elusive raw material that they can then edit and polish. The “musical dice game” attributed to Mozart enabled fragments to be combined to generate innumerable different waltzes, while the total serialism of mid-20th‑century music was an algorithmic approach that attempted as far as possible to offload aesthetic judgments by the composer on to a system of mathematical manipulations.

. . . .

But until robots have rich inner lives and understand the world around them, they won’t be able to tell their own stories. And if one day they could, would we even be able to follow them? As Wittgenstein observed: “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him”. Being a lion in the world is (presumably) so different from being a human in the world that there might be no points of mutual comprehension at all. It’s entirely possible, too, that if a conscious machine could speak, we wouldn’t understand it either.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG says, “We have a lot of rain in June. Is the buzz dead better than the couple? The maddening kill crawls into the wealthy box. When does the zesty liquid critique the representative?”

(PG’s comments are courtesy of Random Word Generator, TextFixer and Word Generator.

And also:

After leaving the crumpled planet Abydos, a group of girls fly toward a distant speck. The speck gradually resolves into a contented, space tower.

Civil war strikes the galaxy, which is ruled by Brad Willis, a derelict wizard capable of lust and even murder.

Terrified, an enchanted alien known as Michelle Thornton flees the Empire, with her protector, Chloe Noris.

They head for Philadelphia on the planet Saturn. When they finally arrive, a fight breaks out. Noris uses her giant knife to defend Michelle.

(Plot Generator)

Finally, a blurb for a romance novel:

In this story, a serene police chief ends up on the run with a realistic witch-hunter. What starts as professional courtesy unexpectedly turns into a passionate affair.

(Seventh Sanctum)

Click here, then click the Play button to listen to the blurb

(Natural Readers)

Our Software Is Biased like We Are. Can New Laws Change That?

From The Wall Street Journal:

Lawyers for Eric Loomis stood before the Supreme Court of Wisconsin in April 2016, and argued that their client had experienced a uniquely 21st-century abridgment of his rights: Mr. Loomis had been discriminated against by a computer algorithm.

Three years prior, Mr. Loomis was found guilty of attempting to flee police and operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent. During sentencing, the judge consulted COMPAS (aka Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions), a popular software system from a company called Equivant. It considers factors including indications a person abuses drugs, whether or not they have family support, and age at first arrest, with the intent to determine how likely someone is to commit a crime again.

The sentencing guidelines didn’t require the judge to impose a prison sentence. But COMPAS said Mr. Loomis was likely to be a repeat offender, and the judge gave him six years.

An algorithm is just a set of instructions for how to accomplish a task. They range from simple computer programs, defined and implemented by humans, to far more complex artificial-intelligence systems, trained on terabytes of data. Either way, human bias is part of their programming. Facial recognition systems, for instance, are trained on millions of faces, but if those training databases aren’t sufficiently diverse, they are less accurate at identifying faces with skin colors they’ve seen less frequently. Experts fear that could lead to police forces disproportionately targeting innocent people who are already under suspicion solely by virtue of their appearance.

. . . .

No matter how much we know about the algorithms that control our lives, making them “fair” may be difficult or even impossible. Yet as biased as algorithms can be, at least they can be consistent. With humans, biases can vary widely from one person to the next.

As governments and businesses look to algorithms to increase consistency, save money or just manage complicated processes, our reliance on them is starting to worry politicians, activists and technology researchers. The aspects of society that computers are often used to facilitate have a history of abuse and bias: who gets the job, who benefits from government services, who is offered the best interest rates and, of course, who goes to jail.

“Some people talk about getting rid of bias from algorithms, but that’s not what we’d be doing even in an ideal state,” says Cathy O’Neil, a former Wall Street quant turned self-described algorithm auditor, who wrote the book “Weapons of Math Destruction.”

“There’s no such thing as a non-biased discriminating tool, determining who deserves this job, who deserves this treatment. The algorithm is inherently discriminating, so the question is what bias do you want it to have?” she adds.

. . . .

An increasingly common algorithm predicts whether parents will harm their children, basing the decision on whatever data is at hand. If a parent is low income and has used government mental-health services, that parent’s risk score goes up. But for another parent who can afford private health insurance, the data is simply unavailable. This creates an inherent (if unintended) bias against low-income parents, says Rashida Richardson, director of policy research at the nonprofit AI Now Institute, which provides feedback and relevant research to governments working on algorithmic transparency.

The irony is that, in adopting these modernized systems, communities are resurfacing debates from the past, when the biases and motivations of human decision makers were called into question. Ms. Richardson says panels that determine the bias of computers should include not only data scientists and technologists, but also legal experts familiar with the rich history of laws and cases dealing with identifying and remedying bias, as in employment and housing law.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Boom Time for Used Booksellers?

As PG was opening a couple of packages of hardcopy books for Mrs. PG (she does read a lot of ebooks, but, in some cases, used books are less expensive and some books she wants in hardcopy to share with family and/or friends), it occurred to him that Amazon has almost certainly given used booksellers an opportunity to reach a far wider group of prospective purchasers than were ever available to them in physical used bookstores.

Most of the hardcopy used books that arrive in the mail come well-packaged and most are clearly packed by more sophisticated equipment than a roll of stamps and a stack of envelopes.

So, is PG correct about Amazon and used booksellers?

Has the ability to sell to a much wider online audience affected the pricing of used books?

Has the used book business undergone consolidation with small used bookstores closing and selling their inventory to large, online-focused used booksellers?

Are there people who are paid by larger used booksellers to be scouts for large quantities of available used books?

Real-Time Continuous Transcription with Live Transcribe

Not necessarily to do with books, but two of PG’s offspring are hearing-impaired, so he follows topics like this. He’s also interested in developments in artificial intelligence, so it’s a double win for him.

From The Google AI Blog:

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are 466 million people globally that are deaf and hard of hearing. A crucial technology in empowering communication and inclusive access to the world’s information to this population is automatic speech recognition (ASR), which enables computers to detect audible languages and transcribe them into text for reading. Google’s ASR is behind automated captions in Youtube, presentations in Slides and also phone calls. However, while ASR has seen multiple improvements in the past couple of years, the deaf and hard of hearing still mainly rely on manual-transcription services like CART in the US, Palantypist in the UK, or STTRin other countries. These services can be prohibitively expensive and often require to be scheduled far in advance, diminishing the opportunities for the deaf and hard of hearing to participate in impromptu conversations as well as social occasions. We believe that technology can bridge this gap and empower this community.

Today, we’re announcing Live Transcribe, a free Android service that makes real-world conversations more accessible by bringing the power of automatic captioning into everyday, conversational use. Powered by Google Cloud, Live Transcribe captions conversations in real-time, supporting over 70 languages and more than 80% of the world’s population. You can launch it with a single tap from within any app, directly from the accessibility icon on the system tray.

Link to the rest at The Google AI Blog

 

The Future of Music, Where Middlemen Have Met Their Match

From OZY:

“Hey, Dad. I want to show you a song.”

The speaker was my 16-year-old daughter. Music for her? Primarily visual and to be enjoyed in video clips. Video clips that did not always feature videos. Sometimes it was just some clip art and the music. But no record store, no record album, no tape — reel-to-reel, eight track, cassette or otherwise — and finally no compact disc. And she’s not alone in how she’s digging on the music she digs on.

According to Nielsen’s music report, digital and physical album sales declined (again) last year — from about 205 million in 2016 to 169 million copies in 2017 — down 17 percent. Over the past five years, right up to Nielsen’s mid-year report, sales had fallen by roughly 75 percent. That decline is coinciding with a streaming juggernaut that continues to grow. How much so? Last year streaming skated, quite easily, beyond 400 billion streams. You include video streams and you have figures over $618 billion. You look back at the year before and you see a 58 percent increase in audio streams.

While this buoyed the damned-near-moribund music industry to the tune of 12.5 percent growth from 2016 to last year, the music business is now, as it has been, all about discovering the music that can generate all of those streams. And that’s where things get curious because record labels that are used to creating heat now have to go places where the heat is being created to stay viable and vibrant.

. . . .

With a number of presently high-profile artists — Odd Future, Lil Yachty, Post Malone, etc. — being “discovered” on places like SoundCloud over the past five years, entire communities of music fans can beat both the hype and the Spotify/Pandora/SiriusXM radio/Amazon algorithms that suggest if you liked this, you might also like that, by starting there, and branching out. First stop: Instagram.

“People come in all the time and play me stuff from their IG feeds,” says Mark Thompson, founder of Los Angeles-based Vacation Vinyl (that sells, yes, primarily vinyl). “So I’m hearing bands that it soon becomes pretty clear have no label, no representation, nothing but an IG feed and maybe some music recorded on their laptops.”

To put this in perspective, in July 2018, Instagram added the music mode in Stories, and just that quickly streaming started to feel … old. Because from the musicians’ mouths to our ears, unmediated music finds its way from the creator to the consumer. Spotify is trying to adapt too — it has over the past year begun to sign deals with independent musicians to give them access to the platform.

. . . .

“It’s free,” she says, having endured speeches about listening to unpaid/stolen music. Since she and her friends don’t ever listen to more than 60 seconds of any song, at least while I am around, this raises the question: Is it a business and is it sustainable in the same way that Apple Music, Tidal, Deezer or iHeartRadio have managed to be?

“Unknown,” says former promoter and music industry executive Mark Weiss. “But the business is where the ears are. And if the business is any damn good it’ll figure out how to stay in the conversation.”

. . . .

Flash-forward to record contracts from the mid-1990s that covered cassette tapes, vinyl, compact discs and “future technologies not yet known.” The digitization of analog music had already changed the landscape for everything from crime to interior design.

Whereas previously you’d have needed a turntable, an amplifier, maybe a preamp, a tape player, a receiver, speakers and a subwoofer to listen to the music that you’d be playing off of tapes, vinyl or CDs, after everything was digitized you just needed a phone and speakers.

Link to the rest at OZY