Essays & Opinion Professor Wu's Rulebook

Rise of the machines: will computers replace human beings in the publishing industry?



We’ve previously written about the way data on reader’s habits stands to revolutionise processes in the publishing industry. But while so-called “big brother analytics” might change the way publishing houses choose which books they invest in, a general assumption was that the ultimate decision would be made by a human being. This might sound overly obvious; but a recent development could potentially change all that.

In fact, we may be moving toward a world in which computers – rather than human beings – have the final say as to which books are published, and which books companies invest the heaviest amount of marketing funds in.

This all hinges on the success of a new project by data-driven publisher, Inkitt, in collaboration with Tor Books. And the two companies are now set to release the first novel selected by a computer algorithm for publishing.

Bright Star, a young adult novel by Erin Swan, was discovered using predictive data that analysed reading patterns on the Inkitt platform.

“This book deal sends a clear signal to the publishing industry that predictive data analysis is the way of the future,” says Inkitt’s Founder and CEO, Ali Albazaz. “Inkitt is at the forefront of the movement to use predictive data in publishing and this deal shows that our business model works. We are so excited to be able to help Erin kick off her career as a novelist – and we already can’t wait to get our hands on the next book in the Sky Rider series.”

Self-described as “the Hipster’s Library”, Inkitt functions as a platform that allows users to read books that haven’t been published yet – or to “fall in love with novels before they go mainstream.”

While some may point out that there isn’t very much hipster-esque about a company that has to tell people how hipster it is, what is interesting is how these developments may change traditional publishing models. Indeed, could this spell the end for the standard process of a qualified literary editor reading through manuscripts and deciding to invest in those they believe are the best fit for both their company, and for the wider literary industry?

Well, perhaps there is reason to believe so. Some of the most commercially successful novels – think Harry Potter or Twilight – were ignored by a succession of mainstream publishing houses before being picked up by organisations that ultimately reaped huge financial rewards for doing so. Using an algorithm to test what works best with readers could – in theory – help reduce the chances of a publishing house missing out on the opportunity to publish these sorts of best sellers.

But there are of course many caveats here. Not least of which is the fact that we are yet to see how successful Bright Star will be. But furthermore, we may also wish to question whether we truly want a publishing industry built upon the decisions of machines.

It’s true that other algorithms have been designed to make it appear as though computers can write poetry (and some of these AI poems have even been published). Yet there is something innately human about literature and writing. And with books occupying such an important part of our culture, it does seem a risk to remove the human being from the equation.

A further risk here, of course, is that an algorithm designed to identify books that have the greatest financial value in them may not actually be the best books. Fifty Shades of Grey may be taken as an example here – for it stands as an example of a trilogy of books that have sold tens of millions of copies, despite the writing being of questionable quality. These are the books, after all, described variously as “stilted and cliché-ridden” (New York Review of Books), “reading as though women never got the vote” (the London Review of Books) and even as “extremely dangerous […] [because] the themes of the novel – love alone can make someone change, that abuse from a spouse is acceptable as long as he’s great in bed, that pregnancies should always be carried to term even if the parents are not ready to be parents, and the ridiculously antiquated, Victorian idea that the pure love of a virgin can save a wayward man from himself – are irrational, unbelievable and dangerous”.

What are the risks that, should the publishing industry come to rely on computers to make decisions – rather than experienced editors and industry professionals – we come to develop a cultural void in which every book is published not for its merit, but because of its ability to sell copies? What are the risks that we create a cultural imbalance within literature, where our literary canon is filled of, essentially, thousands upon thousands of books like Fifty Shades of Grey?

This is not to disparage readers of the E.L. James novels – but to argue that our culture relies on variety, rather than similarity. The great thing about books is surely that they can cater to all tastes – and anybody can find familiarity and connection with some book, somewhere. And it seems that an industry run by machines motivated purely by the pursuit of commercial success can only serve to narrow the selection of books available to us.

There are already signs that this is taking place already. As pointed out in this Litro Magazine article points out, “there is an increasing focus on mimicking commercial success, rather than striving to create something that is new.” And the influence of modern neoliberal capitalism has seen the publishing industry gradually follow the film and music industries in only investing in pieces of art that seem geared towards bringing in money, rather than new ideas. As such, the industry is increasingly dominated by novels that are copies of novels, which are themselves copies of other commercially successful novels.

In fifty years, will Inkitt and its publishing algorithms be regarded simply as a minor curiosity? Or part of the start of an AI revolution within human culture? If it’s the latter, we may have just witnessed what will come to ultimately eliminate and replace human beings from publishing. Ultimately, it’s up to you, dear readers, how you feel about that.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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