“Groundbreaking” app to predict whether a book can be crowdfunded successfully


Award-winning publishing company Unbound has launched a “groundbreaking” app to predict crowdfunding revenue as well as the length of time required to fund a project.

Unbound, who have carved out a space in the literary market for bringing together traditional publishing and crowdfunding, have already successfully brought over 300 books to market. The company now hopes the new app, developed by their own head of data science and astrophysics, Dr Noelia Jiménez Martínez, will help improve their commissioning decisions and increase profitability.

Having recently launched their own Crowdcube campaign to help expand the publishing house, the new app could play a key role in attracting new investors.

The app uses data from more than 200,000 pledge transactions on its platform, as well as authors’ online engagement, to predict revenues. It is now being used by the company’s commissioning team, with 80% accuracy.

Unbound books

Already featured among Nothing in the Rulebook’s list of fabulous independent and alternative book publishers, Unbound has been making waves ever since it first emerged onto the literary scene.

Based out of a converted warehouse in London, the expert team behind the company have over 300 years of expertise in publishing and connecting people around creative projects.

They’ve got a wonderful catalogue of books they’ve already published (including ones shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize). But of course, the real thrust of Unbound comes from discovering new authors and ideas, and liberating (read: crowdfunding) them.

There are some exceptional projects currently out there – all of which are worthy of support. To give you a flavour of the variety of excellent books on offer, we’ve compiled a short list:

  • The ‘Advanced Rhyming Dictionary‘, from Adam ‘Shuffle T’ Woollard – a revolutionary rhyming dictionary and workbook for multisyllabic rhymes.
  • Keeping On’, by James Kennedy – part memoir, part exposé of the music world’s murky underbelly and part collection of life lessons gained from many years of ‘trying’ but ultimately having to learn to live with defeat.
  • Crow Court‘ by Andy Charman – a novel of short stories set in Wimborne Minster, Dorset, in the 19th century.
  • Blackwatertown‘ by Paul Waters – think LA Confidential meets The Guard set in Northern Ireland against the backdrop of the troubles.
  • Never So Perfect‘ by Sobia Quazi – a domestic noir, psychological thriller set in London amongst an elite set of British Asian society.

There are also books about Brexit, deepwater diving, and illustrated satirical books about dogs (of the philosophical variety).

So, what are you waiting for? Go get funding them, eh!


Do poets dream of electric literature?

Google dreamscape

Google’s dreamscapes – the product of an artificial neural network being asked to amplify and pull patterns out of white noise. Photo credit: Michael Tyka/Google

In 2011, one of the longest-running student-run literary journals in the USA – Archive at Duke University – ran its annual call for poetry submissions for its Fall Issue. The editors, shifting through the reams of poetry, stumbled upon a short poem called “For the Bristlecone Snag”. It was environmentally themed. It struck a slightly aggressive tone. It contained a few of those clunky turns of phrase that can so often be found in student poetry, including the less-than-immortal line: “They attacked it with mechanical horns because they love you, love, in fire and wind”. Regardless of these slight failings, the editors of the journal decided to run with it. An unremarkable decision and an unremarkable nine-line stanza at first glance, except for one thing: the poem was written by a computer algorithm, and nobody could tell.

Of course, it remains too soon to predict when the TS Eliot Prize will be won by a robot. However, what it could mean for the future of poetry – and writing in general – is gradually gathering a great deal of attention, and stimulating significant discussion.

It’s important to point out that Bristlecone Snag is not the only example of machines writing poetry. In 2008, a US high-school student, Sarah Harmon, used Java to create a computer program that wrote poetry. Again, she submitted poetry created by this machine to student journals. And again, the submissions were successful.

There is nothing fancy about these machines. They are not magically complex. They are simple algorithms built by simple tools. They follow predefined rules of grammar and structure to compose poetical-sounding snippets. For example, Harmon’s poetry machine – named OGDEN – came up with the refrain: “He was perfectly strange,/His world was shyly hopeless,/Then he tasted his dreams.”

OGDEN poetry via Shutterstock

Image via shutterstock

These more recent examples are nothing new, either. In 1984 one of the first computer bards – Racter – wrote prose largely at random. It produced a book of poetry and surreal dialogues called The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed.

But is it surprising that simple coding tools and skills can be used to create poetry that readers find passable? After all, William Carlos Williams wrote that “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words”. A nice, simple statement of a poetic position. But also one that picks up on the essentially formulaic aspects of writing. If there are reproducible structures and characteristics – as one would find in any industrial machine or piece of new technology – then it stands to reason that computers can do just a good a job at recreating patterns and writing their own poetry as human beings.

Racter shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

Just as aspiring writers will look to the poems and novels of their favourite authors, and are able to identify similarities of style and structure that they can imitate, it does not seem unreasonable that digital programs are able to identify the same patterns and imitate them. After all, Booker-nominated author Will Self said of creative writing courses that they are a like to working from “a pattern book”. If such formula can be taught, it can just as easily be programmed.

But what next? Can machine-written poetry ever go beyond simple imitation? Can a computer ever be creative in and of itself? Can it ever create lasting poetic expressions that stand the test of time among human readers without having any examples of real, lived experiences to draw on?

And, perhaps a more pertinent question, would we ever want any answers to these above questions to be ‘yes’?

Ever since the Luddite machine-breaking rebellion 200 years ago, advocates of ever-advancing technology have learned to scoff at technofobes. The argument goes that machine efficiency allows resources to go further, so what does it matter if workers are displaced?

Such an attitude has held firm as industries like coal mining, agriculture and banking and finance have seen miners replaced by coal-cutting machines, farm labourers by tractors and combine harvesters, and bank clerks and analysts by computerised ledgers and algorithms. Although of course we all know that this last one has not been without some teething problems.

The digital Shakespeare 

Yet as IT systems and ever-more capable artificial intelligence evolve, is it truly desirable to have so many aspects of humanity computerised and automated? Do we want to read poetry and novels written by machines, as writers huddle together in the last vestiges of hipsterism in some dusty London cereal café pining for the old days, trying to remember what pens, pencils and paper were called? And will we come to exist as those humans depicted in Pixar’s WALL.E – utterly reliant on automation for sustenance and entertainment, and unable to think for ourselves?

Quite what poets like Blake – who envisioned an England of “dark, Satanic Mills” at the face of the country changed with the advent of the industrial revolution – would make of computerised poetry remains unknown. Though it’s probably possible to at least take a rough guess about his feelings.

George Orwell’s 1984 envisioned a world in which we have already reached this point in history. Here, the “proles” are entertained by books produced by machines. Perhaps unfortunately – depending on your point of view – such a future may not be far away.

Professor Philip Parker, of Insead Business School, has created software that has generated 200,000 books, with over 100,000 of these titles available on Amazon. He notes: “A computer works very well with rules and the most obvious way is poetry.”

“We did a blind test between a Shakespearean sonnet and one that the computer had written. A majority of people surveyed preferred ours,” Professor Parker added. “That’s not to say it was better, but it was what people preferred.”

Writer as algorithm

The algorithms at the heart of Professor Parker’s software have also inspired a new suite of writing software that threatens to compete with journalists for the already minimal numbers of jobs going within the news and media industries.

Startup company Narrative Science creates articles without a human doing the writing.

With 30 clients for its articles already, written automatically by a machine collating data and writing “rich narrative content” from it, the death of the journalist has been mentioned in more than one speculative column.

Business news site Forbes is using the service for a number of pieces each weekday.

More questions than answers?

What this illustrates is the extent to which digital technology represents a force of change for writers of all ilk and forms. Some writers will no-doubt realise potential opportunities created by the emergence of new technologies. Think, for instance, of Iain Pears’s new novel, Arcadia – a 600 page hardback that works in close conjunction with an app of the same name. Or else Melville House’s line of “illuminated” novels with QR codes that lead to extra digital content. Or alternatively, Picador’s “The Kills” – a 2013 “digital first” thriller that links to online films from the characters’ points of views.

But perhaps an issue with these examples is that they all utilise technology under the assumption that the human being remains in control. Here, poets, novelists, publishing houses and media groups embrace these tools as enablers, but do not consider where the future is heading. How long before all the news stories we read have been written by machines? How long before we are all reading pre-programmed novels created by robots? How long before studentds are studying the poetry of AI-8976R, or the HAL-9000, instead of Blake and Shakespeare? And what would this mean for our culture?

These questions remain purely hypothetical. Yet as technology develops, we must begin to consider how we can answer them.


The app and the paperback: is the future of literature electric?


Faber and Touchpress have launched a “groundbreaking” new mode of publishing, which explores the future of digital reading after ebooks.

Novelist Iain Pears has worked with the two media organisations to create a new reading experience which combines the traditional paperback novel with the new digital opportunities of the smartphone or tablet app.

His new work, Arcadia, has been conceived to be read as an app first and book second, with the application written using specially-commissioned software and developed for readers by Touchpress and Gaver, the partners behind multi-award-winning apps such as The Waste Land and Shakespeare’s Sonnets for iPad.

The e-novel gathers up ten characters in three different worlds, and presents them as a skein of coloured, intersecting lines. Short bursts of text propel the characters onward, or across into another storyline: the choice depends upon the reader.

But this is not your standard “choose your adventure” type model of writing – or reading. This interactive fiction enables every single individual reader to experience the story differently. The author controls the story universe, but how readers reave the three tales – pastoral utopia, 1950s Oxford and dystopian future – is deeply dependent on the individual turning the page (or, in this case, putting fingertip to touch screen).

“There are readers who are ‘acrossers’ and others who are ‘up and downers’,” says Henry Volans, director of Faber Press, a division of the app’s publisher, Faber & Faber. “It’s meant to be a rabbit hole that encourages all sorts of reading.”

Where will this rabbit hole end?

The Circumstance art collective in Bristol is set to follow a similar interactive model of app and primary text (or primary app and secondary text, as it may be, depending on your viewpoint), as the group prepare to publish a new version of “These pages fall like ash”: a combination of a print book and an urban-walking app that overlays an imaginary world onto the physical.

Some remain cautious of suggesting anything even more interactive could be produced, however. Lincoln Michel, of the website Electric Literature, says it is hard to imagine a truly digital novel because “we already have digital narratives – they’re called videogames”. Meanwhile, British novelist, Naomi Alderman, points to the intimate nature of reading, echoing the thoughts of many other readers and writers throughout the centuries: “There’s nothing like a novel to take you into the individual consciousness of a writer. But there are things that are choice-based that only video games can do.”

Human beings have always been story tellers. Part of the reason for our species’ success has been our ability to communicate – and in fact has been key to the rise of the digital era we currently live in. What we may be catching the first glimpses of is a new digital environment that begins to break the page. As Tom Abba, a scholar or digital narrative at the University of the West of England says: “We’re trying to nudge the reader into a new kind of relationship with the story.” In other words, the traditional models of reading are changing. The future of literature may be electric.