Book Publishing and the Web

Stephen DeAngelis

April 23, 2008

It seems there is an aspiring author in all of us just yearning to be set free. The World Wide Web and the emergence of Web logs (which quickly became known as blogs) demonstrated how many people believe they have something that needs to be read. The Web, however, has not killed print media. People are still reading newspapers, magazines, and books (even though most of them can also be found on the Web). Two articles, one from the New York Times and the other from the Washington Post, relate how people have used the benefits of the Web to create traditional print books. The first article talks about a man who claims to be the world’s most published author [“He Wrote 200,000 Books (but Computers Did Some of the Work),” by Noam Cohen, New York Times, 14 April 2008].

“It’s not easy to write a book. First you have to pick a title. And then there is the table of contents. If you want the book to be categorized, either by a bookseller or a library, it has to be assigned a unique numerical code, like an ISBN, for International Standard Book Number. There have to be proper margins. Finally, there’s the back cover. Oh, and there is all that stuff in the middle, too. The writing. Philip M. Parker seems to have licked that problem. Mr. Parker has generated more than 200,000 books, as an advanced search on Amazon.com under his publishing company shows, making him, in his own words, ‘the most published author in the history of the planet.’ And he makes money doing it.”

You might not have heard of any of his books. Cohen points out that they have names like: The Official Patient’s Sourcebook on Acne Rosacea; Stickler Syndrome: A Bibliography and Dictionary for Physicians, Patients and Genome Researchers; and The 2007-2012 Outlook for Tufted Washable Scatter Rugs, Bathmats and Sets That Measure 6-Feet by 9-Feet or Smaller in India. Most of those titles, according to Cohen, sell for around $30, but the last book sells for a whopping $495 for 144 pages. Clearly, Parker is not an expert in such diverse fields — so how does he do it?

“These are not conventional books, and it is perhaps more accurate to call Mr. Parker a compiler than an author. Mr. Parker, who is also the chaired professor of management science at Insead (a business school with campuses in Fontainebleau, France, and Singapore), has developed computer algorithms that collect publicly available information on a subject — broad or obscure — and, aided by his 60 to 70 computers and six or seven programmers, he turns the results into books in a range of genres, many of them in the range of 150 pages and printed only when a customer buys one. If this sounds like cheating to the layman’s ear, it does not to Mr. Parker, who holds some provocative — and apparently profitable — ideas on what constitutes a book. While the most popular of his books may sell hundreds of copies, he said, many have sales in the dozens, often to medical libraries collecting nearly everything he produces.”

Parker plans on getting more involved in popular literature. According to Cohen, Parker is working on generating “crossword puzzles, rudimentary poetry and even … scripts for animated game shows.” He is also working on algorithms that can write romance novels. Ah, what light in yonder computer screen breaks? Actually “writing” a novel will be quite an advance on what Parker has produced to date. His “books” are apparently pretty bad reading and fairly shallow in content.

“Perusing a work like the outlook for bathmat sales in India, a reader would be hard pressed to find an actual sentence that was ‘written’ by the computer. If you were to open a book, you would find a title page, a detailed table of contents, and many, many pages of graphics with introductory boilerplate that is adjusted for the content and genre.”

The article points out that if you are good at surfing the Web, the books would be useless to you. That doesn’t mean Parker’s “books” aren’t innovative. Like most innovators, Parker developed his publishing process because he was dissatisfied with the scut work required in research.

“It is the idea of automating difficult or boring work that led Mr. Parker to become involved. Comparing himself to a distant disciple of Henry Ford, he said he was ‘deconstructing the process of getting books into people’s hands; every single step we could think of, we automated.’ He added: ‘My goal isn’t to have the computer write sentences, but to do the repetitive tasks that are too costly to do otherwise.’ In an interview from his home in San Diego and his offices nearby, Mr. Parker described his motivation as providing content that the marketplace has otherwise neglected for lack of an audience. That can mean a relatively obscure language is involved, or a relatively obscure disease or a relatively obscure product.”

You can now understand why I was interested in his “method.” My company, Enterra Solutions, uses a similar method to identify policies, laws, and regulations with which businesses must comply. We extract the rules from those documents and, using algorithms, automate them into business processes — thus, saving time and money while reducing human errors. Cohen concluded his article by noting that artificial intelligence “authors” are a long way from producing what the general public would consider real literature. That brings me to the second article which focuses on how human authors use the Web to produce books [“Bethesda Start-Up Makes Writing a Little Less Lonely,” by Kim Hart, Washington Post, 14 April 2008].

“On the Web, everyone can be a published author. Amateur and professional writers alike have found voices in blogs and social-networking profiles, bypassing the cut-throat competition of old-line publishing. Now a Bethesda [Maryland] start-up is trying to leverage that community of would-be authors to help write books, or at least improve them. WEbook … invites writers, editors, topic experts and anyone else who has something to say to put their virtual pens together to work on literary projects. If the finished works get high marks from the site’s members, WEbook publishes hard copies and sells them through online booksellers such as Amazon.com and retail stores including Barnes & Noble. Some books can also be read via mobile phones or in e-book format.”

The philosophy behind WEbook is that any written work will benefit from early comments by others. They also wanted to provide authors, who often slave alone over a computer keyboard, manual typewriter, or pad of paper to produce their literary works, a more social setting in which to be creative. According to Hart, WEbook’s first novel will be a 58-chapter thriller titled Pandora, which was written by 17 people.

“By adopting the growing crowd-sourcing model, which aims to tap into the wisdom of a wide range of people, and the collaborative style of Wikipedia entries, WEbook hopes to help frustrated writers realize their potential. ‘The idea is that a book would turn out better if the author could get fast, early feedback during the writing process,’ said WEbook President Sue Heilbronner, a former lawyer whose pent-up creative ambitions drove her to the entrepreneurial world.”

The reading public will be the ultimate arbiters of whether the literary efforts created using the WEbook methodology are any good; but I suspect Heilbronner’s instincts are correct that they will be better than they would have been as a result of early feedback. One of the reasons I suspect this will be true is that WEbook is hoping to get subject matter experts to weigh in whenever such expertise will add authenticity to books written by authors who may not be intimately familiar with the inner workings of organizations like the CIA or the New York City Police Department. It will take a few years to judge the success of WEbook; but one thing I can promise, the books will be more interesting to read than those produced by Parker’s algorithms.