Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Skynet Publishing? Hardly...

Now this is an interesting one!

A company called Narrative Science has recently come up with an AI (artificial intelligence) program that can write free-standing articles.

Now for all you sci-fi fans out there, I know your initial response is to twitch at the term 'AI'. Yes, me too. If the real-world Japanese company Cyberdyne ever comes out with a global intelligence forum I'm building a bomb-shelter. But I digress...

Steve Floyd addressed this new robot-reporter idea in his article "Will The Future of Publishing Go To The Robots?" His answer ranged the possibilities but eventually came out with a resounding -- of course not. You can't replace human ingenuity, and that isn't the point of this new robotic technology.

Let's back up with how it started. Initially the idea was a brain-child between journalists and engineers (which is a feat in and of itself, like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time) in an attempt to create
"artificial intelligence technology that effectively allows stories to be generated – on the fly, without the need for any input from a single human."
It's very data-oriented, less creativity-oriented, so all fiction writers can take a breather and relax. This artificial intelligence program called Quill is not going to become the next Tolkien. Quillkien. Tollquill. Hmm.

Instead, sport reporting looks to be one of the areas where this technology will be used. Stats and scores are easily analyzed by the AI and thus relayed over into a written format, making it a more functional than fictional form of fabrication. Financial reporting, investment reporting, and real-estate reporting as well as other data-driven companies are the target 'audience' of this new innovation.

Floyd reports that this new development is to be a help to writers and publishers rather than a misdirection of the work force:
"the lowered value of the written word has put a lot of papers out of business and a lot journalists out of work, leaving a heavy load on the ones who are still chasing down stories everyday. This new technology can lighten the load by freeing up more time for journalists to cover more stories and get more creative with them. That’s exactly what the people at Narrative Science hope will happen."
Well I for one am glad to hear that in the real world, creators of artificial intelligence have come up with the result that they actually wanted. Rather than, you know, genocide and apocalypse. It would only be insult to injury if the robots quoted baseball stats at us as they took over the world.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013 we love you or hate you?

So my last post was dedicated to defending from the angry law suits of the British government. This week we're going to look at another side of Amazon-- a decidedly less positive one. has a form of independent, self-publishing called CreateSpace. Through it you can supposedly reach millions of potential readers and maintain control of your intellectual and creative property. After 50 reviews, will start suggesting your book to readers and potential purchasers. You can publish to print, to the Kindle Store, or even make an audio book, all the while skipping over traditional publishing schemes which leave little control in the author's hands, little in sales, and little in progress in even breaking in to the industry.


Sounding good so far? Pretty much. I have heard CreateSpace touted...but usually only be people who don't use it. Friends and family have suggested I use the platform to self-publish and get my books out there, if nothing else as a jumping-off point for my writing career. It's far quicker and far easier than the traditional way with more chance at success. Right?

Not necessarily. It's got a lot of bugs that don't really look to have much in the way of being solved. Bugs that only have the customer in mind, and not the author. And really no common sense in mind at all.

For one, Amazon's return policy. You get a product, it's not what you thought it was, you send it back for a full refund. Everyone loves it, especially when dealing with used items that may or may not be as advertised. But did you know that Amazon also extends this policy to eBooks? Not only can a reader purchase an eBook and decide they don't like it, returning the 'file' for a full refund, but that also means that the author's royalty for that sale is retracted. Which means that any regular Joe out there could essentially turn eBooks into a free-library system, purchasing books only to return them for full price after having read them. And no income for the author. The tag is going to be, and most certainly is already, left on that little black dress for a full refund after date night. You only wore it once, right? The same is going to happen with books. I only read it once, it's just a digital file, so it's not like it has any damage, right? I can use that money for something else. Why not just return it.

There is currently also a huge controversy going out due to regarding their idea to opening eBooks to the 'used' sales. I can't believe this is even being contemplated, for one. If we have used eBooks, then there will only ever be one file of any document. It will merely circulate and pass back and forth on the ether, and the author will only ever make the smallest of sales from it. There is no physical integrity to an eBook that would merit the used-properties that one can find in a book that has shelf-life or ex-library status. Once a book is printed and sold, that money goes to the author and isn't lost. Once an eBook is sold and passed around, who needs more than just the one? The digital properties that make eBooks so convenient are the same properties that would kill authors if this digital 'sharing' occurred.

So far, I'm not bitterly declaiming as the source of all publishing evils. I love Amazon and will continue to patronize its sites for a long time to come. But no source is above making stupid decisions or overly committing to 'the customer is always right'. EBook sales should be final. Period. EBooks should be a one-purchase commodity. No recycling. Frankly, if eBooks get any greener, any more biodegradable, they'll likely dissolve out of the market entirely. Or they'll take the market with them.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Seems the Reverse

Now this is odd...

According to a recent report on Publisher's Weekly, the percentages for January book sales are the complete reverse of what you would think they would be. Adults rose and kids/young-adults dropped, substantially:
"Adult trade sales rose 8.4% in January compared to January 2012, but sales in the children’s/young adult category fell 23.5%"

Usually it's adult numbers that we see to be lower due to lack of time for reading, a lowered desire to spend free time in an 'intellectual' pursuit (hence the development of 'remote thumb' for several of the adult world), and any countless other reasons that keep the pages from turning in the adult world. I know that I read at a much slower rate now simply because the amount of hours I can dedicate to this pursuit have been curtailed in recent years. I no longer have the luxury of sitting around for 7+ hours a day when I feel like it, just for the sake of reading. Even my shorter bursts of 3-4 hours have been minimized to about 1-2, on a good day.

Yet again, the numbers are baffling:
"Sales of adult e-books rose 10.1% in the month, to $110.1 million, confirming the continuing slowdown in the growth of the e-book market. In January 2012, adult e-book sales rose 49.4% over January 2011. Sales of adult hardcovers and paperbacks this January rose 8.3%, and 10.6%, respectively, in the month.
In children’s/young adult, e-book sales fell 36.2%, while hardcovers dropped 29.3%; both reflect the strong showing made by The Hunger Games trilogy in January 2012." 
The slower plateau in adult e-books as opposed to children's e-books makes sense. Fads go out of style a lot quicker with the youth of an age. Adults are slower to follow suit in any direction either out of habit, tradition, or a simple lack of the energy required to chase after each new trend. But it's a disturbing thought to think that, even with the strong rise in reading due to The Hunger Games, there was still such a significant drop as to be a third less in reading than there was last year for young adults and children.

What's the cause of this? It's not that e-books are destroying the reading of the youth-- e-books dropped just as much as hard covers (if not more). Is there a smaller percentage of young adult/children's books being published in the last several years? Are libraries/schools lessening their incentive and grooming in the direction of reading? Or are the youth of the age reading at a higher level than expected, and thus no longer filling their own age margin (this would have made sense for me, as I was reading high school-level books in the 5th grade. Yes, I was that kid who carried around my father's leather-bound Complete Works of Jack London, which probably weighed just as much as I did)...

Either this is a good thing, and children/young adults are getting more advanced in their reading, or we have a problem for the literate world...

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Flux Remains the Same

With Britain filing against in an attempt to curb the fall of their local and small bookstores, we come again against the digital versus the traditional world. and in Paris report that France has pledged 9 million pounds to restoration and funding for their bookstores, and Booksellers are looking to the British government to do the same.

There's a lot of contention about the apparent 'undercutting' that Amazon does. You can get used, cheap books there on demand with, often, free shipping and fast rates. They have a great return policy and guarantee. You don't have to pay full-price bookstore fees for a new book, even pre-ordered, and often times you can find rare or out-of-print books at the click of the button.

The only real difference between Amazon and a bookstore is convenience. Amazon does have an e-Book market, but let's just talk about physical books. You can get a book on Amazon, likely in new or like-new condition, in 2-4 days for half to a third the price you can get it in a physical bookstore. Do you want to wait? No, then get it in the bookstore. Do you want to pay full-price? No, then order it. Do you want the experience of browsing through your favorite shelves, finding a title that catches your eye and picking it at random? You won't get that nearly as physically as you will on Amazon, but it can be done sans bookstore-smell.

But is it acceptable to 'punish' and 'curb' Amazon for providing a great product to readers? I love myself because it opens a world of low prices and great selection that I have yet to find in even my favorite bookstores. Many of my favorite authors are rare on shelves, either because they're older or because they're out of print. And with my traditional tastes it gets harder and harder to scan the shelves of my favorite genres and find a title that simply 'leaps' out at me. I like high fantasy and retold fairy tales, but the adult/young adult fantasy world has entered the era of urban fantasy and paranormal fantasy, and I have yet to follow suit. On Amazon I can get the old books and the new, not-as-well-known books that cater to my tastes.

On the other hand, small bookstores continue to rise in other areas of the world. It's big retailers that are having a big problem with the online mega-store that is Amazon, not the little home-town bookstores. If you want an in-person book shopping experience, most of the time you're going to go to your local tea shop or used bookstore. The only reason to go to a mega-bookstore (as we'll call it) is yet again that 'convenience' in the hope that they'll have what you want, but even that's not a guarantee. I've had more luck finding the titles I crave at used bookstores than at the big retailers, but as I said, that's my more traditional tastes coming to the fore.

Gigi Douban writes that independent retailers are learning to cope rather than buckling:
"We're figuring it out," says Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association. "Stores are reinventing themselves and responding to change. And we're fighting back. Teicher says since 2009, more than 300 independent bookstores have opened, and store sales were up by 8 percent last year."
So do we have a problem, really? Is it not so much an issue in the US and more so in the UK? It certainly appears to be the case-- so why are bookstores still succeeding in the US and not in the UK, where they seem to be more integral to the local community? Why is Amazon being so wildly successful there that people are actually protesting?

It's an interesting sociological and economic question to which I have no answer. I suppose if there were an answer readily available, the British government wouldn't be called on to answer for the fall of bookstores.