This article in Slate about algorithms, discovery, and creativity really got my brain-juices going.
You see, one of the hardest things about being a small press – or a debut author, or an early-career author, regardless of how you’re published – is discoverability. Without a multi-million-dollar PR and marketing budget, how do you get your book in front of actual readers? How do they find you, amidst all the thousands and thousands of books published each year…let alone the bestsellers that are already out there, taking up most of the shelf real estate in bookstores and the viewing slots on Amazon?
Companies like Amazon and Netflix rely on complicated algorithms to suggest other titles for you to try out; companies like Goodreads and Fuzz rely on human curation and recommendation on a fairly large scale to do the same. Electric Literature has a really nifty magazine, Recommended Reading, that I wish had a solid sf/f/wtf counterpart (it can take forever go through blogs getting recommendations). Based on anecdotal evidence, combined with the stats gathered by the Book Industry Study Group and others, we’ve come to the conclusion that most readers find their next book through a combination of machine suggestions and human suggestions from trusted sources – friends, relatives, coworkers, and bloggers whose taste they like. Ads and marketing can factor in – you’ll certainly pay more attention to a recommendation from a friend if you’ve already heard of the book from seeing an ad somewhere – but reccs are the key.
Where the article expands on all this is the idea of machine recommendations, and using the data from sales points to determine what will sell next. It’s widgetizing creativity, basically – a great idea for publishers who want to minimize the risk when picking and producing a new book, but a lousy idea for artists and audiences.
Because if all we ever do is tweak a previously best-selling trope, where does the fantastical new thing that starts the next trope come from? Where’s the disruption? Where’s the fun?
Publishers are supposed to take risks. That’s why we play the game – we find something that we truly believe in, something fantastic and wonderful that just gets under your skin and makes you incapable of not thinking of it, and we want to share it with the world. We take on the financial risk of producing and packaging that idea, and then we go out and introduce it to the world as best we can. We hope that readers will find it, then devour it like we did and go on to tell others about it, spreading the idea, the story, the love to ever more fans.
When that happens, the author makes a bundle and we make back what we spent on development, plus enough to start financing other projects, other stories, other ideas.
Or at least, that’s the blue-sky, ideal scenario. (Well, okay, the REALLY ideal scenario ends with both author and publishing staff having their own custom-built castles on sky-islands, but baby steps, people.)
In the Widgetized Creativity system, a computer model crunches data from prior sales, and projects what combination of love story/vampire/werewolf/angsty wombat/snarky dialogue/purple prose/dystopia/alt-Victorian/space opera will optimize selling potential. And then we get sixteen variants on that, and nothing new and crazy and gripping really comes out of the process, because that’s too much risk. What if that existential zombie novel is too thinky? What if the noir caper is too funny? Oh noes!
Look. The idea of an algorithm-scripted novel is kinda cool, I’ll give you that. But the idea that all we’re going to have moving forward, in order to optimize profitability, is Widgetized Creativity – that’s terrifying. That’s practically dystopian.
And yet it gives me hope.
Because it means that there’s always going to be a place for small press: idealistic, slightly crazy, definitely willfully blinkered publishers who believe in the power of storytelling and character and craziness more than in the siren song of profits. Yes, we want profits – they mean we can pay our staff and pay our authors and replace that old computer that’s starting to smoke worryingly – but we can live without the custom sky-island as long as we’re bringing in enough to finance the next cool project.
Because in the end, it’s about those cool projects, the stories that get under your skin and won’t leave your hindbrain, no matter how weird they are. It’s about finding them, and developing them, and producing them, and sharing them with the world.
Not about making a widget.