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The Digital Revolution and the Great Editor

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Digitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author. In this world the traditional filters will have melted into air and only the ultimate filter—the human inability to read what is unreadable—will remain to winnow what is worth keeping in a virtual marketplace where Keats's nightingale shares electronic space with Aunt Mary's haikus. That the contents of the world's libraries will eventually be accessed practically anywhere at the click of a mouse is not an unmixed blessing. Another click might obliterate these same contents and bring civilization to an end: an overwhelming argument, if one is needed, for physical books in the digital age. — Jason Epstein, New York Review of Books

Epstein makes a number of other provocative predictions about the consequences of the digital revolution in publishing in his piece, but he neglects to mention one thing: the more content there is out there, the less value it will ultimately have.

The less value texts will have, the less quality texts will ultimately be produced. We might be entering an era of literary inflation so far unknown in human history, an era where there will simply be too many words looking for a fixed number of eyeballs. Who will have the courage to winnow all those texts? Who will be able to afford it?

As in any inflation, the costs of finding that one good book in the sea of bad ones will eventually discourage all but the most determined readers. With shrinking audiences will come fewer quality texts — why spend years writing a book that virtually no one will read because no one will be able to find it?

Enter Google. In the not too distant future, Google might become the Great Editor, sifting through the millions of texts for the one that you, the precious reader, are willing to read. Who needs editors indeed. Who needs agents or publishers for that matter? Just upload your book into Google Editor and wait while Google Editing algorithms determine the value of your submission by estimating the potential readership.

Editors are nothing more than human expert systems tasked with reading thousands of book manuscripts in order to find those few that they know, or are at least reasonably sure, that readers will want to read. But their job can be done by an artificial expert system. Agents could be replaced by the algorithm, too: Google could estimate the value of your text by running an auction, presenting a portion of your text to those readers most likely to want to read it and allowing them to bid what they would like to pay in order to read the rest.

Google is supremely positioned to become that giant editor (and agent) in the sky because it will know what you like to read based on your selections from Google Books. Knowing what you like to read, Google will be able to create a profile of you (and millions of others) as a reader. It will then flip that profile and use it as an algorithmic sieve, trawling millions, billions, trillions of words of the vast sea of content to come in search of the book that you will find interesting. The publishing industry should really be afraid. But not of the Kindle or the iPad.

The current book market is grossly inefficient at matching readers and texts. Today many books that are published never reach much of an audience. Most, having sold a few copies, vanish from the scene, never to be seen again. This inefficiency is part of the reason why publishers have in recent years focused so much on discovering the next mega-selling book: publishing a mega-seller offsets the costs of all those other, less popular books. But if there was a system that could suggest all the relevant books, matching reader interests, the market would become vastly more efficient.

Even being listed on current or future indexing systems doesn’t and won’t help much — most readers simply don’t have the luxury to peruse a vast catalog of titles for books that might interest them. Even now, the huge numbers of books available on extant book catalogs through major online book retailers devalue these books in the eyes of the readers because the cost of searching for that one or two good ones is simply too great. Enter Google.

Or Amazon, for that matter. Either of these two giants will eventually get into the great editor in the sky business, for there is great profit to be made in linking texts that were once lost to the eager eyeballs willing to redeem them by reading them.

Readers are quite selective and an increase in the volume of texts to read will cause them to become even more selective. Matching algorithms that bring readers and books they might be interested in will be the profit center of the book universe of the future. So will remixing algorithms. Suppose you want to read a book that does not yet exist but parts of it do exist in a number of books. Algorithms that can locate these parts and put them into a new arrangement will also become profit centers.

No one can be sure how publishing will evolve or what it will look like in the future. One thing is certain — the publishing industry will be greatly transformed and making money in publishing will fundamentally change. This is good news for readers and writers. A system such as the hypothetical Google Editor would allow any author to have a chance at finding a paying audience. Thousands of forgotten books could conceivably be brought back into circulation. Readers, on the other hand, would be able to find all those books they might conceivably enjoy reading and, thus, read more of what they want to read while avoiding wasting time with books that don’t really interest them.

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org
  • I look forward to Google the Great Editor, sifting through millions of texts, algorithmically matching and mixing to customize exactly what I want to read. However, you proffer some dubious premises that don’t necessarily impact our forthcoming readers’ utopia but must be challenged.

    1) The more content there is out there, the less value it will ultimately have.
    2) The less value texts have, the less quality texts will ultimately be produced.
    3) There will simply be too many words looking for a fixed number of eyeballs.
    4) With shrinking audiences will come fewer quality texts.

    Let’s take these in reverse order, because points 3) and 4) are easiest to rebut. On what planet do you find “a fixed number of eyeballs”? Certainly not Earth, where world population continues to grow and literacy expands globally out of practical necessity. If the audience for traditional books is shrinking, that’s a consequence of evolving technology not declining population.

    Points 1) and 2) are likewise problematical. You really need to define “value” here. Cultural value must be distinguished from economic value. Maybe the more food is grown, the lower its price on the commodity exchange. But food for thought obeys no such laws.

    As a fallible human editor, I respectfully suggest that your piece would be better with fewer unsupported pronouncements and more attention to fact.

  • Typical Kurtz.

    I hasten to add though that “typical,” in this usage, has become a trademark.

  • Agree with Kurtz, the “value” claim is dubious, but when it comes to art, culture, and knowledge, “value” must necessarily be in some sense subjective, and one way to define it would be simply by the likelihood and/or actuality of finding readers. In which case, the assumption holds true in a strict mathematical sense. If I write the Great American Novel and it’s never published, so that only my mother reads it, what is its value to the world? If a million people read it, what is its value then? Certainly, higher, in some sense.

  • Would Paradise Lost or La Commedia be of lesser value for having been only sparsely read?

    And what of the value of a bestseller that sells in thousands?

  • Also: as with any upsurge, there will be a regression as well. Many people who jump on the bandwagon of writing and self publishing will find out that it is bloody hard work (50+ hours a week in my case) and even then the rewards can be minimal or non-existing. It takes a very determined attitude to remain a writer.

    So Google may never need to find an editor algorithm because the amount of written text may very well slump after a few years.

  • mrdockellis

    Interesting idea of thought as a commodity, but I guess you speaking of this as one off expression and nothing Socratic (can you quantify intellectual exchange? A market place of ideas seems aimed more at quality, though with the lowest common denominator as a guiding light perhaps quantity wins out over quality)
    This expression might have a purely individual benefit say in the case of John Kennedy Toole. Perhaps he might not have killed himself if Confederacy of Dunces had been published by him. Or maybe fame would have made him more depressed and the end is the same. Can’t tell.
    I have to say access to collateral sources via the Internet has made finding “good” books easier, but it still doesn’t beat a trip to the bookstore, though perhaps I’m biased in a tactile sense. I love the feel of a good book in my hands, sensualist that I am. It becomes a mind/body thing I suppose.

  • A. Jurek

    It doesn’t matter how many people there are on earth, only so many will ever read books on a regular basis. Consequently, there will always be only so many readers, a fixed number of eyeballs if you will.

  • Jay

    Google’s ambition is quite frightening sometimes. Wonder if they can pull this one through while other Tech giants look on.

  • A. Jurek (#7), thanks for clearing this up. I forgot that, no matter how many people are on earth, only so many will ever read books. It’s the old “fixed number of eyeballs” principle, known since Biblical times as the Rule of the Golden Iris. It explains why, when Moses went to the trouble of schlepping The Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai after twice spending 40 days and nights alone up there, a mere 0.17% of the people bothered to read them. (One wag, anticipating Cecil B. DeMille by 3,200 years, quipped: “I’ll wait for the movie.”)

    Not understanding the immutability of this absolute limit, Johannes Gutenberg hoped to improve on that number by inventing movable type printing, of course to no avail. Finally, during the 1950s, British and American molecular biologists determined that the Rule of the Golden Iris is hardwired in humans, haplessly transmitted from one generation to the next. Today’s geneticists theorize that it might someday be possible to modify our DNA so that fewer than 0.17% of people will read books. But, sadly, there is no way to overcome the upper limit.

  • Alan, thanks for the laugh today.

  • It’s like expecting your programmer to be able to design a typographically well-constructed piece and know the essentials to guiding a reader through an ad. It’s possible, but you’re not putting an expert on the job. Why expect your designer to be an excellent programmer if you wouldn’t expect your programmer to be a top-level designer?