April 3, 2019

The rise of robot authors: is the writing on the wall for human novelists?
The Guardian

Is there greater cause to worry further down the literary food chain? There have for a while already been “AI bots” that can, we hear, “write” news stories. All these are, though, are giant automated plagiarism machines that mash together bits of news stories written by human beings. As so often, what is promoted as a magical technological advance depends on appropriating the labour of humans, rendered invisible by AI rhetoric. When a human writer commits plagiarism, that is a serious matter. But when humans get together and write a computer program that commits plagiarism, that is progress.

As a news reporter, GPT2 is, to put it generously, rather Trumpian. Fed the first line of a Brexit story – “Brexit has already cost the UK economy at least £80bn since the EU referendum” – it went on a nutty free-associative spree that warned, among other things: “The UK could lose up to 30% of its top 10 universities in future.” (“Up to 30% of the top 10” is a rather roundabout way of saying maybe three.) Brexit, the machine continued, will push “many of our most talented brains out the country on to campuses in the developing world” (eh?), and replacing “lost international talent from overseas” would, according to “research by Oxford University”, cost “nearly $1 trillion”. To which one can only properly respond: Project Fear! To their credit, the machine’s masters at OpenAI admit that it is sometimes prone to what they call “world-modelling failures”, “eg the model sometimes writes about fires happening underwater”.

The makers’ announcement that this program is too dangerous to be released is excellent PR, then, but hardly persuasive. Such code, OpenAI warns, could be used to “generate misleading news articles”, but there is no shortage of made-up news written by actual humans working for troll factories. The point of the term “deepfakes” is that they are fakes that go deeper than prose, which anyone can fake. Much more dangerous than disinformation clumsily written by a computer are the real “deepfakes” in visual media that respectable researchers are eagerly working on right now. When video of any kind can be generated that is indistinguishable from real documentary evidence – so that a public figure, for example, can be made to say words they never said – then we’ll be in a world of trouble. OpenAI agrees that this is a larger problem, even if its proposed remedy is rather vague. To prevent what it calls “malicious actors” from exploiting such technology, it says, we “should seek to create better technical and non-technical countermeasures”. Arguably this is like engineering a bioweapon and its antidote at the same time, rather than choosing not to invent it in the first place.

A Profitable Year for Trade Publishers
Publishers Weekly

Profits rose in 2018 over 2017 at four of the five major trade publishers that report their financial information—and the one company at which earnings were down, Lagardère Publishing, reported an increase in profits at its U.S. subsidiary, Hachette Book Group. Operating margins fell at Lagardère and slipped by a 10th of a percentage point at Penguin Random House but rose at the three other companies. Solid backlist sales and strong sales of digital audio were cited by four of the five publishers as key revenue drivers in the year, though sales of e-books were down.

March 12, 2019

3 Big Trends In 2019 Indie Books, According To Publishing Startup Reedsy’s CEO
Forbes

Publishing startup Reedsy wants to surface the next hit indie book. It’s launching a new service today, Reedsy Discovery, aimed at promoting only independently published books. Users who join it will be able to connect with a similar-minded reading community, previewing chapters and browsing recommendations.

The service will have a huge pool to draw from: A little over one million titles were independently published in the U.S. in 2017, compared to the traditionally published 300,000 titles. Granted, the number of undiscovered winners in that million is likely pretty low. With Discovery, Reedsy is betting a mix of human curation and machine learning algorithms can pick out the biggest gems while supporting a more welcoming community than that of, say, Amazon’s automatic recommendation emails.

I talked to Emmanuel Nataf, CEO and co-founder of Reedsy, to learn more about which types of indie books have the best odds of getting past that book-marketing bottleneck – or at least which ones self-publishers hope can make it.

February 5, 2019

ALA Rebounds in Seattle
Publishers Weekly

More than 9,000 librarians and vendors attended the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting in Seattle, held January 25–29, a welcome rebound for ALA after two straight years of lagging attendance. In all, ALA reported 9,211 total attendees, up significantly over the 8,036 attendees at the 2018 Midwinter Meeting in Denver (the least-attended Midwinter Meeting in 30 years). And with the 2019 ALA Annual Conference set for Washington, D.C.—a location that has traditionally yielded ALA’s best-attended conferences—the 13 % attendance boost in Seattle is a good start to what is setting up to be an important year for the association.

Among the conference highlights was an inspiring opening keynote by Melinda Gates, whose upcoming memoir, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, is due out from Flatiron Books in April. In her 45-minute talk, Gates spoke passionately about the fight for gender equality and challenged librarians to act. “The demand for gender equality is growing louder, and it is coming from all over the world,” she said, while warning that continued progress is not inevitable. “If we want to summon a moment of lift for women and girls, a moment that will lift up all of humanity, we all need to step up, every single one of us in this room.”

January 29, 2019

Corporate Censorship Is a Serious, and Mostly Invisible, Threat to Publishing
Electric Lit

But many times book censorship still succeeds without a whimper. This kind of censorship is largely disregarded and often tacitly tolerated and self-induced among editors: corporate censorship. On the surface, there’s a logic in corporate censorship that may seem at least arguable. When corporate executives at, say, Netflix cancel your favorite shoot-em-up action show or a boy-meets-boy love story, seemingly without cause, there’s a knee-jerk feeling of dissatisfaction that eventually gives way to complacency. Just as corporate executives giveth us the stories we like, so can corporate executives taketh them away. They can do what they want; it’s their property.

But not so fast.

Is it — or should it be — a universal right for corporations to censor their so-called property in all cases, under all circumstances? One case from the 1970s may command some second thoughts on a corporate safe zone cordoned off by copyright laws and cultural misconceptions, one that calls into question the entire endeavor of corporate censorship.

With No ‘Fire,’ Print Units Fell 5% in Mid-January
Publishers Weekly

Unit sales of print books fell 5% in the week ended Jan. 19, 2019, compared to the similar week in 2018, at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. All the major categories had declines in the week, including adult nonfiction, where units dropped 5.1%. Last year at this time, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury was hitting its sales stride and sold nearly 326,000 copies in the week ended Jan. 20, 2018. The #1 seller in the category in the most recent week was, once again, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, which sold more than 82,000 copies and is closing in on four million print copies sold at outlets that report to BookScan. A big bestseller four years ago was Maria Kondo’s The Life-Saving Magic of Tidying Up, and, thanks to Kondo’s new Netflix series, the book was #3 on the most recent adult nonfiction list, with more than 23,000 copies sold. Print units dropped 6.8% in adult fiction in the week ended Jan. 19, 2019, even though the books at top of the bestseller list were selling at about the same rate as those at the top a year ago. In first place in the category in the most recent week was the new book by James Patterson and Candice Fox, Liar Liar, which sold nearly 22,000 copies, while second-place Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens sold close to 20,000 copies. Last year at this time, The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn and City of Endless Night by Douglas Preston were one-two on the fiction list, with both selling just over 20,000 copies. Print units fell 5.2% in juvenile fiction compared to 2018, despite a solid showing by Dav Pilkey’s Brawl of the Wild (Dog Man #6), which sold more than 44,000 copies.

December 19, 2018

Late-Night TV Hosts Give Publicity-Starved Novelists the Star Treatment
The New York Times

In a television landscape where literature has become largely overlooked, late-night hosts like Mr. Meyers and Trevor Noah have made it their mission to put a spotlight on writers — giving them an enormous amount of influence in the publishing world.

The morning shows, which once featured interviews with acclaimed novelists like E. L. Doctorow and William Styron, have largely tilted toward lifestyle and diet books and celebrity memoirs, with occasional appearances by best-selling authors or roundups of summer fiction.

December 5, 2018

Barnes & Noble Has A Good Q2
Forbes

Barnes & Noble has made several announcements in the past couple of weeks: the opening of prototype stores, its Q2 earnings statement, and the news that it will open around ten new stores next year. All bring good news to the embattled bookstore chain.

Polis Books Launches Diversity-Focused Crime Imprint
Publishers Weekly

Pinter said the launch of Agora Books—agora means open forum—is an effort to “focus on crime novels that delve into the most important issues of our time.” Agora, he said, will offer a diverse roster of authors, whose books will explore “culture, gender, sexuality, society, economy, and politics.”

All of the initial three Agora titles are debut authors, Osman said. She added “crime fiction has always shined a light on society and culture and if we’re ignoring some writers, we’re losing the backbone of the genre.”

December 1, 2018

Small bookstores are booming after nearly being wiped out
CBS News

Some encouraging news…

According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookstores fell by approximately 40 percent between the mid-90s and 2009. They have recovered some of those closures, and this year, sales are up more than five percent over a year ago.

The localism movement has been a driving force. Customers are increasingly spending in their neighborhood stores.

November 28, 2018

The Next Black Publishing Generation Speaks
Publishers Weekly

Although the book industry remains overwhelmingly white—87% of respondents to PW’s most recent annual salary survey identify as Caucasian—there is undeniably a new and passionate generation of young black professionals working inside publishing houses.

To get their perspective on the industry, PW spoke with a group of 20- and 30-somethings that included Georgia Bodnar, associate editor, Viking; Milena Brown, publicity manager, Atria; Rakia Clark, senior editor, Beacon Press; Christian Coleman, associate digital marketing manager, Beacon Press; Nicole Counts, associate editor, One World; Devin Funches, sales and marketing manager, Lion Forge Comics; Zakia Henderson-Brown, associate editor and strategic partnerships coordinator, New Press; Chelcee Johns, editorial assistant, 37 Ink; Ebony Ladelle, senior marketing manager, HarperTeen; Tolani Osan, corporate marketing associate, Simon & Schuster; and Christina “Steenz” Stewart, associate editor, Lion Forge Comics.

George R. R. Martin Might Never Finish A Song of Ice and Fire, and That’s OK
Barnes & Noble

Out this week is Fire & Blood: 300 Years Before A Game of Thrones, the first of two volumes in George R. R. Martin’s faux-history of the dragonlords of House Targaryen, ancestors to its last survivor, young Queen Daenerys. It begins with Aegon the Conqueror and the forging of the Iron Throne, and carries through subsequent generations, and the family’s battles to keep it. It’s backstory that’s only been glimpsed before, and some of the most intriguing Westeros has to offer, set in the days when dragons ruled the skies.

It’s also a reminder that Martin’s world is a whole lot larger than the events of the book series proper, and that we may be putting too much weight on our desire to see it brought to conclusion. Yes, we’ve all been waiting seven years for book six, let alone the concluding seventh volume. Certainly, we want to know what happens. But does the ending define this particular saga? Does it matter at all who sits the Iron Throne, or whether a Stark rules in Winterfell?

How To Turn A Viral Article Into A Published Book
Forbes

How does an author turn a viral article into a published book? In the case of writer Gemma Hartley, whose September 2017 Harper’s Bazaar article on emotional labor, “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up,” went viral on publication, it helped that she was prepared. “This was one of the few cases throughout my freelance career when I thought, I could write a whole book on this,” she said.

Since there were several months between filing her article and its publication, she had time to mull over the topic. When the article exploded online, with over half a million social media shares, she was contacted by literary agents. By that point, Hartley says, she already had a “rough outline” in mind for the book, which felt like “a natural, if surreal, next step.” Her expanded exploration of the topic, Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, was published by HarperOne on November 13.

November 20, 2018

Do Horror and Crime Go Together?
CrimeReads

In other cases, though, the genre crossover creates as many problems as it does opportunities. I’m thinking of horror and supernatural fiction, in particular. Having such a strong flavor and inflexible set of conventions of its own, horror isn’t known for playing well with other genres. The horror formula calls for last-act reversals, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, where almost every other genre formula ends with the protagonists living some version of happily ever after. In fact, in horror, the very notion of a protagonist can become fluid, the baton passing from one character to another as their individual arcs are violently truncated.

And when horror is paired with mystery, it sometimes seems as though the two genre strands are pulling in precisely opposite directions.

For readers of mystery, a large part of the pleasure they derive from a story comes from the moment or moments when the mystery is explained and a solution presents itself. This means there’s an implicit bargain between writer and reader: the reader suspends disbelief and engages with the story, while the writer guarantees that an explanation will eventually be given, using information already made available and staying within the rules that have been established.