May 5, 2016

This algorithm kills publishers (not really though)


birdog_black_withlogo-300x300We first reported on Inkitt and its goals—namely, eliminating gatekeepers (read: human editors) from publishing, thus liberating literature from the shackles of a stodgy industry and its grumpy denizens, and replacing them with an “objective,” dollar-bill-tinted-sunglasses-wearing algorithm—back in March.

Now, as reported by Flavorwire’s Jonathon Sturgeon, the Berlin-based team has announced the release of their first algorithmically-selected and predicted “future bestseller”: the YA fantasy Bright Star by Erin Swan.

Bright Star is the second book in the Sky-Rider series (the second book, huh?). Book one, The Rising Sun, is available to for free on Inkitt. The “blurb,” which isn’t a blurb really, more of a synopsis, reads:

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So, then, we can all go home now, right? The “artificially intelligent” non-human has replaced us, the moderately intelligent humans? Well, not quite. As Inkitt itself makes clear on their website: after lambasting traditional publishing (“We don’t think that we or any so-called ‘expert’ is in a position to judge your work”), the company’s first goal is to sell that book to a publisher—in the case of Bright Star, Tor Books.

Good, fine, okay. But surely when Tor Books agreed to take on Bright Star, they didn’t let the algorithm sit at their desk for that one afternoon, doing whatever the hell it does, and then not ask any questions, did they? Which is to say, it’s hard to imagine that someone—some human—didn’t have a hard think about the book—who might buy it, how it might be marketed, and on and on. Maybe this person, probably an editor, even read it!

The point is that regardless of whether or not an algorithm selected Bright Star, Inkitt’s narrative that this is some kind of publishing revolution is not very convincing. Currently, the company merely acts as an agent to books encountered through a platform of their own devising: a platform that has its own set of biases, or “gates” (sale-ability comes to mind). Yes, these books come with a stamp of approval from an algorithm that determines that you, Reader, will go readily ape shit for this thing, but given the fact that Inkitt hasn’t made any bestsellers, that doesn’t really mean all that much—not yet at least. But even if the book does become a bestseller for Tor Books, until Inkitt can move these books in a meaningful way on their own (spoiler alert: it’s very hard), they won’t be half as revolutionary as they market themselves to be.



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.