Schlock

One question that often pops up on twitter or in discussions around algorithmically generated books like these is, well, how do we stop them?

We can’t.

Free access to publishing tools means something different from what you thought it did, and has different consequences.

One of the consequences of anybody being able to publish is that everybody can publish, not just the worthy few who big publishing never got around to or those who were a little bit too weird, innovative, or unique for an editor to take a risk.

And ‘everybody’ includes algorithmically-generated crap and unoriginal schlock hammered out so quickly that it might as well be generated by a soulless computer.

The biggest beneficiaries of open, free, and equitable access to publishing tools will never be skilled writers, readers with taste, or anybody who sells a quality good, but the purveyors of mass-manufactured schlock and buyers who either don’t mind it, or can’t tell the difference.

There will never be a return to quality but a steady decline as the crap merchants pile on higher and higher. Success will become more and more random.

That isn’t to say that writers and publishers can’t find some sort of success, it’s just not likely to be that of the mass market kind.

Unless, of course, you don’t mind selling schlock, in which case you just buy it cheap, pile it on high, and bet on becoming one of the lucky ones. Better yet, you can position your publishing company as a service that enables successful schlock merchants to reach even bigger scale (coughFifty Shadescough).

If you are an amoral publishing corporation, the soundest strategic path to take is to become a service provider for the schlock merchants who have stumbled onto success and are facing the need to scale. In fact, it might be a more reliably profitable business strategy than the old one of trying to publish books that sell.

That $5000 bonus might well be the herald of a brave new world, not a world where big publishers think that rebadged fan fiction is the next big thing (although that seems to be coming as well), but a world where helping anybody and everybody who manages to have some success to scale is their biggest source of revenue.

— Bring us your intellectual manure, your algo-generated pap, your generic schlock, and we can leverage your success into massive profits for us both!

Unlike software, which has been facing a similar expansion of free access to publishing tools for a while, there is no lower limit on the amount of effort you have to put into a book. There is no lower bound for ebook quality.

The lower bound for quality has been pushed down in software as well, but there the fundamental tasks of product development are still difficult enough for the lowest-level sleazebag shit-pedlars to have to resort to piracy and intellectual theft to create their cheap products. That leaves them open to using legal tactics to block them. Even with piracy, they still need some IT skills to crack open the original app packages they are stealing.

While in our publishing new world order, any old idiot can assemble 75 000 words of nonsense and release it.


You could interpret the increasing complexity of ebook formats as an incumbent survival tactic. Make it harder to make books in an attempt to push the lower bound out of the market. Unfortunately the increasing complexity just increases the amount of bugs and errors in their own product, making it easier for schlock to compete.


What does this all mean?

Simple. If you are trying to sell a good book you have to earn your customers one by one and learn how to treat them well enough for them to return to buy your next book.

It’s a slow-going task, full of hard work and few rewards, but it’s the only sustainable tactic in a market that is increasingly dominated by randomness.

It’s also a tactic that doesn’t scale. It can work well for individuals and small- to medium-sized publishers, but the direct selling necessary isn’t easily scalable to the levels needed to sustain a large corporation.

Large corporations need to figure out new business-models because the old one will begin to fade and they can’t just copy the disruptors.

They’ll need to become better at leveraging their backlist.

They’ll need to invest in true product development, of the kind that removes itself from competing with schlock and crap. Don’t just think of yourselves as pedlars of books, your customer wants a book because they have a problem they want to solve. Your business’s survival hinges on being able address that problem, however that problem can best be solved, not in being able to make more and more books.


Good books have no god-given right to exist. There is no reason on earth why a market should automatically give good books the space they need to survive.

The dynamics of free access digital markets favour rubbish. Crap is grasped at a glance, its actual content is so scant that it can be boiled down to tweetable catch phrases. Toxic ideologies and world-views stand out more easily and are grasped more easily than considered opinions. Everything that makes a crap book crap also makes it a more contagious idea on a social network.

Everything that makes a good book good decreases its chance of survival. Online communities are allergic to nuance and subtlety. Originality cannot be condensed down to a tweetable description. Anything that faithfully represents the complexity of human life and thought is trampled into the ground by the pandered herd.

Difference needs to be hand-sold, one by one.

Or, it needs to be lucky, relying on the whims of randomness.

Neither way is reliable and neither is easy.