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Polemic: how readers will discover books in future

(Another polemic from Sprint Beyond The Book at the Frankfurt Book Fair ... )

In the future, readers will not go in search of books to read. Feral books will stalk readers, sneak into their ebook libraries, and leap out to ambush them. Readers will have to beat books off with a baseball bat; hold them at bay with a flaming torch: refuse to interact: and in extreme cases, feign dyslexia, blindness or locked-in syndrome to avoid being subjected to literature.

You think I'm exaggerating for effect, don't you?

Today, roughly 40-50,000 books are published commercially each year in the English language. But the number is rapidly rising, as traditional barriers to entry are fading away. Meanwhile, the audience for these works remains stubbornly static. The limits to reading are imposed by its time-rivalrous nature, in conjunction with the size of the English-reading population and the number of hours in the day. Tools that make writing and publishing easier work to increase the volume of work because the creation of books is to some extent an exercise of ego: we are all convinced that we have something of value to communicate, after all. It therefore seems inevitable that in future, there will be more books -- and with them, more authors who are convinced that the existence of their literary baby entitles them to prosper from the largesse of their readers.

A burgeoning supply of books and a finite number of reader-hours is a predictor of disaster, insofar as the average number of readers per book will dwindle. The competition for eyeballs will intensify by and by. Many writers will stick to the orthodox tools of their profession, to attractive covers and cozening cover copy. Some will engage in advertising, and others in search engine optimization strategies to improve their sales ranking. But some will take a road less well trodden.

Historically, publishers attempted to use cheap paperback novels as advertising sales vehicles. Books incorporated ads, as magazines and websites do today: they even experienced outbreaks of product placement, car chases interrupted so that the protagonists could settle down for half an hour to enjoy a warming dish of canned tomato soup. Authors and their agents put an end to this practice, for the most part, with a series of fierce lawsuits waged between the 1920s and 1940s that added boilerplate to standard publisher contracts forbidding such practices: for authors viewed their work as art, not raw material to deliver eyeballs to advertisements.

But we have been gulled into accepting advertising-funded television, and by extension an advertising-funded web. And as the traditional verities of publishing erode beneath the fire-hose force of the book as fungible data, it is only a matter of time before advertising creeps into books, and then books become a vehicle for advertising. And by advertising, I mean spam.

The first onset of bookspam went unnoticed, for it did not occur within the pages of the books themselves. Spam squirted its pink and fleshy presence into the discussion fora of Goodreads and the other community collaborative book reading and reviewing websites almost from the first. And we shrugged and took it for granted because, well, it's *spam*. It's pervasive, annoying, and it slithers in wherever there's space for feedback or a discussion.

But that isn't where it's going to end. An epub ebook file is essentially an HTML5 file, encapsulated with descriptive metadata and an optional DRM layer. The latest draft standard includes support for all aspects of HTML5 including JavaScript. Code implodes into text, and it is only a matter of time before we see books that incorporate software for collaborative reading. Not only will your ebook save your bookmarks and annotations; it'll let you share bookmarks and annotations with other readers. It's only logical, no? And the next step is to let readers start discussions with one another, with some sort of tagging mechanism to link the discussions to books, or chapters, or individual scenes, or a named character or footnote.

Once there is code there will be parasites, viral, battening on the code. It's how life works: around 75% of known species are parasitic organisms. A large chunk of the human genome consists of endogenous retroviruses, viruses that have learned to propagate themselves by splicing themselves into our chromosomes and lazily allowing the host cells to replicate themselves whenever they divide. Spammers will discover book-to-book discussion threads just as flies flock to shit.

But then it gets worse. Much worse.

Authors, expecting a better reaction from the reading public than is perhaps justifiable in this age of plenty for all (and nothing for many) will eventually succumb to the urge to add malware to their ebooks in return for payment. The malware will target the readers' ebook libraries. The act of reading an infected text will spread the payload, which will use its access to spread advertising extracts and favourable reviews throughout the reader communities. You may find your good reputation name taken in vain by a second-rate pulp novel that posts stilted hagiographies of its authors other books on the discussion sites of every book you have ever commented on (and a few you haven't). Worse, the infested novels will invite free samples of all their friends to the party, downloading the complete works of their author just in case you feel like reading them. Works which will be replete with product placement and flashing animated banner ads, just in case you didn't get the message.

Finally, in extremis, feral spambooks will deploy probabilistic text generators seeded with the contents of your own ebook library to write a thousand vacuous and superficially attractive nuisance texts that at a distance resemble your preferred reading. They'll slide them into your ebook library disguised as free samples, with titles and author names that are random permutations of legitimate works, then sell advertising slots in these false texts to offshore spam marketplaces. And misanthropic failed authors in search of their due reward will buy the ad marquees from these exchanges, then use them to sell you books that explain how to become a bestselling author in only 72 hours.

Books are going to be like cockroaches, hiding and breeding in dark corners and keeping you awake at night with their chittering. There's no need for you to go in search of them: rather, the problem will be how to keep them from overwhelming you.

48 Comments

1:

"Books are going to be like cockroaches, hiding and breeding in dark corners and keeping you awake at night with their chittering."

Wait, I thought this was going to be one of your predictions about the future.

2:

Hmm. It is starting already, of course.

I have a physical ebook reader. Now, ePaper is showing its age in the tablet era and I've been thinking of upgrading for that reason, but my ebook reader has one important function tablets lack.

It has no wifi.

Finding my concentration being sapped by the web, I found it important to remove interaction in order to read and think about the content I came here for.

While some vendors may decide to sell eyeballs to advertisers, there will definitely be a market for spam-free, immersion devices without this web interaction.

3:

Maybe that will be the saving grace of libraries -- offering spam-free books & similar to patrons.

4:

You could just see the break-down of the idea of a "book" as a thing by itself, if the number of "book" readers remains stagnant. I've always thought that you'd see more stuff like the old "publish a book chapter by chapter in the newspaper/magazine" thing anyways, except that it wouldn't be a newspaper and/or magazine - it would be an SEO aggregation site.

That book spam idea, though . . . ugh. I suppose the only weakness is that at some point, the authors would have to actually get paid, and it might be easier for the spammers just to pretend that they have books to sell to you as opposed to actually having them.

5:

Utterly brilliant Charlie, one of your best this year. Wouldn't we see something like iOS App Store with signed code and publisher authentication? Seems like this would keep publishers alive.

6:

That's OK, I'll just use an ereader with JavaScript turned off, and won't turn it on except where I am certain I won't have an issue. C.f. NoScript.

Also, have I complained about the term "ebook" here yet? Can we start saying "electronic long form text" or "electronic novel" and similar instead? Because "ebook" covers a multitude of different possibilities, made even worse with code and added sound+moving pictures.

A book: a bound object with pages.
An ebook: an electronic file that is meant to be reminiscent of an actual book, because the content is alleged to be similar. C.f. e-video cassette and video cassette. One could also argue that e-record should be used as well...

7:

I do not think you're exaggerating.

I already take extreme measures to block advertising -- not just my being tracked, but having the advertising enter my mind.

I take it to the point where when I encounter a video ad I cannot skip, I mute the system and block most of the screen with a physical object, seeing nothing but the countdown timer. I'll physically block a sidebar containing ads from my vision rather than let them leave a subconscious impression on me.

And if an ad does get through, I attempt to recognize the products involved, and immediately boycott them.

(Example: a nationwide city-to-city bus service recently started audio advertisements on the public transit I ride. Before the advertisements, I used their services. Now, I no longer will.)

I have carefully sandboxed environments without JavaScript or network access for viewing not-completely-trusted HTML5 documents.

I Do Not Consent To Advertising.

When things are a little further along the path you're discussing... if Calibre doesn't have a "flatten all dynamic behavior" filter by then, I'll write it, and I'll pass my books through that before putting them onto a device where their content can get to my eyes.

Yes, just as this prevents me from consuming some web content today, this will prevent me from consuming some books. Absolutely. But as you point out, the volume of content is going to continue to skyrocket -- I do not think I'll ever "run out of books", even with such defenses in place.

(I suppose I'm just turning into a slightly more modern version of a crazy old man, doing a slightly more modern version of becoming a hermit in the woods. I'm cool with that.)

8:

What a great polemic! It is Fahrenheit 451 turned 180 degrees. You've convinced me to stick with dead tree books (even if they have ads inserted).

What I'm not clear about is how these ebooks will be different from webpages. They become just packaged data on the device, rather than a URL. Both will be free to read and monetize via advertizing. Is there any replication advantage to ebooks in that environment? No 404 error perhaps?

9:

To my mind, the difference between an ebook of this sort and a random web page is that the ebook includes a self-contained discrete "bundle" with contents.

I kind-of think of the ebook wrapper as a cell membrane, containing a bunch of organelles, as opposed to free-floating genetic material and molecules in a wider "primordial soup".

They'll still be able to take in and emit things (like cells taking in nutrients or sensing things, and giving off either waste or chemical signals). They'll even be able to swap core programming with things outside themselves (like cells engaged in plasmid exchange).

None the lest, in some practical ways, they'll be coherent discrete entities.

By virtue of being inside a particular "wrapper", the stuff inside that wrapper will benefit more from cooperation and specialization internally... with the understanding that "infection" (eg. by things analogous to retroviruses) is a real possibility.

Still, the success or failure of the various items inside the "cell" will be more tied to the success of the whole unit than is the case for things that do not have a "membrane" between themselves and the rest of the ecosystem.

(But perhaps my enthusiasm for studying biochemistry in my youth is coloring how I look at this.)

And sorry, but now I have to go have lunch and try to shake off the mental image of colonies of ebooks cooperating to form "multicellular organisms" that rampage across the expanded noosphere, out-competing other entities.

10:

I wonder, though, since the price of "book" will be minimal at best in this environment, and it will be easy to remove intrusive malware, if the book itself isn't the adware in this environment. Getting the booking into the hands/heads/hard drives of your potential customers encourages them to pay for the things you can actually control and use to make money (like live appearances, merch, etc.).

11:

and yet I still can't find anything worthwhile to read....

with notable exceptions of course!

In the last few years, the number of books I have started to read whose authors clearly have little grasp of grammar, plot, character or anything which makes a book interesting has increased at least an order of magnitude. Prior to this I would have to read the Man Booker short list to obtain the same level of dullness.

The introduction of malware (in its broadest sense) delivery is a given but, as with other areas, the pay-per-view model will remain in tandem. I subscribe to Netflix which, whilst it may not have the widest or newest content, is blessedly advert free. On the infrequent occasions that I travel I watch cable television as much for the experience as anything else; Fox News is a particular favorite - it's like a rotting corpse, difficult to look away from no matter how many maggots one sees. I find, however, that I last only to the first advertising break (around 3 minutes as far as I can see). I would expect a similar reaction to insertions into my literature.

I like this publishing cornucopia but I can see that it may well be destructive in the longer term as the cost of book production outweigh the return. However, I believe that, as with television, quality will out. Whilst everyone may have a book in them, few seem to have to innate skill, drive and sheer bloody mindedness to turn that into the consistent quality required by a literary career. Perspiration counts.

I liked Neptune's brood BTW, although I am still thinking about slow versus quick money.

12:

> Feral books will stalk readers, sneak into their ebook libraries, and leap out to ambush them

A wild NOVEL appears!

Novel used INITIAL CHAPTER FREE TO DOWNLOAD!

(It's super effective.)

13:

Yeah. Right. A Word document of a novel, scorn it as you will, is about a megabyte. The cover artwork is probably 90% of the file, compared with how compact text is.

The solution to a virus problem is pretty simple: pare that sucker down. Novels are for people who like simple, decluttered lives, and that's their ultimate protection. Strip out the useless gadgetry, and your library is safe.

Besides, there's already three gigantic carrier channels custom-built for carrying that kind of crap: video, music, and games. There's enough bandwidth in the gray areas of any video to carry whole libraries of text information, and I'm pretty sure the tech already exists for exploiting it (lookin' at you, CIA).

14:

litrovirus0.001
sed -i -e 's/beer/FancyBrau/g' -e 's/car/Mokkura/' ~/ebooks/*.epub

15:

If your e-reader includes a Javascript interpreter, you're boned. And as Javascript is part of the ePub standard, it's pretty much guaranteed to. Hell, if it displays the book cover you could be screwed.

As OGH has noted, a secure computer is one that's switched off. And more and more things are computers...

16:

I was recoiling in fear, and then an idea occurred to me...

Freely distributed e-books, with say the first 2/3 all free to read, and then the last third crypto-locked with a requirement that you go watch an ad by $SPONSOR before you can finish the thing. After you've read enough to be well and truly committed and hooked on how it turns out....

17:

50k books/yr? Will that be a long steady trend? How many of those are fake junk books auto written to be the equivalent of linkbait or spam? While spam is certainly generated I don't see much, gmails tech keeps it quite hidden, might at some point Amazon see diminishing returns and cut off the spammy fake books? Same with other trash books, I can certainly imagine the equivalent of Trojans infecting Calbre or other sophisticated personal library software but will that not be somewhat short lived as the forces of "good software" learn or are taught to do the right thing?

A certain amount of self regulation should occur, there may be a surprise entry in my kindle list of books but unless it really grabs me will be ignored, deleted or fed back to a spam fighter engine.

Now when the spam engines start writing ebooks that are interesting, grab and hold readers attention, well that's a whole 'nother matter, perhaps the beginning of the transition to the singularity society.

18:

This probably sounds loony, but -

In future it may be unwise to answer, if we're asked what's the worst outcome we can envision, or what we are most frightened of. (Think happy thoughts; smile. It beats providing a recipe.)

Are there any other prognostications about the future that are unwise to mention; that, say, a bot would pick up on? (Was this developed in The Laundry Files?)
And if we can't discuss them, how can we organize to protect against them?

What about the possibility that someone is implementing science fiction book or episode plots in real life, with unwitting (and unwilling) characters? At what stage of elaborateness would they become too expensive to put on, so you the human could take your surroundings, however bizarre, as indicative of reality? And what if, via catch-22 crafting or otherwise exploiting your shortcomings, these tableaus are being set up to paint you and yours in the worst possible light?

Could Javascript snippets insert fake stories (or product placement/user testing for the aforementioned books of the future) into a newspaper, either print or online? And has anyone else noticed a dearth of top-notch dead-tree newspapers in libraries, libraries that you'd expect would carry them?

Since any sufficiently advanced tech. is indistinguishable from magic, how, in future, will The Amazing Randi and kin be able to detect the truly supernatural from the apparently, when anyone with Snowden's powers but perhaps not his ethics could craft the latter?

How the hell do we protect citizens, including ourselves, from information-stream pollution and distortion, today and in the future? Is anyone working on this? Is Tor the answer, online? And if it is, how can you know if your copy is unaltered?

Sorry for the effluvia, but I've been wondering, and I'm a little uneasy.

19:

@15

"If your e-reader includes a Javascript interpreter, you're boned. And as Javascript is part of the ePub standard, it's pretty much guaranteed to. Hell, if it displays the book cover you could be screwed."

Nope.

As scary as this scenario may be it falls apart once you look at the current state of the ebook market. Amazon, for example, doesn't allow the scripting that would be required for this. Nor does Apple. In fact Apple revised their rules to block Epub3 ebooks from gaining web access from iBooks, and that alone kills this idea.

But Charlie does bring up a point which has been worrying me since June. It's more than just spam ebooks; an Epub3 ebook is literally a website/app wrapped into an ebook file. If the reading app isn't adequately secured then it's entirely possible for a malware infected ebook to turn your smartphone/tablet into a bot.

Luckily this is the kind of thing that can be prevented be using a reading app that has adequate security. That is what I have been agitating for ever since I learned about this issue.

20:

Repeat after me:

"I will always seperate my code and my data."

21:

I have already noticed this problem with spam books.
I read one book this week that was written by a conservative(USA) intern that was obviously not written by the nominal author, which is not that bad, but was also obviously not read by the nominal author, which is completely unacceptable.
I think that if you get grants, speaking fees, or consulting contracts from a right wing wanktank, you get money from people that expect you to hire their just out of college kid in return, so he or she can beef up their resume. If the kid had a brain or at least a work ethic, that wouldn't be so bad. When they have neither, it gets surreal.

22:

We've actually got a pretty good parasite market going now, in Chinese science (http://www.economist.com/news/china/21586845-flawed-system-judging-research-leading-academic-fraud-looks-good-paper). There are enterprises that will cobble together a scientific paper for a few hundred bucks, and journals that will publish said paper for a few hundred bucks (sometimes they may even be part of the same company). You invest a few tens of thousands of dollars, and you can have an impressive looking CV, suitable for getting you a tenure track job at a low-level university, or a mid-level research job.

To be fair, this kind of thing has been going on for decades (if not centuries) in various forms, from scientists enslaving post-docs to do their work, to rich students hiring poor students to write their papers for them (or even more cheaply, fraternities keeping files of papers and tests so their members can simply recopy old work). Fraud like this is getting marginally harder in classes, because there are services that will see if papers that students submit are not purchased or copied from any online source. One suspects that similar services will start testing the veracity of scientific papers in due course, if they aren't already.

The same thing can happen with fiction. I'm sure it's possible (or soon will be possible) to train a neural net on, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs or Ian Fleming and have it start extruding new stories at a fast pace. It's also equally possible for some company (say Consumer Reports) to train its own neural nets (or researchers) to spot these formulaic products, and to (for a small fee) certify that a story was written by a real human. The upshot is that human-written books may be known for their quirkiness, their "liveliness, "their "novelty," and formula fiction may fall by the wayside, at least for human authors.

As for books acting like viruses and parasites, there's a fairly simple response, which is the crapstorm that will hit the first few authors who try it. So far as I know, the most valuable thing an author has is not his works, but his dedicated audience. Doing something that counterproductive will alienate his audience faster than it will find new readers for him, and in the end, he'll be writing for himself alone.

Personally, I think the most insidious thing a book could do is read you while you're reading it and perform market research on you and your other reading habits that it would send back to the publisher. Not, of course, that authors will use this information to shape their inspiration, but I'll bet their publishers will, to determine whether it's worth fostering the author or not.

23:

That's OK, I'll just use an ereader with JavaScript turned off, and won't turn it on except where I am certain I won't have an issue. C.f. NoScript.

It's not that easy to know which JavaScript you can turn off. It might be that the JavaScript site which has the program to show you the book content also has the spam programs.

NoScript isn't that granular to select which JavaScript to run - it just says which domains you accept. It might be possible to make a more fine-grained controls over which JavaScript to run, but using it will be more difficult.

Also, this content protection is not a prediction, it's happening even now. There are a lot of picture sites where a simple <img src="..."/> apparently isn't sufficient, and they use JavaScript to show the images. I have even seen text content which needed to be shown with JavaScript.

Yes, I find this annoying and against the principles of the WWW, but there isn't much I can do to counter it.

24:

Freely distributed e-books, with say the first 2/3 all free to read, and then the last third crypto-locked with a requirement that you go watch an ad by $SPONSOR before you can finish the thing.

Worse: your reader is a tablet (single-purpose ereaders are likely to be absorbed into general-purpose devices, as has happened repeatedly over the history of the CE business). So it has a front-facing camera for video chat. Modern camera processors have face and eye detection for autofocus and anti-red-eye. So it shouldn't be too hard to code up the adverts so that they only play if they can see your eyeballs pointing at them. Look away, or put the tablet face-down, and the ad pauses. Right?

25:

50k books/yr? Will that be a long steady trend? How many of those are fake junk books auto written to be the equivalent of linkbait or spam?

That's real books from real publishers: Genre SF/F alone is about 2500 titles a year. If you count junk books generated by that company who crawl wikipedia and prepare digests, it's well over two million a year. Maybe more.

26:

Books will not endure separate from the web. They'll have addresses (for referencing them) and parts of books will have addresses, and characters and comments and critique will have all be linkable and discoverable. The unlinkable web (aka app) will shrivel and die.

And then there's the garbage. Our own erudite reviews, commentary, chitchat and rants, from 10, 20, 30 years ago, when we were in high school, or before we learned to think clearly, will continue to haunt us, all piled up and indexed and searchable and showing up connected to us when we just wish it would all go away.

27:

Terry Pratchett said it best I think

"Nearly all the books in the Library were, being magical, considerably more dangerous than ordinary books; most of them were chained to the bookcases to stop them flapping around.
But the lower levels . . .
. . . there they kept the rogue books, the books whose behaviour or mere contents demanded a whole shelf, a whole room to themselves. Cannibal books, books which, if left on a shelf with their weaker brethren, would be found looking considerably fatter and more smug in the smoking ashes next morning. Books whose mere contents pages could reduce the unprotected mind to grey cheese."
Terry Pratchett - Moving Pictures

28:

IMHO there are counter-measures:
1.Only read open-source books and compile them yourself from rtf or similar to epub.

2. This has already happened in the moviebusiness. People download from torrentsites to avoid the commercials in the beginning of a rented movie. If/When spam becomes too annoying in ebooks I'm sure the same thing will happen there.

If big publishers get too aggressive in their marketing/spam sales will drop and readers will get their books elsewhere.


29:

In the last few years, the number of books I have started to read whose authors clearly have little grasp of grammar, plot, character or anything which makes a book interesting has increased at least an order of magnitude.

I had that problem for a short while when ebooks started taking off. It went away when I started applying a simple rule. I only read a book if it is by an author I trust to deliver a good story (OGH being one), or it is recommended by a trusted source.

I am fairly restrictive about "trusted sources", but still I seem to find more books that I want to read than I possibly can. For example, I found Stina Leicht and Karl Schroeder (and rediscovered Linda Nagata when she started writing again) right here on this site.

30:

Hm, I am reminded of the time Microsoft decided to activate ECMAScript by default in Outlook/Outlook Express, and the consequences of that action. It was a short lived infection that resulted in a consensus that no scripting should be used in rich text mails ever again, and that avenue of infection soon withered.

Part of what keeps large parts of the web free of infection is the concept of pull, meaning the user still has to make the first pull, and all pushed elements still need to be pulled, although it can be an ECMAScript call requesting the file instead of it coming on its own volition. Think of malware on the web as germs that rest on your food, not able to seek you out on their own volition, as they need you to take that bite of the infected foodstuff. The best they can hope for is to infect a source you trust without taking sanitary precautions.

I suspect e-readers will be much the same in the future, as adding JavaScript does not yet add to the reading experience of reading. If it does, then you are moving into app territory, where you have more control than relying upon the e-reader's software. People often underestimate the complexity involved in getting interaction done right, how much effort it requires. And if you are investing that effort, then you want full control.

One other thing that I think is to be kept in mind is that "dumb" eBooks like the e-paper Kindles might have a few more years on the market, giving publishers time to move from being manufacturers of the media to being curators, in a desire to get back what they lost to Apple, Amazon, Google and the runners-up in this business. Since curating is built on reputation (reliability and quality, not just quantity), they will work hard to remain an attractive alternative to the firehose of raw internet.

We have this built in fear of disease, it seems. Since the risk for us in the developed world has become very minor, though, we are turning this sensitivity to infection to our electronic realm, to our social realm and elsewhere. So I feel your warning is valid, Charlie, even mildly probable in the short term, but I don't think it is inevitable.

31:
While spam is certainly generated I don't see much, gmails tech keeps it quite hidden, might at some point Amazon see diminishing returns and cut off the spammy fake books?
GMail isn't paid per delivered mail, and therefore has no perverse incentive to show you the spam.
32:

@15:
As OGH has noted, a secure computer is one that's switched off. And more and more things are computers...
---
But is it really off?

I encounter more and more devices where the "off" button is merely a mild suggestion that the device go into some kind of "sleep" mode. And most routers, hubs, and switches have no "off" button or switch any more; you have to pull the plug to turn them off. Which was probably a design decision by someone who figured they were intended to be "always on", but it sucks for when you're trying to power-cycle one some installer has screwed firmly to a bracket or rack, and you can't quite reach the power wire...

33:

As for books acting like viruses and parasites, there's a fairly simple response, which is the crapstorm that will hit the first few authors who try it. So far as I know, the most valuable thing an author has is not his works, but his dedicated audience. Doing something that counterproductive will alienate his audience faster than it will find new readers for him, and in the end, he'll be writing for himself alone.

Unless, of course, that audience is complicit; or even approving.

You get dedicated audiences that actively desire such behaviour; consider the more... "belief driven" types, shall we say, that might wish to control what other people see. It's not enough to spread your own meme, you want to damage any opposing memes. Download your Bible, get your Index Librorum Prohibitorum alongside.

Perhaps it might be more subtle; on detecting a book with a scene that is subject to disapproval, modify the text to something anodyne. I can see that one going down well in the Bible Belt - right alongside the virus that inserts links into any copies of "The Origin of Species", offering counterarguments that back up the Young Earth Creationists. Or (silently?) inform a child's parents, to tell them that their child is reading dangerous / "dirty" / Godless / Commie / Capitalist books.

It could even be done for political, rather than religious or "moral" adjustment. Advertising isn't always healthy; you could have the Extremists and/or Security services being emailed by contaminated copies of the Anarchist's Cookbook, Mein Kampf, Das Kapital; to identify another likely recruit to their/the other side.

The fact that the Daily Mail / Morning Star continue to sell papers does suggest that there are a lot of people who like their comfy certainties, and don't want anything too challenging of their particular position.

Sorry if that's too cynical ;)

34:

I'd go further: spam would compete with the adverts that gmail is paid to show users, so they have an extra-strong incentive to keep it out.

35:

That's okay, I can take a little cynicism. I just keep thinking this is an enormously complex solution for a simple problem, and there are simple solutions already, ranging from listening to one's preacher and not reading them evil books to turning on the TV and watching canned media owned by Rupert Murdoch. Sabotaging books seems unnecessarily complex when it's easy to make reading them too much work to bother with.

Still, I kind of like the idea of a book doing market research for its publisher. That would be harder to stop, because it has a good use: figuring out what kinds of books you like and how you like to read them. Of course, the real problem is that a lot of people prefer novelty and hate being bored by repetition. I suspect it's rather harder to find that sweet spot between something that's new and neat, and something that's weird and off-putting, and I'm not sure that any home-based research will help writers reach that sweet spot more often than something as simple as an old-fashioned slush pile will.

36:

I realize advertising is not popular around here but one neglected option for the ads is K rather than r selection. Instead of spamming like cockroaches there's the beautifulviral ads that are so fit to purpose we don't even realize what they are.

37:

We already see this; people try with Super Bowl ads, as they're so expensive and high profile, and a few other campaigns each year rise to that level.

We've seen some "viral campaigns" aim at the same methodology, and generally miss, though some hit.

Really beautiful takes time, money, and luck.

38:

I actually look forward to these buggy eBooks. They will be magnificent witnesses of a fast era.

I remember the ads on the back pages of US comic books back in the early 60s. They gave me fleeting glimpses of another country, another civilisation. I managed to hang on to a few of them and now they make me see an era long gone, a distant world.

The feral books will live gloriously for some years and then they will displaced by another predator. They will become museum specimens, some of them. I hope some collectors will grab them at the peak of their flashing beauty. Enjoy life when it goes by you.

39:

I'd imagine that Murdoch for one would love to see books sabotaged to the point of unusability for anything except advertising and celebrity specials. It would reduce the competition his media empire faces for mindshare, if nothing else. Whether he would regard it as an efficient way of spending money to achieve that goal might be another matter, of course.

40:

I agree
It won't last
There are still huge amounts of SPAM out there, but very little of it gets through any more, the immune system is now u-&-running.
Spammers are hated, everywhere, so this will follow the same course.
Nothing to worry about ...
Unless ....
You get an auto-immune variant, maybe?

41:

I was under the impression that most (all?) ebook readers allow users to turn off JavaScript as well as WiFi? Or is it only the JavaScript of the web browser (not the program visualizing the epub/pdf/xxx)? Or do most people just keep them running?

I turned off WiFi the first time I took the reader on a plane, and have left it turned off ever since. After reading that some vendors actively used their readers to spy on users, I suspect that I will never turn it back on. (But never is a strong word, so ...)

42:
Of course, the real problem is that a lot of people prefer novelty and hate being bored by repetition. I suspect it's rather harder to find that sweet spot between something that's new and neat, and something that's weird and off-putting, and I'm not sure that any home-based research will help writers reach that sweet spot more often than something as simple as an old-fashioned slush pile will.
If they have the list of works you've already read, they can feed that to a computational engine that implements the concept of beauty as compressibility (see here), snapshot it at "present day", then spawn thousands of copies and throw the slushpile at them to figure out what you'd like to read next.


I don't think anyone's done it yet, so I don't know how well it'll work, but someone's going to try for a better recommender than "guessing at a preferences bin and recommending what others in the same bin recommend" at some stage.

43:

Behold (probably already known to OGH's knowledgeable readers) Philip M. Parker.

He has automated the composition of his ridiculously esoteric titles, collecting the contents by spidering the Web and mining professional databases. A few luckless researchers or librarians sometimes buy them.

As far as I know, he hasn't started writing novels yet.

44:

The increased signal to noise in publishing is the heart of the problem in finding books to read rather than the inclusion of adverts which is likely to be easy to avoid.

Up to now we have relied on publishers to do this for us, they select authors and put the time and effort into letting us know who is worth reading. Authors published this way have by and large passed the quality test (OK - Dan Brown and Jeffrey Archer slipped through).

This has now changed. As self-publishing accelerates the problem of separating out the dross is only going to get more difficult. The open question is whether the publishing industry has the ability to, and can afford to, adapt. This is where putting adverts into books may come in as a misguided attempt by publishers to reduce book prices. I think few readers are that price sensitive and it would be a bad mistake to try this route.

Clearly authors need to treat writing as a business requiring planning and marketing but this is nothing new; Dickens spent much of his time promoting his own work. It has been interesting to read Charles Stross's comments both on his process and the publishing industry in general. It interests, although does not surprise, me that his process is a production line rather than an artisanal workshop. Having read his books, the conceptual thought and plot organization obviously happens but the blog suggests more the mechanistic grind that happens once those decisions have been made.

So how are we going to find books to read?

Whilst I maintain a list of "approved" authors there are not enough to keep me in reading material - please note CERTAIN AUTHORS MUST WRITE FASTER :-). I read a lot admittedly, it's that or my brain eats itself, which is why I look at the self-published material. I have had some pleasant surprises with cheap, well written, literate, books and I have also found a small number of books written by the functionally illiterate who can write a good story (really weird experience).

I read blogs to identify new writers; Stina Leicht quoted by wishamc @29
is a great example, I wouldn't have read her work without this blog. I also read comments and lists to identify new authors. This suggests that the future requires a much more "social" approach to marketing - it's no longer a matter of getting a good review in the TLS. I doubt that this is a huge step for the publishing industry.

45:
This is where putting adverts into books may come in as a misguided attempt by publishers to reduce book prices. I think few readers are that price sensitive and it would be a bad mistake to try this route.
Stronger than that; we know readers who buy hardback or paperback aren't sensitive to price, because those that are buy second-hand or pick it up in the library.
46:

Aren't bookstores a form of (altruistic) bookspam too? Even staying away from the chains, it is very well possible for me to end up buying more books than intended!

It's one of the few forms I don't particularly mind - but it is untargeted and unsolicited advertising.

47:

Aren't bookstores a form of (altruistic) bookspam too?

Nope.

Spam is attention theft without consent -- it tries to sneak into your eyeballs even if you deny permission.

In contrast, you go into a bookshop of your own volition: there's implicit consent.

(This goes for any shopping experience you initiate, too.)

48:

I suspect that bookspam is not too far off. Already, I begin to see Amazon "pushing" books exclusive to them onto their e-book recommendations.

Here's the thing: would you read a book with ads in it, if it was free? That's how a lot of web sites work. That's how TV works. Given how desperate publishers are for income, it wouldn't surprise me to see them try the same model - and e-books are the perfect vehicle. Plus, then they could charge a premium for "ad-free" versions. And the less scrupulous (or more desperate) the publisher, the more aggressive the ads are going to get.

Sadly, I think OGH is right on this one.

Specials

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on October 10, 2013 1:42 PM.

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