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Baboon Fart Odyssey

(Writing in a hotel room in Boston because it beats staring out the window at a blizzard as I wait for online check-in to open for my flight home tomorrow: Ramez will be back with one more blog entry on Thursday, and I'll resume blogging as usual next week.)

So, it all started because Chuck Wendig has a low opinion of the rhetoric that surrounds self-publishing. (Clue: if you thought the Bitcoin libertarian invasion was bad, you ain't seen nuthin' until you've seen the self-publishing cultists in action. I use the word advisedly: there's a role for self-publishing, but the cultists invest it with the unholy radiance of a multi-level marketing scam that will make them rich. And any denial of the FACT that you, too, could be richer than J. K. Rowling with just a little bit of work on the SEO side of your Amazon pitch will be met with ... well, you'll see. Just wait for the comment thread to get rolling!)

Unca Chuck wrote a blog entry about publishing and inadvertently suggested an experiment:

"Self-Publishing Is The Only Real Choice..."

This usually sounds something like "The only real choice is either self-publishing your work or submitting to the gatekeepers," where the gist is, understandably, that self-publishing is like getting to jump right onto your flight and go wherever you want to go, and traditional publishing means submitting to an invasive colonic cavity search before you're even allowed near the gate.

This is true-ish, in that I can literally write the word "fart" 100,000 times and slap a cover of baboon urinating into his own mouth, then upload that cool motherfucker right to Amazon. Nobody would stop me. Whereas, at the Kept Gates, a dozen editors and agents would slap my Baboon Fart Story to the ground like an errant badminton birdie.

Unfortunately Chuck momentarily forgot that on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog. This truism has an arse-biting canine corollary: which is that nobody knows your proposed experiment is SPOILER a joke. So Baboon Fart Story became a real thing. A guy named Phronk (who has a PhD in psychology and writes a blog about putting odd things in coffee which means he is presumably smart enough to know better) went and slapped it together and published it on the Big River.

And in a matter of hours it gained a potload of five star reader reviews and it was only 99 cents so of course I bought it.

DIFFERENT KIND OF SPOILER: like the rest of the internet, Amazon.com have no sense of humour. So "Baboon Fart Story" fell off the internet in less than 24 hours, censored by the jack-booted fascist octopus of po-faced corporatism. (Alternatively, everyone's a critic. And just maybe Amazon felt slightly stung by the fact that somebody had proven Unca Chuck's thesis in public and thereby set fire to the twittersphere and made them look like greedy artless poopy-heads.)

But this is not the end of the Baboon Fart Odyssey.

Reader, I am a sucker. And as I said, I bought the story. Pranks deserve to be supported and 99 cents is not too much to stuff in the tip jar. Anyway, "Baboon Far Story" turns out to be licensed under Creative Commons attribution/noncommercial share-alike 4.0, and if the Big River Co doesn't put it back in the Kindle Store at once I shall, subject to Phronk's approval, share the misery by providing a free download of it here. (This is not a link. Yet. Jeff Bezos? You have been warned.)

But wait! There's more.

"Baboon Fart Story" isn't just the word "fart" repeated 100,000 times. No! It has commas. And paragraphs. And quotation marks — indeed it looks eerily like it has the structure of an English-language work of fiction. And this intrigued me. My first instinct was that it looked like Phronk had taken a real non-DRM'd ebook and done a global regexp search/replace, substituting "fart" for each word-shaped object. This would be the easy way to create a Baboon Fart Product. But according to Phronk, he did it the hard way: mad props to him. But in the mean time, this piqued my interest enough to prompt me to ask a question about copyright on Twitter (always a deadly-dangerous gambit if you have more than a thousand followers because: dog, internet, knowledge), which was this:

If I take an existing novel and replace all the words with words of my own, retaining only the punctuation and pagination, is this plagiarism?
The imp of the perverse had taken the opportunity to stab my badly-scarred left buttock with her trident, and implant the idea that it might be a good idea possible stupid to take "Baboon Fart Story" and turn it into a real work of fiction. But what might be the consequences if I infused the fart-laden fumes of the text with the fragrancy of real prose?

Twitter had some answers. "It's not plagiarism," said a self-identified net.lawyer: "but the original author might want to take out a restraining order." Another chipped in: "if that's plagiarism, every poet who ever used metre in verse is guilty." And an academic added, "are you applying for membership of Oulipo?"

Punctuation is metadata and it's potentially meaningful, but not meaningful enough to qualify as literature in its own right, it would seem (unless we're talking about a computer program—copyright applies!—written in Brainfuck).

And getting the punctuation right is traditionally one of the jobs that falls to the put-upon copy editor, who takes a manuscript supplied by an author and turns it into something that is readable, bereft of spelling and grammatical errors, contains no more than three semi-colons and six exclamation marks per sentence (so that the Grammar Nazis among the audience will have nothing to yell about) ... before sending it off to be typeset and turned into something visually attractive.

... And copy-editing is one of those tiresome jobs that the "gatekeeper" publishers insist is necessary in order to justify garnishing all the profits for themselves and paying us professionals a tiny fraction of our just reward, were we to see the light, switch to self-publishing, and drop all that tired old-school pessimism about publishing being "hard".

Which brings us full-circle, back to the start of our odyssey of exploration in the dimension of Chuck's diatribe about the cess-pit of bile surrounding arguments about publishing—seeing light through a baboon's ass.

35 Comments

1:

I haven't seen the actual content and so would be interested in how well it matches an actual story's punctuation. Of course, anything can be forced but does it look plausibly English?

(Also--very amusing on a number of levels.)

2:

Thank you for this post, it really made my day.

3:

Charlie, how drunk were you when you wrote this blog-post?

4:

LOL!

5:

Baboon Fart Story changed my life and saved my marriage.

7:

And with a cover in Comic Sans, no less. Truly tempting the Wrath of the Intartoobs.

8:

the real challenge is to identify the story that was befarted? perhaps the screenplay of the film rhubarb?

9:

Hmm, that wouldn't be a test of much.

If you wanted to get some useful data you'd put together some short story, comparable length to Baboon Fart Odyssey and publish to amazon, fresh from your copy of MS Word and a review pass, maybe with a cover image created by your mate down the pub, for 99c.

Then give the same prose to the full squad of editors, copy-editors, graphics artists, etc. to give it their tender ministration - and put it out at $3.99. Make sure both have some preview so people can see what they'd be getting.

A spot of AB testing to see where the value is and which wins out in the marketplace.

10:

If you wanted to get some useful data you'd put together some short story, comparable length to Baboon Fart Odyssey

Minor nit: Baboon Fart Story is 100,000 words. That's a 330 page novel. I do not keep those things sitting around ...

11:

He really went for it, didn't he?

I'd assumed it was short story type length (I wasn't going to pay even 99c for a collection of farts.

12:

If I take an existing novel and replace all the words with words of my own, retaining only the punctuation and pagination, is this plagiarism?

Only one way to find out. Use global search and replace, put Babboon Wank Story out on Amazon, and see if Chuck sues.

13:

One problem with your counter-experiment replacing farts with meaning: you will run into a wall of pure laziness. Since I was too dumb (the PhD, it does nothing) to steal formatting from an existing work, you'd soon find that almost every sentence is the exact same copy-pasted string of 10 farts. And there are entire chapters with no punctuation at all.

Which would be its own sort of special challenge, I suppose.

You have my approval to linkify that free download; Amazon isn't budging. However, Chuck will soon have it up on his site along with charity buttons, so you might want to just link to that when it's available.

Thanks for finding a weird new angle to my dumb experiment!

14:

Thanks, Charlie.

I haven't laughed this hard in a long time.

15:

Seems to me there's under-thought religious fervor all around, mixed with sane people with opinions, in the publishing discussion (globally, not specifically here).

My personal bitch is how bad a job some of the mainstream publishers do on copy-editing. (Also, I know at least half a dozen people who have done or still do copy-editing professionally, and I have the idea that they're not paid all that much; any serious self-publishing scheme could afford to hire one and still come out way ahead).

Similarly, publsishers seem to me to publish loads of trash books; they're not protecting me from the trash, I have to be very selective about what I read even if I only read books from mainstream publishers. (Also there are only 28 hours in the day and I have to sleep at least 4 of them, so I have to be very selective anyway). However, I sometimes lose authors or series because mainstream publishers stop publishing them; this part of the "gatekeeping" function actively hurts me. (Yes, I've seen actual bad slushpile; like most people I can identify it in seconds, if I spend longer it's horrified fascination, not doubt.)

If publishers want to remain relevant, they need, it seems to me, to up their game, not lower it.

I absolutely agree we haven't come close to solving the problem of unrestricted self-publishing (this primarily means, to me, the problem of letting the public in general find what they want to read from the mass published). But remember, we don't actually need a good solution, we only need one better than what mainstream publishers manage now.

16:

As a convenient side effect, this kerfluffle might head off the publication of earnestly-written fetish novels about urine-drinking flatulent apes.

17:

I'm waiting for the Patrick Stewart narrated audiobook version!

18:

I hate to say this, but I think you've missed a trick.
Take this fart/wank/piss/whatever as input & then filter/loop it through LOVEBIBLE.pl ... then stand well back & watch the fun!

19:

Your comment about what "any serious self-publishing scheme" could afford shows a real misunderstanding of the problem.
Yes, copy-editors work relatively cheap, but what you're still talking about is *a transfer of money away from the author*. Given that most authors aren't rich, and that most books don't make any money, a system which involves additional start-up costs for writers is a bad one.

The thing is -- and this is just my understanding, and I hope OGH will correct me if I'm very wrong -- one of the very important purposes served by publishers that *can't* be replaced by self-publishing is the transfer of money, as advances, from bestsellers to the lower-sellers.

It's the same function as record companies perform -- you sign, say, twenty people for an advance of X thousand. Nineteen of those never earn out their advance, but that's OK, because the twentieth sold a few million copies. Author twenty then goes and moans about the awful terms of her contract, but the other nineteen have been paid a fair wage for their work -- something which they wouldn't have got from sales alone.

Until there's a way to solve *this* problem -- the need to subsidise poor sellers (which we want around for reasons other than pure market economics) -- we need major publishers.

(Note that I am not some astroturfer working for the majors -- I've self-published eight books, and have a couple of things in the pipeline from a small indie publisher. Self-publishing definitely has its uses.)

20:

On the gatekeeper issue I am ambivalent, and I am a bit doubtful about the way Amazon handles stuff. They publish misleading stats and they press some of the same buttons as the vanity presses.

As for gatekeeping, one of the things which pushed me into writing something was a frustration with the huge amount of military SF which is imbued with unthinking right-wing politics. It's not universal, it's not something I have read enough to be able to spot sampling error, but is does seem to strongly reflect a particular strand of US politics.


21:

I'm thinking that, to do this with 1E5 words, whilst retaining punctuation, you're also going to need some concordance software that can be retrained to actually treat words like "a", "am", "an"... as words in order to generate the search list for your regexp.

22:

As long as you are willing to accept incorrect capitalisation, limit yourself no non-accented characters and the abhorrent use of capture groups...

s/[A-Za-z]+([^A-Za-z]+)/fart\1/g

If I were to generate 100 kilowords of "fart"-equivalent with a sentence structure, I would probably start by writing a small-ish model for "sentence structure" (probably by writing a half-arsed recogniser for "word" and "punctuation", run it across a couple of ebooks) and then random-generate the sentence structure (on the lines of "n words, followed by punctuation X") and fill with whatever word I chose for this work.

The model may actually require a small model for "words IJKL should be capitalised" as well. But, taht's a side issue.

23:

If by "wank" you mean the heap of mindlessly pro-bitcoin comments from last month's thread, I'm all for it. Careful, though - you might end up with a gristle clog in the ham juicer.

24:

Wonderful!

But I'd like to propose, since publishers and proofreaders greatest contribution seems to come in the form of correcting punctuation, a Novel Kit - all the correct punctuation provided (for a small fee). The prospective writer simply fills in the appropriate words in the spaces provided.

25:

If replacing every word in a copyrighted work with your own words is copyright infringement, some large percentage of the participants in this year's NaNoGenMo are in danger from perversely pedantic copyright lawyers; systematically replacing words was one of the most popular modes of novel generation (ranging from systematically replacing every word in one novel with every word in another while keeping punctuation to replacing every word in one novel with a word from another novel with the same word frequency to replacing every word in a novel with a slightly vaguer word according to wordnet).

26:

American composer John J. Becker (iconoclast and friend of Charles Ives) wrote a symphony that is entirely the metadata of a Mozart symphony -- note lengths, instrumentation, even contours of the melodies -- with every note moved up or down in pitch by a few notes. The result is very clearly "that modern music stuff", but you can sort of hear Mozart if you squint. If you know what I mean.

I'm doubtful that punctuation, word length, etc, is nearly representative enough of an author's voice to give the reader a similar ghostly feeling...

27:

you sign, say, twenty people for an advance of X thousand. Nineteen of those never earn out their advance, but that's OK, because the twentieth sold a few million copies. Author twenty then goes and moans about the awful terms of her contract, but the other nineteen have been paid a fair wage for their work -- something which they wouldn't have got from sales alone.

OMG! Publishing is a communist conspiracy!!!eleventy1!!

28:

And here is a well-sorted bible (via jwz).

29:

I think you meant to say:

Aaa bb dd eeeee h iii j lll n o rr ss t v ww z -().

30:

Not really sure what this whole thing proves. Sure, you can hit the button and self-publish anything, but the fact that the book was taken down in something like 24 hours suggests that the system will, sooner or later, act to filter out rubbish retroactively.

And it's been clear since at least the late 1960s that quality and traditional publication are not necessarily synonymous. Just look at the story of Naked Came the Stranger. Even in more recent times, J.K. Rowling's pseudonymous mystery novel, The Cuckoo's Calling, was actually rejected by British publishers—it was good, but just not to their taste—until she finally let her own publisher in on the game and got them to publish it for her.

The great thing about self-pub is that people with these well-written but unwanted books have the opportunity to reach past the gatekeepers who just don't find the book to their taste. If their book is well-written, it will find an audience. And Howey's numbers suggest that's happening in spades. Whether his figures are exactly correct as to how big the piece of the pie is, there can be no question it exists. And that's what's scaring traditional publishers.

31:

There seems to be s widespread belief that once a good book is on the market its quality will speak for itself with resulting sales.

The problem with that is that there's a long history of very good books on the market in the traditional way which achieve, at best, no more than a succes d'estime, and never have the sales to which their quality ought to lead.

There's no obvious reason to believe that this will be any better for self-published books, and good reason to believe that with a weaker gatekeeper function and a higher ratio of drek to quality the correlation between quality and sales will be even weaker.

32:

There's just the little thing that Hugh Howey's numbers suggest it is happening for a lot of people. Consistently, across both of his surveys so far. Granted that the surveys are from narrow periods of time, and they're basically estimates based on derived information, so you can argue about the margin of error. But even with the greatest possible margin of error, those numbers show that lots of people are buying lots of self-published books. At least on those two days they were, and it doesn't seem like there ought to be anything special about those particular days.

Does this mean everyone is going to self-publish and get rich? No. Does this mean everyone wants self-published books? No. I wouldn't go so far as Joe "self-publish or be damned" Konrath in saying that everyone should drink the kool-aid. Most people won't earn enough for a steak dinner, let alone a living. But then, most people who submit their works to traditional publishers don't get accepted, either. Seems like you've got a better chance of selling something if you do it yourself.

People have ways of finding decent self-published books, just like they have ways of finding any other information they want on the Internet. Reviews, recommendations, search engines, social media, etc. And it seems like a lot of them are using them.

33:

This "repetition-of-fart" thing isn't really new. I just today read in a newspaper (yesterday's (I think) De Volkskrant) about a play which was critiqued. Its text was only repetition of a single word (which I ought to have copied down, but I didn't) which was based on a 40-year old book by a Swiss (I think) person. The play was called something like "Mumble mumble" (except that wasn't the word). (I wish I had remembered the details better... then I could also have double-checked them).

34:

Ah, here it is: http://www.visitberlin.de/en/event/02-24-2014/murmel-murmel and http://www.volksbuehne-berlin.de/praxis/murmel/.
"Murmel Murmel" by Dieter Roth. Not to be confused with "Murmel, Murmel, Murmel" by Robert Munsch.

35:

I agree we need gatekeepers. At the very least, to keep some of the horribly written stuff you see in fan-fiction out of the way(1). Good grammar, a plot that makes sense, isn't outright plagiarism with the serial numbers (poorly) filed off, that's a good thing. And, that's the job of gatekeepers.

The issue is that many of the gatekeepers have become moral guardians. If it doesn't fit in their worldview (a very New York/Blue/Democrat-to-socialist one if you're in the US), it's Bad Writing and shouldn't be published. Bad doggie. No biscuit. And, since they won't publish it, there clearly isn't a market, so they shouldn't publish more of it.

The cycle is a bad one, and it's one that keeps good authors out of the market. About half the authors I read (David Drake, David Weber, John Ringo, etc, etc, etc) in sci-fi probably couldn't get their first book published anywhere but Baen Books. Most of them are in a place now where half the publishing houses in NY will sacrifice first-borns for their writing. And, by American standards, Baen Books isn't that conservative.

Yes, I know there's only so many books and such that a Big Name Publisher can spend their money and time on. But, when there's some books that I can only find via Amazon.com and the self-publishing movement, there's an issue.

Perhaps what we need is something like a "training wheels" imprint for ebooks done by the bigger publishers. New authors, editors, and the like get a chance to try out their stuff and get the public distribution and advertising assets of the Big Name Publisher. Sort of like how Miramax Films worked during the early-1990's.

(1)-You haven't "lived" until you've done editing, aka "pre-reading" for My Little Pony:Friendship is Magic fanfic. In the same manner that running through a minefield is "invigorating". You want to scare off the many-angled ones that are coming in CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN? Broadcast half the slashfic archives of various fandoms at them-if the Supernatural incest yaoi porn doesn't scare them off, nothing will...

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on February 18, 2014 6:14 PM.

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