In late August, I published my first book, a work of nonfiction titled “Shark Attacks: How Dangerous Are These ‘Lions of the Sea?’ ” The opening line reads: “A shark attack is an attack on a human by a shark.”
Not the most auspicious start to a literary career, perhaps, but I do have one thing working in my favor: It wasn’t me. In fact, there isn’t a single word in “Shark Attacks” that was me. All I did was type in my title on a website, hit enter, and wait for a machine to do the rest. This is supposed to represent the future of the written word. “The idea,” says Fred Zimmerman, the CEO of the company that brought my book to market, “is to automate the publishing process.”
Zimmerman’s company, Nimble Books, is a small part of an industry that looks set to balloon. At its most vulgar, auto-generated content is used to churn out Web pages whose only purpose is to snag online searchers and drum up advertising. On a more substantive level, outfits like Narrative Science and Automated Insights are producing computer-generated articles on everything from Little League baseball to Wall Street trends. There are even efforts underway to produce automated snark, to cover the blog market.
But Nimble Books is something else—and the difference isn’t simply a matter of degree. A culture does not define itself by its ability to accurately portray box scores or stock movements. Our books, though—these are supposed to be the things that elevate us, that endow us with meaning. It’s hard to see where “Shark Attacks” fits into the literary canon. “Do we even know what a book is any more?” says Calvin Reid, senior news editor at Publishers Weekly. “It changes all the time.”
In recent years we’ve had to disabuse ourselves of the notion that a book is supposed to have pages, and we’ve gotten used to self-publishing, which often dispenses with any editorial gatekeeping. But Nimble Books may represent the bottom of this slippery slope, removing two final requirements: original writing and, finally, the author. “Depending on your point of view, this is either a great breakthrough or the end of civilization as we know it,” says Reid. “Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can now make a book.”
‘Depending on your point of view, this is either a great breakthrough or the end of civilization as we know it.’
The idea behind Zimmerman’s enterprise is simple. To see your title in print (digitally speaking), you need only log onto nimblebooks.com and enter your proposed subject into a box. After this, bespoke software goes looking for relevant stuff on public domain sites, pulls it all together, and slaps on a rudimentary cover. Zimmerman plans to use Amazon and other digital outlets to sell his books, but right now the only place to get them is the Nimble site, where they go for between 49 and 99 cents apiece. (How the profits will be divided is yet to be decided.)
Zimmerman, 51, doesn’t appear to be in this for the money—or at least not only the money. A former law student who has worked as a product developer at LexisNexis and as a researcher at the scientific think tank CIESIN, he seems to be one of those techie types who view it as an obligation to change the world. He talks of having a million titles under his belt one day, all of them written by robots. “The only limit is the number of topics.”
The Nimble publishing empire, after about two months in existence, has 106 titles in stock. Its bestselling book to date, “The Paul Ryan Reader,” has shifted slightly fewer than 10 copies—which isn’t as bad as it sounds. Zimmerman is fond of pointing out that his books cost about 3 cents each to produce, and that the concept-to-completion time for a product is three minutes. “If I can produce a book for 3 cents and get 20 people interested in it,” he says, “it’s been cost effective.” And if he does manage to build a million-title catalog, cost effective will pass over into highly lucrative.
We should, perhaps, tap the brakes here.
A recent Forbes article described Nimble Books as being “not so much a creator of content as it is a highly polished curator.” This turns out to be a generous slant. When you stop and actually read the books, you realize that the company is more like a highly unmotivated intern. Every book Nimble has published to date—from “The Secret World of Tantric Sex” to “Morgan Freeman: The Man Behind the Voice”—has been lifted, unaltered, from Wikipedia. “Shark Attacks,” at 3,825 words, was sourced from a single page.
“I will be the first to admit,” Zimmerman says, “that this is not a robust intellectual experience.”
Wikipedia, as it happens, already offers a version of this service—Pedia Press—which allows users to mix-and-match pages and package them as a book. But this at least requires some human input, an element of discretion, something the Nimble Books research process has been lacking. A recent Nimble celebration of the late astronaut Neil Armstrong, for instance, includes passages about a hockey player of the same name. Shouldn’t somebody, you know, read these things before they go to press? “I don’t want to get involved in line editing,” Zimmerman says, adding, “I think of it as a feature, not a bug. I like it for the serendipity factor.”
Still, Zimmerman is working on improving the scope and selectivity of the research tools. It’s not entirely out of the question that his software will one day be able not only to weed out superfluous material, but to process the information it gathers, to summarize, and possibly even to analyze it. “I don’t think machines will be thinking,” he says. “But we can create the illusion that they are, and their actions will be close enough to humans that we don’t see the difference.”
The upshot of all this is that the bookselling industry will become awash in countless computer-generated titles. No subject will be too petty, no instance of plagiarism too egregious. When you look at my own debut in the bookselling arena, after all, the end of civilization as we know it doesn’t seem so far off the mark.
But we may not be as close to literary apocalypse as we seem. “This may look like some newfangled digital age degeneration, but actually there’s nothing new about the principle behind it,” says Harvard English professor Leah Price. “From the invention of printing onward, the vast majority of books have always consisted of material recycled from other books—reprints, anthologies, miscellanies, compendia.” The real trick for readers, then, may simply be to work out how to find the real, useful books amid all the meaningless chatter.
Calvin Reid—while allowing that outfits like Nimble may have relegated the book to the status of “container”—also thinks that we should withhold our panic. “I’m sure many people look at this and say the sky is falling,” he says. “But I admit, I don’t find this distressing. Is it going to be harder to wade through all these books that are being created? Yeah, it is. But in a political democracy there should be too many books. Something would be wrong if there weren’t.”