The Machines are Coming

Publishing’s understandable but untenable reluctance to embrace AI

In her wildly popular TED talk, “wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz asks her audience how it feels to be wrong. Obvious responses include “dreadful”, “thumbs down”, and “embarrassing”, but Shulz points out that these are answers to a slightly different question—how it feels to realize you’re wrong. Of course, realizing you’re wrong can be devastating, but just being wrong itself doesn’t feel like that. In fact, just being wrong feels no different from being right.

Shulz’s insight here is that when we don’t know something, typically we don’t know that we don’t know. We operate quite blissfully under false assumptions about how the world is, until we come up against reality and realize in a revelatory moment that we are, in fact, mistaken. This can be relatively harmless, as in the case of finding out your keys really aren’t in your pocket. But not all cases are this benign. If you have an entire company and the livelihood of all its employees on the line, then operating under a faulty set of assumptions about the world can be catastrophic.

Consider the use of Artificial Intelligence. Data shows that at least a majority of people in almost every conceivable sector expects to switch to more AI usage in the near and mid-term:

In publishing too, there are modest signs of a systematic adoption of AI –  Companies are already employing AI to target readers in customized ways that a flesh and blood publisher cannot even dream of, enhance discoverability and targeting, and Amazon is even toying with creating books written entirely by AI. Despite this, many of the publishers I have talked to remain satisfied, or at best ambivalent, with their non-AI methods of production for the foreseeable future. In some cases, this is a completely understandable attitude brought on by prior experiences with tech companies that made claims about their capabilities that their technology couldn’t actually fulfill. But another significant reason seems to be a certain romanticization of the way things are, coupled with that all-too-human wishful thinking that any new problem can be addressed by simply assiduously adhering to the usual ways of working.

Unfortunately, to resist the inexorable approach of AI today is to be one of Shulz’s people who is wrong but doesn’t realize it, believing everything is alright even though things are already starting to shake up. As she points out, we can go some way without realizing how mistaken we are, but at some point the ground under us gives way and the truth becomes undeniable. For now, there’s still time to get in front of this trend and embrace AI on our own terms. But the window is closing.

A Weathervane for the Changing Winds in Publishing

How a new workflow management tool promises to help publishers flourish in the digital age

There’s an old publishing joke that goes like this: the first thing Johannes Gutenberg printed on his newly invented printing press was the Bible. The second was an article about the death of publishing.

While this rightly picks on the perpetual think pieces bemoaning the death of publishing, it is important to concede that one reason these “death of publishing” pieces get written up so often is simply that publishing faces new crises all the time. Like the Hydra which sprouts two heads for each one cut-off, the moment one challenge is dealt with, more spring up. This isn’t a call to throw up our hands and give up – publishers play far too important a role culturally for this to be an acceptable option – but this does mean that publishers need a partner with a constant finger on the pulse of the broader field to help them recognize and adapt to new challenges as rapidly as possible. Enter PageMajik.

We firmly believe that the future cannot be faced unless you’re well acquainted with the past and the present.The application of this philosophy gives PageMajik an edge since its team has worked in publishing for decades. This intimate knowledge of the field ensures that they don’t just know what overt trends are being observed now, but that they also know about subterranean patterns not widely recognized. For example, consider how in the 90s people in the publishing industry were convinced of the imminent death of print, with its market share increasingly eaten up by new and slick digital books. Many start-ups were launched in the hope of cornering this new market, with new devices churned out faster than you could keep track. Unfortunately, e-book sales did not take off as predicted and many of these start-ups had to shut down.

As this graph from the International Digital Publishing Forum shows, the idea to focus on alternatives to print only started to pay off in 2009. Flash-forward to 2017, and more than two-thirds of adult fiction sales is digital. That isn’t to say that e-books are enjoying uninterrupted growth – 2017 also saw a 17% drop in ebook sales last year thanks to “screen fatigue”. There isn’t an easy narrative here that can be learnt and mechanically adhered to regarding the market. Rather, what incidents like these emphasize is that having a vision isn’t enough – you also need a trustworthy hand on your shoulder to hold you back when it’s prudent and to give you a nudge when necessary. This is precisely the role PageMajik plays.

Accordingly, after extensively surveying publishers regarding their most pressing needs, we decided to create a single system that allows publishers to monitor and direct the progress of the book from start to finish. It would have a shared platform where authors, editors, and designers can all work together simultaneously, while the cloud-based content management system ensures thorough version control. And best of all, state-of-the-art automation eliminates much of the mechanical tasks that had to be done manually – speeding up the entire process significantly, resulting in a windfall saving in time and money.

As impressive as these features may be, PageMajik will never be content with just these but will always look to improve upon them, so that its partners never have to fear being left behind. To go back to the weathervane image invoked in the title, these vanes have two aspects. The first is that they reveal the direction of prevailing winds to an onlooker, and the second is that they turn themselves to orient to those winds. By loose analogy, PageMajik keeps an eye on the future and constantly transforms itself with the times, ensuring that quality never has to suffer because of new contingencies. We hope you’ll join us on this journey.

Sensitivity Readers and the C-Word

How social media outrage is changing how authors write diverse characters

When Young Adult author Laura Moriarty heard President Trump denounce Muslims en masse, she was appalled and wanted to do something. She decided to write an inspirational dystopian novel where a white teen protagonist would help resist the government’s forced internment of Muslim-Americans as a simplistic, if somewhat heavy-handed, parable for our modern times. Little did she know that she would soon be accused of insulting marginalized communities and have her book itself denounced as a “white savior narrative”. The debate over what should be allowed to be said in the public sphere, and by whom, rages more fiercely than ever.

Moriarty’s protest was not the first time outrage had targeted authors who were perceived as portraying minority communities offensively. After a blogger declared that Laurie Forest’s initially well-received book The Black Witch was “the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read”, a massive online campaign was launched to keep the book off the shelves. Keira Drake’s The Continent was branded “retrograde” and “racist trash”, causing the book’s publication to be delayed. Mary Robinette Kowal even decided to pull a project when she was told it was “problematic”.

As a response to the increasingly frequent outrage over authorial missteps regarding characters with marginalized identities, publishers have started hiring “sensitivity readers” – people belonging to relevant marginalized groups who will review manuscripts for insensitive language and cultural misrepresentation. Their pricing starts from $250 a book and it is common for an author to hire anywhere from 12 to 20+ sensitivity readers for a single novel.

Some authors have taken this change in stride and some even think this is a positive development. Fantasy writer Kate Milford, for example, sees sensitivity readers as playing an analogous function to a history expert who provides information about historic context. Just as a Victorian scholar might be called in to ensure that a book about Victorian times does not make any major factual mistakes regarding clothing or norms, a bipolar sensitivity reader might ensure that writers who aren’t themselves bipolar do not make any erroneous or offensive choices regarding manic-depressive characters. As Milford puts it, "it's not that I can't empathize or do the imaginative work myself, but I want accuracy."

Not everyone is as sanguine about this trend, however. Novelist Joyce Carl Oates scathingly tweeted what could happen to books that are now cherished if they would have had to kowtow to the progressive demands that sensitivity readers might want to have seen:

The worry for critics like Oates is that even if the sensitivity readers are appointed for noble reasons, they risk serving as Trojan horses that sneak in censorship (the dreaded C-word!). After all, it does not seem implausible that narrow ideas about race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc., which are currently in vogue will nudge authors into producing safer, less risky, and consequently less valuable work. After all, isn’t literary progress and innovation produced by violating seemingly sacrosanct moral rules? Where would the literary cannon be without Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Toni Morrison’s Beloved – all books that were deemed immoral at their time of release?Should works of merit have their wings clipped by the myopia of current moral standards?

The question then seems to be: how should one maneuver between the Scylla of furthering oppression and the Charybdis of censorship creep?

PageMajik offers a way out of this bind, an even-handed approach that recognizes that both sides are relying on powerful and compelling moral principles. By offering workflow management tools of unprecedented flexibility, it ensures that authors can fabricate writing processes specially tailored to suit their singular creative needs. Specifically, all decisions regarding when sensitivity readers will be consulted and whether their recommendations should be accepted are left to the author. This way, someone like Kate Milford can easily create an arrangement where input is gotten early and regularly, while others like Joyce Carol Oates can maintain the insularity they seek. By ensuring that all consultation is at the discretion of the writer, and more importantly, that all decision-making power resides with the author, the threat of censorship is mitigated while still ensuring that minority voices continue to be heard and harkened to.

This isn’t a perfect solution, of course – opponents of sensitivity readers will argue that the threat of censorship creep remains, while supporters will criticize how marginalized voices can easily be shut out. Still, given the set of incompatible moral demands laid on us, PageMajik’s ceasefire might very well be the best of our available options.