When Editors Eat Robots

One way of looking at the political economy of publishing is to look at the labor economics and there’s a rather useful new study from everyone’s favorite consulting firm McKinsey on workplace automation (“The Four Fundamentals of Workplace Automation“) from which we might glean some useful perspective on the future of editing.

Capabilities such as creativity and sensing emotions are core to the human experience and also difficult to automate. The amount of time that workers spend on activities requiring these capabilities, though, appears to be surprisingly low. Just 4 percent of the work activities across the US economy require creativity at a median human level of performance. Similarly, only 29 percent of work activities require a median human level of performance in sensing emotion.

 

While these findings might be lamented as reflecting the impoverished nature of our work lives, they also suggest the potential to generate a greater amount of meaningful work. This could occur as automation replaces more routine or repetitive tasks, allowing employees to focus more on tasks that utilize creativity and emotion. Financial advisors, for example, might spend less time analyzing clients’ financial situations, and more time understanding their needs and explaining creative options. Interior designers could spend less time taking measurements, developing illustrations, and ordering materials, and more time developing innovative design concepts based on clients’ desires.

And, you know, editors might edit. Actually, though, no, I’m not going to go down the irritating “do-they, don’t-they” of whether editors these days edit or not. (I suspect the answer is, they edited less in the past than it is made out to be, and edit more in the present than is made out to be.) However it is true that many editors have been laid off in the past twenty years and shifted to freelance mode, and it may be that that was the most self-defeating move the industry made in the past twenty years. Because the least automatable bit of the entire publishing supply chain is the editor-as-shrink bit. You attend any self-publishing conference and you don’t hear any shit get talked about their editors, no, the shit-talking is reserved for the marketing and business side.

Further to this, you might enjoy Porter Anderson’s account of a talk I gave in 2014 in Stockholm. (Slides here. Quotes courtesy of Porter’s prodigious ability to live tweet a talk.)

“I changed my title five seconds ago from ‘Editors Beat Robots’ to ‘Editors Eat Robots,’ partially because I don’t believe in neat oppositions of editor versus robot, book versus transmedia, print versus digital. I believe in hybridization, which happens when things get combined. In a certain sense, I could say, ‘Editors Fuck Robots,’ and not in the aggressive sense but in the reproductive sense. What happens when editors combine themselves with robots?”

What is key though is that the business model would need to evolve, away from hit-picking, towards talent support.

“When you understand editing as a service, as opposed to a process of picking products that may or may not sell, your value is defined by how good you are rather than how lucky you are. Which suggests that editors, when they eat robots, when they use tools, when they use data, when they embrace a post-industrial mode, can be the entities that are attracting the value.”

Or, you might say, editors beat publishers.



Against Reductionism

Useful admonitions in this article on scale invariance in the brain. The nub of it is:

[T]he brain lacks a privileged scale because its functioning cannot be reduced to component parts (i.e., neurons).  Rather, it is the complex interactions between parts which give rise to phenomena at all spatial and temporal scales...  Like averages, reductionism is deeply ingrained in our scientific thinking.  Water is explained in terms of molecules, molecules in terms of atoms, etc.  If the brain is reducible to simpler parts, it should also exhibit a privileged scale of organization.

I suspect this could also militate against certain recommendation systems dependent on summarizing units of content, as opposed to understanding the relationships between and amongst them. We certainly see power law distributions of units of content itself, cf The Black Swan, and they may even be getting more extreme in the attention economy, or access economy as Alex Danco describes it. I’m not sure how to identify power law distributions within a novel, say, but I do know that any methodologies we might have for summarizing around scale with any level of automation as very poor. (Nonfiction, on the other hand, can be readily subjected to scale variance.)

The Alex Danco piece on Taylor Swift et al. I’m going to try to write about soon.



Publishing Eats the World

So I’d love to tell the assembled technorati at South by Southwest about all the great writing and publishing being done by non-publishers (or at least entities that are not [yet] aware they are, in fact, publishers.) Herewith my spiel and, if you think it worthy, give me a thumbs-up?

For centuries the world outsourced narrative and knowledge distribution to publishers—scientists, storytellers, doctors, chefs all. Now that “publish is a button,” content is abundant. But its abundance had been abused, like fossil fuels’ and foods’ abundance. Print is a button, but how can content be used effectively. Drawing on examples raging for the pervasive (Red Bull) to the unexpected (the personalized medicine start-up Cure Forward) we explore the world beyond content marketing, understanding where content transforms onboarding, creating all the motivations needed to discover, learn, and engage with any given product, as publishing becomes insourced.

Vote for me!



“But I’m actually optimistic, because the underlying power of the writing-reading economy is so, well, oceanic…”

The lovely folks at White Fox did a Q&A with me a little while ago. Here my tl;dr A to their first Q but do check out the whole thing on their site if you’re a freelancer…


 

As a serial entrepreneur you’ve been asked many times what the “future” of publishing will look like. Are there any trends or developments that haven’t received much attention that you think will have significant implications for the future? Is the publishing industry uniquely hostile to change? What do you think have been the major obstacles or reasons that the traditional publishing industry has been slow to change?

I’m going to roll my response to the first three questions up into a long single answer, I think. I’ve argued in the past that the book business’s greatest legacy, the trait that has defined it for five centuries is its radical disruptive nature. The business of literature, I once said, is “blowing shit up.” Ha! But publishing, like most humans, has a hard time really looking at the past, and tends to think of the present as being the way things have always been. Moreover, it was only ever a tiny handful of people in publishing (or in any other industry) that were ever blowing shit up. Whether that was Aldus Manutius or Barney Rosset or Allen Lane (and we forget how much they were vilified at the time…)

“The business of literature, I once said, is ‘blowing shit up’.”

However, especially in an industry that was, in a sense, the first industry of any sort, the first sentence of the industrial revolution, the first thing we were capable of mass reproducing, it is attached to its industrial self. (Another irony: we believe we’re nostalgic about things like culture, whereas in fact we’re nostalgic for habits and structures of a manufacturing supply chain.) So that’s hard to mess with, especially because we’re in denial about it—in many ways, the operational delusion of publishing was that it wasn’t quite a business, whereas that’s exactly what it has always been. So adjustment is hard because you have to confront self-deception first.

“Another irony: we believe we’re nostalgic about things like culture, whereas in fact we’re nostalgic for habits and structures of a manufacturing supply chain.”

But I’m actually optimistic, because the underlying power of the writing-reading economy is so, well, oceanic. It’ll so easily generate useful innovation, as it always has. But we should remember that change often occurs through random rather than purposeful mutation, and publishing in particular, because of its scale and the very basic way in which “story” and “word” are integral to our species, is almost evolutionary in scale. It operates over decades and centuries, not years. So it’s hard to point to particular micro trend or particular start-ups, as they tend to be subject to the noise of good and bad luck.

“We should remember that change often occurs through random rather than purposeful mutation.”

That said, I think there are two key things that will need to develop in the coming five years, though I’ll acknowledge that currently there are barely any glimmers of them.

The first is that we’re too focused on filter, and not enough on map. That’s my pet framework for talking about the ways in which we need to organize all our cultural information. We’re blessed (yes, blessed, despite what the panicked patricians say) with an ever growing abundance of cultural production, but we’re not developing tools for engaging with that production with anything like the necessary sophistication. Largely we’re using filter—reduce the number of objects for us to consider either through algorithmic filtering, or curation. The hassle is that it isn’t really “discovery.” Yes, that abused term, abused like curation. Discovery should elicit joy, wonder, ecstasy. Not some damn list of five books from which you can pick one. It’s supposed to be “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” seeing the Pacific, looking through a telescope, or a microscope. The “Holy Shit” of actual discovery. Filtering hides too much, both in terms of process, as it’s a black box, and in terms of outcome—if you can’t be lambently aware of how you get somewhere, you can’t spontaneously choose a sudden diversion. So, it kills serendipity.

“Discovery should elicit joy, wonder, ecstasy. Not some damn list of five books from which you can pick one. It’s supposed to be ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, seeing the Pacific, looking through a telescope, or a microscope. The ‘Holy Shit’ of actual discovery.”

Map, on the other hand, is about finding user-friendly ways to display all the information, not a tiny subset of it. It’s about saying, we’ll show you everything, and give you the means to navigate towards it. Bricks-and-mortar stores partake of map, by the way. You see everything, and you follow visual cues to orient yourself. Part of the power of map is scale. Start with a globe, go to London, go to Camden, go to the Electric Ballroom. Like the famous Charles & Ray Eames Powers of Ten movie. Or fractal geometry. The closest two things we’ve had to this is the world cloud and my failed start-up Small Demons. I suspect VR or, better put, augmented reality, may offer some opportunities in this regard, because it allows greater dimensionality (as does a store, or a city). The “flatness” of most web browsing experiences, currently, is crippling. Ironic, given that the very word browsing comes from three-dimension retail experience, that in turns originates with the book store. Effectively we’re way too focused on processing data, and not enough on how to effectively render data for the human brain to process it itself. Moreover, and I can’t emphasize the significance of this: maps are fun in themselves. Filters are not. Map is where the cultural action is.

“We’re way too focused on processing data, and not enough on how to effectively render data for the human brain to process it itself.”

The second is the quantified reading self. We focus too much on data for producers, and not enough on data for the individual consumer. But it’s ALL the rage in health, with many different types of monitoring being used by people to improve their health and manage their illness—we need to offer the reader more awareness of their reading process as I believe most readers want to read better. But, as with so many different aspects of human life, when the benefits of an activity like exercise or serious reading are in the future, but the opportunity costs (I’d rather be eating ice cream or clicking on clickbait) are right now, people tend to defer what they know they should be doing. If we give readers more feedback, more visibility, I think we can grow the reading pie, and reduce the arguing over how to distribute it.

“If we give readers more feedback, more visibility, I think we can grow the reading pie, and reduce the arguing over how to distribute it.”



Map vs Filter, or “You’re not here to tell me about the short run Richard!”

A new interview up on this rather lovely indie/small press online book emporium 0s-01s. It provokes me into thinking about models for managing signal:noise ratios in a world of cultural abundance. And provokes me into extravagant metaphors, though that takes so little provocation. Seduces me, perhaps?

 

Your idea of leaving more rights on the side of the writer (or at least giving them the opportunity to reconsider) might imply a positive view of self-publishing, but I have the feeling your thoughts on the subject are more complex than that.

Yes! I’m rather hoping the term self-publishing disappears, in fact. Since the degree of internal variance in the different circumstances of different self-publishing scenarios is far greater than the variance between self-publishing and other-publishing.


That’s a great point.

Plus many indie presses began by publishing the founders’ first books. Or their friends.


Very true. Well, ignoring whether the name sticks around, what are your hopes for the concept moving forward?

I believe in more publishing, not less. The more tools for creations and dissemination, the better.


Which, in turn, puts more of a stress on curation, no?

I believe that culture is like democracy, that for all the problems of letting any old idiot vote, it’s better than not letting particular people vote because you don’t think they’re voting the right way, the best way, etc. Yeah, though the word “curation” is being asked to do way more than it can do.


How do you mean?

It’s a catch-all phrase, a sort of wand we wave over the chaos.


What’s a better phrase, or a statement for what’s needed?

I think of there being two models for organizing information (but I’m more than willing to entertain others!) One is filter. The other is map. I lean map, for the most part. Though filter can work, under the right circumstances. Map aids serendipity. Filter reduces serendipity.

Here’s the whole shebang. Make sure to browse the site after you’re done.



Talking with Writers: A Talk