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Is automated publishing the future?

Caitlan Reeg Mar 20, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Reading just ain’t what it used to be. Not only is there just soooooo much more out there to read — online, in particular — but also on your iPad or e-reader. Buying real books with actual pages is becoming a thing of the past. Bookstores are disappearing too. And now, in perhaps the most futuristic development, authors themselves may be on the way out.

From San Diego, Caitlan Carroll reports.

Caitlan Carroll: You’d think if someone published 1,050,000 books, you’d know his name.

Phil Parker: Hi my name is Phil Parker. I am a professor at INSEAD, and I am involved in automated publishing.

If Philip Parker doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. The business professor publishes books on esoteric topics. How esoteric? Here’s the title of one book: “The 2007 to 2012 Outlook for Consumer Non-Riding Dual-Stage Snow Throwers and Snow Blowers Excluding Attachment Type in India.”

Parker: OK, I’ll give you a little tour here.

We’re at Parker’s business — ICON publishing in San Diego. It’s basically two rooms with a bunch of computers and about a dozen computer programmers. ICON specializes in trade reports, language learning materials, and medical guides — all on very niche topics.

Parker: There might be only 10 people in the entire world who would care about one particular report or topic, but because our incremental costs of producing a title or report is so low, we might as well serve that segment of the market.

Parker’s production costs are only 23 cents per book because they’re made by computers.

Algorithms search through incredible amounts of data from published research and government reports. That info is then plugged into a book format. It’s kind of like a very high tech form of Mad Libs. Parker came up with the idea in the ’90s when he was writing economic reports.

Parker: A lot of people in corporate America spend a lot of time writing reports that kind of look like the report last year. Basically, they’re doing the same thing over and over again.

He thought a computer could do it just as easily. Now Parker sells his trade reports for between $400-700. But he’s also created works of fiction, even poetry. But the problem is books made by computers aren’t always so people friendly. A review on Amazon says one of Parker’s medical guides “had a jumpy and pasted together feeling” and that most of the information seemed really generic.

Geoffrey Bowker: The problem with this random aggregation that he is doing is that it doesn’t narrow down the field of the data he is getting, by saying we’re going to pick out this kind of source in this kind of way so we can provide some kind of stamp of authenticity.

Geoffrey Bowker is a professor of computer sciences at the University of California, Irvine. Bowker thinks university libraries could be wasting their money on these books.

Bowker: Many libraries automatically pick up books with certain subject headings even if there is no potential readership.

Anita Colby coordinates the science libraries at University of California, Los Angeles. She says the library’s budget has been cut way back and they’re very selective about which books they buy.

Colby checks out a library database to see some of Philip Parker’s titles.

Anita Colby: Oh, the market for suitcases in Croatia! Now why do you think that’s niche? This is kind of fascinating. It’s very interesting.

Colby says that the U.C. system does have some of Parker’s books and most have been checked out at least once or twice, so that’s a good sign. But universities are all about personal research and credibility.

Colby: It seems counter to the academy because the guy clearly has no real area of expertise.

Even if the content isn’t perfect, a lot of people are interested in the possibilities. Nonprofits like the Grameen Foundation want to use Parker’s methods to translate farming and health advice in places like Africa.

Parker says automated publishing could even be used to create prep for radio shows.

Parker: Everything that is financial is very, very formulaic. You can’t get more formulaic than financial reporting.

Hahaha. Except for Marketplace, of course. Our stories are still written by people, not computers.

In San Diego, I’m Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.

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