The End of the Human Publisher? Introducing the First Novel to Be Chosen by an Algorithm

Last December we predicted many things about publishing in 2016 — paint-by-numbers “adult relaxation” books, novels written by computers. Still, we never expected the basically human enterprise of selecting a book for publication to be replaced by an algorithm. It has happened, nonetheless: yesterday, the Berlin-based company Inkitt announced a partnership with Tor Books that will bring about the first ever book chosen by predictive data.

The novel chosen by Inkitt’s “artificially intelligent” algorithm is Erin Swan’s Bright Star, a young adult fiction submitted to the publisher through a writing contest called “Hidden Gems.” Part of a multi-book “Sky Rider” series, it tells the story of the “fantasyland” Paerolia, “where war and conflict has created strong divides,” and where a a rebel leader named Kael helps a slave named Andra “discover the strength that has always been within her” and “fight to win back what Fate kept beyond her reach” — namely a dragon “that should have been her own.” Bright Star is expected to be released in 2017.

Inkitt, the company responsible for discovering the novel, is an online writing platform where “budding authors” share their work with “inquisitive readers.” It relies on an “artificially intelligent” algorithm to bring the two together with the purpose of uncovering “blockbuster books.” This description calls up a number of questions. Did Inkitt invent artificial intelligence? Should we be surprised that the first artificially intelligent being prefers genre fiction? If you put aside Inkitt’s overheated claims about artificial intelligence, you’ll find a publisher that just wants to do the write thing: “Inkitt’s goal is to remove the middle person so that a blockbuster book is never rejected by a publishing house again.”

Given his company’s new deal with Tor Books, a respected publisher of science fiction and fantasy novels, Ali Albazaz, Inkitt’s founder and CEO, is understandably confident.

“This book deal sends a clear signal to the publishing industry that predictive data analysis is the way of the future,” says Albazaz. “Inkitt is at the forefront of the movement to use predictive data in publishing, and this deal shows that our business model works.”

He has a point. Inkitt is less than a year old, and it has already intervened in the world of algorithmic publishing, a curious space that Amazon (the everything company) has sought to dominate with Kindle Direct, a self-publishing ebook platform that relies on reader upvoting to determine what goes to market.

Still, it’s hard to say whether Inkitt’s first major deal is a function of its algorithm or its status as a thriving online world, which “stretches from the US to Australia.” By its own account, Inkitt has a community of half a million loyal readers. And its business plan – now seeing its first moments of success — is to bring the “future bestsellers” validated by this community to publishers, like Tor. It also plans to independently publish ebooks of selected novels from its own platform, “with supporting in-house marketing campaigns.”

How big of a cut does Inkitt take from the publisher? Does its algorithm seek to replace agents or editors or human publishers? (Probably all of these.) It remains to be seen. But its viability will depend on Swan’s success with Sky Rider.  

For her part, Swan is jazzed. “The support I received from the Inkitt community was overwhelming and invaluable to the journey of writing the Sky Rider series,” she writes. “I had built a small readership online but it wasn’t until I joined Inkitt, and was connected to Tor Books, that the possibility of getting Bright Star published became a reality.”

Inkitt’s next project will be a gay and lesbian bildungsroman called Just Juliet. And it will be published “in partnership with the LA-based Rebecca Friedman Agency” — no word on a publisher. And it’s looking to find a home for The Esper Files, which sounds like a steampunk X-Men, and the religious-sounding Catalyst Moon: Incursion.

Let’s just take a moment to register that the elimination of humans from publishing began with genre fiction.