That was the headline for a provocative article by Carly Lewis in the Globe and Mail on Saturday May 4.
I read it with fascination, and much surprise.
I realise that my lifetime role as a “gatekeeper” in Canadian book publishing leaves me poorly qualified to understand the newest ways of getting a manuscript accepted for publication. To make matters worse, as a white, male, Anglo-Celtic editor, I was (and am) far from the diverse ideal that is valued today. But I realise that the system we devised in the old days was far from ideal, even indefensible. Unsolicited manuscripts that came in by mail out of the blue from optimistic authors rose in a toppling tower in the publisher’s office. It was rudely known as “the slush pile”. When eventually resentful editors tackled the pile before it collapsed and smothered them, the reading conditions were very bad. The pressure to reject this manuscript and move on to the next, then the next, meant that few manuscripts got the relaxed, respectful attention they deserved, and terrible mistakes were made.
To be personal, you could stock an interesting library with fine books that were eventually published with success, after I had stupidly rejected them.
So I was keenly interested to learn about what Wattpad was doing to simplify — and improve– the complex process of getting published. The Globe article promised that “Wattpad’s significance is in its mutiny, waged against the gatekeepers” (pause for a Gibson cringe, although I never heard the term during all of my years of gatekeeping) “of literary homogeneity first as an online library, and now as a physical force in the book-buying market.”
I was reading eagerly when I came on this paragraph, about why Wattpad (“an online and mobile platform for amateur , unagented writing”) is entering the physical book market, because it is ” not only logical from a revenue standpoint, but necessary in the company’s quest to highlight voices often excluded from the industry. Plus, with a fanatically engaged user base, the platform’s most promising stories rise to prominence without staff having to spelunk a slush pile.”
Wow! How is that possible? Avoiding the slush pile is a fine thing, but how can you do it?
The next sentence tells all. “Wattpad’s machine learning intelligence, which evaluates content based on an algorithm, user data and elemental qualities such as grammar, does that for them.”
Hold on. Please read that sentence again. Unless you believe that the word “algorithm’ equals “miracle” the sentence makes no sense. And it would be interesting to learn more…..much more… about these “elemental qualities”.
But I think we can make an educated guess about what the algorithm is doing here. It is, I suspect, set up to find new book proposals that are EXACTLY LIKE OLD BOOK PROPOSALS, where the books have gone on to success in the marketplace. If that is indeed the case, all of the fine talk about avoiding “literary homogeneity” is just nonsense.
The troublesome fact is that truly fine books are original, and unique. Algorithms are unlikely to be able to help here. Unless, of course, the new Wattpad system comes with a magic wand.