The publishing industry is reeling today after news broke this morning about Kindle Author, Amazon's new service that automatically generates high-quality fiction using complex software algorithms.
It's like Build-A-Bear for ebooks. The reader tells Kindle Author what they want in a story, and then Kindle Author automatically generates the book.
In this post, I'll explain how Kindle Author works and I'll share never-before-seen screenshots of the service. I'll explain the science that made this breakthrough possible, and then I'll wrap by discussing what this means for authors and the future of publishing.
How Kindle Author Works
Kindle Author is a new option for purchasing ebooks in the Kindle store. It's receiving heavy promotion on the Amazon home page which tells me Amazon is making the new service a strategic priority for their business.
Amazon is also advertising Kindle Author directly on the book listings pages of all books in their store. A customer visits the listing page for a book written by a real author, and Amazon encourages the reader to create and read a free Kindle Author book instead.
In the screen shot above I show how Amazon modified the book listing page for Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. "Don't want this book?" asks Amazon front and center on the page. "Build your own for free with Kindle Author!"
Amazon's decision to redirect customers from human-authored books to machine-generated books is unprecedented, but it's not a huge surprise considering how other Amazon-exclusive books already receive preferential merchandising in their store.
When Amazon launched their new ebook subscription service Kindle Unlimited, they modified their book listings pages to encourage readers to obtain the book for free as part of a Kindle Unlimited subscription rather than purchasing a regular copy. If the customer obtains the Kindle Unlimited version of a book, Amazon pays the author a lower royalty. Good for Amazon and its customers, but not so great for authors and publishers.
Once the customer clicks to Kindle Author, they're presented with a simple point and click interface of pull-down menus and radio buttons. It's quite easy to use. It's even fun. It's like color by numbers, but with words.
Customers select story characteristics from among thousands of different options. As you can see in my screen shots at left and below, some of the radio button options are a bit quirky, but this is probably deliberate because it makes for better fiction.
A reader can tell Kindle Author, for example, they want to read a medieval epic fantasy of 2 million words that involves kings, queens, princesses, swordplay, intrigue, castles, a sexy young mother of dragons, and a stainless steel throne made out of spoons and forks.
Look out, George RR Martin. Game of Thrones has met its match.
Kindle Author gives readers the choice of having the book written in the style of their favorite authors. That's right, if you want your paranormal romance written in the style of Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac or Jane Austin, it's yours with the the click of a button.
You can even choose to have public domain books rewritten in the style of other authors, or in a style that blends multiple authors.
If you want the King James Bible rewritten in the blended styles of the voice of God, Douglas Adams, Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin, it's yours for asking. It's an absurd combination, but you begin to see how Kindle Author opens up myriad possibilities to create radically new and unexpected forms of fiction.
With thousands of user-configurable options, it's unlikely any two readers would ever select the exact same combination of story options. To prevent this from happening, Amazon built in creative story randomness so that two ordered stories derived from the same characteristics will be different. No two Kindle Author books will ever be the same.
Once the reader makes final selections, Kindle Author instantly compiles an intricate, well crafted, original full-length novel. In truth, it actually takes between ten seconds and two minutes, depending on length and complexity, but who's counting - it's unbelievably quick.
The Radically Disruptive Business Model Behind Kindle Author
Kindle Author is free to readers who use it to generate their next read. Each reader-generated Kindle Author book is automatically published into the Kindle store priced at $.99, and the reader is credited as the author and earns royalties of five cents per download whenever anyone else reads the book. All Kindle Author books remain exclusive to the Kindle store.
I think we're witnessing the future of authorship.
Soon, tens of millions of readers will begin publishing billions of high-quality, low-cost books written in the styles of the greatest authors of all time (and the greatest indie Smashwords authors too!). The more readers read, the more they'll publish and earn. Lazy readers who don't want to configure their made-to-order custom books can read Kindle Author books produced by other readers for $.99 each, or they can read them free as part of an Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited subscription.
For Amazon, books generated by Kindle Author are almost pure profit. It costs nothing to produce each ebook, and the five cent per copy royalty to the Kindle Author reader is easily covered from Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimited subscription fees, not to mention profits from Amazon's other diversified lines of business.
After playing with Kindle Author, I'm blown away by quality of the produced work. I must admit I really like it, even though it's horrible news for human authors everywhere.
Judging from early customer reaction, I'm not alone in my enthusiasm for Kindle Author.
It won't be long before we hear talk of Kindle Author millionaires - those Kindle Author readers who configure and create the new bestsellers of tomorrow. Or today. It's already happening. At this very moment, ninety-eight of the top 100 bestselling books at Amazon are Kindle Author books, and the books are earning five star reviews on average.
Here are a couple reviews that caught my eye:
"I ordered a paranormal steampunk thriller featuring alien mongooses and a Victorian clockmaker. I was hooked from the first sentence and stayed up all night until I finished the last page. Thank you Jeff Bezos. I love you!!!"
This next reader's comments will chill the bones of publishers.
"When I first heard of Kindle Author, I was skeptical. I thought it was impossible for a machine to reproduce the creative magic of my favorite authors. Boy, was I wrong. Now that I've read books *I* created with Kindle Author, I'm never going to buy another novel written by a human. Human novels are so banal and tired compared to the mind-blowing experience of a Kindle Author book. I don't know Amazon did it. You need to try it to believe it!"
The Publishing Industry Reacts
The publishing industry, as you might imagine, is horrified by Kindle Author. For authors and publishers alike, Kindle Author is what the post-authorial apocalypse looks like.
The US Department of Justice has launched a preliminary investigation into Kindle Author on the grounds it may be anti-competitive, though legal experts expect the DOJ to side with Amazon since Kindle Author essentially pays readers to read books. If the government can't prove consumers are harmed, they won't have a case.
For many authors and publishers, news of Kindle Author confirms the industry's worst fear that Amazon is on a mission to commoditize books and turn authors and publishers into tenant farmers tilling Amazon soil. Now Amazon is cutting out the author - the ultimate middleman - by making the reader the author.
But not all industry participants are so pessimistic. At least two self publishing advocates are excited by how Kindle Author will transform the publishing industry.
Hew Howling, a bestselling author, had this to say on his Howling at the Moon blog:
"Critics of Kindle Author can stop whining. I celebrate Amazon for this innovation. Kindle Author drives a stake through the hearts of the tyrannical, gatekeeping, legacy publishing dinosaur blood-suckers in New York. This is what publishers deserve for over-pricing their ebooks, underpaying authors and for believing publishers - not Amazon - should set ebook prices. I commend Amazon for bringing customers the highest-quality ebooks at the lowest possible price. Rather than attacking Amazon, Amazon's competitors should innovate like Amazon. If publisher books are so incredible, they can beat Amazon by paying readers to read their books just like Amazon is doing now."
Joe Dothraki, a popular thriller writer I respect and an outspoken advocate for self publishing, had this to say on his blog, The Newbies Guide to Amazon:
"Kindle Author is f****** awesome. It will crimp my earnings in the short run, but business is business and this isn't a game for wimps. Read the writing on the walls, folks. First cave painters were replaced by monk scribes, then monk scribes were replaced by publishers, then publishers were replaced by indie authors, and now authors are replaced by readers. As legacy authors, we need to evolve with the times by repositioning ourselves as readers. I'm going to start reading more books than ever thanks to Kindle Author. Kindle Author will increase my publication output to at least 30 titles per month. That's 360 titles a year I'll be releasing. For the first time ever, Amazon has made reading more profitable than writing. Thank you, Amazon!"
The Science Behind Kindle Author
Regardless of how you feel about Kindle Author's impact on the publishing industry, it's difficult to not feel smitten by the science behind this important advance in artificial creativity.
Prior to today's announcement, many scientists believed it was impossible for computers to create aesthetically pleasing literature.
The story behind how Amazon made this happen is fascinating, and it all starts with the human brain.
Our brains are comprised of about 80 billion neurons, and these neurons transmit electrical impulses. Neurons in the human brain connect via synapses to form a vast neural network. It's from the complex interplay of these electrical impulses that humans gain consciousness, memories, desires, creativity, the biological wherewithal to breathe and reproduce, and the desire to read and write great stories.
Amazon, which already operates most the world's largest backend network that powers the Internet, realized the human brain is simply a massive computer network made up of these billions of neural nodes and trillions of synaptic connections. When viewed in this light, it's not such a leap for Amazon to create a computer network that mimics the neurological processes associated with creativity in the human brain?
Jeff Bezos gave his researchers an audacious challenge: If DNA contains the genetic building blocks of information that allow a living organism to function, grow and reproduce, then why can't we decode the DNA of story-making? Why can't we give birth to unique books that are every bit as diverse, interesting and mind-blowing as human beings themselves? Let's not just equal the quality of human-written books - let's create better and cheaper books. Let's reinvent books!
With that mandate, and operating the secret project under the code name of Project Elysium, Amazon's researchers embarked on an ambitious project to deconstruct and map the genome of stories.
Although any simple computer can randomly generate words and sentences, before today experts thought it was impossible for machines to automatically generate stories that would please readers. Stories require massive complexity and nuance. But like all complex problems, once you break the problem down into smaller sub components, the challenge becomes solvable. And this is what Amazon did.
To create better books, Amazon needed to do better than the human brain. A single author writes from just a single brain. What if Amazon could harness the power of many brains? Amazon's researchers decided to build a massively parallel computer network comprising 500 trillion virtual nodes. To put this in perspective, it's the equivalent to the neural connectivity and creative horsepower of a hive mind of 50,000 interconnected human brains. Amazon is creating the Borg of books.
Their next challenge was to teach the neural network the logic and illogic of human artistic creativity, and how to string words into stories that please readers.
Amazon's researchers started by deconstructing the book into its essential components. Leveraging their massive catalog of over five million titles, Amazon applied algorithmic spiders to scan and analyze the words of all the books.
Next Amazon hired thousands of underemployed English majors and MFA graduates who worked from home over the Internet. These temporary workers were required to sign non-disclosure and non-compete agreements and agreed to not work in any writing field for at least 48 months. This secrecy explains why rumors of Project Elysium never leaked to the press. To further ensure secrecy, team members worked solo and only interfaced with their handlers operating out of call centers in India staffed by biomechanical engineers, software programmers, behavioral psychologists, endocrinologists and mathematicians. Workers were never told the ultimate end-purpose of their work.
Amazon divided the literary workers into multiple groups, each tasked with exploring a different aspect of the book genome.
One group was tasked with mapping the sentence structures of 20,000 bestselling books and 5,000 cultural classics. Using computer-assisted cloud-based tools, the workers diagrammed the structure of each sentence of every book in excruciating detail down to the subjects, predicates, nouns, pronouns, participles, gerunds, infinitives, passive and active verbs, adjectives, interjections and adverbs, compound subjunctives, and reverse triple superlatives. I'm an author and I don't even know what all these things are. Impressive.
Another team analyzed the plots and subplots of each book, tagging each sentence's location and role within the overall plot structure.
Yet another team mapped the story's tension, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph.
Another team mapped the evolution of each character's relationships with the other characters, and each character's backstory sentence by sentence.
Another team identified the 2,000 most common plots and subplot variations found in popular and literary fiction.
Several thousand linguistic experts studied the words, patterns and rules of each book that served as the connective tissue to string words into coherent sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, sections and stories. A team of mathematicians translated these rules into algorithmic equations that would enable the automated production of original books.
From this complex and multi-layered analysis began to emerge the basic building blocks of what makes a story a story.
But missing from the analysis was an understanding of the mechanics of successful storytelling. What makes a story a great story from the reader's point of view? How does a story gain spirit? Where does reading pleasure come from? For this, Amazon needed live human subjects. Luckily, they had millions of unwitting readers at their disposal in the form of Kindle owners.
Starting in early 2012, and unknown until today, Amazon secretly installed sensors around the edges of all Kindle devices. These sensors capture the reader's temperature, heart rate, perspiration rates, blood pressure, vasodilation, and neuro-electric signals in real time, and then Amazon used these factors as biomarkers to monitor the reader's emotional state. With this data, they could identify when the brain released endorphins, the "feel good" chemical in the brain. Amazon then mapped these emotional markers to specific page and sentence locations in the book, and then cross-correlated the hormonal responses across the same trigger points in millions of other books.
From this massive store of data, they were able to identify words, sentence structures, patterns, pacing, story lines, plots, and character interplay required to deliver massive endorphin releases to the reader's brain. If this sounds like Amazon was aiming to create the books that act on the brain like heroin (and are equally addictive), you're right.
Leveraging the predictive patterns they discovered, Amazon created software capable of generating imaginative and original reader-pleasing books featuring fully realized characters and story lines.
It's really quite unbelievable how scientists, mathematicians, programmers, and English lit majors joined together to create better, cheaper, more addictive books.
What's also interesting to me is every book's creator - the reader - brings a different background, purchase history, and Kindle Author configuration, and this in turn shapes the characters Kindle Author creates for the book. These characters aren't two dimensional stick figures. Instead, they're multidimensional and always unique. It's like they're truly alive.
Just as the stories of our own lives are shaped by the chance and random interpersonal interactions we have with other people we meet, the characters and story lines of Kindle Author books are shaped by the interplay of the story's unique characters. Not even the masterminds behind Kindle Author know how the story will end until their algorithms crank out the last word and period.
Traditional authorship feels quaint by comparison. Will writers ever want to write another book when their works will fall so short of the new perfection? Or will writers begin using Kindle Author as a tool to amplify their true potential? Only time will tell.
The final thing I find difficult to believe is that I chose April 1st to share this unbelievable news with you. April 1 is a day more commonly known as April Fool's Day, a day for pranks. My apologies to anyone who was fooled by this blog post. This has been a work of fiction, for the being at least.
This post, published on April Fools' Day, is satire.
Mark Coker's most recent post at Huffington Post was Why Jamie McGuire Returned to Self Publishing.