Best-Seller Foreteller?

What if a soothsayer could tell you if your manuscript would become a best-seller? If you were a publisher, you’d hire that soothsayer, right?

Throughout the history of the publishing industry, editors and publishers had to make buy-or-reject decisions based on experience and gut feel.

Welcome to the Age of Big Data.

Crystal ball image from Wikipedia

According to an article in The Telegraph , researchers at Stony Brook University used computers to analyze writing styles and could predict whether a book would be successful with up to 84% accuracy.

Following up on that, Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jockers wrote The Bestseller Code, a book about their algorithm (the “bestseller-o-meter”) that analyzes character, plot, setting, style, and theme to make its predictions. According to an article in BBC Culture, this strangely named algorithm is also highly accurate.

More recently, I read an article in BuiltinAustin about a company in Austin, Texas called AUTHORS.me that has developed their own algorithm, StoryFit, which they market to publishers.

These algorithms chew on massive amounts of data—thousands of novels—and perform statistical analyses. After being given test data about past novels for which the success or failure results are known, the algorithm “learns,” or at least develops rules, to distinguish best-sellers from flops. You then apply the algorithm to an unpublished manuscript and make a reasonable prediction. A crystal ball for novels.

Could this lead to a world where publishers reject your manuscript because their algorithm said it wouldn’t sell? Or a world where authors could edit their manuscript to add in the aspects such algorithms judge to be indicative of success? Could the writing and publishing of novels be reduced to a numbers game?

Not quite yet, apparently. The Stony Brook University algorithm struggled to predict the success of books in one genre—historical fiction. Also their algorithm “predicted” Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea would flop. Archer and Jockers’ bestseller-o-meter rated The Help by Kathryn Stockett as meh. Further, the novel achieving their algorithm’s highest score (The Circle by Dave Eggers) was a commercial failure.

Certainly, these artificially intelligent systems will improve and get more accurate in the coming years. They’ll identify trends in how the reading public’s tastes are changing. Maybe the algorithms will never be 100% right, and some books they reject will succeed and vice versa. Every now and then, an author tries something new and it sells well despite being unlike the norm. They do call them novels, after all.

As publishers make increasing use of tools that predict a novel’s success, and as authors begin to use similar tools to tune their manuscripts for market success, could it be that overall novel writing will improve? Will that lead to an increase in readership, a renewed clamor for books by the buying public?

I hope so. In the meantime, my new big-data algorithm has just finished analyzing all my previous blog posts, and states there is a 99% probability I’ll conclude this one by signing it—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Near Misses in Technology

For six years I’ve used this blog to aid beginning writers, but starting today I’ll occasionally take on other topics. Technology is fascinating to me, and today’s topic is those near misses in history when someone developed a technology before the world was ready.

What do I mean by ‘near misses?’ I’m talking about when an inventor came up with a new idea but it didn’t catch on, either because no one saw the possible applications or because there was no current need.

When you compare the date of the invention to the much later date when the idea finally took off, it’s intriguing to imagine how history might have been different, and how much further ahead we’d be today.

You’ll get a better idea of what I mean as we go through several examples.

Computers

The Antikythera Mechanism was likely the first computer, used for calculating the positions of celestial bodies. Invented in Greece in the 2nd Century BC, it contained over 30 intricate gears, and may have been a one-off. It is interesting to speculate how history might have been different if they’d envisioned other uses for this technology, such as mathematical calculations. Imagine Charles Babbage’s geared computer being invented two millennia earlier!

I was fascinated by the Antikythera Mechanism and the mystery surrounding its discovery in a shipwreck, so I wrote my story, “Wheels of Heaven,” with my version of those events.

Lasers

It’s puzzling to me that inventors came up with radios (1896) before lasers (1960). After all, radio involves invisible electromagnetic waves, but lasers are visible light. Sure, the mathematics behind lasers (stimulated emissions) wasn’t around until Einstein, but with people monkeying around with mirrors and prisms, it’s strange that no one happened upon the laser phenomenon ahead of its mathematical underpinning.

Charles Fabry and Alfred Perot came close in1899 when they developed their Fabry-Perot etalon, or interferometer. Again, imagine how history might have been different if lasers had appeared sixty years earlier, before radio.

My story “Within Victorian Mists” is a steampunk romance featuring the development of lasers and holograms in the 19th Century.

Manned Rocketry

The first manned rocket flight may have been that of German test pilot Lothar Sieber on March 1, 1945. It was unsuccessful and resulted in Sieber’s death. The first successful manned flight was that of Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union on April 12, 1961.

But did Sieber and Gagarin have a predecessor, beating them by three centuries?

There is an account of a manned rocked flight in 1633, the trip made successfully in Istanbul by Lagâri Hasan Çelebi. It’s fun to imagine if the sultan of that time had recognized the possibilities. My story “To Be First” is an alternate history tale showing where the Ottoman Empire might have gotten to by the year 1933 if they’d capitalized on Çelebi’s achievement.

Submarines

The earliest attempts at underwater travel come to us in legends and myths. Highly dubious accounts tell of Alexander the Great making a descent in a diving bell apparatus in 332 BC. There are vague references to the invention of a submarine in China around 200 BC. True submarine development really got its start in the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s.

Still, think about how much more we’d know today about the oceans if the ancient accounts were true and people of the time had make the most of them. My story “Alexander’s Odyssey” is a re-telling of the Alexander the Great episode, and “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai” is my version of the ancient Chinese submarine.

Steam Engines

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen developed the first commercially successful steam engine. Later, James Watt and Richard Trevithick improved on Newcomen’s design.

However, these inventions were preceded by Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria in the 1st Century AD. He developed a small steam engine called an aeolipile, though he considered it an amusing toy.

What if Heron had visualized the practical possibilities of this engine? Since the steam engine ushered in the Industrial Revolution, could humanity have skipped ahead 1700 years technologically? My story, “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” imagines a practical use for Heron’s engine along with a reason it didn’t catch on.

Other Near Misses?

You get the idea. I am intrigued by the number of times inventors hit on an idea, but society failed to recognize it and take advantage of it, so it had to wait until much later. Are there other examples you can think of? Leave a comment for me. Your thoughts might well be featured in a post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Ring of Gyges Made Real

I blogged recently about the Ring of Gyges, the invisibility ring mentioned by Plato in The Republic, a ring I wrote about in my upcoming story, RippersRing72dpi“Ripper’s Ring.” Today I revisit the topic since I now own the ring.

Ring of Gyges 8Ring of Gyges 3Well, the one I own is actually a replica, or at least a conception of how the ring might look. A close acquaintance of mine made it by the technique of additive manufacturing or 3D printing.

As shown on Thingiverse, my ring was based on two versions of the Green Lantern’s ring shown here and green_lantern_ring_display_large_preview_card GLR1_preview_cardhere. Then my friend used Tinkercad and 123D to add the Gyges touches. She used a Printrbot brand printer, the Simple (Maker Edition) and PLA filament. The .stl files you need to print the ring yourself are on the Thingiverse site. She glued a machine screw and nut to fasten the pieces together and allow rotation. If you make the ring yourself, you’ll need to scale the design so it prints a ring that will fit you.

As Plato described the ring, the collet (the part of the ring that grips the stone) could rotate. The stone must have had some sort of obvious orientation, because when Gyges turned it toward himself, he disappeared; when he turned the stone 180° toward his fingertips, he reappeared.

In my story and in my 3D printed ring, the stone is in the shape of an isosceles triangle, so think of the stone as an arrow—pointed toward you makes you invisible.Ring of Gyges 7

Not quite like that. It actually looks like this:

Ring of Gyges 6

And when you rotate the stone to point the other way, you become visible again.

Ring of Gyges 5

In “Ripper’s Ring,” (which launches in less than a week on May 4th!), I describe how the ring was made and how it works. A farmer finds a meteorite, and parts of it are solid to the touch, yet invisible. Anyone who touches the invisible metal becomes invisible, too. A jeweler discovers that the invisible metal becomes visible (and returns its wearer’s visibility) when in contact with iron.

The jeweler constructs a ring of gold lined inside with the invisible metal touching the finger. The stone is a triangle of iron attached with a screw mechanism such that the wearer can rotate the triangle and move it up or down. Moving it down brings it in contact with the invisible metal, rendering the wearer visible again.

So far I haven’t gotten my Ring of Gyges to turn me invisible, though I will keep trying. Perhaps when you make yours, it will work. For your sake, I hope not. Don’t forget to get your copy of “Ripper’s Ring” and wear your own Ring of Gyges while reading it. If you make one, or have any questions, or if you think I should 3D print more objects from my other stories, leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Secrets of the Past

Is it possible that some amazing things happened in historical times, but never made it in the history books? Today I’ll discuss the subgenre of fiction known as secret histories.

Wikipedia’s entry provides a good definition: “A secret history (or shadow history) is a revisionist interpretation of either fictional or real (or known) history which is claimed to have been deliberately suppressed, forgotten, or ignored by established scholars. Secret history is also used to describe a type or genre of fiction which portrays a substantially different motivation or backstory from established historical events.”

With secret histories the author can deviate from actual history as far as she’d like, but she must return things to status quo or else explain why historical accounts don’t align with her story.

For this reason, secret histories are not to be classified as alternate histories (as I mistakenly did here.  There is no permanent altering of history. Rather the world returns to the one we know. The thrill for the reader is seeing how close the world came to actually changing in some dramatic way.

Secret histories work well as thriller stories with assassins or spies, since they work in secret anyway. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal and Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle are two examples.

I’ve written secret histories myself, but my stories involve technology, not spies or assassins. In each one I leave it to the reader to speculate how much further ahead we’d be if some inventions had occurred earlier.

9781926704012In “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai,” an inventor creates a submarine in China in 200 B.C. There are obscure references asserting that something of that sort actually happened, and those references inspired my story. The tale ends in a way that explains why more submarines weren’t made as a result of this invention.

steamcover5My story “The Steam Elephant” (which appeared in Steampunk Tales magazine) is a secret history in which a traveling group of Britons and one Frenchman are enjoying a safari from the vantage of a steam-powered elephant invited by one of the Brits. They get caught up in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. This is intended as a sequel to the two books of Jules Verne’s Steam House series.

WindSphereShip4In “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” Heron of Alexandria takes his simple steam-powered toy and uses it to power a ship. If there had been a steamship in the 1st Century A.D., it boggles the mind to think we could have had the Industrial Revolution seventeen hundred years early and skipped the Dark Ages.

LeonardosLion3fAnother secret history is “Leonardo’s Lion” which answers what happened to the mechanical clockwork lion built by Leonardo da Vinci in 1515. In the story, humanity comes very close to seeing all of da Vinci’s designs made real, which would have advanced science and engineering by centuries.

TheSixHundredDollarMan3fI’d categorize “The Six Hundred Dollar Man” as secret history too, when a man fits steam-powered limbs on another man who’d been injured in a stampede. The story takes place in 1870 in Wyoming and it’s pretty clear by the story’s end why that technology didn’t catch on.

RallyingCry3fRallying Cry” is a tale about a young man who learns there have been secret high-technology regiments and brigades in wars going back at least to World War I. Members of these teams cannot reveal their group’s existence, so it fits the secret history genre.

ToBeFirstWheels5In “Wheels of Heaven” I take what is factually known about the Antikythera Mechanism, and weave a fictional tale to explain it.

As you can see, I like writing in this sub-genre. Imagine something interesting and imaginative happened in history, write about it, then tie up all the loose ends so that our modern historical accounts remain unchanged. Leave the reader wondering if the story could have really happened. History that might have been, courtesy of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 7, 2014Permalink

9 Things the World Loses With E-Books

Most weeks I blog about writing, but this time the topic is more about reading, specifically the technology of reading.

As you can tell from my fiction, I write quite a bit about people coping with new technology. I’m fascinated by the process of one technology supplanting another. The process forms a repeating pattern, whether you’re discussing the transition from sailing ships to steamships, from horse to car, or from dirigibles to airplanes.

ebooks vs books 002When society is in the midst of such a technology transition, as we are now moving from traditional paper books toward electronic books, or ebooks, debate often rages about which technology is ‘better.’ Some people embrace the new, others cling to the old.

Those who cleave to more traditional technology often use arguments based on ‘romantic’ ideas, things like aesthetics and the lifestyle that will be lost. In other words, the world has formed itself around the old technology, and layered infrastructure and culture around it. When traditionalists envision a new technology supplanting the old, they associate the old tech with its accompanying milieu, and bemoan the loss of all of it.

I’ll not wade into the argument about whether print books are better than ebooks.   For one thing, most of my published books are available only in ebook form. For another, the marketplace will decide the real answer no matter what I say.

Besides, no new technology ever completely stamps out an old one. People still use sailboats, ride horses, and fly in balloons, as part of nostalgic connections with the past.

Let me play the crotchety old traditionalist today, and tell you young whippersnappers all the things you lose with ebooks.

  1. What’ll you do when the power fails and your battery runs out? Can’t recharge your e-reader then, can ya? I’ll still be reading my print book by the light of a flashlight or candle.
  1. Can’t really lend or sell your ebook to a friend. Oh, you could loan ‘em your reader, but then you can’t read until your friend gives it back.
  1. You can’t impress anyone with your ebook. You can’t hold it prominently while waiting for a bus or walking in a school hallway, letting everyone know what you’re reading (or what you want them to think you’re reading).
  1. You can’t dazzle anyone with your whole library. Think o’ them commercials for lawyers, or politicians on the talking head shows. They always have a bookshelf behind them, lined with important-looking books. Think of all those books stored in an e-reader, and that e-reader sitting alone on the bookshelf. Not quite the same impact, is it?
  1. Try putting your e-reader on your coffee-table. ‘Nuff said.
  1. Got little kids? Oh, they’ll be real enthused about reading when you snuggle up with your e-reader. My grandkids much prefer the real books with pictures and pages that turn. They love those pop-up books, too.
  1. Looks like some bit or byte got out of place and your ebook froze up. Too bad. I’m still readin’ right along with my print book, with no circuit cards or software glitches in sight.
  1. Every book is different, and deserves to be different, and separate from other books. Your ebook reader jams ‘em all together so they all seem the same. Print books have different sizes, shapes, colors, fonts, paper thicknesses, and smells. All that stuff combines with the content to form the overall experience of the book.
  1. Are you a collector? Not only is it tough to impress folks with your ebook collection, but it’s not like the collection’s value will go up with time, like first edition print books do.

There have been some really good blog posts written on this subject by others, notably here, here, and here.  To repeat, I believe the marketplace will sort out whether ebooks truly replace print books, but no matter what, print books will never truly vanish. A lover of ebooks and traditional books alike, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe