The next chapter in the beleaguered story of books reads like something straight out of Dave Eggers’ techie dystopia The Circle. Potboiler LLC, a company headed up by Jeff Gillis – formerly of Google – has started developing novella-style reading content for mobile devices. Utilizing an analytic approach to the once-noble pursuit of the written word, Potboiler deploys the same tactics that makes Google Analytics a boon for online business to churn out books specifically tailored to the tastes of the readership.
Gillis sees this as the (or “a”) future of publishing, one where readers who wouldn’t normally pick up your average trade fiction paperback now have access to addictive fiction content for their mobile devices. Potboiler releases serialized novellas easily read in one or two commutes.
Take Midnight in Juarez, Potboiler’s inaugural title in the GetFisk series. It’s billed as a “passionate, hair-raising thriller that deals factually with Mexican cartels.” A new story every month stars Fisk, a powerful spy type and a team of smart, sexy, multiethnic men and women at a 1:1 ratio. This is what comes out of the company’s finely tuned machine.
Potboiler’s M.O. is to design and quickly produce mass-market fiction ebooks and distribute them through Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble. Single chapters get released for free on getfisk.com during the first month of each book’s release. The content is systematically tested to appeal to readers and positioned to become bestselling franchises.
According to Gillis, in an interview with Examiner.com, Potboiler employs the literary equivalent of the Pepsi challenge. “A group of beta readers read text from our stories, and also text from a current bestseller in the same genre. We then asked them which one they liked better and why. We would analyze the results and refine our content and test it in a similar manner again until it tested better than the bestseller,” Gillis says in the interview.
Jeff Gillis spent eight years at Google, managing Adwords, and then leading product marketing for Analytics. He created the Google Analytics blog, posted occasionally there, and spoke on the company’s behalf at conferences. He also holds a BA in Literature from Stanford University. Potboiler is the logical result of an idealistic youth in letters and a likely more sobering career in tracking consumer preferences using targeting marketing tools catering to online retailers. Whether the two worlds should meet remains to be seen.
The GetFisk series adheres to Potboiler’s strict formula for maximized readability and by extension, assumed guaranteed bestseller status: Short sentences, no more than ten words, brief paragraphs limited to three sentences. Dialogue is block indented and labeled with the name of the speaker. Description is kept to a minimum in favor of action.
The result reads like an early draft screenplay dialed to a middle-grade reading level with a light smattering of soft-core sex scenes. Readability is further optimized by the incorporation of graphics, video, animation, and social media components. On the one hand, this takes advantage of the platform: mobile devices are uniquely suited to these kinds of multimedia experiences; on the other hand, it breaks up the text so that sustained attention isn’t required.
The books are written by a team of three writers collaborating on a story – much in the same way a writers room operates on a TV show – with one writer responsible for producing a first draft. While “Fisk” denotes the series’ protagonist, it’s also used as the author’s pseudonym. Potboiler has also intimated that some of the content in these “ripped from the headlines stories” may be first hand accounts by “Fisk” about “Fisk.”
Between the team of writers and the shadowy identity of “Fisk,” Potboiler throws into question the notion of authorship. It’s an interesting one, but one handled in a far more deftly in S., the impressive novel release from J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. That project consisted of a novel, “Ship of Theseus,” written by the fictional V. M. Straka. Readers found in the margins of the book, apparently handwritten notes exchanged between two fictional readers who fall in love while trying to ascertain the identity of the real Straka based on clues in the novel itself and in the story illuminated in their conversations.
Potboiler’s obfuscation of authorship serves mostly to cover up the fact that a team of ghostwriters methodically churns out content attuned essentially to an algorithm to maximize popularity. Forget the question of authorship, the question is whether or not this constitutes literature in the first place.
What is the difference between the output of three people writing to the specifics of a calibrated formula to put out content that is refined repeatedly based on user reviews and that of, say the L.A. Times Quakebot? Quakebot reports for the Times on earthquakes as they happen. It’s programmed to extract relevant data from USGS reports and plug them into a template, in an effort to get the facts out quickly and efficiently. Or consider botpoet.com, a Turing test where you, the reader judge whether a poem’s been written by a human or a robot. The bots generate their poems based on algorithms to mimic human poetry. Some of them are pretty hard to judge. Which of these things is not like the other? In all of these instances, content goes in, an algorithm goes to work, and Grade “A” processed readables come right out.
The next logical question, of course: is this the future of publishing? Have readers bonded so fully with their mobile devices, and have their attention spans waned so dramatically? Are they willing to accept formulaic prose doled out by an algorithm in place of the latest from Donna Tartt? The Goldfinch is a bestselling 771-page hardcover novel that Stephen King compared to Dickens in the New York Times, a more literary trifecta of circumstances you’ll be hard pressed to find. Chances are the oeuvre in the key of Google Analytics has a long way to go.