Pepe looked up from his work, staring thoughtfully at the middle distance.
“I’m telling ya, people don’t write anymore” he stated forcefully, his old voice unwavering. “Was a time when you could read a story and actually make sense of it all.”
“It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most of the time. Now it’s just babble to satisfy the machines.”
He returned to re-arranging bright red, Coca-Cola bottle caps on a small work table in front of him, his old eyes scanning their shiny surfaces for the slightest imperfections, his strangely smooth hands and delicately manicured fingernails expertly flipping over entire rows of caps to ensure no edges had been bent or become misshapen.
“They say everyone has a book in them. Well ain’t that the truth. These days everyone does have a book in them, or three, or four. Time now is you can’t talk to anyone, anywhere without them mentioning their latest fancifully imagined tell-all memoir about a life they never had or their ridiculous fantasy trilogy that mines every popular Westernized myth ever posted on our information super highway.” He snorted derisively at the statement, using the expression to show his distaste for everything that the internet had done to his career.
“Don’t just pour them out, they scratch. How many times do I have to tell you not to do that? Those caps are worth money, worth more than my words. People will pay good money for pristine vintage caps.”
“I only ever had one book in me. Never got to find out if I had more. Oh, I wrote, lots of paid for words, never stopped writing right up until the end. It was the end when it all went wrong. People stopped writing to be read.” Pepe sighed at the memory, pulled out several damaged bottle caps to one side, sliding them silently across the green baize of the work table and continued to sort.
“Did you ever read any of the greats?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Niven, Scalzi, Bear. They were some of my favourites when I was young. Younger, anyway. You can still find them if you look around, though nobody carries them anymore. They just disappeared when people starting writing for themselves.”
“If you can ever find one of theirs, even if it’s illegal, you grab it and you read it.”
“My book? My book had action in it, it was a thriller, very sophisticated, you never knew what was going to happen until the very end. Very important that, in a thriller, keep your readers guessing.”
“Why? Because…. Because! That’s why! You don’t want to reveal what’s going on in your story until its necessary to do so, keeps the reader’s interest. Makes them want to read some more. Makes it a real page turner.”
“No, I guess you wouldn’t know where that expression came from. Page forwarder then.” Pepe sighed exasperatedly at this companion. “Fine, make you want to download the next book.”
“We had editors and proof readers that would make sure the crap stayed out. Most of the time they made sure the crap stayed out anyway.”
“Look, the moment that people could self-publish with ease it began to kill off those kinds of jobs. ‘We don’t need no stinking editors acting as gate-keepers’ they would say. Well, yes, yes you do.”
“Pretty soon we were all acting as editors and proof-readers and who has the time for that? The slush pile growing ever higher. We needed a service where someone could read through the crap, decide what was worth paying attention to, and then tell us what was worth reading.”
More bottle caps. More sorting. Moving to the flat above the pub had its benefits.
“The service? We already had that, it was called the publishing industry. But new writers, always eager to get published, didn’t want those gate keepers. Kept them out of being published is what they would tell you.”
Pepe sat back, wet his lips, the recognizable sign that a long monologue was coming.
“Of course it did, who would want to read their crap! Pretty soon some clever people wrote algorithms that would analyze what had been written, proof read it, edit it, automatically correct it, and then let you publish it to be read. Didn’t matter that you couldn’t write worth shit. The software could fix up your poorly chosen phrases and incorrect word usages. But then people started getting lazy. Lazier than normal I mean. They started writing their words to fit what the machines wanted to see. Writers began gaming the system, making their work match what the machine expected to see, making their work score the highest possible score the machine could give. If your book got a high score by the machine, in the early days, it became an almost instant best seller, even without marketing and promotion. People paid attention to the machines. The brilliant software algorithm was being gamed by the not so brilliant but far more cunning writers. The people in power, the editors, updated the algorithms to prevent the gaming from taking place. The writers adapted to the new algorithms. It didn’t take long. Oh it didn’t happen literally overnight, six months, maybe a year, and now those same bad authors pushing out rubbish were scoring high marks by the algorithms again. Then came the smart adaptive algorithms that could evolve their style to the whims of the market, to pick and choose what was wanted based on a pool of readers and what they were buying. And of course, the writers adapted almost as fast as the software, everyone was looking for an edge. It’s a spiral, its unsustainable, pretty soon everyone who can write has given up and everyone else who wants to write has started composing, and I use that word loosely, ‘composing’ pure drivel to satisfy some adaptive algorithm. And the readers, hah, you blame the writers, but the readers are buying the books. Well, you cannot really call them readers can you? They download and collect thousands of books, more than you can read in a lifetime, on little devices that can store the Library of Congress ten times over.”
“What? Don’t mumble. I hear fine, but mumbling is as bad as bad writing.”
“That was a measurement we had once. A Library of Congress. It was tens of thousands of books and other written works that mattered, all stored in a single place. Now we tote around more information in our hand than an entire generation of people could read or care to read. The readers aren’t reading. They’re collecting. Collecting utterly pure drivel.”
“Here, let me show you what I was working on for the past year. It took me an entire year to write this book. Yes, yes, I know most people do it in a few days at most. What’s wrong with me? Nothing. It took me over ten months to perfect the algorithm, and then the book was written in just a few seconds. I uploaded it to three of the biggest distribution channels in the world just a few hours ago. See these numbers? This book of mine is outselling the closest competitor by a wide margin, almost five to one in some regions.”
“Let me look at the analytics. Well would you look at that, says not only are people buying it, but real people are reading it too. There’s a chap here in Bangor that has gotten up to page 60 already! Now that’s dedication, 60 pages in just a hair under four hours. That’s unheard of in today’s readership.”
“Looks like the automated foreign translations are doing incredibly well. And the machine generated reviews from the New York Times and the Guardian have given me quite a boost in sales too. What’s the book about? How should I know! I never wrote it. Here, let me see what the reviews say: “One of the most powerful exposes on political intrigue in America in this decade.” I guess it’s a political book. Oh, this automated review gave me really good marks, “9.5 out of ten, if Tolkien and George R.R. Martin had a love child book, this would be it.” Um, yes, well, I guess it is sort of a cross-genre fantasy political book. “The first in what will prove to be a deciding trilogy of some of the greatest work this century.” I guess I need to run my application again as apparently I have written the first part of a trilogy.”
“Package those up. Do it carefully. Turn out the table lights when you’re done. I might be a New York Times bestselling author today, but by tomorrow, those vintage bottle caps are still going to be worth more than my words. And will be around longer too. I need to see what my new book is about…”