You may never have heard of him, but with more than 200,000 nonfiction titles in his name (more than 100,000 of which are listed at Amazon), Philip M. Parker may be, in his own words, the most published author in the history of the planet.
How does he do it? According to a 2008 article in the New York Times, Parker, a professor of marketing at INSEAD business school in France and founder of ICON Group International, "has developed computer algorithms that collect publicly available information on a subject—broad or obscure—and, aided by his 60 to 70 computers and six or seven programmers, he turns the results into books in a range of genres, many of them in the range of 150 pages and printed only when a customer buys one." (This patented process is explained step-by-step in a YouTube video.)
Parker's books sell anywhere from a few hundred to a few dozen copies each. In addition to compiling books himself, he offers compilation applications to other businesses via EdgeMaven Media (whose website includes a fascinating FAQ), and has branched out into animation and video games. It all sounds quite lucrative--though in the Times article as well as an interesting Q&A at O'Reilly TOC, Parker dodges the question of income, claiming that his company makes no profit because it plows all revenue back into R&D.
Is Parker a Long Tail visionary or a one-man author mill? Are his thousands of computer-generated books an amusing and possibly useful curiosity, or the first, distant echo of the death knell for live individual authors? These are fascinating questions. Parker himself would seem to view his system as author replacement, at least in some areas of publishing. Per his patent application (quoted in The Guardian):
Parker quotes a 1999 complaint by the Economist that publishing "has continued essentially unchanged since Gutenberg. Letters are still written, books bound, newspapers printed and distributed much as they ever were."
"Therefore," says Parker, "there is a need for a method and apparatus for authoring, marketing, and/or distributing title materials automatically by a computer." He explains that "further, there is a need for an automated system that eliminates or substantially reduces the costs associated with human labour, such as authors, editors, graphic artists, data analysts, translators, distributors, and marketing personnel."
Parker hasn't eliminated the human element entirely. In his O'Reilly interview, he says that while 90% of his content is computer generated, writers, editors, and designers are are all "relied on heavily at many stages." And there would still appear to be some room in Parker's world for individual creative effort. From the EdgeMaven Media FAQ:
“Human creativity” in this sense is the absence of formulaic authorship techniques that can be reverse engineered. Some Ph.D. theses, and forms of poetry for that matter, are not that “creative”. Creative authors, therefore, need not fear being replaced by this process. The same is true for creative doctoral students, moviemakers, television producers or PC game makers.
Ah, but what's creative? Not romance novels, apparently. Per the New York Times article linked in above, Parker "is laying the groundwork for romance novels generated by new algorithms. 'I’ve already set it up,' he said. 'There are only so many body parts.'" (A reductive statement that, no doubt, will infuriate romance writers everywhere.) What's next? Computer-generated SF novels with stock aliens? Algorithm-created crime dramas with hard-boiled dialog swiped from the movies? Robo-poetry to populate a hundred Poetry.coms?
Apart from imponderable questions of creativity, Parker's system of content aggregation poses another dilemma: copyright. In his O'Reilly interview, Parker says he uses "the sources that are used by regular authors," i.e., information that is publicly available. However, "publicly available" does not necessarily mean "public domain." How does Parker ensure that the materials his algorithms stitch together are copyright-free? If they aren't, how does he ensure that his sources are properly cited?
Good question. As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, several linguists recently challenged a number of Aboriginal-language thesauruses, dictionaries, and crossword puzzle books created by Parker's computers, alleging that the books violated copyright. The dispute is discussed at Language Log, a linguistics-focused blog (among other things, it's pointed out that the domain Parker uses for his dictionaries, websters-online-dictionary.org, is not connected with the Merriam-Webster dictionaries), and in a long post by one of the challengers, Peter Austin, who presents an argument for why, although "[i]t is not possible to copyright common knowledge such as words and meanings," Parker's use of material from Austin's 1993 dictionary of the Gamilaraay language constitutes copyright violation.
Parker has since removed the offending books from sale, saying "There was no malice and certainly no financial motive. That was the furthest thing from my mind."