In what Harken House Publisher Sylvia Wiseword says is "a natural evoution," human authors will be phased out of the book-production process nearly entirely by 2010.
"Although naturally, this is a stressful period for some, it was really the natural evolution of narrative production," Wiseword said Monday. "Since the advent of computer programs such as Final Cut and Sense and Sen-tense, we've essentially had the technology to produce clean, concise, sensible narrative without involving a third party."
While she said that authors "will always remain a cherished part of publishing history, we need to think of this in terms of a very natural and organic process. People no longer mourn for manual typewriters, for example, or for setting cold type in type trays. In the future, while authors may continue to comment on narrative, gradually they will be less and less integral to the process of delivering the product. The product, in this case, is fiction and non-fiction."
Computer-generated motivational success and inspirational literature have for some time been generated by computer programs alone "and book consumers have been aware of this, although we haven't run around trumpeting it," said Wiseword, one of the most powerful publishers in the United States. Harken is a multi-national conglomerate that has absorbed such former entities as Random House, Harper Collins, Penguin-Putnam, Grand Central and Simon and Schuster.
Wiseword said that some "virtual authors," such as business motivator Peter Bliss and others "have generated a very loyal following on YouTube and Second LIfe, as well as in other settings."
She said that, "We have a wonderful young actor who does a one-man show using the motivational words of the first Peter Bliss compubook, 'This Can B U 2.' And we see an amazing response when he tours. People still do like the human contact." Eventually, the actor will be replaced by an avatar, because computer-imaged individuals are "much more versatile and reliable."
Teen fiction was the test market for the first compubooks, Wiseword says. The first series of computer-generation Young Adult books was "The Princesses of Gossip," she said, a tale of three young women who used super powers to make their wishes come true, first influencing the school, then the town and then the nation."
"What we quickly, quickly realized was that people were purchasing and downloading a brand, like a Nestle's Crunch bar, if you will, but a much more sophisticated entity, of course. And so this year, we're working on compubooks in women's fiction, which is another genre in which so many of the themes and images are so much the same, such as the journey, the triumph, the tragedy and recovery that (we knew the compubooks) could do the same thing that we'd been paying tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars for, with much great efficiency, a great deal less emotional duress and, quite frankly, fewer typos."
Wiseword said that the last bastion of compugeneration would be men's adventure fiction and espionage novels.
"We have a very, very discriminiating market there and it may take as long as two years to find just the right voices to please that important segement of the consumer market," she added, pointing out that Harken House has "reached out" to Sebastian Junger, Jon Krakauer, Bill O'Reilly and other "respected household names" for guidance in "a creative and supervisory role."
She said the authors had not yet responded to overtures from Harken.
"We are aware know that other publishers are doing the same thing with well-known authors, or what we now will refer to as emeritus authors, who may help us in the sense that they can suggest plot lines for series, which are our biggest interest. In fact, that's basically what some do already so it's not a terrible upheaval."
Have readers expressed outrage over the extinction of the author-produced narrative?
"We honestly have not heard an outcry," Wiseword said. "We've been very, very sensitive to the issues consumers may have and frankly, our test population were of the opinion that they didn't really care where their reading material came from. They don't read reviews or become overly analytical about the things they consume. They want a good read but the issue of the hand, if you will, behind the story, is not of huge importance to them."
Readers have very busy lives and mass-producing six or eight mysteries a month by, say, a Laura Scaviano-type program, instead of only two or three a year, really serves the business traveler, said Wiseword. "In our test demography, we also noticed a trend toward erasing downloaded books after a single reading. The days of yellow highlighter and notes in the margin are dear and precious, but they are as much a thing of the past as a live show on Broadway. Frankly, the economic motivation to pay actors for what lovely computer-generated avatars can bring to the privacy of one's own home or hotel room is just not there. We learned that many years ago in the entertainment industry and frankly, reading as we know it now is just that. Entertainment."
Wiseword said that a surge in the purchase of hardcover books by well-regarded authors "mostly by collectors or for purposes of decor" had boosted the transitional market.
'Diehard fans of non-digital print units can take comfort in knowing that they will always be able to find those items somewhere, at least during our lifetimes," she said. But in the bookstore of the future, there will be comfortable "portals" where readers can plug in and download vast numbers of their favorite compubooks "or, as I prefer to call them, compugens." Before long, the ubiquitous home computer will make even that kind of travel a choice rather than a necessity.
Librarians, Wiseword admitted, were less than enthusiastic about the future of "compugens."
But the current generation of traditional librarians slowly is being outphased and replaced by media specialists who will embrace an inevitable rite of progress, Wiseword said. "The old order passes and the new arrives," she said. "King Arthur said that, I believe."
Karen Beech, director of the American Library Organization, said that an all-consuming conversion to "compugens" would happen over (her) "dead body." She added, "A book is a book is a book."
The transition will very likely happen after many currently active librarians are retired or deceased -- as well as many current book producers traditionally known as authors, said Wiseword.
A new generation of "idea producers," who are excited about the possibility of being paid a lesser amount for an idea in twenty-five words or less, without the arduous and sometimes years-long process of creating the narrative to support it, are in the starting gate.
"It's a very brave, but also very serious new world," she said.
Causes Jacquelyn Mitchard Supports
National MS Society, Women Against MS, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, One Writer's Place