It's not easy to write a book. First you have to pick a title. And then there is the table of contents. If you want the book to be categorized, either by a bookseller or a library, it has to be assigned a unique numerical code, like an ISBN, for International Standard Book Number. There have to be proper margins. Finally, there's the back cover.
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Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times
Philip Parker is now turning his efforts to video.
Oh, and there is all that stuff in the middle, too. The writing.
Philip M. Parker seems to have licked that problem. Mr. Parker has generated more than 200,000 books, as an advanced search on Amazon.com
under his publishing company shows, making him, in his own words, "the most published author in the history of the planet." And he makes money doing it.
Among the books published under his name are "The Official Patient's Sourcebook on Acne Rosacea" ($24.95 and 168 pages long); "Stickler Syndrome: A Bibliography and Dictionary for Physicians, Patients and Genome Researchers" ($28.95 for 126 pages); and "The 2007-2012 Outlook for Tufted Washable Scatter Rugs, Bathmats and Sets That Measure 6-Feet by 9-Feet or Smaller in India" ($495 for 144 pages).
But these are not conventional books, and it is perhaps more accurate to call Mr. Parker a compiler than an author. Mr. Parker, who is also the chaired professor of management science at Insead (a business school with campuses in Fontainebleau, France, and Singapore), 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.
If this sounds like cheating to the layman's ear, it does not to Mr. Parker, who holds some provocative "” and apparently profitable "” ideas on what constitutes a book. While the most popular of his books may sell hundreds of copies, he said, many have sales in the dozens, often to medical libraries collecting nearly everything he produces. He has extended his technique to crossword puzzles, rudimentary poetry and even to scripts for animated game shows.
And he 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."
Perusing a work like the outlook for bathmat sales in India, a reader would be hard pressed to find an actual sentence that was "written" by the computer. If you were to open a book, you would find a title page, a detailed table of contents, and many, many pages of graphics with introductory boilerplate that is adjusted for the content and genre.
While nothing announces that Mr. Parker's books are computer generated, one reader, David Pascoe, seemed close to figuring it out himself, based on his comments to Amazon in 2004. Reviewing a guide to rosacea, a skin disorder, Mr. Pascoe, who is from Perth, Australia, complained: "The book is more of a template for "˜generic health researching' than anything specific to rosacea. The information is of such a generic level that a sourcebook on the next medical topic is just a search and replace away."
When told via e-mail that his suspicion was correct, Mr. Pascoe wrote back, "I guess it makes sense now as to why the book was so awful and frustrating." Mr. Parker was willing to concede much of what Mr. Pascoe argued. "If you are good at the Internet, this book is useless," he said, adding that Mr. Pascoe simply should not have bought it. But, Mr. Parker said, there are people who aren't Internet savvy who have found these guides useful.
It is the idea of automating difficult or boring work that led Mr. Parker to become involved. Comparing himself to a distant disciple of Henry Ford
, he said he was "deconstructing the process of getting books into people's hands; every single step we could think of, we automated."
He added: "My goal isn't to have the computer write sentences, but to do the repetitive tasks that are too costly to do otherwise."
In an interview from his home in San Diego and his offices nearby, Mr. Parker described his motivation as providing content that the marketplace has otherwise neglected for lack of an audience. That can mean a relatively obscure language is involved, or a relatively obscure disease or a relatively obscure product.
Take, for example, the study of bathmats in India.