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J.K. Rowling Should Try the Voting Algorithm

timothy posted about 9 months ago | from the magic-voting-algorithm dept.

Books 128

Frequent contributor Bennett Haselton proposes a new use for online, anonymous voting: helping sort skill from luck in the cheek-by-jowl world of best-selling (and would-be best-selling) authors: "J.K. Rowling recently confirmed that she was the author of a book she had published under a pseudonym, which spiked in sales after she was outed as the true author. Perhaps she was doing an experiment to see how much luck had played a role in propelling her to worldwide success, and whether she could recreate anything close to that success when starting from scratch. But a better way to answer that question would be to strike a deal with an amateur-fiction-hosting site and use the random-sample-voting algorithm that I've written so much about, to test how her writing stacks up against other writers in the same genre." Read on for more. Update: 07/20 01:23 GMT by T : Note: An editorial goof (mine) swapped out the word "confirmed" for "revealed" (above) in an earlier rendering of this story.

Rowling confirmed (after the information leaked accidentally) that she had authored a new book, The Cuckoo's Calling, under the male pseudonym Robert Galbraith, which went on to sell only about 1,500 copies before she announced that she was the real author and sales of the book spiked 150,000%.

Stephen King actually tried something similar in the 1970s, publishing a series of books under the pseudonym "Richard Bachman," which he later said was partly an attempt to answer the question of whether his success was due to talent or luck. (The Richard Bachman books sold 10 times as many copies after King was revealed as the author.) Rowling has not said whether she was attempting a similar experiment, having issued a statement that before the revelation, it had been "wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name."

But if either J.K. Rowling or Stephen King really wants to find the answer to the question of talent vs. luck, the solution lies in the random-sample voting algorithm that I've been advocating in occasional articles for years now, going back to "Censorship By Glut" in 2006. Here's how the experiment could work, for evaluating the quality of fiction writing:

  1. Rowling or King could approach a pre-established amateur fiction hosting site with a large number of registered users. Or they could create their own fiction hosting site and announce it to the world for the purpose of running the experiment, which would almost certainly attract a large number of users to sign up. (The experiment only works if the site has a large number of users, for reasons that will become clear.)

  2. When a user submits a new short story to the site, the site randomly selects a small subset of other users on the site (say, 20 other users), emails them a link to the new story, and invites them to read it and rate its content. There are several ways you could incentivize those users to read the link and rate the story on a scale of 1 to 10. You could bill it as the "civic duty" of registered users of the site (in the same way that it's the civic duty of registered Wikipedia editors to maintain the quality of articles, even though the editors are working for free). You could require registered users to read and rate any stories that are emailed to them (although of course there'd be no way to stop someone from lazily submitting a rating without even reading the story). You could actually require payments from users who submit stories, and then use that money to distribute small payments to the raters as compensation for reading the story (although that seems like it would be the biggest headache, since you'd have to jump through legal and logistical hoops to set it up, and it would attract cheaters who would try to abuse the system just for the free small payments). But in any case, you don't need every user who gets emailed a story, to actually click through to read the story and rate it. All that matters is that out of those 20 users, enough of them click through to read the story, that you get a statistically representative sample of what users think of the quality.

    Optionally, the story raters could also submit written feedback about why they liked or did not like a story. But the important part is collecting the numeric ratings so that they can be averaged into a single overall rating for the piece of content.

  3. If a story gets a high enough average rating in the first round of voting, then it gets emailed out to a larger random sample of voters, say, 200. The ratings given by this larger sample can be used to distinguish the very best stories from the merely good. (We expect that for good stories, the ratings would tend to cluster around the high end of the scale, so with that smaller variance, it would take a larger sample size to find a statistically significant difference between the quality of two stories.)

  4. The stories that get the highest ratings can be featured on the front page of the site, so that everybody can have the benefit of enjoying the "best" stories. Meanwhile, J.K. Rowling and Stephen King have the benefit of finding out how their stories compare against stories written by unpublished amateur writers.

It all sounds deceptively simple, but the important feature is that you've taken the arbitrariness out of the outcome. As long as your sample sizes are large enough, the rating that a story obtains in this system, will be approximately equal to the average rating it would get from all users across the site. "Luck" is no longer a factor, because you could re-run the experiment twice with the same set of stories, and get approximately the same outcome.

This is important, because numerous experiments and real-world studies have shown that in any environment where users can recommend content to each other and browse content that is already known to be popular — in other words, how most of us discover content in the real world — luck plays a much greater role in which content becomes wildly successful. The generally accepted explanation is that an initial stroke of luck can have a self-reinforcing snowball effect — if a few key influencers happen to discover and recommend a piece of content at the same time, their friends and followers will be drawn to that content as well, and once it crosses that threshold, the content has now become "popular" enough that even more users will be drawn to it just because it's popular.

This is also why any of the existing fiction-rating sites would not work for this experiment — because most such sites allow authors to invite their friends to sign up and give high ratings to their stories, or to form cliques that all give high ratings to each other's writings. It's usually in the site's best interests to allow these tricks, because it gives authors the incentive to promote the site to their friends in order to get them to sign up. But it also means that (a) authors can easily game the system, and the highest-rated stories may not be the highest-quality ones but the ones whose authors simply play the game the best, and (b) even without "gaming the system", the fact that users can see other users' ratings and can seek out "most popular" or "trending" stories, creates the snowball effects discussed above, and introduces a huge amount of arbitrariness into the process.

Duncan Watts' excellent book Everything Is Obvious (Once You Know The Answer) is an excellent introduction to the arbitrariness phenomenon, but if you don't have time to read the whole book, just read about the Matthew Salganik 'many-worlds' experiment", which Watts co-authored and which I've linked to in pretty much every other article I've written about the random-sample-voting algorithm. The gist was that if you divide users into multiple artificial "worlds," where users can recommend content only to other users within those worlds, and seed all artificial worlds with the same content (in this case, songs), then songs which become wildly popular in some worlds will become duds in others.

The whole of Everything is Obvious is at least as insightful as anything ever written by Malcolm Gladwell, and would appeal to the same people, but it never became a bestseller, because — well, probably because we live in one of the many possible worlds of a Salganik experiment, and in the world we happen to live in, the luck of the draw meant that book didn't take off.

But back to the proposed experiment. It is true that the votes of the average users would not tell us anything about whether the winning stories were "artistically" good, however you define that. But in King's case, he was not trying to answer questions about artistic merit. he was trying to find out if his bestselling-author status was due to talent or luck, so the average rating from regular readers would be quite on point. Rowling said that she wanted to write without any hype and receive honest feedback, and it's hard to imagine a better place to do that than writing under a pseudonym for a fiction site that distributes your content directly to the public.

Both King and Rowling deserve some credit for even addressing the question of whether their success was due to talent or luck. It would have been easy for them to assume that their global success was due to their innate skill and hard work, and 99% of the world would have accepted that explanation, so it took no small amount of courage to even raise the question of how luck might have played a role. (We all know plenty of successful people who take umbrage if you even mention "the L word".)

But King did say that he thought he was outed too early to obtain any conclusive results from the experiment (and Rowling also said she wished she could have kept writing under the pseudonym, although she didn't say whether she had any similar "experiment" in mind). The random-sample-voting algorithm would provide instant feedback, not just to King and Rowling, but to any other writer who wanted to see how their writings would stack up against others in the field, from unpublished amateurs to worldwide bestselling authors.

My prediction, if such an experiment is ever conducted: King's and Rowling's writings would be rated very good, but so would many other writers' stories, including struggling writers who have never been published. Or as economist Daniel Kahneman put it: "success = talent + luck; great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck." (That took a certain amount of modesty on his part too, having achieved "great success" himself in the form of a Nobel Prize.) If J.K. Rowling or Stephen King ever launched such an experiment, the biggest favor they'd be doing for the world would not be to boost the egos of a few struggling writers, but to call more attention to the role that luck plays the world.

It's not as if their own egos would have to be bruised in the process. Donald Trump, the last person in the world that I would have guessed to have uttered these words, actually said that "Everything in life is luck," but it didn't seem to deflate his opinion of himself. You don't have to be a jerk like Trump, but just because some unpublished author's story gets a higher rating than yours, doesn't mean you have to let him come live in your mansion.

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128 comments

JK Rowling! (5, Insightful)

i kan reed (749298) | about 9 months ago | (#44328847)

Now that a famous person's name has gotten your attention, please use our website and give us money!

Re:JK Rowling! (4, Insightful)

girlintraining (1395911) | about 9 months ago | (#44329335)

Now that a famous person's name has gotten your attention, please use our website and give us money!

More or less, yeah. It's "Hey, here's a famous artist who could have used something I wrote my thesis about, but didn't." And we're supposed to gloss over the why they didn't. Here's the thing... algorithms and voting mechanics are fine for thesis projects, but this is an author. She makes her living selling books. And the best litmus test for whether it's the name, or the work itself, that people are buying, is to put it on the market under a pseudonym and find out.

Which is what she did. Shame on her for doing the same thing so many famous authors have done for thousands of years instead of opting for little college boy's pet thesis project!

Re:JK Rowling! (3)

bennetthaselton (1016233) | about 9 months ago | (#44330769)

But my argument is that releasing a second book under a pseudonym is *not* a good test of whether your success was due to "the work itself", because there's so much luck involved either way. If your first book is a hit but your second book (under a pseudonym) is not, it could be that you're a bad writer who got really lucky the first time, or it could be that you're a good writer who got unlucky the second time.

The random-sample-voting algorithm takes the luck out of the equation and actually measures what the average reader thinks of your writing, when they're not biased by hype or expectations.

Re:JK Rowling! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44330833)

No one cares about your argument. That's the part you missed.

Re:JK Rowling! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44332813)

Welcome to /. where cogent statements about statistical analysis are ignored.

Re: JK Rowling! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44330181)

If this guy didn't believe what he preached, he could have - as most such sites do - made a system where inviting more members was the way to win. It's not going to succeed that way so it has to try other ways. But this IS interesting, so saying what you say is about the same as saying "hah! So you admit that you need me!" to a salesperson.

Maybe it's the money? (1)

Lab Rat Jason (2495638) | about 9 months ago | (#44328853)

I believe JK Rowling wants to sell her work rather than give it away. Answering an intellectual question isn't half as nice as proving it to your peers with wheelbarrows of cash.

Re:Maybe it's the money? (2)

plover (150551) | about 9 months ago | (#44329321)

Exactly. What good does it do J. Random Writer to know he writes books with an average review rating of 73.8 while J.K.Rowling's average is rated 62.5? Does he think anyone is going to buy his book because it's reviewed 11.3 better? Is Amazon going to push his book to the top of the advertising pile because it's 73.8? No, Amazon is going to push J.K.Rowling's book to the top of the pile because people are buying it.

I mean people are buying 50 Shades of Taupe, and from what I understand the book is full of typos and hackneyed writing, and might score about a 16 when compared to anything by JKR. But the only review that counts is the one the customer opens his wallet for, and money is the scoring token. It might be too bad that we're not a more enlightened society, but that's pretty much the whole game as it's played today, right there.

Re:Maybe it's the money? (1)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 9 months ago | (#44330607)

What good does it do J. Random Writer to know he writes books with an average review rating of 73.8 while J.K.Rowling's average is rated 62.5?

Probably none, in which case we'll have to chalk this all up to intellectual curiosity. Apparently that's a category that's now considered frivolous on Slashdot.

Re:Maybe it's the money? (1)

plover (150551) | about 9 months ago | (#44330815)

we'll have to chalk this all up to intellectual curiosity. Apparently that's a category that's now considered frivolous on Slashdot.

Sorry, but the whole gist of TFA is saying "What J.K.Rowling should have done" when clearly he has no business telling a billionaire what she should actually be doing, especially when it's in regard to her chosen profession that actually made her a billion dollars in the first place. At some point the hubris sticks in the craw, and it no longer matters if the ideas originated from scientific curiosity or an undernourished ego.

Had he been criticizing her for publishing an e-book on privacy that had a built-in tracking javascript, then he at least would have been in his element. But this was just ridiculous.

tl;dr (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44328897)

no ones going to read all this you huge nerd

Fud (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44328905)

"But a better way to answer that question would be to strike a deal with an amateur-fiction-hosting site and use the random-sample-voting algorithm that I've written so much about"

If you've developed a method to distinguish the difference between luck and skill then you should really be talking to some scientists, not trying to get Barry Potter and the Sea of Bees to join your amateur-fiction-hosting-hour.

Name dropping BS (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44328933)

J.K. Rowling was doing nothing of the sort.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-23366660

I appreciate the the autors may havea neat Idea they want to push but name dropping like this and creating false image of proceedings suggests they're not the brightest or most observant bunch.

Re:Name dropping BS (2)

tnk1 (899206) | about 9 months ago | (#44330021)

And it would be a stupid idea to begin with.

People buying your books isn't all about your talent. It's also having built a reputation.

Why would I read Stephen King over Richard Bachman? Because while Bachman could be a genius, I already know that I like most of what King puts out. There is still a risk that this latest venture by King is not one of his best or even sucks, but when it comes to actually spending money, it is less of a risk than buying something that J. Random Author has put out. The King books are also more likely to have more reviews so I can do a little checking if I want to risk spoilers.

The fact is you do need to be good to be picked up by a publisher, but even if you have talent, it can still be about luck. You need the luck to get the break and then the talent to not become a one-off.

You'll notice a lot of writers and poets were editors or contributors to college or even high school publications. These publications are not very influential and have a limited readership, but what they do is put you in contact with people who are actually going into the editorial field. If you want to be a writer, it helps to know writers and editors. Even other writers either become editors on the side or they know editors.

Obviously, the publishing field is always looking for talent, but that talent can often be generated from the friends of the people they are already in the same social circles with.

And if you look at Rowling, she might have published under a pseudonym, but the publisher knew who she was, and publishers can often do more for a writer's popularity than even the quality of the writing can. Look at the crap like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray. Do you believe it became popular because the authors were talented writers? Instead, they wrote fiction in an area that the publisher could sell them.

Re:Name dropping BS (1)

HornWumpus (783565) | about 9 months ago | (#44330805)

King is the USA today of authors. His stories aren't good, but they don't have any annoying 3+ syllable words to confuse you.

Re:Name dropping BS (2)

bennetthaselton (1016233) | about 9 months ago | (#44330845)

Well this one *didn't* sell, so apparently even the influence of a smart publisher wasn't enough to break the "luck" barrier.

But back to the question of "Why would I read Stephen King over Richard Bachman?" -- this is actually quite an insightful point and highlights the difference between scenarios where the random-sample-voting algorithm would be beneficial and scenarios where it wouldn't. The key point is, do you already feel like you have enough good books in your life, more than you have time to read?

If the answer is Yes, then you might as well just stick with the authors you like, like Stephen King, if they collectively write more than enough books to fill your needs.

On the other hand, if you want more books to read, then the random-sample-voting algorithm can be useful for identifying more authors who have something good to contribute.

There is also a second-order effect: As long as luck dominates the publishing industry, then some potentially good authors might not even bother writing books because they know (correctly) that the odds of hitting it big are so slim. But if a process existed to take the arbitrariness out of it, then some of those authors might try their hand at it after all.

quality vs popularity (4, Insightful)

minstrelmike (1602771) | about 9 months ago | (#44328943)

I don't care about voting, blind or not.
Socially, the New York Times is supposed to be representative of American media and literacy.
In reality, the National Enquirer is the most _popular_ 'news' paper in America.

imo, you should decide what you want to measure first. Not measure (vote) and then say that is the highest quality because quality is not what is being measured when you count popularity.

Re:quality vs popularity (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44329005)

Agree.
Lauren Hill made top-quality music. This was (perhaps not) dyue to the legions of managers/consultants/agents/recording industry fixtures......
Perhaps Rowling was merely increasing her "austerity measures", cutting away the non-kosher fat.

Lauren Hill was sucked dry by the "fixtures", and then she got crucified in court, while [[Michael Bloomberg]] manages to evade the most basic of statements regarding his offshore wealth and taxes.

Re:quality vs popularity (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44329583)

Lauren Hill made top-quality music.

The funniest post ever in the history of slashdot.

Re:quality vs popularity (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44329009)

Hence, explaining why the Harry Potter books have sold so many copies.

Re:quality vs popularity (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44329041)

Because "Harry" is an unassuming name; unlike "Michael Bloomberg".

Re:quality vs popularity (1)

getto man d (619850) | about 9 months ago | (#44329085)

Exactly. One only needs to browse the frontpages of reddit and digg (does anyone still read digg?) for even more examples.

Re:quality vs popularity (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44329257)

Socially, the New York Times is supposed to be representative of American media and literacy.

In reality, the National Enquirer is the most _popular_ 'news' paper in America.

Do you actually have a source for this, or is this just more America flamebait?

Re:quality vs popularity (1)

khasim (1285) | about 9 months ago | (#44329397)

You're absolutely correct. Let's look at recent publishing history. From TFA:

(We expect that for good stories, the ratings would tend to cluster around the high end of the scale, so with that smaller variance, it would take a larger sample size to find a statistically significant difference between the quality of two stories.)

Look into the critical reviews of Dan Brown's books.

Or the Twilight series.

Or the 50 Shades of Grey series.

Now compare those statistics to the Hunter S. Thompson or William S. Burroughs sales.

Re:quality vs popularity (1)

HornWumpus (783565) | about 9 months ago | (#44329451)

For the last 20 years the National Enquirer has shown itself to be an independent journalistic institution. The New York Times is just the print division of the DNC's press arm.

Re:quality vs popularity (1)

tnk1 (899206) | about 9 months ago | (#44330077)

Even if that was true, the fact is that the Times is not entertainment, but the Enquirer is entertaining.

Everyone knows that the shit in there is about useless people being photographed in compromising situations, but you can still like gossip and be intelligent as well.

I watch HBO more than I watch any news channel, does that mean I don't keep up on the news? Hardly.

Malcolm Gladwell's "Spaghetti Sauce" TED talk (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44330415)

Malcolm Gladwell - Spaghetti Sauce [youtube.com] (17:34).

It's an awesome TED talk about the problem with asking people what they want. The key point is that you shouldn't try to find out which "thing" want, but that you should ask which "things" people want, and that by offering N choices, you raise the average consumer's satisfaction rating from ~60 to ~80.

He has a longer talk about the Malcolm Gladwell - The Kenna Problem: Why asking people what they like is sometimes a bad idea [youtube.com] (48:33). The longer talk spends a lot of time talking about different industries, such as the music industry, the soft drink industry, etc.

Re:quality vs popularity (1)

bennetthaselton (1016233) | about 9 months ago | (#44330857)

Well yes I did say in the article that the experiment would not measure true artistic merit, just appeal to the average reader.

However Stephen King specifically had said that his own experiment was an attempt to find out whether his popularity was due to luck or talent, without regard to "artistic merit", whatever that means. So the random-sample-voting system, to measure the appeal to the average reader, would be relevant.

WTF? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44328971)

This summary is longer than her book.

tl;dr;dc

Short Experiment (Rowling's) (3, Interesting)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | about 9 months ago | (#44328983)

I went looking for the older reviews on Amazon [amazon.com] , and while they were generally positive, it looks like this 'experiment' lasted a month and a half or so. If it were a year or more, that would seem like an experiment. A month and a half seems like a publicity stunt. The reviews there seem to indicate that everybody knew it was a pseudonym and suspected the author had significant publisher backing, so it's hard to even call it a fair experiment in the first place.

Re:Short Experiment (Rowling's) (1)

khasim (1285) | about 9 months ago | (#44329249)

A month and a half seems like a publicity stunt.

Yep. Since they already know who leaked this the real question is whether he will be fired for breach of trust or whatever. If he's not fired then this is more likely a publicity stunt despite what anyone claims.

Anyway, she can always create another pseudonym and start writing under that name.

Or submit a manuscript to a different publishing company under a pseudonym and see if she can get that published.

Re:Short Experiment (Rowling's) (1)

interval1066 (668936) | about 9 months ago | (#44329625)

A month and a half seems like a publicity stunt.

Agreed. Rowling started from nothing, I'm sure most of us have heard the story of her spending late nights in Scottish coffee shops rifling through her box of notes to put together the Potter Mythology and produce those 7 books. Sounds to me like both luck and skill played important parts in her success, which is vary similar to the story of almost all successful people. Experiments like this smack to me of a bit of narcissistic thought-gamemanship. If Rowling is really curious about how she got her success all she needs to do is think back to those days on welfare writing her ass off in those coffee shops. Or perhaps she's gotten that disease that some succesful people get; that delusional "Well, its obvious God wanted me to be successful"-itis.

Re:Short Experiment (Rowling's) (1)

MozeeToby (1163751) | about 9 months ago | (#44330085)

The fact that so many wildly successful authors had such an amazingly hard time getting their first books published is one of the many, many reason why I've never tried my hand at writing. Ok, if I'm being honest its relatively low down the list, but if something as approachable and universally loved as Harry Potter is has trouble being published I can't help but think I wouldn't have a chance.

Re:Short Experiment (Rowling's) (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44330627)

Plus it's hard to sell run-on sentences to editors.

Re:Short Experiment (Rowling's) (2)

rhyder128k (1051042) | about 9 months ago | (#44330201)

I don't really like the way that Rowling is held up as an example of a rags to riches success against the odds. According to Wikipedia she completed her university education and gained a degree in French and Classics. She then travelled the world a bit, got married, had a kid and then got divorced. When she returned to the UK, she moved into a flat and had all of her bills paid by the state. She then lived the (expensive) coffee shop lifestyle while she was writing her book. At one point, she received a massive grant from an arts council.

It was cushy. I wish I'd had it as hard her when I was struggling to get my first bit of paid writing work.

Re:Short Experiment (Rowling's) (1)

interval1066 (668936) | about 9 months ago | (#44331455)

I don't really like the way that Rowling is held up as an example of a rags to riches success against the odds.

Well, she was educated. If nothing else she's an example of how education can give you an advantage. Most people on the dole have none.

A practical algorithm for manuscript quality. (5, Funny)

slimdave (710334) | about 9 months ago | (#44328995)

Speaking as someone who shares a sofa of an evening with a publisher, I can vouch that almost every manuscript submitted to any publisher will be dreadful in almost every single department. It starts with embarrassingly poor spelling and punctuation, and moves on through dreadful grammar, choice of paragraph size, layout, and on to issues with plot, characterisation, and general readability.

The average quality hovers somewhere between execrable and toe-curlingly awful, and they get dismissed after a glance through the first page. Sometimes the covering letter is enough and the manuscript can be spared its cursory eyeballing, because if you cannot correctly spell and punctuate in your covering letter then you're wasting everyone's time -- thankfully only 15 seconds of it was the publishers, and two years of it was yours.

Based on that alone, a very useful algorithm with a high degree of accuracy in judging a manuscript's quality is to just throw it straight in the bin -- you'd only be wrong one time in a couple of hundred, which is a pretty good average.

Re:A practical algorithm for manuscript quality. (3, Insightful)

MickLinux (579158) | about 9 months ago | (#44329195)

Actually, that's a lousy average. If the standard is 1 good, money-making book per three-hundred, then you can expect to waste 250 hours sorting through trash to find a good moneymaker. Then, assuming that you don't miss it -- which I suspect happens at least 3 times in 4, putting you up at perhaps 1000 hours now -- you can capitalize on it, and make some money.

That 1000 hours has to be split with other duties, so you're talking about one new find every 3 or four years, per reviewer.

Throw each and every one in the waste bin, unopened, eand you're down to one new find every, what, 100 years? 1000 years? 10000 years? You haven't given a criteria of acceptance, and therefore it'll take however long it takes for you to learn that it was you, yourself, who was stupid.

Here's the criteria that publishers use, according to one respected, published, source [tinaja.com] :

A book publisher is more likely to publish something by someone who has already written a couple years' of articles for magazines.

A magazine publisher is more likely to publish magazine articles if the topic meets the criteria of interest of their special magazine.

There are over a million special interest catered to by magazines. Write for those.

A magazine publisher is more likely to publish something by a person with a higher degree (MS or PHD) in the field of study, or who is earning that higher degree.

They are also more likely to publish something by someone who has a venue in another media, like radio. Nowadays, possibly a blogger with a huge twitter following might also get published.

There's your algorithm. It works pretty well.
It increases the hit rate.

The parent's post only increases the hit rate of egos. Which, admittedly, in this day and age is great for getting government funding, which in turn is more and more critical to the appearance of success, since the economy is going away.

Re:A practical algorithm for manuscript quality. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44329245)

There are over a million special interest catered to by magazines.

Yeah I know but Slashdot is the only one that will post Bennett's ramblings ...

Re:A practical algorithm for manuscript quality. (1)

vux984 (928602) | about 9 months ago | (#44329315)

A book publisher is more likely to publish something by someone who has already written a couple years' of articles for magazines.

Or if you are some sort of celebrity. I mean, that's all I ever see doing book tours anymore... politicians, and pundits and whatnot peddling their ideas of what is right or wrong with some aspect of america in, now in book form for some extra cash.

Re:A practical algorithm for manuscript quality. (1)

slimdave (710334) | about 9 months ago | (#44329435)

Celebrities get ghost writers to at-the-very-least correct their spelling etc, because the cost is covered by the guaranteed sales into the hands of the mouth-breathing hordes. It's not an expense worth going to for a book that is a gamble for the publisher.

Re:A practical algorithm for manuscript quality. (1)

Demonantis (1340557) | about 9 months ago | (#44332869)

What do they care? If people buy it, they will publish it. The point is to make money not create great literary works. Thats why I doubt slimdave's story is absolutely true. Maybe for the no names, but definately not for the big names. The good thing Rowling did here for her defence was defuse the expectation that her new book would be similar to Harry Potter which her last book got a lot of.

Re:A practical algorithm for manuscript quality. (1)

slimdave (710334) | about 9 months ago | (#44329533)

Ah, but you're missing some crucial points -- that the primary role of a publisher is to actually make money, and that the most effective way to avoid losing money in publishing is to shutdown immediately and never publish another book.

Therefore I guarantee that the bin-toss method will make you more money than than 50% of publishing companies.

Re:A practical algorithm for manuscript quality. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44331385)

Seems this means a spell check on the front end would get your more than halfway there.

The OP states, "...it would attract cheaters who would try to abuse the system just for the free small payments..." but if you correlate all the evaluations with each person and they are wildly off base, then since the evaluations are all done before the fact, you could simply boots people who are way off.

Also, the problem of popularity is solved by putting evaluators in subgroups that are genre-based etc., I make not care about vampire stories and like science fiction etc.

Re:A practical algorithm for manuscript quality. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44332921)

I don't know if it's intentional or not, but your comment is a brilliant example of why relying solely on a spellchecker is a weak strategy.

Out of date info (3, Informative)

ZephyrXero (750822) | about 9 months ago | (#44329019)

She did not purposefully release that this was her pseudonym, so kind of a bad example. There have been numerous news posts today about how she's mad at the PR firm that leaked the info... http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/07/19/203548818/book-news-j-k-rowling-very-angry-that-law-firm-leaked-her-name [npr.org]

Re:Out of date info (1)

ZephyrXero (750822) | about 9 months ago | (#44329065)

nm...just ignore that, I see where the OP mentions now. Stupid slashdot, why can't I delete posts >_

Re:Out of date info (1)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | about 9 months ago | (#44329097)

She did not purposefully release that this was her pseudonym, so kind of a bad example. There have been numerous news posts today about how she's "mad" at the PR firm that "leaked" the info...

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/07/19/203548818/book-news-j-k-rowling-very-angry-that-law-firm-leaked-her-name [npr.org]

FTFY, you forgot the scare quotes.

Funny side note, from the article you linked:

The saga has a strange parallel with one of the plot lines in The Cuckoo's Calling — a supermodel, Lula Landry, hounded by press and fans, is driven into a paranoid panic wondering which of her friends was leaking her secrets to the press.

What a coincidence, at least to people who believe in such things.

amateur publishing doesn't go into it.. (1)

gl4ss (559668) | about 9 months ago | (#44329023)

after all the first harry potters weren't amateur published, but as pushed books with a publisher with some faith into it to publish in that format.

besides, the quality wasn't the question here, it was if people would buy the books. that's not what was the question in if they had luck in getting the status of a famed author or not - the sales act as the indicator.

a single book though hardly serves as any indicator.. so kings bachman experiment serves more as a guide.

payments.. just forget it and go write a review on amazon. more than that amazon ALREADY has a review pushing system similar to this, doesn't it?

Re:amateur publishing doesn't go into it.. (1)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 9 months ago | (#44329331)

more than that amazon ALREADY has a review pushing system similar to this, doesn't it?

I believe Amazon lists authors' names.

Re:amateur publishing doesn't go into it.. (1)

Applekid (993327) | about 9 months ago | (#44329361)

after all the first harry potters weren't amateur published, but as pushed books with a publisher with some faith into it to publish in that format.

besides, the quality wasn't the question here, it was if people would buy the books. that's not what was the question in if they had luck in getting the status of a famed author or not - the sales act as the indicator.

a single book though hardly serves as any indicator.. so kings bachman experiment serves more as a guide.

There were initially no Harry Potter books, plural. There was a Harry Potter book, singular. That it became a sensation and prompted additional books is purely business, all it takes is one.

The truth is, most books don't make a whole lot of money, and, in turn, most authors have real jobs (occasionally referred to as side-jobs, which is interesting when the side-job is what's making the rent and the author royalties are just covering replacing light bulbs). Having your name (aka brand) get a following attached to it is the key to making money, and the only way that's going to happen is if you have a hit.

Re:amateur publishing doesn't go into it.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44329365)

Maybe the Harry Potter books are slightly better than your poor capitalization(why even bother to punctuate at all?), but not by much. JKR sucks as a writer unless you are 8 years old or less. The books are poorly written and a cliche of every known magic book up to the time of the writing. It just highlights the state of idiocy in the West, we in the East rule.

Re:amateur publishing doesn't go into it.. (1)

HornWumpus (783565) | about 9 months ago | (#44329531)

I thought she also was flat busted for (perhaps unconsciously) stealing the theme and many characters for H.P. from a failed 80s movie.

Re:amateur publishing doesn't go into it.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44329875)

It just highlights the state of idiocy in the West, we in the East rule.

Good thing the West goes on forever... ;)

The pleasure of the crowd (0)

slimdave (710334) | about 9 months ago | (#44329049)

My own theory about the stellar popularity of particular authors is that many people just want to share the experience of reading, just as they want to share the experience of watching American Idol or Strictly Come Dancing.

A book that everyone is reading is also a social event, and there's maybe social pressures to read it also.

It's really the only explanation I can think of for the popularity of a book about a teenage wizard in the over-20's demographics.

Re:The pleasure of the crowd (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44329161)

Maybe men and women get "married" > "offspring" > download a textfile; between late teens and early fifties;
except for Michael Bloombergs son, who Michael is setting up to be the first (openly) gay president.....

Re:The pleasure of the crowd (1)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 9 months ago | (#44329303)

My own theory about the stellar popularity of particular authors is that many people just want to share the experience of reading ...

That would feed into the snowball effect the author mentions. Your theory and his jibe quite nicely.

Re:The pleasure of the crowd (1)

magic maverick (2615475) | about 9 months ago | (#44329307)

This is a good point. I too think that a lot of people merely read the same books that everyone else reads due to the sociality of it. The same reason that everyone watches the same TV shows. So they can all discuss how good they are, or how awful it was that that dreadful women got selected over that darlingly handsome man. (On /. we just get people making the same point over and over.)

Also, while the idea of Mr Haselton is quite good, it doesn't require quite as much space for it. E.g. point 2 could be halved. In fact you could probably get rid of half of the text, and still have the same impact of the idea, with more people likely to read the full thing.

I would encourage some famous authors to setup a fiction site like the one suggested. I think that if they did it publicly, they could easily get a lot of people joining up. Go for it!

Re:The pleasure of the crowd (1)

Applekid (993327) | about 9 months ago | (#44329503)

I would encourage some famous authors to setup a fiction site like the one suggested. I think that if they did it publicly, they could easily get a lot of people joining up. Go for it!

Like the one suggested? No way. Why would famous authors PAY to write stuff and have non-pro critics read it? Non-famous, but established, authors can write their next book and still make money off it. Novice authors can pay to get vanity-published and then they actually have books made, instead of an ethereal page on some literacy site, like some kind of mere fanfiction.

Re:The pleasure of the crowd (1)

Ambvai (1106941) | about 9 months ago | (#44329447)

My reason: I did six months of brain-meltingly boring data entry. (Seriously-- one of my assignments was to record, without the ability to OCR or copy paste, the list of every to/from/CC/BCC on all company emails. That included a ~5000 name, company-wide email with the body of "TEST". Took over an hour.) I chomped through pretty much everything remotely interesting that had an audiobook version, ranging from economics lectures to the pre-teen How to Train Your Dragon books.

The only thing that I picked up that I did not listen to in its entirety was Palanihuk's Choke... because I couldn't stop laughing when I had it going.

Re:The pleasure of the crowd (1)

HornWumpus (783565) | about 9 months ago | (#44330839)

If you knew how to code you could have surfed /. for six months and had perfect data entry.

Re:The pleasure of the crowd (1)

darkstar949 (697933) | about 9 months ago | (#44329599)

It's really the only explanation I can think of for the popularity of a book about a teenage wizard in the over-20's demographics.

Assuming you mean people that are 21 to 29 years old, then the popularity has a lot to do with the fact that "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" stone came out in 1997 and it took ten years for the series to be published. Someone that was 10 when the first book came out would have been 20 when the last one did so effectively the entire generation grew up with the Harry Potter series.

Re:The pleasure of the crowd (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44331503)

Yes, it is entirely a transient phenomenon. Harry Potter will be with us for a long time, but no generation other than those who were in the target age range for Harry Potter when the first one was published will experience it the same way, especially because it is a somewhat rare example of a series increasing in depth/maturity of it's target audience as it continues on.

Re:The pleasure of the crowd (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44330785)

It's really the only explanation I can think of for the popularity of a book about a teenage wizard in the over-20's demographics.

The age and occupation of the characters has jack shit to do with the reading age/level of the book.
Are you trying to claim that only young male children should find worth in books such as Huckleberry Finn and Lord of the Flies? Because most of the literary world would tend to disagree with you.

So propose it to her? (1)

Antipater (2053064) | about 9 months ago | (#44329087)

Why are you mentioning this here? As you say, you've already posted this idea many times to /., and gotten a good amount of feedback. There's nothing new in this latest incarnation that wasn't in the last one. You're not even asking us anything this time; you're just kind of talking at us. Yes, slashdot has insightful people you can bounce an idea off of, but eventually it stops being "bouncing an idea" and starts being "bashing your head repeatedly into a wall".

So instead of rehashing this idea on /. time and time again, why not take it to someone who could actually implement it?

Re:So propose it to her? (2)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | about 9 months ago | (#44329173)

Why are you mentioning this here? As you say, you've already posted this idea many times to /., and gotten a good amount of feedback.

I'm developing the impression that Bennett Haselton is one of those people who talks, at length, but seldom says anything worth listening to.

After his anti-Fifth Amendment diatribe, [slashdot.org] taking this pontificating narcissist seriously has become impossible.

Re:So propose it to her? (1)

u38cg (607297) | about 9 months ago | (#44332503)

I can't recall a single point he's made that I thought was interesting enough to remember. Shaky premises get developed not entirely rigorously ending with a sweeping conclusion that will never, ever be implemented. 2/10.

Re:So propose it to her? (1)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | about 9 months ago | (#44332793)

I can't recall a single point he's made that I thought was interesting enough to remember. Shaky premises get developed not entirely rigorously ending with a sweeping conclusion that will never, ever be implemented. 2/10.

Not to mention, my experience is that he is incapable of handling the slightest criticism, evidenced by many of the childish and nonsensical responses given in the thread I linked to in my last post.

Personally, I think you're being quite generous with your 2/10.

Recommandations, not ratings (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44329153)

I don't want a number given out by 20 random people to give a go or no go on what I get to see. I want to have person X and Y, with whom I share an interest for this and that, and despite X hating something I crave, to give out recommandations, saying they liked/hated this because it included A and B.

TFS rambling is flawed. It proposes to hide the author name *and* publish free (or even payed reading !) ebook, and claims to test only the fame factor. Of course the reader will be less averse to spend money in reading unknown author #1138 if the book is free.

This already exists (2)

Latinhypercube (935707) | about 9 months ago | (#44329159)

This already exists. It's called Lulu Helix review.

http://www.lulu.com/services/helix-review [lulu.com]

"The Helix Review provides a detailed analysis of your submitted manuscript by comparing it with all published works within The Book Genome Project as well as making specific comparisons to titles in your chosen genre. "

There is no way to test what you are proposing (2)

m00sh (2538182) | about 9 months ago | (#44329177)

This is silly. If they had luck back then, it would be wrong to assume they haven't improved their skills. Remember the Matthew effect. By getting that luck, they are now professional writers who spend all day honing their skills while the other mundane details are taken care by others. Those who didn't have luck have to find other way to make money and on top of that manage everything else in life which leaves very little time for developing their writing skills.

Re:There is no way to test what you are proposing (1)

steelfood (895457) | about 9 months ago | (#44330487)

You don't need luck to write well. You need talent. You don't need luck to afford you time to hone your skills. You have that time (assuming you live comfortably in the first world). It's called leisure.

If you aren't willing to spend your leisure time honing your skills (in which you are talented), you have no business trying to make a living off of it. Not to say that you can't, just that you'd have to be very lucky. And that's the only place where luck comes into play.

tl;dr (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44329217)

tl;dr

There's no way to tell if it's luck or not, because there are too many factors which cannot be controlled or accounted for.
Also, J.K. has already stated that she did it because she wanted to write a book without the massive pressure from fans and industry that she was subjected to when trying to complete the Potter series.

In summary, this submission is just an advertisement for the Voting Algorithm.

X != Y (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44329255)

It would seem that statistical success != commercial success. Too many dissimilar variables on either side to have parity. Sounds like she went about this the right way.

Errrrr Even the first line of the summary's wrong (1)

spike1 (675478) | about 9 months ago | (#44329285)

"J.K. Rowling recently revealed that she was the author of a book she had published under a pseudonym, which spiked in sales after she was outed as the true author."?

No, she didn't.
Some blabbermouth at her solicitors (american, look up lawyers), did.
She's pretty peeved about it, in spite of the extra sales.

Re:Errrrr Even the first line of the summary's wro (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44330859)

She's pretty peeved about it, in spite of the extra sales.

Despite, not "in spite of". Unless you're saying the sales were feeling slighted.

Re:Errrrr Even the first line of the summary's wro (1)

bennetthaselton (1016233) | about 9 months ago | (#44330917)

The editors changed that. My original summary block of text began with: "J.K. Rowling recently revealed that she was the author of a book she had published under a pseudonym, which spiked in sales after she was outed as the true author..."

For some reason the editors changed "confirmed" to "revealed", which I agree is less accurate, since it implies some deliberate choice on her part. I have no idea why they did that.

And then in the first sentence of the actual body of the article, I used "confirmed" again, and that one the editors did not alter.

Re:Errrrr Even the first line of the summary's wro (1)

bennetthaselton (1016233) | about 9 months ago | (#44330939)

Sorry, I meant to say that my original summary block of text began with: "J.K. Rowling recently CONFIRMED that she was the author of a book she had published under a pseudonym, which spiked in sales after she was outed as the true author." (emphasis added just now, not in the original). The editors changed "confirmed" to "revealed".

how does any of this matter (1)

milkmage (795746) | about 9 months ago | (#44329357)

when your lawyer can't keep his fucking mouth shut?

"In a statement, it said one of its partners, Chris Gossage, had told his wife's best friend, Judith Callegari, that Robert Galbraith was really Rowling."

Talent only gives you a chance (4, Insightful)

jd.schmidt (919212) | about 9 months ago | (#44329385)

But Luck makes you a superstar. J.K.R. is certainly talented, no doubt (no book I wrote would get even 1,500 people to buy it!), but there are lots of talented people. Too many for the average person to keep track of, in fact too many for experts in most cases. There are thousands, maybe millions of great works of art I will never have time to appreciate.

Also, there is a certain amount of luck in creating a classic. The number of artists who can create more than one true classic is extraordinarily rare! Even the best have many mediocre works besides their great ones, if you want to produce more than once classic it requires an insane amount of dedication and time devoted to it along with accepting that most of your work will not really be great.

Re:Talent only gives you a chance (1)

steelfood (895457) | about 9 months ago | (#44330517)

Harry Potter is as much of a classic as Twilight.

Classics withstand the test of time. Neither of these have been tested yet.

Lucky 20 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44329483)

But one still might need luck to get past the initial 20 reviewers.

Meta-Vote (4, Insightful)

coinreturn (617535) | about 9 months ago | (#44330023)

And if we used your voting method on this article, it probably wouldn't have hit the front page.

Yeah No (1)

denmarkw00t (892627) | about 9 months ago | (#44330025)

Perhaps she was doing an experiment to see how much luck had played a role in propelling her to worldwide success, and whether she could recreate anything close to that success when starting from scratch.

Perhaps she wanted to release a novel under a different name so that it could be more serious and not be tied to her image of Harry Potter. Perhaps she was just dicking around. Perhaps you could have presented this differently, so you didn't frame the whole thing as if your premise were true so that you could jack it all about your sample-voting blah blah blah geezus get on the front page using a story about an author who probably didn't do what she did for the reasons you suggest.

Was it really an experiment? (1)

noc007 (633443) | about 9 months ago | (#44330399)

From what I've heard she did it under the pseudo name so people would buy it on its merit as a good book or not. She didn't want people to buy it because it was written by "JK Rowling zOMG MUST BUY!!!"

I don't need an algorithm (1)

argStyopa (232550) | about 9 months ago | (#44330575)

I can tell JK Rowling if her success was based on luck or talent after having read her books. Seriously, it's pretty immediately evident.

Oh and I didn't read the last 2? 3?.
That might be a hint at the answer.

(Not to mention she already has the result. If she sold 1500 total copies before she outed herself, then she knows.)

Probably not representative of general audiences (1)

wilson_c (322811) | about 9 months ago | (#44330625)

An amateur fiction site will probably have a readership nothing like a broader audience. For one thing, you have to assume that most of the readers are themselves amateur writers, so you have to assume upvotes would skew heavily toward those writing attributes that appeal to what they like to (or would like to) write. The members of a broader audience, however, are generally not interested in being writers themselves and place less value on "writerliness" than they do on simple enjoyment.

What a pile of dribble (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44330645)

How does a person know a book is worth reading until they read it? being an author is a classic "chicken and egg" situation, and an IQ at least in doble figures would allow a person to comprehend this concept.

When Rowling wrote her detective novel under a pseudonym, she was following a classic pattern of behaviour for a famous author crossing a genre barrier (or, in other cases, where an author is just too prolific to release everything under one name). Now this book got very good reviews, but good reviews do not necessarily translate into good sales, for the reason I mentioned at the top.

But, on its merits, the book got good reviews (actually, this itself is a publishing fiction- but let's ignore the fact that book publishers 'buy' good reviews for the sake of the argument). So, book one gets good reviews but poor sales. Now, the publisher announces to the world that Rowling was the author. A popular author is now associated with a well reviewed book in a new genre for her, just as book two is due to hit the selves.

A CLASSIC well-managed PR campaign. This is what makes the best publishers the 'best'. Now, as for whether Rowling's detective novel has true enduring qualities is a different question altogether. How is real quality measured? Here's a clue for you.

In the Victorian age, Britain had annual awards for 'great' artists. Not one of the artists that won the prize is considered worthy of recognition today. Popular with the masses. Popular with the critics of the time. Neither matter a damn. Much later there will be another judgement, and even this may not be a better judge of true merit.

Fashion and luck play a massive part in art success. Yes, we can recognise the garbage (the current wave of 'modern art' is clearly utter trash, for instance) and yes we can recognise the elements of quality in the better crafted material. But beyond this, suggesting there is a reliable way of identifying higher meta-qualities in art is laughable.

I'd like to advocate something similar... (1)

Brucelet (1857158) | about 9 months ago | (#44330885)

Perhaps Bennett Haselton should use an anonymous blog instead of Slashdot to pour out all his half-baked novel-length thoughts. That might be a better way to see how much luck plays a role in determining whether anyone cares what he's blathering about.

Re:I'd like to advocate something similar... (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | about 9 months ago | (#44331791)

While he's at it he should get a name that doesn't sound like a law firm or a place that sells rice watered by the scrotal sweat of a Buddhist monk for 30 bucks a pound.

Here's the experiment we need now. (1)

Beorytis (1014777) | about 9 months ago | (#44331015)

We need another experiment:

We need to determine whether the present luck-and-influence-based system leads to a greater total commercial success for the system than would a voting-based-on-perceived-merit system. Remember the current system exists to make money, not good art or social justice. If an experiment can show that the voting system leads to more total money made, then the opportunity might just be seized upon.

In the past modes of publishing that relied on manufactured product distribution (printed books, LPs & CDs, etc.), upfront costs made it advantageous to the system to have few titles and authors, published in great quantities.

There was a hope that the so-called "long-tail" with many published titles and authors in not-necessarily-huge quantities publishing with low upfront cost (e-books, mp3s, etc.) would become successful. It seems the luck-and-influence status quo has largely prevented creators in the long tail from succeeding.

If we could experimentally demonstrate that when augmented by this voting system, the long tail can make more money for the system as a whole, then maybe Amazon and other big players will implement it as a way to increase their total sales.

Gatekeepers and marketing (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#44331421)

Anyone can write anything, and the average e-book author makes under $500 per year. The power is in being a gatekeeper, and controlling marketing and branding. The "JK Rowling" brand sold the book, not its quality.

Not a good voting system (1)

NeverWorker1 (1686452) | about 9 months ago | (#44332007)

That's really a terrible voting algorithm. For many, many reasons:
  • First, there's the whole issue of averaging 1-10 ratings. First, those number will not be uniformly distributed. Rather, they'll be clustered in the 1-2, 5, 8-10. Second they aren't ratio quantities, so you just can't average them. By this I mean that 1/10+2*10/10 = 21/30 scores the same as 3*7/10. That really doesn't make sense. A reddit style voting system will address this, but requires a larger sample size.
  • Ignoring the first issue, your first round has fairly low confidence of selecting the best stories for review. Let's be generous and assume that of your initial 20 reviewers half actually review it. Let's further assume none of them lie and just call it e.g. a 7/10 without reading it. You still have a sample size of 10. By terribly misusing the CLT because the sample is too small, we would assume the results are normally distributed about the "true" mean with a standard deviation of approximately 1.68. That means that if a score averages 8/10 after 10 reviews, there's a 17% chance that it's really 6.3 or worse. Similarly, a 6/10 average has 17% chance of really being 7.68. Not very encouraging.
  • The above makes some very, very bad assumptions (e.g. nobody just says "Screw it; i'm putting down 7.") and misapplies the CLT. In reality, you have no idea what your confidence interval is, other than that it's not tight.
  • You can increase the sample size for part 1, but that loses the benefits of your scheme and, as people are bothered to review more, they'll participate more rarely unless you reward them well.

In short, it's a pretty meaningless system based on a flawed average with unknown, but low, confidence in the scores.

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