Artificial Intelligence: Threat, Opportunity, and Shimmr

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Entrepreneur Nadim Sadek and publisher Evan Schnittman on the gleam of AI-driven consumer outreach behind the start-up Shimmr.ai.

Nadim Sadek. Image: Shimmr

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

The Entrepreneur: Nadim Sadek
While doing “my due diligence,” says Nadim Sadek from his office in London, “publishers were telling me that they really only promote about five percent of their whole catalogue.”

“If you talk to authors,” he says, “you see that they’re desperate to get some attention, to have some promotion. If you talk to readers, they’re sitting there saying, ‘I can’t find anything that really matches me properly with the stuff I want to read.’ And if you talk to the marketing departments, they’re feeling guilty about not supporting their authors because they’re inevitably under-resourced compared to the long tail they should really be attending to.”

Sadek believes that these four laments—those of publishers, authors, readers, and marketers—can find themselves at a harmonious intersection in a new start-up he calls Shimmr.ai.

With its name spelled in the fashion of Glimmr, Flickr, Tumblr, and Pixlr, Shimmr’s potential blessing for publishing could be absolutely up to the minute if it can harness artificial intelligence to solve the most daunting of all publishing’s challenges: discoverability.

We won’t have to wait long to get some early indications. Shimmr will have its coming-out at the Independent Publishers Guild‘s program in England on September 20. As Melina Spanoudi is writing today (July 31) at The Bookseller, AI is a key theme planned for the IPG event, with a training program to follow. And then there’s to be a presentation of Shimmr at Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 18 to 22), where many points of programming in the 75th anniversary of the trade fair are focused on artificial intelligence.

What Shimmr is doing will seem familiar, up to a point, to those who remember the work of a company called Trajectory in the last decade, before the term AI was assigned to so many dynamics on the landscape.

Trajectory was James Bryant and Scott Beatty’s algorithmic comparison-generator of books’ contents. It used “natural language processing”—on a smaller scale than today’s “large language models”—to chart the technical and emotional “vectors” of storytelling. The idea was that retailers could use such analysis to match books to readers’ interests. But retailers, some of them using promising sales algorithms of their own, may not have had access to the consumer triggers that Sadek says his “book DNA” has.

Book DNA? Publishing Perspectives readers will also be hearing another echo: “Story DNA” is the term that the Toronto-based Wattpad has used to describe the way its IT group surfaces narratives from its massive platform for filmmakers and television producers who are looking for new properties to develop. The Wattpad Studios staff has said they felt in recent years that the  capacity to sort through story elements and find specifically requested material for development has had real success in a string of productions led for the company by Hollywood-based Aron Levitz and his team.

Where, then, could Shimmr’s shakedown of “book DNA” find such a trajectory of success that it could help publishers promote the unpromoted and prompt readers to read the unread?

The Ads: ‘Nano-Targeted, Highly Forensic’

The potential answer lies in a familiar but important term: end to end.

Is there a way to produce an end-to-end solution where harmlessly – in fact, I would contend with a bit of nobility – we could put AI to work?”Nadim Sadek, Shimmr.ai

“Is there a way,” Sadek asks “to produce an end-to-end solution where harmlessly—in fact, I would contend with a bit of nobility—we could put AI to work? Where it ‘reads’ a book, and ‘says’ two things: ‘(1) the structure of this book means this is its genre, plot, protagonist, antagonist, theme, and so on; and (2) the emotional and other areas of interest are X, Y, and Z?'” And then it goes a step further, or so the plan has it: It takes that book’s attributes to a consumer who likes them.

As an example, Sadek suggests that we’re looking at a book about melancholy, cruelty, anger, and fishing. We’ll bullet out Sadek’s three-machine solution.

  • The Shimmr process starts with a first “machine,” Sadek says, which performs the extraction of the “book DNA,” based on a mixture of structure and “VIE”—values, interests, and emotions. “That machine is called the briefer,” he says.
  • If the briefer is the first machine, Sadek says, the second machine is called the generator. And the generator creates an advertisement, in fact a whole ad campaign with marketing copy. It generates audience-matching tags and keywords, all of this being multimodal, meaning that it might involve video, voice, still photography, text, “all entirely automated,” Sadek says, “deriving and manifesting that ‘book DNA.'”
  • And finally, there’s a third machine, the deployer. As Sadek describes it, “Generator says, ‘Hey deployer, I’ve made a series of ads here into a campaign and it’s about melancholia and cruelty and anger and fishing. The deployer then puts out the campaign in a kind of nano-targeted, highly forensic way, so that people who have a propensity to like melancholy, cruelty, anger, and fishing are matched beautifully with something that turns them on.”

That end-to-end factor—which is the real test of Shimmr’s potential success—lies of course in just how well the “deployer” can, in fact, target receptive consumers in a deeply granular way, come-hithering those potential book buyers who may be longing to read something of the melancholic, the cruel, the angry, and … the seafood.

If successful, this use of AI might be said to be surfacing not only a book’s DNA, but also the personality DNA of potential consumers. On one end is a mountain of books, as we know, which are little read and often unknown, each potentially exactly what someone, somewhere, is hoping or at least willing to read. On the other end is that someone ready to fish and stop cutting discoverability bait.

Sadek is the former founding CEO of an AI-driven brand-management platform called ProQuo AI. He also founded and was chief executive of Inish Turk Beg, a single malt whiskey (Maiden Voyage), food, and music business that he created on a 59-acre island he acquired in 2003 off County Mayo. The island itself is called Inishturkbeg, which comes from the Gaelic for “Small Island of the Wild Boar.” You can see an RTE Nationwide video about the island with Sadek about his decade or so developing it. Prepare to find yourself looking around for a boat.

With a background in qualitative market research, Sadek also manages a musical artist signed by Warner, Shaefri, who is Egyptian-Irish, as is he.

The Publisher: Evan Schnittman

Evan Schnittman

Like a drumroll that never seems to quite reach its cymbal crash, news and reviews of “artificial intelligence” have a lot of people keyed up these days. Even as this article is being written, China’s cyberspace administration has issued interim rules regulating generative AI (JD Supra). Amazon CEO Andy Jassy is reported to have direct oversight of a new group working on “the company’s most ambitious AI models.” (Business Insider). And Spain’s El Pais is offering advice on how biographers “may need artificial intelligence technology” to sort through floods of ‘plausible’ data about their subjects.

In world book publishing, of course, the widest AI-powered emotional swings at the moment occur between those who see AI as a coming cluster of time-saving office-chores assists–glorified spell-checks–and those who feel a hot summer’s chill of copyrights compromised by marauding large language models. Many in publishing would understandably like to see Sadek’s Shimmr succeed—for their P&Ls, for the industry as a whole, and for a readership being relentlessly seduced away from books by competing narrative entertainment media.

Evan Schnittman is chief publishing officer at Forbes Books, based in the South Carolinian Low Country, and is known in the industry for holding senior positions at Hachette, Bloomsbury, and Oxford University Press. Like any gentleman of letters whose office commands a view of the sunny rooftops of the “holy city,” as Charlestonians call their hometown, he has a soothingly high view of the whiplash of AI’s news cycle and publishing’s outlook.

Created from a 2016 joint venture between Forbes Media and Advantage Media, Forbes Books is an independent business book publisher, and this may be why Schnittman looks at the unnerving spectrum of responses to AI and says,  “This is the classic threat-opportunity continuum.”

As we’ve watched recent technology’s rise from the mid-20th-century, Schnittman says, “with profit über alles” and “Reaganism in the States—what you call Thatcherism in the UK,” he says to Sadek during our three-way interview, “we need to remind ourselves that that publishing is not a singular industry. Trade publishing has its own specs and options and codes, and that’s just one part of it. Then there’s education publishing, and there’s academic publishing, and STM, and on-demand.

“I think we get very reductive in the industry,” pending where one professional sits vs. another. And one reason he may be an early pre-launch customer of Shimmr is that he has not only the business-book publisher’s acumen but “I sit in a very different side of the industry than most of the conversations going on. I can be much more opportunistic with it,” he says, “because of our role in creating content, which is very different from Hachette’s,” for example.

The Prompt Engineers: ‘Our Architecture Team’

One of the most telling points Schnittman makes from the vantage point of his company and its ability to work with Shimmr as it developments is that to a great degree, most publishers “don’t have direct relationships with their customers. They can finally get it” if that end-to-end sourcing both of the publisher’s content and the precise consumer who wants it comes together.

“Every job in book publishing will have a percentage of ‘prompt engineer’ in it. “Evan Schnittman, Forbes Books

What Schnittman is focused on is the fact that, “We’ve never really figured out how to get the insides of a book to talk to Google. And so for me, the ‘big aha’ of Shimmr was, ‘This is a cost-effective way to create targeted campaigns on Google and other platforms.”

As we all move across the Internet daily, we’re telling the platforms our interests. And Schnittman sees an opportunity in each turn and dodge and dash we make across the Net because it adds up to opportunity. A single book, for example, on artificial intelligence might inspire, he says, “in one person, fear. Another person will look at it, not with a lot of emotional investment, but curiosity. And a third person will look at it and see opportunity. That means we’re targeting very different ad campaigns” around a single book and creating the potential for that book to attract three kinds of consumer personalities, not one.

“Let’s really zoom down here on what we can target,” Schnittman says, “and do it in such a cost-effective manner that it can be done across thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Every magnitude you can imagine is now available because of the tool sets that now exist.”

In effect, if Shimmr’s approach is successful—and assuming that there’s someone interested in reading essentially everything, every book that publishing has to offer–then a market can be made for each title and its reader can find it.

Reverse-Discoverability: Books Discovering Readers

On the grandest scale, an approach of this kind–making content connected to its most appropriate consumer through automated processes–could make the entire publishing canon become to some extent viable: all the boats could float, as happens twice daily at high tide in Jeremy’s Inlet south of Charleston.

Here’s a catchy prediction from Schnittman: “Every job in book publishing will have a percentage of ‘prompt engineer’ in it. I have a team now,” he says, “we call it our book-architecture team. They’re prompt engineers. Very specialized.

“And what we’ve come to is a concept of ‘the golden thread,'” by which he means a through-line of interest, fact, narrative, or other energy, the often ineffable “it” that makes a property soar and causes readers to recognize something in it (maybe themselves). The golden thread, Schnittman says, is “the thing the machine cannot see.” Humans, editors, can find the “golden thread” around which good editing and production is crafted.

“We’re not losing that,” Schnittman says. “We’re just making our jobs that much easier” in getting the result to the right audience.

And what Shimmr is all about actually, then, has a golden thread all its own. Call it reverse-discoverability.

If what Sadek and Schnittman are guessing is right, then the world book publishing industry will no longer be obsessed with how readers discover books. It will be much too busy having its books discover their readers.

A Golden Thread: ‘AI Is What We Teach It To Be’

Nadim Sadek not only is heading up the development of Shimmr but he’s also is writing a book about it. Shimmer, Don’t Shake: How Publishing Can Embrace AI is being written this summer at a rather furious pace. Update: The book now is to be published on October 17 by Schnittman’s Forbes Books in an arrangment with Richard Charkin‘s Mensch Books. And yes, Sadek confirms, he’s using the correct spelling of shimmer in that title.

“I can’t be shamelss,” he says in a note when we inquire.

Publishing Perspectives has obtained a draft of Shimmer, Don’t Shake, awaiting edits. While the book has much to say about publishing innovation, AI innovation, the soul of storytelling, and more, there’s also a passage that may reassure those who worry that the kind of AI-fueled consumer-discovery efforts Sadek and Schnittman are talking about could mean a diminution of the human creativity behind literature.

If “the world that balances human intelligence with artificial intelligence,” Sadek writes, is “to continue exhibiting magical, human originality of thought, displaying whimsy, fancy, and fantasy, and sometimes expressing instinct and primal sense … all these things [must] become the superior backbone of any body of knowledge or, in our new parlance, ‘the training set.’

“If we want our AI(s) to be helpful and reliable collaborators as we navigate the future, if we want them to be circumspect and cautious in their offers of conclusions and perspectives, if we want them to weigh and balance, then it’s an imperative that we redouble our efforts to fill them with thoughtful, creative, considered, funny, brilliant expositions of humanity. They must understand that there are qualities quite beyond them, which are justifiably taken into account.

“AI is what we teach it to be.”


The 2020 Publishing Perspectives Forum at Frankfurter Buchmesse is being programmed to include a session in which we’ll assess “The State of AI in Publishing Today.” Nadim Sadek is confirmed as a speaker, and we’re hopeful at this writing that Evan Schnittman can join us, as well. In addition, we’re very glad that we’ll hear from Anna Soler-Pont of the Pontas Literary and Film Agency and Christoph Bläsi of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, with Arq WorksThomas Cox moderating. That session is scheduled for 12 p.m. on Thursday, October 19, in Room Spektrum of the Messe Frankfurt Congress Center, second level. More on the Publishing Perspectives Forum is here.

More from Publishing Perspectives on artificial intelligence and its debate relative to publishing is here, more on digital publishing is here, more on Frankfurter Buchmesse is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.