Interested in celebrity dick size? Boy, do I have the book for you: Celebrities with Big Dicks like Jay-Z, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, and Many More, edited by one Dana Rasmussen. It's out of stock right now on Amazon—I bought the last copy—but you can order one of three used copies available, starting at the low price of $37.73 (plus shipping).
"Please note that the content of this book primarily consists of articles available from Wikipedia or other free sources online," the Amazon description reads, before immediately getting down to business: "Everyone loves a big meaty dick."
The description isn't lying. Well, I don't know that everyone loves a big meaty dick. But Celebrities With Big Dicks, a copy of which is currently sitting here, on my desk, does indeed "primarily consist of articles available from Wikipedia." For 40 bucks and change, you've got yourself a printed and bound copy of 22 Wikipedia articles, from "penis" and "human penis size" (background information, obviously) to "Grigori Rasputin" and "Ray J" (the celebrities of the title) subdivided into helpful sections with titles like "The Almighty Penis" and "The Sex Organs, Boners, and Cum Shots."
And that's basically all you get. There's a title page, and a table of contents, but no information about Rasmussen, and no publisher listed; just a short paragraph printed twice, on the title page and back cover, detailing a kind of manifesto. "The book you are holding in your hand," it reads in part, "utilizes the unique characteristics of the internet... while maintaining all the convenience and utility of a real book."
That's honest, I guess: Celebrities with Big Dicks is, technically, a real book.
Of the millions of print books available on Amazon right now, there are hundreds of thousands, like Celebrities with Big Dicks, cobbled together from two dozen or so Wikipedia articles and other public domain sources at almost no cost and printed in single copies by Amazon's sophisticated print-on-demand system, the byproducts of increasingly efficient publishing technologies and the glut of free, public-domain content available online.
As an object, Celebrities With Big Dicks is kind of amazing. When we talk about the future of book publishing we talk about ebooks and the move from print to digital; here in front of me is the stunted result of a move in the other direction, an analog artifact of a weird moment in the history of publishing. I like it because of the weight and dimension it adds to the infinity of content on the internet, the way it implies the existence of some kind of cheap, porny Library of Babel, stored as potential on Amazon. Its anonymity only adds to the effect: where could this have come from, except one of Borges' infinite hexagonal rooms? Located, possibly, in some seedy strip mall?
As it turns out, Celebrities With Big Dicks, like the rest of Rasmussen's editorial oeuvre — including Motorboating the Big Tits of Female Athletes like Gina Carano, Serena Williams, Malia Jones, Katarina Witt, and More ("Valuable life lessons," reads one customer review) and Neurotic Jews Who Will Become Zombies like Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Howard Stern, and More ("Hollywood is full of neurotic Jews that are loved throughout the world and will probably be just as lovable when they become zombies during the apocalypse") — is published, in some sense, by BiblioLabs, a professional and well-regarded "hybrid media-technology company" in South Carolina specializing in print-on-demand and digital books, and the platforms used to create and consume them.
BiblioLabs' Wikipedia book subsidiary is called Project Webster. "Project Webster uses human curators to assemble Wikipedia content into new works," BibloLabs co-founder Mitchell Davis wrote me in an email last week. "The platform is also a place for us to experiment with article-based book composition, and we are integrating non-Wiki content onto the platform also."
In other words, BibloLabs thinks of itself as a software and technology company rather than a publisher, and as such Project Webster was launched not as a new business or a revenue stream but as "a test curation platform." Davis, a smart guy who writes in the language of someone who's constantly raising money and pitching ideas, is currently obsessed with curation. His main focus right now is an iPad app — BiblioBoard — that curates content around a single theme.
"There are millions of historical artifacts online in different pockets," Davis writes. "There is no cohesion or consumer-friendly organization to how users should interact with the content." On BiblioBoard, "you will get an entire eco-system of content (100-150 historical books on baseball, images, videos, audio, articles) curated by a subject matter expert." Its predecessor, BibloLabs' British Library app, is a clever, well-designed to present historical content that, with its multi-touch gestures and high-resolution scans, feels much more like "the future of books" than Project Webster. (Indeed, Davis was anxious to make it clear that he sees BiblioBoard as the company's focus and future, and Project Webster as an experimental side project.)
Of course, the idea of curation behind BiblioBoard — finding the best or most appropriate public-domain content — is the same idea behind my Project Webster book, Celebrities with Big Dicks. Each editor is the "subject matter expert" (in this case the subject matter is "celebrity dick size"), and each book is presented as a collection of content, curated around a central topic. (Davis diplomatically acknowledged that Project Webster "ran into the age-old challenge of open platforms: who is responsible for policing it?")
Even if it's curation, it's somewhat different from the job of, say, a museum curator. One Project Webster editor, whom I'll call Molly, compared the work to the Wikipedia black holes we all occasionally fall into: "Basically, I'd think of a topic for a book, then I'd go through the database that the company built to find articles about the topic," she said. "You could spend all day just following a thread through the Wikiverse. That's basically what I did."
Dana Rasmussen's Oeuvre, As Described on Amazon
• "Sex is a necessity of life. Without it, new life would never be created and the world would stop. But for many, sex is one of the world's biggest taboos." — Fucking for Money, Vol. 2: Notable Prostitutes Throughout History like Mata Hari, Calamity Jane, Tracy Quan, Heidi Fleiss, and Many More
• "When Jesus ascended into Heaven he promised he would be back — and ever since, people — most notably, Christians — have been anxiously awaiting his return." — Doomsday Cults: Getting Ready for the Rapture
• "This is a must-have for anyone who enjoys letting all their private parts hang out for the world to see." — Let's Get Naked, Vol. 1: Nude Beaches, Nude Hiking, Skinny Dipping, Nude Biking, Nude Weddings, and So Much More
• "...this book does men everywhere a favor by listing the female athletes with the best racks. In addition, it spares the information about the sports these women excel in and gives tons of information on titty fucking, breast fetishism, and more." — Motorboating the Big Tits of Female Athletes like Gina Carano, Serena Williams, Malia Jones, Katarina Witt, and More
• "Most people like two things: going on vacations and having sex. So why not combine the two?" — Unique Vacations, Vol. 2: Sex Tourism and Where to Get Laid in the Philippines, Thailand, Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Everywhere Else
• "Some people look at nervous fliers like they're neurotic and have nothing to fear. After all, planes land safely way more frequently than they crash, so chances are the next flight you're on will land safely as well. Then again, the hundreds of people who've died in plane crashes probably thought the same thing." — The Facts about Airport Security and Aircraft Safety, Vol. 3: More Deadly Airplane Crashes
Molly, working from home or a Starbucks, would structure her books into chapters ("the way you'd outline an academic paper") by dragging the articles around a "sort of playlist page." Once finished, the "playlist" would be submitted to a Project Webster editor. Her pay was $5 per book ("I know, right?" she wrote in her email), plus another $1 for every book sold, decent enough for a part-time job you find on Craigslist — provided you work quickly enough. "My supervisor said experienced editors could average about five books an hour," she said. "I don't know how, because a book could take me anywhere from 20-90 minutes." Still, she writes, she has no regrets: "It was interesting work, and I learned a ton of stuff I wouldn't have ordinarily. I feel smarter watching Jeopardy now."
Some Wikipedia-book publishers dispense with human curators altogether, patching together their products using algorithms that follow links on Wikipedia pages. In 2010, blogger Chris Rand discovered a book about Swiss skier Vreni Schneider called, oddly enough, Vreni Schneider: Annemarie Moser-Pröll, FIS Alpine Ski World Cup, Winter Olympic Games, Slalom Skiing, Giant Slalom Skiing, Half Man Half Biscuit. The book's sub-topics appear to be culled from links located in the Wikipedia article on Schneider. "Schneider is name-checked in a song by English indie rock band Half Man Half Biscuit called "Uffington Wassail," a fact which somebody has deemed worthy of adding to Schneider's Wikipedia page," Rand explains. "So now Half Man Half Biscuit, a cult musical act from Birkenhead, get featured in a book which appears to be mainly about skiing."
Vreni Schneider... Half Man Half Buscuit is the work of what might be the largest publisher of Wikipedia books, a German print-on-demand specialist called VDM Publishing whose subsidiaries include Alphascript (the name on the Schneider book), Betascript and Fastbook. Let's borrow a page from VDM and reprint some Wikipedia here: "VDM's publishing methods have received criticism for the soliciting of manuscripts from thousands of individuals, for providing non-notable authors with the appearance of a peer-reviewed publishing history, for benefiting from the free contributions of online volunteers, and for insufficiently disclosing the free nature of their content. VDM responds that Wikipedia is a valuable, quality resource, that the company has no problem asking authors for content, that buyers are informed of where information comes from, that books are a convenient form to collect articles about interesting subjects, and that its customers are satisfied with VDM's products." According to Rand, there have been reports of German libraries buying VDM titles at the request of anonymous customers; some people on the internet have discussed filing a class-action lawsuit.
At its heart, the VDM business model — scrape free public-domain content and add a search-engine friendly headline — is just a classic internet SEO scheme. Amazon's Kindle section is already drowning in eBooks that take advantage of human stupidity, search engine blindness, and the internet's unbelievable library of content. Some are open scams. Last week, Language Log's Geoff Pullum noted a book called Fast and Slow Thinking by a "Karl Daniels," another Wikipedia book "edited by robots" — targeted not at people searching for general topics like "celebrities with big dicks" or "Vreni Schneider," but at people searching for Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. "It was created purely to swim in the wake of the Kahneman book," Pullum writes, "and snap up some spilled morsels of money."
Others are less scams than seemingly insane attempts to capitalize on the very end of the "long tail," where a huge variety of specific and narrowly-popular items can be the backbone of a business. The king of this region of the public-domain book world is Philip Parker, a professor at French business school Insead, who, along with his proprietary "computer algorithms that collect publicly available information on a subject," is the "author" of over 200,000 books. Many of Parker's books consist of tables and graphs, data sets about bizarrely specific product demand — The 2007-2012 Outlook for Tufted Washable Scatter Rugs, Bathmats and Sets That Measure 6-Feet by 9-Feet or Smaller in India — and most of them exist only as data files on Amazon, waiting for that special person who's interested in The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais.
Whether that special person exists is up for debate. Certainly no one on the planet wants The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais for the reasons its algorithm created it. No one is interested in the five-year global outlook on bizarrely tiny containers of cheese. But in 2009, the book won the Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year. As it turned out, there were special people who were interested in. Just for different reasons. This is, maybe, why I love Dana Rasmussen's books so much. On the internet, we tend to be after information, period; books, on the other hand, we own as objects and as repositories for knowledge. I have Celebrities With Big Dicks not because I have an abiding interest in its contents but because I admire its existence as an object.
When I told Davis that I thought Rasmussen's books were funny and weird enough to maybe transcend their origins, he responded even-handedly: "One of the things we want to do is find interesting and new ways to mash up things in the public domain," he said. But he also acknowledged, maybe with a hint of irony, "the more conservative business need to make sure our products are not seen as poor quality or misrepresented." Project Webster was suspended briefly at the end of last year, he told me, to upgrade the platform and improve quality assurance. "Would these books make it through today? I don't know," he wrote. "But I do know that once these products are in the wild, it is hard to pull them back."
It wasn't until after I'd written most of this story that I was able to get in touch with Rasmussen, who splits her time between Ohio and Charleston, S.C., where in the summers she runs a small snow-cone stand. Over email, she came across as quick and funny, with no anxiety or concern about emailing a stranger about her side project. Her writing shared some of the same stylistic quirks that mark her book descriptions. "I'd say my biggest passion is writing and obsessively watching my Roseanne DVDs since TV from the 80s and 90s was the absolute best," she told me when I asked to describe herself.
Like Molly, Rasmussen found the Project Webster job on Craigslist. "When the team interviewed me for it they told me about the concept and what I would be doing," she wrote in an email. "I wanted to make sure that I could let my mind wander and come up with things that were actually interesting to me, so I asked them if I could do some 'weird shit' and they agreed."
She started with books on celebrities — in particular, cast members of 90s television shows — and child stars, whose usually unfortunate lives gave led her to a series of "books about the ways celebrities mess their lives up." She says the work was "amazingly fun and easy... I just thought of things that would be eye-catching, so you can't really go wrong if you mix in things about sex and celebs." Rasmussen says she's edited close to 1,500 books, though she doesn't have an exact count.
Rasmussen, a former reporter for an Ohio daily, has degrees in both journalism and marketing. I asked her what she thought of the Wiki book phenomenon. "It was hard to explain to people what I was doing," she wrote. "Hardly anyone over 30 could grasp the concept of making a book out of Wikipedia articles. I can't really see paying for something I could get for free, but I understand why people would. After all, the topics are interesting and all the info about the topic is already pulled together for readers. But at the end of the day the info is still totally free online, you just have to be savvy enough to find it for yourself."
It was late, and Rasmussen was working, so I only asked her one more question. I wanted to know if we could expect any more Dana Rasmussen books on the horizon. "I haven't done it in probably a year," she said. "I moved on to something else. Making Wiki books gets tedious after awhile."
[thanks to Dom Passantino]