One day, I stumbled across a book on Amazon called Saltine Cracker. It didn’t make sense: who would pay $54 for a book entirely about perforated crackers? The book was co-edited by someone called Lambert M. Surhone—a name that sounds like one of Kurt Vonnegut’s inventions. According to Amazon, Lambert M. Surhone has written or edited more than 100,000 titles, on every subject from beekeeping to the world’s largest cedar bucket. He was churning out books at a rate that was simply not possible for a human being.
So who was Lambert M. Surhone? Just looking at the numbers, you could argue that he’s one of the most prolific creators of literature who ever lived. But was he even human? There are now software programs—robots, if you will—that can gather text and organize it into a book. Surhone might be one of them.
Whatever he was, Lambert M. Surhone worked under the auspices of a German company, VDM Publishing. In addition to selling conventional books, VDM also extrudes thousands of paperbacks every year using content available without cost on the Internet. These books, or booklike products, lie in wait for the distracted shopper, someone who might think, Oh good, I really need a tome on Spearman’s law of diminishing returns, so I’ll just go ahead and pay $84. And with one overhasty click on the “Place your order” button, the shopper can pay a lot of money for a book that turns out to be warmed-over Wikipedia.
VDM Publishing puts a notice on the cover of its books, boasting “h...