Benji Smith, owner of Shaxpir — a cutely named and decent-looking writing tool for novelists — has (metaphorically) died by the sword.
At first glance, he was doing the right thing: He created a wide and deep ebomb for his audience, a tool in fact (bonus points for interactivity) and it really got his audience buzzing.
But the devil is in the details, the proof of the pudding is in the eating…
And the survival of your product is in the hands of your audience.
You see, Benji took 23,000 novels — copyrighted novels — and pumped them through (allegedly) some kind of LLM, in order to "analyze" things like word length, emotional points, and tone.
He put all this up on a site he made called Prosecraft.
Prosecraft was replete with "content" from authors big and small, from fantasy queen T. Kingfisher to the king of horror Stephen King, from debut novelist Zach Rosenberg to, well, Nora Roberts, who needs no introduction (and neither does her legal team).
You could click each book cover to see excerpts, word clouds, an alleged timeline of emotional turning points, and so on.
to serve the community of authors, whose works I cherish. And I hoped people would find a fascinating and useful tool.
And… that's where it all went wrong.
His fatal mistake?
Authors hate this shit.
They hate "AI."
They hate being stolen from, and make no mistake: having their works copied and fed through some tool, available on some web site, with excerpts and word clouds, is stealing.
Novelists in particular are massively underappreciated and underpaid, and pretty much all of them view "AI" as the exploitation it is. There's little to no debate on this point.
And authors are both very well-connected with each other and verbally armed to the teeth.
This is not a secret.
I'm no novelist, and I only follow three on social media. But through those three, I have become intimately aware of how writers gather to discuss the most urgent topics for their careers and their genres, how they feel about their craft, their industry at large, and worst of all, so-called artificial intelligence.
Anyone who paid any attention to writers would know this.
Benji went and "did a thing" without bothering to question how his actual intended audience would feel about it.
What happened when his audience found his ebomb?
Prosecraft's been online for a few days, it seems, but today is the day it took off. It began circulating on author-twitter, the very thing you hope will happen with your tool marketing & ebombs… if you treat your audience with respect.
It didn't take long for the nature of the word of mouth to become clear, however.
Debut novelist Zach Rosenberg tweeted a takedown demand:
How DARE you, @benji_smith. I demand you take my book off your site immediately. I do not consent to this, and never did. And I know my publisher never would
As furor began to rise, Benji tweeted this in reply…
Hey everyone. Thanks for chiming in here. I’m truly sorry to have hurt you in any way. I’m going to write a longer post later today talking about this topic…
The only purpose of this project is to serve the community of authors, whose works I cherish. And I hoped people would find a fascinating and useful tool.
but in the meantime, please send an email to [email] with a link to your book, and I’ll remove it from the prosecraft website.
Aw, poor guy. He seems surprised.
The replies and quote tweets rolled in:
Ursula Vernon: Welp, you’ve certainly succeeded in making the community of authors whose works you cherish want your hide nailed to the wall…
Sarah Rose Etter: get my book off your website and deleted from your AI but FYI my publisher's legal team is looking at this and i'd really be worried if i were you
Josephine Stewart: What part of "Do not use people's work without permission" do you not understand? Did ANY authors give permission for you to do machine analysis of full text of their works and make the results part of a publicly available tool?
Todd Keisling: Your audacity to think authors would be okay with this is astounding to me. If you're truly sorry, you'll remove every one of the works on your site, and kindly vanish into oblivion forever and ever, amen.
A.D. Wills: Enjoy the lawsuits, you absolute fraud
Aden Polydoros: Not only do I want my book removed, I want the assurance that the data it provided is deleted from the AI system as well, and that no modicum of my intellectual property remains part of the training dataset for Prosecraft, Shaxpir, or any of your future derivative works.
Duchess Goldblatt: I demand you remove any of my IP and copyrighted content you've stolen, including BECOMING DUCHESS GOLDBLATT. Outrageous.
Jane Ward: Omg, get my book off this site. You do not have my permission to use it. My husband is an IP attorney. I guarantee you, we're on this.
Elle Turpitt: Nope! You need to take down every single book you do not have explicit permission for. What is wrong with you???
J.L. DuRona: I bet @StephenKing didn't give permission either, and I see several of his books on here. Why would anyone need this? Is dissecting art, treating it like a freeze-dried frog, helpful to anyone but the system designed to steal it?
Laura Taylor Namey: This isn’t good enough. I’m busy actually writing books like the ones you’ve already misused from me. Shut down the site now and instead ask for people to submit their titles to YOU.
Elizabeth Davis: Stop. Stop pretending like this is about "hurt feelings." You did not *accidentally* create a plagiarism bot. You did that deliberately and got caught, so now the burden is on *you* to delete everything you didn't get permission for, AND anything that came from the stolen works.
William Friedkin: This guy's a bloody hemorrhoid, but it's inevitable we were gonna get guys like him. The ethos of the internet for so long has been to "disrupt" and ask for forgiveness instead of permission.
Mike Chen: I am usually very constructive and positive here, especially about book stuff, but this dude scraped five of my books across two different publishers for AI training so here is a wholly unconstructive and negative "fuck him."
Stacey Jane: Chiming in? About the illegal theft of their blood, sweat and tears? And you contact him? Oh, there's a word for people like that but I'm too much of a lady to tweet it
And then there are threads…
And the first round of authors began to spread the marketing tool to bigger, more influential authors who probably didn't see it originally… huzzah, word of mouth! Oh wait. They were all tagging in Nora Roberts because she has a stable of lawyers on-call. Whoops.
And, of course, the press is sniffing around because there's blood in the water.
Just a tip: earned media is great, but you want to earn it for something other than recruiting your entire audience against you.
The Prosecraft site itself
It's down now, and I forgot to take a screenshot in time, alas. But I did poke around so I can tell you about it.
To add insult on top of injury, everything but word-count failed to live up to the promise: the passive tense examples weren't passive tense, the vivid description examples weren't vivid (they were just nouns), and the emotional turning point classifications made no sense whatsoever, as sentiment analysis never does.
Even the objective measurements were meaningless to real writers.
Courtney Milan: Also I’m begging you to not…um…choose your book length based on a percentile thrown at you from the internet.
So not only did Benji fully enrage his audience — especially the ones who are best-connected and most positioned to share things — he also was mocked and sneered at by them.
Django Wexler: Speaking as a writer: can you also address that your passive voice detector is completely wrong? Your example paragraph here contains no passive voice at all.
He proved that he didn't respect them or even understand writers.
He proved he didn't even understand the basics of writing.
Because in addition to stealing — and violating the most precious of authors' worldviews — the product sucked.
You can't pay to implode a reputation this thoroughly.
What do you think the chances are that he'll develop an expanding userbase now?
It was all avoidable
Word of mouth marketing is the best marketing there is. Period. There's nothing stronger than someone you know and respect telling you about a product. You can't buy it. You can't steal it. You can't hack it, not really; it always comes out in the end, and it stains your reputation.
Word of mouth marketing is pure, and it's the most powerful way for an indie hacker to compete, because big businesses have little to no advantages there.
Growth here doesn't come from money, connections, or "doing cool shit," it comes from understanding and respecting your audience.
Knowing what they bitch about, what their worries and dreams are, what their favorite discussion topics are, what their wars are waged over, what they share, what they buy.
Benji accidentally hit on a fervent war topic. He got tons of word of mouth marketing.
But he forgot to make sure that weaponry wouldn't be aimed at him.
He should've gone on Sales Safari.