Ooh, that’s quite the title, isn’t it?
This question has been on my mind for a few days. See, now that the wildfire smoke has cleared (although the fires are still burning), I was able to get out in the garden, and while I trudged away in the dirt I listened to a recent episode of The Career Author Podcast.
In this episode the guys (J. Thorn and Zach Bohannan) were chatting about technology and publishing. I kind of expected it to be about software like Scrivener and Vellum, but it turned out to be WAY more…and WAY scarier.
Our AI Overlords
The technology they ended up focusing on was AI (artificial intelligence). Specifically AI that learns from books being fed into it, then spits out an entire novel…a novel it’s written itself based on the tropes and language used in the books it gobbled up into its creepy little AI brain.
Now, the book lovers out there are probably thinking, “What? AI can’t do that.”
Well, it kind of can. It’s already being used to write various types of articles that end up published by big news agencies such as Associated Press, Forbes, and the LA Times, as well as smaller agencies looking for cheap content for their websites.
It’s called Automated Journalism because why would you want to pay a bunch of pesky reporters who demand weird things like salaries and benefits, when you can simply grab an AI-generated article?
What Kind of Dinosaur Are You?
Right now, (I think) there has only been one serious attempt for AI to write a novel and it didn’t go well. But this is AI we’re talking about, people. It learns and it learns QUICKLY. It won’t be long before it cranks out a readable novel you won’t be able to distinguish from a human-written novel.
Which, as an author, is scary. And it was to J. and Zach who predicted that the job of “author” might go extinct.
And before you shout, “But that’s impossible. Writers will always write. Readers will always read.” Well, taking an example from the guys, that’s probably what book binders once thought. Now, the only book binders are artisans on Etsy. And really, plenty of other jobs have been made extinct (or mostly so) by advances in technology.
Is There a Luddite in the House?
Now, I’m not a Luddite. I love my Mac, I love playing with programs to make book covers and format my books, I love being able to download audiobooks within minutes from the library. But I still have enough wariness over AI to think this extinction could become a reality.
Think about it. What does generating products by machine do? First, it speeds up the process and adds more product to the market. Second, it drives down prices because there’s an easy abundance of cheaply made product (cheap mainly because you get to get rid of most of those expensive humans). Third, it creates a uniform (dare I say, cookie cutter) product.
All three of these combined are the perfect ingredients to kill off the species Homo authoris.
The Extinction Process
Let’s look at each of those three things a little more closely and see how it relates to writing and books and extinction.
First, speeding up the process. There’s already authors blowing me out of the water by being able to whip up books in only a few weeks, but even that pace is going to seem slow when a trained AI can churn out a book in only a few minutes.
Now, I’m not one to complain about more books. I love books! But it’s already a crowded market for authors. There’s something like nearly a million books self published in the US every year.
But AI’s productivity could flood that market with books, making it even harder for authors to get discovered. And with retailers often favoring new releases, well, AI will easily win that game and push even the fastest author to the bottom of the heap.
Second, driving down prices. Amazon has already encouraged a race to the bottom of ebook pricing, and some customers will scoff if a book is more than 99c, although many indie authors have been able to resist this by successfully pricing books at $4.99 or more.
But if AI cranks out book after book, it’s going to have plenty of product, and with volume comes low prices. Sure, the first AI books will seem like novelties and people might pay higher prices for them, but before long, I can see AI books rarely being placed above the 99c price point.
Once again, human writers who have bills to pay and wine to guzzle risk losing this low-price competition. Remember, a 99c book on Amazon, nets the author a mere 34c…on which we have to pay taxes, dropping the actual take-home royalty to around 15 to 20c.
If we’re priced out (or have to price so low we can’t keep up our wine habit) as well as squeezed off the virtual shelves, well, let’s just say resource and habitat loss is a key factor in any extinction.
Third: that cookie cutter product. If AI learns to write from books it’s fed, it’s going to create books similar to those books. Which is fine. We all take inspiration from books we read. After all, my current project was heavily inspired by Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.
Here’s Where I Appease My AI Overlords
But here’s where I stop blaming AI for writers’ future extinction because this third point got me thinking about how some writers are already “training” readers.
I listen to a lot of writing podcasts and read plenty of books on craft, and I am constantly hearing/reading about the expected “tropes” in certain genres. If you write genre X, you must have A, B, and C to satisfy readers because readers expect to see A, B, and C, and they’ll give you crappy reviews if you don’t have those exact things.
And yes, I understand certain tropes make a story work. You’re not going to have a romance novel without two people working their way around a relationship. You’re not going to have a thriller/horror novel without some sort of bad guy.
But what drives me bonkers is when authors are advised to include very specific scenes, very specific actions, very specific motivations to satisfy their genre’s tropes.
In other words, writers are advised to make cookie cutter books.
I’m Not Saying I Don’t Like Cookies, But….
Okay, I know that was harsh, but I can’t tell you how many indie-written books I’ve picked up that are cookie cutter versions of each other and/or of other more popular books.
But does the fault go to the writer or to the reader?
Because maybe that’s what readers have been lulled into expecting…Don’t think too hard, just grab that book that looks like the past three books you’ve read. Don’t expect the unique. Don’t expect the unexpected. Expect the same story you’re familiar with because why risk discovering something new. Why take the chance you might not like it? Stick with what you know. Keep eating those same cookies.
And the same goes for book covers. If you’ve clicked on some of the promos I’ve shared with you (and if you haven’t, shame on you!!), you will see well over half the urban fantasy books have the exact same cover… an attitude-filled, twenty-something-year-old on a bright blue, green, or purple background with black around the edges and shiny text for the title (most of which are almost the exact same font).
And we as indie authors are told this is exactly what we’re supposed to do. Make a cover that matches genre expectations. Make the cookie cutter version even if your book looks the exact same as everyone else’s because otherwise readers won’t know that’s the story they want to read.
You know what happens to my eyes when I see those covers? I pass right over them. They all look the same to me. I’m drawn to the well-done, unique cover that makes me curious about what’s inside. I appreciate the author who’s trying to stand out, to be different, to catch my eye.
Re-Training Reader Expectations
And it’s that desire for the unique, for the something special, for the original thought (even if inspired by another author) that we should be training readers to seek out.
Because if we keep training readers to only want the same old story in the same old package, authors really will go extinct.
After all, AI can crank those page puppies out far faster than any human and they’re bound to do it cheaply sooner or later. There’ll be no point to us human writers if readers remain satisfied with the same cover, the same description, the same story, the same cheap price point over and over. And over and over.
Sure, a familiar story is fine now and then, but shouldn’t we be seeking new twists, shouldn’t we be encouraging new ideas, new glimpses onto the world? Shouldn’t we crave what does make us human…our crazy amount of innate creativity and curiosity? (Okay, I know other creatures are creative and curious, but shut up, I’m on a roll here.)
So What Can We Do?
We can’t stop the progression of AI technology (unless we can hire some Luddites to break the machines like they did the weaving looms back in the day). To be honest, most of us have no say in the rapid progression of something we find more than little creepy.
But what we writers can do is stay unique. Write something without the crutch of strict tropes. Build a new world. Tell a tale that is completely new, not one that follows the same outline everyone else is following. Create a cover that stands out, not one that blends in. Be brave enough to price your hard work to more than 99c.
And readers, what can you do? Like I said. Seek out the unique. Step out of your book comfort zone. Don’t grab that 99c book with the same old cover, opt instead for perhaps a $3.99 one that looks a little different (if you can afford it, of course. If you can’t, ask your library to carry that book.).
And get to know the human behind the book. Sign up for an author’s newsletter if they have one, follow and interact with them on social media, get to know them (without being a stalker, that is). If they sell books directly to readers, purchase from them.
Because the more you get to know just how much work goes into those non-cookie cutter stories, you will appreciate a human-made book more than ever.
And that understanding, that appreciation, might just keep us writers from going extinct…or at least delay that extinction until I make my first million. HA! That’ll be the day!!
Okay my little humans, go forth and read and write, be different, expect unique, and use your minds!!! Oh, and make sure you register to vote.