It’s October and that means all things spooky…and I can’t think of anything scarier than AI pushing authors to extinction. Find out how real the risks are, and what you as a writer or a reader can do to save the species Homo authoris.
Links Mentioned in this Episode….
- The original post on TammiePainter.com: https://wp.me/p10s13-2Yk
- The Career Author Podcast Episode that started it all: https://thecareerauthor.com/technology-and-publishing/
- Super duper inexpensive ways to keep the show running: https://thebookowlpodcast.com/support
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Episode Transcript (or roughly so)…
Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.
So it’s episode 14 and, because this is normally around the time of year Mr. Husband and I are off traveling, I had planned on doing something related to travel books (which I still plan to do), but I recently posted an article on my writing blog that got a lot of attention and since it is book related, I thought it would make a great topic for the podcast.
So, if you have read that post, this will be a bit of a rerun (I’ll be adding my own snarky comments in, though so it will be a tad different), but for those of you who haven’t read it, I hope this gets your brain cells thinking about books, about authors, and about the future of writing.
So, jumping right into it today, the question is: will authors go extinct?
And this was on my mind for a while because while working in the garden a couple weeks ago, I was listening to an episode of The Career Author Podcast.
In this episode the guys, who are J. Thorn and Zach Bohannan, were chatting about technology and publishing. I kind of expected it to be about software like Scrivener which is a writing program that helps you keep things super organized and makes shifting scenes and chapters very convenient, and Vellum which is a book formatting program, but it turned out to be WAY more…and WAY scarier.
The technology they ended up focusing on was AI (artificial intelligence, in case you didn’t already know). And specifically AI that learns from books being fed into it, then can spit out an entire novel…a novel it has written itself based on the tropes and writing style 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 getting 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 known as Automated Journalism and the main reason it exists is 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?
And to give you an example of how rapidly-generated content can drive down salaries for writer, some of the magazines I’ve written for have paid up to $500, $700 for an article. But I’ve also written web content where the articles were just as long as those magazine articles, and they paid me around $15…and that’s considered high. Many of these web content factories will pay under $10 for an article, but AI could drive down even that small amount. And I’ll get into this concept a little more in a bit.
But back to books. Right now, (I think) there’s 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’s job is to learn 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” as we know it 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, looking across the board, plenty of other jobs have been made extinct (or mostly so) by advances in technology.
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 and to stream yoga videos to work out the kinks at the end of the day. 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? Just think in general about something like shirts, or furniture, or anything else that used to be handcrafted. And I’m going to go a bit into the world of economics here, but don’t be scared, we’ll come back to books as quick as we can.
So first, machines speeds up the process of manufacturing and that 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.
So 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 we have speeding up the process. There’s already human 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 out there for authors. There’s something like nearly a million books self published in the US every single year.
But AI’s productivity could flood that market with books, making it even harder for human 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.
Next we’ve got driving down AI prices. A certain store named for a certain river 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 can crank 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 that 99c price point.
And once again, human writers who have bills to pay and buy wine risk losing this low-price competition. Remember, a 99c book on that retailer, 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.
Next, we’ve got to look at 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.
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 the writing 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 or horror novel without some sort of really bad guy.
But what drives me bonkers is when authors are advised to include very specific scenes, very specific actions, very specific character types and character 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… I can’t tell you how many indie-written books I’ve picked up that are cookie cutter versions of each other 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. I participate in a few author-sponsored promos every month and in those promos are on average, let’s say, 50 books. And well over half the urban fantasy books will 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. Call me the odd man odd, but I’m more 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, trying to be different, trying to catch my eye.
And it’s that desire for the unique, for the something special, for the original thought (even if inspired by another author) that human writers 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, Ai can do that in the blink of an eye and authors really will go extinct.
After all, AI can crank out those page puppies 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 characters, 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, and new glimpses into the world? We should crave what does make us human, which is 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 absolutely no say in the rapid advance of something we find more than little creepy.
But what we writers can do is stay unique. We can 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 make the regular price of your hard work to more than 99c.
And readers, you have a job to do too. 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, of course). 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!!!
Alright, time to get off my soapbox and share some updates.
As for writing, speaking of covers, I’ve finally honed in on the style of cover I want for my Cassie Black trilogy, I’ve also figured to titles for the three books, and I am pretty darn close to nailing the descriptions. Oh, and my first draft of book three is progressing quite nicely.
And as for the podcast all I have is a reminder that this show is supported by you. I specifically chose not to go with a free podcast service because they insert ads willy nilly. But this show does eat up a fair amount of time and I can’t justify keeping the show going if it doesn’t get a tiny amount of support from my listeners. So, if you’re able, please consider buying one of my books, treating the Book Owl to a cuppa, or simply using my Amazon Affiliate link the next time you’re doing a little shopping. And you’ll find all those ways to support on the book owl podcast dot come slash support.
Alright everyone, that is it for The Book Owl Podcast! Thanks so much for listening, if you enjoyed this, tell a friend or leave a review, and I will hoot at you next time!
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