Technology has reached a new zenith. Artificial intelligence apps can now write research papers, magazine articles, and (allegedly) entire romance novels. AI can even create fake news images of President Trump evading arrest. Is this a good thing? What shall we make of this new wrinkle?
Social media is abuzz with speculation about AI’s potential impact on writing. College professors fear cheating on a massive scale. Editors and proofreaders fear that they might soon be replaced by machines. Valid concerns, all.
Of course, AI is already deeply imbedded in our daily lives: it’s how Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify utilize users’ historical buying patterns to suggest their next purchase. Online vendors use chatbots to answer inquiries from customers. Search engines can give better answers to increasingly complex questions. And so on.
Already, AI apps are at work among publishers. They can format books, detect plagiarism, and spot mistakes that tired eyes might miss. (How did we ever survive, with just typewriters and Linotypes?). The bottom line: we’ve been here before.
As with any advance in technology, we can expect to see winners and losers. Some workers will lose their jobs, while others will never get hired. Next, there will arise newly created professions that we have yet to imagine. (Twenty years ago, who had ever heard of a podcast producer or a rideshare driver?) Creative destruction is the natural evolution of our economy, and resistance is futile. (Show of hands, please: Who thinks we should bring back telegraphers, or lamplighters, or pinsetters? Anyone? I thought so.)
With the advent of our new(ish) self-publishing technology, not long ago many manufacturers rushed in to meet the demand for e-reader devices. Multitudes of hopeful scribes believed that e-books and accessible print-on-demand production would launch them into literary stardom on their own terms. Just imagine, pundits declared, no more gatekeepers! Old-fashioned publishing is dead! So fledgling authors hastily uploaded their WIP onto Kindle and sat back to watch the money roll in.
Sure, a small contingent of these authors succeeded beyond their fondest dreams (I trust you can name a few), but mostly they just flooded the market with millions of mediocre works. Today, only a tiny percentage of all self-published books will ever sell 100 copies. This should not have come as a surprise: when you drastically increase supply (of any product) without a corresponding surge in demand, this is the predictable outcome.
It didn’t take long for e-book sales to peak, then settle in to a new normal. Consumers flirted with e-readers, then largely returned to the old familiar print editions. Many readers, like myself, still prefer ink-stained fingers over fancy new gadgets.
Long story short, I don’t believe that AI will bring about the upheaval to publishing that many expect. A machine might construct a narrative, but the novelist must still apply her own distinctive style. It might compile and organize information, but the nonfiction author must nevertheless use his experience, knowledge, and point of view to cogently explain a particular subject or topic. As ever, all authors will need to bring a determined work ethic and wide platform to their creations to distinguish themselves from the masses, which few aspiring authors will even attempt to do, and which is why so few succeed.
If history is a guide, AI-written books will bring neither fame nor riches to more than a fortunate few. At best (as with e-books or POD), this sexy new tech will mostly give false confidence to legions of writers who expect to receive rewards without putting in the work, crushing their dreams and adding to the social media conspiracy theories about the utter unfairness of publishing.
The good news for authors is that the old-school ways still work. Read a few dozen books in your genre—for it is by reading that we learn how to write. Join a critique group and follow their advice. Find a mentor, and get humble. Build a library of writing reference books. Attend conferences to learn the writing craft and the publishing business. Meet the gatekeepers face-to-face, and make the most of it. Build your platform and make a name for yourself, then work like crazy to sell those books. Just like always.
So who’s afraid of AI? Not me.