Digital Book World, a conference focusing on publishing innovation, offered insight into how technologists, and some publishers, are planning to implement AI into their workflow. Asked about AI and the use of ChatGPT, which automates writing, Mary McAveeney, CEO of Abrams, was skeptical of its ability to write books. She conceded, “It might be good for catalog copy.”

Earlier in the conference, organizer Bradley Metrock asked publishers Laini Brown, director of Publicity for the Nashville office of Hachette Book Group, and Lisa Lucas, senior vice president and publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books, what they thought of the news that the next iteration of ChatGPT will be able to produce a 60,000 word book in 20 seconds. Brown replied, "nope," indicating her disinterest in the potential results; Lucas offered, "commercial" as her response, implying it would produce something that would not be of much value to literary publishers.

The conference has demonstrated that technologists, absent of input from publishers, are keen to co-opt the practice of publishing as much as possible. ChatGPT in particular is being touted as tool to revolutionize writing, or as it might better be described, the production of “content.” Numerous speakers throughout the conference touted the potential benefits of using AI to streamline writing.

At the moment, the technology is primarily being implemented by academic writers, many of whom employ AI to conduct research and produce citations. Some writers are also using the tech as a way of creating a basis for articles. Metrock used the tech to produce one of the panel descriptions in his conference catalog and challenged the audience to figure out which one.

Others warned against relying too heavily on AI without human intervention. For example, Madeleine Rothberg, senior subject matter expert for WGBH National Center for Accessible Media in Boston, warned against posting AI-generated subtitles for YouTube videos without first reviewing them. “It’s not a good idea, because we have found the AI doesn’t always get the words right and makes mistakes,” she said, citing instances of unintended vulgarity. Or, as Ashok Giri, CEO of Page Magik put it, “primary research human beings are [still] needed.” Giri’s company offers automation tools and data to help streamline editorial and production workflow.

Others are more skeptical. One attendee, who wished to remain anonymous so as not to offend others in the room, noted that Chat GPT and AI is limited by what is put into it and, for this, it needs to absorb vast swaths of existing information. Much of that comes from print books, e-books, and internet writing protected by copyright. “It sounds exactly like that Google hoped to accomplish with the Google Books program,” they said.“ What happened there? Lawsuits.”

Bradley Metrock, conference organizer, acknowledged that the owners of copyrighted material incorporated will likely challenge the use of their content by AI. “There are going to be a lot of lawsuits before this is sorted out,” said Metrock, who owns several companies that invest in various AI and voice related projects. “The point here is that good technology challenges,” citing the lack of innovation in the ebook space over the past 15 years, he said. “Everything stays the same,” he added, ‘“until it doesn’t.”

Backlist Audio

Audiobooks are now a $5 billion market worldwide, and they continue to experience double digit growth. According to the Association of Audiobook Publishers, the U.S. market is growing at a rate of 25% per year ,and reached $1.6 billion in sales for 2021. “The increasing availability of titles is the biggest driver of audiobook growth,” said Videl Bar-Kar, global head of audio for Frankfurt-based Bookwire. “The best way to grow the catalog of available titles is through backlist.”

Here, the use of AI generated voices to narrate audiobooks offers publishers who cannot afford human narrators the opportunity to turn backlist into audiobooks for low cost. “And if the book sells and becomes a success,” Bar-Kar added, “they can always go back and re-record the book with a human narrator.”

Bar-Kar called the audiobook market a “once in a generation opportunity,” noting: “There are new people discovering audio for the first time year-on-year, not because of the heavy consumers, but because there are new people coming into the market.” He described it as a business opportunity, and one that needs to be demystified: “Have the courage and confidence to stop selling your audiobook rights and develop your own audio program,” he said.

One company that is not sleeping on the opportunity is Swedish audio streaming service Spotify, which launched audiobooks on its site last year. Nir Zicherman, v-p and global head of audiobooks has big plans. “We are currently offering audiobooks in the U.S., U.K., Ireland, Australia and New Zealand,” Zicherman said, and described this as the first iteration of Spotify’s audiobooks platform. He told attendees to expect advances on the platform soon, including experiments with various business models that Zicherman implied would compete with