In her keynote address at the Association of American Publishers’ virtual annual meeting on May 8, professor, historian, and author Annette Gordon-Reed said that, between attacks on libraries and books and questions surrounding new technology, “we are living in a dicey time.” It was a sentiment other speakers endorsed, including Julia Reidhead, AAP chair and chairman and president of W.W. Norton. In her opening remarks, Reidhead declared that publishing is facing its severest set of challenges in a generation, pointing to book bans, the lack of diversity, climate change, and “unrelenting” challenges to copyright. It is in times like this, Reidhead said, that publishers need groups like the AAP to act in a unified manner to protect the interests of all those in the industry.

AAP CEO Maria Pallante followed up those remarks, saying the unfolding AI developments mark a paradigm shift. “We can’t go back to the world before AI, any more than we can go back to the world before the Internet,” Pallante said. The AAP, she added, is looking at two categories of question surrounding AI: principles and policy.

Pallante said principles come down to a series of ethics questions such as authenticity, accuracy, provenance, and objectives. In trade publishing, Pallante asked by way of example, what would happen if AI-generated works flooded the internet, potentially depressing the value of human authorship? “If we can’t contain AI generated works, what should be the ethics about disclosing their provenance?” she asked.

In terms of policies, Pallante said that there are competing questions about how the law should treat “ingestion and output.” The first question, Pallante said, is how the law should protect such underlying content as books used as inputs to train AI models. The second concern is how laws should protect the works generated by AI models, the outputs.

One point AAP has made to lawmakers is that the source of material should matter; in other words, Pallante said, AI models should not be trained from collection scans that infringe on copyright. She also said that the U.S. Copyright Office has begun to question its registration practices, “trying to determine the degree to which the use of AI should be disclosed by a copyright owner, and if so, when—always or only when the machine has done most of the creating?” In addition, Pallante predicted that AI policy will likely be driven by litigation.

The Big Problems

AI and the questions surrounding it were among the topics that came up in a panel of four women CEOs moderated by Pallante. Kumsal Bayazit, CEO of Elsevier, called AI her number one challenge, and said that while the technology offers many advantages, now is the time to determine what the responsible use of AI is. “I think we are going to see a lot of policy and regulation debates” around such things as bias and disinformation, Bayazit said, speculating that the uncertainties surrounding AI will “reinforce the value of publishing as trusted sources of information.”

For Adrienne Vaughan, president of Bloomsbury Publishing USA and AAP board member, book banning and other censorship efforts are at the forefront of issues facing the book business today: “Not a week goes by that we aren’t dealing with some issue of censorship,” she noted. While she is grateful for the help of AAP and other organizations in the fight to counter censorship, she argued that those efforts don’t match the coordinated attacks mounted against authors, readers, and the industry. She added that Bloomsbury is doing everything it can to help its authors during a challenging time, from taking down personal information on the internet to monitoring bills that would limit the reach of Bloomsbury's academic offerings.

Vaughan said that Bloomsbury challenges itself to be proactive in combating censorship because so much time is spent reacting. “We ask ourselves what are we doing to raise readers, to support individuals in the communities hurt by these bans,” Vaughan said. “It is really a very difficult time.”

Between censorship efforts and the rise of AI, publishing leaders “are spending more time defending publishing from forces we never anticipated,” Christie Henry, director of Princeton University Press and another member of AAP's board, said. And much like during the pandemic, she added, there is no road map on how to deal with all of this. One thing that has Henry particularly concerned is that the proliferation of generative AI tools and content could result in the loss of “deep thinking and deep reading,” she said.

Despite the challenges, the panelists concurred that publishing will endure, noting the belief of many in the industry in publishing’s longtime role of spreading knowledge and information. Reidhead said that she sees the broad acceptance of digital materials in the higher education space and the “absolute” desire for greater attention to student success by publishers is achievable by innovations of digital courseware. For higher ed, she said, “this is a very hard moment there is a lot of change, but change is good.”

Vaughan said that a priority for publishing should be to harness the passion for reading that arose during the pandemic. “This is a challenging time, but one that we have to continue to rise to,” she said.

Henry called it “essential” to stay the course and to continue to make books available in the face of censorship. She also believes that publishing is at the beginning of an evolution in which who is publishing and who is writing the books is changing—the more stories we can tell, the more new readers we can bring in, she said.

Award Winners

The annual meeting also served as the venue to formally present two AAP awards. Via video remarks, California congresswoman Judy Chu thanked the AAP for naming her the 2023 winner of its Award for Distinguished Public Service. AAP cited Chu as “a steadfast champion of individual authors and artists, a powerful voice for creative industries, and a tireless advocate for effective copyright protections.”

Chu said she was especially proud of her role in creating the copyright claims board, which serves as a place where smaller creators can seek restitution for unlicensed use of their work. She said that, beginning last year, the board officially began to accept claims, and added that “early reports show that hundreds of creators have chosen to use this venue.” Chu also told the publishers that she looks forward to reintroducing the Smart Copyright Act, which would establish industry wide measures to find and remove pirated copyrighted material from online platforms.

Last year, Sergio Dahbar, founder of the Venezuelan publisher Editorial Dahbar, was named the winner of AAP’s International Freedom to Publish Award. In pre-recorded remarks, Dahbar said that winning the award “reinforces our commitment to bring the work of our Venezuelan and Latin American authors and journalists to our readers."