With geopolitics still looming large, the Frankfurt Book Fair professional program got down to business on October 19, including during a pair of panels addressing two key concerns for the publishing industry: the rise of AI and environmental sustainability.
In one panel, agents and publishers acknowledged the need to protect the future of creativity, but took a generally positive view of what AI technology might offer. Moderated by Thomas Cox, managing director of Arq Works, a company that offers software solutions for the publishing industry (and has recently integrated AI into its content management and discovery tools), the panel suggested that fears over AI's misuse should not deter the book business from exploring the opportunities the new technology offers.
AI will have a “profound transformative effect on all of us," Cox said, adding that because AI excels at routine, predictable tasks, it could release people from having to do them, leaving us more time to spend to spend on being creative. In five years, he predicted, we would all have “constructive” AI companions. Still, Cox urged companies to put policies in place for the handling of AI, so that employees have a clear understanding of its implications.
Nadim Sadek, founder and CEO at Shimmr AI, concurred, predicting that AI could release humans to be more “human.” Sadek described a few ways in which publishing might embrace AI: for instance, in his application, it could generate advertising for a book and efficiently place it with media outlets, potentially making it easier and more efficient to promote a wider range of titles, both backlist and frontlist. Sadek also said that he believes there has been a shift in society with Gen Z, suggesting that they may possess a much different understanding of how to use technology to find the information they need and to make decisions based on it.
Pontas Literary & Film Agency literary agent and founder Anna Soler-Pont considered the real-world implications for authors and literary agents, noting that some of her clients were “very worried” about AI. But she said that she feels positive about it, pointing out that, 30 years ago, people were afraid of the technology that we now consider to be routine.
In terms of guardrails, Soler-Pont said that the rise of AI has prompted new contract clauses, particularly concerning audio and translation (for example, translation of a work of art must be done by a human). She added that she is not inclined to sell audio rights unless the audiobook will be recorded by a human voice, rather than a synthetic one.
Soler-Pont acknowledged feeling caught between wanting to protect art and wanting to promote technology, conceding that some big companies were “willing to generate AI novels with pen names” and that those titles might well find audiences. But she also noted that AI, and our perceptions of it, are ever-evolving: although her authors may not want audiobooks or AI translations of their works now, in the future, they may change their minds. Meanwhile, AI has already introduced one new job, she noted: correcting AI translations.
Christoph Bläsi, professor of book studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, pointed out that such crucial roles as gatekeeping and copyediting could be both challenged and supported by AI systems. He noted that publishing tasks for which AI could be especially useful include generating metadata, marketing copy, and classification.
But Bläsi also asserted that at least two crucial publishing roles were likely to be AI-resistant: finding and commissioning content, and deciding how to make that content available. He cited publisher Michael Bhaskar, who once described publishing as “filtering, framing, amplification.” That is, picking what to publish, considering how to present it, and getting it out into the world.
At the same time, Bläsi also expressed concern that AI would also increase the production of books—meaning that readers will likely be spread more thinly, potentially leading to less of a community around certain books.
In another panel, Porter Anderson, editor-in-chief at Publishing Perspectives, was joined by Sherri Aldis, director at the UN Regional Information Center for Western Europe, and Rachel Martin, global director of sustainability at Elsevier, for a discussion about the challenges of environmental sustainability in the book business.
Both Aldis and Martin said that the aim was to get people talking about the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which all 193 UN states committed to in 2015. While Aldis said she is "cautiously optimistic" that the goals could be met by the target date of 2030, she conceded that the world is not on track: only 15% of targets have been reached, she said.
But the publishing industry has expressed "wonderful enthusiasm" for the goals, Aldis noted, pointing out an obvious main reason for the lag in achievement: money. Such issues as geopolitical tensions and the Covid-19 pandemic have had an impact, she said, noting that international financing models also need to be reformed.
Martin discussed the SDG Publishers Compact (Sustainable Development Goals), which offers 10 concrete steps that publishers can use to be more sustainable in their businesses. She feels that, as an industry, publishing's "purposefulness" can be harnessed, and she urged publishers to sign on to the compact, to put it on their websites, and to communicate about it with their staff and others—perhaps even by putting an SDG logo on catalogues—as a sign that publishers are willing to take that first step. She acknowledged, however, that for smaller and medium sized publishers especially, it can be hard to influence other parts of the supply chain.
Martin also illustrated one way she has worked out to determine the carbon impact of one book: first, take the impact of the author's writing (heating, electricity); then paper; then printing; then distribution and retail; and, finally, end of use, when a book is incinerated or recycled. Martin said that she has developed a tool for companies to track their own carbon footprints (which can be found on the International Publishers Association's sustainable development dashboard), but that employees in organizations need to figure out, and rally around, their own personal carbon footprint analyses.
Making these changes, Martin suggested, can not only help save the planet, but save money—a point she said should be raised with finance directors, who can "smooth the wheels" and make big decisions that can improve sustainability at publishers. And authors, she suggested, should also be aware of their power: they can write about sustainability, and they can demand sustainability efforts from those who publish their books.