The news that Amazon launched its own artificial intelligence platform as part of Amazon Web Services last Friday and the recent release of ChatGPT have been big topics of conversation among publishing professionals at the London Book Fair. While many in the digital self-publishing and audiobook segments have embraced certain aspects of AI, those working in traditional and text-based publishing are a bit more wary of what the new technology means.

“AI might kill us all, but if it doesn’t, it could be a useful tool for writers and publishers,” conceded Nigel Newton, president of the U.K. Publishers Association and head of Bloomsbury. “It is going to give a great edge to those publishers who get it right and could have a significant impact on marketing, peer review, academic research and supply chain,” he said during a panel on prospects for the global publishing industry on Tuesday moderated by Philip Jones, managing editor, the Bookseller, and featuring Karine Pansa, president of the International Publishers Association, and Maria Pallante, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers.

Pallante remarked that the AAP was being vigilant in watching the development of AI and said that it was likely a watershed moment for the industry and technology, much like the development of the internet. “We have to watch the way that copyright protections are implemented and ensure that not too many legal exceptions are made when it comes to AI generated text. Protecting the author and publisher’s IP is paramount.” She recommended those at the fair look into the Human Artistry Campaign and sign on to the project, which advocates for ethical and human-centric application of AI.

Christy Fletcher, co-head of the book division at United Talent Agency, concurred that the industry needs to remain vigilant about AI. “It isn’t having an impact here just yet, but it is likely to be a big topic of conversation by time of [the] Frankfurt [book fair,]” she said. Fletcher, whose eponymous agency, Fletcher & Company, was acquired by UTA in January this year, noted that, when it comes to right’s sales, one of the questions to be answered is whether publishers will accept or be willing to work with machine produced content, something she believes is ”unlikely to be an issue,” at least for the time being. That said, she noted, it may have some impact on the translation market. “Chat GPT4 is doing a very good job of translating text and it can be difficult or even impossible to know if any of all of the text was initially generated by AI, and clearly some translators are using it as a starting point for their work.”

Fletcher went on to note that whether a product is delivered in the form of a book, podcast or film and television production, the “heart of what we do is storytelling.” Fletcher’s colleague Byrd Leavell, co-head of the book division at UTA, went a bit further in defending the importance of human imagination. “I think we can safely say that we are not going to find computers or machines that are capable of writing great literature,” Leavell said.

IT Gains Stature at Publishers

AI was also one of the topics at a panel featuring four chief technology officers. The new technology is one of the reasons IT has moved from being seen as a back-office operation to part of publishing's DNA, panelists agreed.

“It could be said that the focus of technology for publishers today is not so much the media and the format in which content is consumed, but rather the processes, tools, data analytics, and the infrastructure that underpins these business critical things,” said Chris Harvey, CEO of publishing solutions provider Virtusales.

Hachette’s Brendan Goss spoke of his company’s new systems that have streamlined operations and maximized data to work more efficiently and get books to market faster. Pan Macmillan’s James Long shared a similar view, noting that data is “the bedrock of publishing activity” today. “The industry has moved from a books and print mentality to files and metadata,” he offered. Penguin Random House’s Andreas Arnold agreed, noting that the pandemic accelerated publishing’s appreciation of technology and IT. Bonnier’s Nick Wright said that the cloud and other digital developments have “leveled the playing field” for smaller, independent publishers allowing them to compete efficiently with the major players.

But it is publishing’s rapidly evolving future that had the panel most intrigued. Referring to the “hype” around AI at the fair, the panelists suggested the burgeoning technology could be especially powerful in helping publishers meet a vital business need: connecting more directly with consumers.

“A common part of the publishing landscape lot of publishers don’t have direct relationships with their consumers,” Wright noted. “Using AI could give a better understanding of who is buying what and open up a lot of opportunities for more targeted publishing.” Long said AI was still in the ”risk and opportunity” phase for publishers.

Arnold, meanwhile, was more focused on another challenge facing the industry: how do publishers attract the best tech talent into their ranks. “The thing that keeps me awake at night is, how do we keep things safe, obviously, but also how do we keep attracting the kind of people we want working in technology on these amazing opportunities," Arnold said. "How do we do that in a way that helps people understand that publishing is really exciting in terms of technology.”

And looking at the makeup of the panel—five white men—Arnold also spoke of the importance of pursuing diversity, equity, and inclusion in publishing technology. “It’s very important to me, and I think it is very important to all of us, that we help people feel represented in technology in publishing,” Arnold said. "I think we all have a duty to make that happen, to make sure that people feel and see themselves represented and therefore come to us and want to work with us.”