On the same day that news broke about Meta’s prior intent to purchase Simon & Schuster in order to use the publishing company’s IP to feed Meta’s large language model AI, the Bologna Book Fair hosted several informational sessions and panel discussions focusing on the impact of AI on the publishing industry.

Several sessions were highly critical of the use of AI, especially when it comes to the creation of illustrations. In one roundtable discussion on Wednesday, Francesco Archidiacono of the European Guild for Artificial Intelligence Regulation, Paolo Rui of the European Illustrators Forum and Autori d'Immagini; and Elisabeth Pérez of the Professional Association of Basque Illustrators and Spanish Federation of Associations of Professional Illustrators (part of the European Illustrators Forum) argued that the industry needed to take a public stance to protect illustrators' rights and publish manifestos to publicly support the regulation of AI.

Other events, which were notably better attended, sought to address the transformative potential of AI and its rapidly evolving role in the industry. One panel, moderated by Neal Hoskins of WingedChariot, featured insights from Ashley Gordon, publishing market development manager at HP Inc.; Searsha Sadek, founder and chief product officer of Shimmr; Sam Habibi Minelli, an electronic engineer and AI expert who advises the European Commission; and Sebastian Wehner, CEO of Wonderz and Wolkenlenker,

Gordon shed light on how AI is already being integrated into the book production process, helping to optimize print runs and streamline workflows. "AI is happening right now, in the production of your books within the printers themselves," Gordon explained. "It is part of the infrastructure and the technology of those presses—it helps the print production provider... to know which books to print when." She emphasized that AI is not a threat, but rather "a partner, a copilot," that will help get more books into the hands of the right readers.

Sadek, whose company Shimmr automates ad creation for books, discussed the vast potential of AI in the marketing space. She pointed out that the vast majority of books—around 95%—don't receive dedicated advertising support due to the high costs involved. "Shimmr makes ads to sell books, and we do it in a completely automated way," Sadek said. "We use a lot of different types of code and a couple of types of AI to do that for publishers and for authors." The end result, according to Sadek, is "basically hands-free advertising that optimizes all year round."

Minelli delved into the broader implications of AI, emphasizing the importance of understanding its capabilities and limitations. "Language is the most valuable thing that we have to take care of," he noted, arguing that whoever controls language wields significant power. He encouraged the audience to embrace AI as a tool, drawing parallels to the initial fears surrounding the advent of photography in the 1800s. "I'm encouraging you to take it as a fire, in a good way, for your work," he urged.

However, Minelli also cautioned about the risks of training AI on proprietary data, advising publishers to carefully consider the implications of using external AI systems. He acknowledged that the very real concerns around copyright in an age of AI-generated content will not be “solved today,” but will take diligent work from all stakeholders. “It's not a problem of content owners, publishers, but also technology providers,” he said.

Gordon concurred, stressing that the industry needs to proactively shape the development and use of AI in publishing. "Nothing about AI is inevitable—it is just a question of human will and resources and putting ourselves in the path of what is coming,” Gordon said, adding: “It's up to us as an industry to determine what this will be...and what we can use it to do, to make what we do better."

Wehner dedicated his time on the panel to demonstrating the results of prompts put into various AI tools, including ChatGPT, image-to-animation machine Runway and, finally, Adobe Firefly, which created an impressive, if brief, snippet of an AI-themed opera based on the online catalog description of the panel itself.

The discussion also touched on the potential for AI to shorten the lead time from book conception to multimedia adaptation, the possibilities for hyper-niche products, and the importance of human creativity and empathy in the face of advancing technology. As Hoskins noted in his closing remarks, the standing-room-only crowd was a testament to the growing interest and engagement around this complex topic—one that the publishing community will undoubtedly continue to grapple with in the years ahead.