So let’s get this straight. You don’t own a quill or parchment. You haven’t got a typewriter. You’ve probably never been near a horse, let alone ridden in a horse-drawn carriage. You drive to the shops in a car, where you pay with a plastic card, or maybe a phone that isn’t attached to the wall, has no cables, and doubles as a book. And a…
FutureBook 2023 is almost upon us, and one issue will dominate the event. Generative artificial intelligence.
One could be forgiven for thinking gen-AI suddenly arrived from another planet a year ago, and was previously unknown but is now decimating the publishing industry.
Nothing could be further from the truth. What has happened is that gen-AI has finally captured the public’s imagination. Imagination being the operative word. An imagination fed by writers, artists, and film-makers and that has long thrived on exploiting irrational fear, exploiting discomfort and uncertainty, exploiting the unknown, exploiting the status quo.
Nadim Sadek: “Not many of us are comfortable when the status quo is interrupted. We tend to crave the steady, the known, the system we have learned to work. Change brings rupture, often realigns hierarchies; people who were essential can seem less so, ones who were peripheral become central.
“Looking at examples from the past few decades provides perspective on how early fears around transformative innovations eventually subside as benefits become apparent and familiarity grows. We do get used to change. Often, we make the initial expression of an innovation better, through resistance then iteration, and finally, by assimilation.”
Sadek will be a keynote speaker at The Bookseller‘s FutureBook Conference on November 27.
The Bookseller of course has a balanced array of speakers, with Society of Authors CEO Nicola Solomon among those arguing the Resistance case.
Per a separate post in The Bookseller, where the SOA appeals for “urgent” funds to help struggling writers, Heloise Wood paraphrases Solomon as saying she, “believes that Artificial Intelligence is already taking its toll on author earnings.”
No examples are offered, and if there are any at all there will not be enough to justify this sweeping negative, so Solomon really tells us nothing about just what impact AI may or may not be having.
Given most writers had probably never heard of generative AI until a year ago, and given the state of infancy this technology is currently in, these kinds of nonsensical statements are on par with “My grandmother smoked 60 cigarettes a day and lived to be 80, thereby proving cigarettes do not cause cancer” arguments.
Over at The Guardian this week, a selection of authors are given free rein to argue for or against AI in the publishing industry.
The selection opens with Bernadine Evaristo: “ChatGPT seems to have blindsided us all. In less than a year it has proved that it can make writers redundant.”
Yes, Evaristo goes on to talk about very valid issues of copyright infringement, etc, but the issue of writers’ jobs are at the fore here, and all too often it is that self-interest that is blinding authors and publishers alike. Authors, because it might be their job on the line next. Publishers, because publishers have to say they only have the best interests of the writers at heart, no matter how often their actions tell us otherwise.
Some other authors in The Guardian post echo that sentiment, usually dressed up in a wishy-washy argument about “creativity” that humans are deemed to be so good at. It’s why the copyright guys can hide from making difficult or controversial decisions by asserting that only something created by a human can be copyrighted.
This is of course complete BS, as anyone with a mobile phone with a camera – pretty much everyone on the planet – can demonstrate by simply holding their phone above their heads and taking a photograph in a random direction.
No matter how wonderful, how dreadful, or how mind-numbingly boring that picture is, the person who held the phone and clicked the button owns the copyright of that image. No creativity involved. No human input required.
A monkey could do it, and indeed a monkey has, and has been denied copyright in a court of law by an idiot judge in an idiotic ruling that simply adds fuel to the Luddite fire.
Because yes, a Luddite fire is what this debate about gen-AI is in danger of descending into.
Let me be absolutely clear, there are very real and serious issues around copyright and compensation that need resolving, and many are in the courts right now. Authors and publishers alike are right to call out gen-AI companies for alleged crimes committed.
I have no idea if any of my books or articles have been used to train AI, but if they have, the gen-AI companies owe me. But I’m not letting that cloud my judgement about what gen-AI offers us for the future.
I’m old enough to remember typewriters. I’m old enough to remember typing double-spaced manuscripts in TNR 12 and sending them in brown envelopes to magazine editors, and literary agents and publishers. And remember well how I cried in sympathy when home computers with word processors came along, destroying the typewriter industry. All those typewriter factory workers out of a job. I remember crying tears of despair about the redundant postmen who were no longer delivering my thick brown envelopes. The sleepless nights wondering how the redundant big brown envelope factory workers were going to feed their children.
Except, of course, that I didn’t give them a second thought. And today the publishing industry could not function with those antediluvian practices.
Let me return to Nadim Sadek: “New technologies very often spark apprehension and distrust when first introduced before eventually becoming widely adopted.”
Sadek paints in broad brush strokes, but apprehension and mistrust abound in the publishing arena when it comes to AI. Publishing loves to scream that the sky is falling.
Paperbacks, anyone? Printing books in affordable formats was the slippery slope to the end of civilisation as we know it for many in publishing last century. The white men in suits, cigar in one hand, glass of port in the other, were outraged by the idea of letting the unwashed masses in on the pleasures of reading.
Word processors and home computers? As already mentioned, the thin end of the wedge. Now anyone with a PC can write a manuscript and send it off to an agent or publisher without even learning to type or spell properly. Agents will be swamped by unsolicited submissions from unpublishable wannabes. The barbarians are at the gate!
Email submissions? Just how long did it take for publishers and agents to finally accept email submissions and not demand a tree be felled just to send in a manuscript that in all likelihood would not be read past the first page?
Social media? The sky isn’t falling. It’s already in pieces all around us. Social media is stunting attention spans and no-one will ever read a full-length book ever again! Oh, and ditto video and music. MTV? How can anyone under 25 be expected to read when they can watch MTV instead? Young people will never buy a book again. YA is dead. Netflix?
Ebooks? No-one wants to read a book on a screen! People want to caress the pages and smell the paper and ink and have something to sit on a bookshelf to impress visitors.
Self-publishing? Chicken Licken was in his element. This was a full dress-rehearsal for the AI debate.
Only publishers know what the unwashed masses want to read. The tsunami of unedited crap, of “penny dreadfuls,” will kill publishing stone dead.
Except, no-one wants to read a self-published book. Least of all on a screen. These wannabe authors are completely wasting their time. Hell will freeze over before a self-published author earns enough to even buy a loaf of bread.
Reading on phones? A Japanese fad that thankfully never caught on. Publishers always know what’s best, and saved readers from a nasty reading experience.
Subscription? For books? Do be serious. Nobody wants ebooks and audiobooks on subscription! What was it PRH UK CEO Tom Weldon said? “It’s not in a reader’s mindset.”
And anyway, subscription has killed the music and video industries stone dead, just as video killed radio and TV killed cinema and online book-selling killed bookstores.
Digital audio? Why would anyone want an audiobook that isn’t on magnetic tape spread over ten cassettes? Come to that, why would anyone want to listen to an audiobook at all, unless they were vision-impaired?
A book is not a book unless it’s ink on paper with a hardcover wrap and has been sold by a high-street bookstore and published by a white man in a suit with a cigar in one hand and a glass of port in the other.
Where would authors be without the gatekeepers looking after their best interests and keeping innovation at bay?
AI is just the latest in a long line of innovations in the publishing industry that the gatekeepers are intent on keeping at arms length.
Yet as Sadek says, “New technologies very often spark apprehension and distrust when first introduced before eventually becoming widely adopted.”
Not that AI is especially new. TNPS has been arguing the case for publishing to embrace AI for almost six years now, and of course AI has been used in publishing since long before that.
That post was updated this year in light of the predictable knee-jerking from the vested interests in 2020s publishing.
What I said back in January resonates today, as FutureBook looms, so with apologies for those with long memories who read this the first time around, here’s the January 2023 post lovingly reproduced by my own human hands, with help from a word processor, and delivered to your inbox without a postman in sight. But don’t lose too much sleep over the typewriter factory workers and postmen and women who were made redundant.
TNPS January 2023:
So let’s get this straight. You don’t own a quill or parchment. You haven’t got a typewriter. You’ve probably never been near a horse, let alone ridden in a horse-drawn carriage. You drive to the shops in a car, where you pay with a plastic card, or maybe a phone that isn’t attached to the wall, has no cables, and doubles as a book. And a hand-held cinema. And a jukebox. And an audiobook. And a game station. And a camera. And a video recorder. And a…
You fly around the world at 500 miles per hour, stream movies onto a gigantic flatscreen TV on your wall at home, stream music onto the aforementioned phone, talk to speakers that speak back, and you can see who’s knocking at your front door even when you’re on a beach thousands of miles away. You’ve seen men walk on the Moon, seen spacecraft land on Mars, and seen cars drive without a driver.
You order your shopping online and have it delivered to your door. You send emails instead of writing letters. You use a food mixer when you cook, and you cook on a gas or electric cooker, not a wood burning stove. You have central heating and your fireplace was blocked off years ago. You wash your clothes and your dishes in machines. The only candles you own are scented ones. You’ve got no idea how to thatch a roof, how to darn a sock or how to gut a fish or slaughter a lamb for lunch.
It’s a wonderful life. The only downside is all that sleep you lose worrying about those unemployed stable boys, coal-miners, coal merchants, candlestick-makers, sailing ship crews, parchment makers, quill makers, camera film makers, postmen, milkmen, shop assistants and shop-owners, mangle-makers, thatchers, wheelwrights and chimney sweeps that were left behind by progress.
No, hold on. You haven’t lost any sleep at all over them. You’ve probably never given them a second thought. And if by chance you had cause to consider their plight, you dismissed them as casualties of progress.
Not once have you thought, maybe I’ll write a letter instead of sending that email. My postman needs his job. Not once have you thought, I think I’ll sell my car and buy a horse, so I can keep that stable boy in work.
Not once have you thought, if you’re a writer, that if I sell my laptop I can buy a typewriter. Or better still, I’ll write my next novel with a quill and deliver it by hand on a horse-driven carriage.
Not once, if you’re an agent or publisher, have you thought, let’s get rid of all this email submissions malarkey and insist writers send their manuscripts in handwritten on parchment. We owe it to society to help keep people in work
So why is that, at the mere mention of ”AI”, almost the entire publishing industry is screaming that the sky is falling?
And why is it that so much of that screaming is in tones of indignant and usually contradictory self-righteousness and self-interest?
“AI can never replace human creativity!”
So why are you running about like a headless chicken because your job is at risk?
But let’s suppose your job is at risk? Why should anyone else care? Did you care about the chimney sweeps and the candlestick makers and the quill makers and the typewriter manufacturers and the stable boys and the milkmen and the…
Do you seriously expect consumers to pay more for a human-narrated audiobook than an AI-voiced audiobooks just to keep you in work?
They’ll pay more if they think the human voice is better. But if the AI voice is close enough as to make no difference, or – and yes, we have to entertain the prospect – superior, then why is your job so much more special than the chimney sweep’s or the candlestick maker’s?
Progress happens. And there are always casualties. But the only people who care are the casualties themselves.
The threat of digital books. The threat of self-publishing. The threat of streaming. The threat of reading on mobile phones. The threat of online bookselling. The threat of…
The sky is always falling.
Yet somehow publishing goes from strength to strength despite the gatekeepers insisting “new” equals the end of civilisation as we know it.
AI will be no different. There will be winners and losers, but consumers are big enough to know what they want, and publishers are big enough to know that satisfying consumers is how this game works.
If AI forces creators to up their game to stay ahead and stay employed, that’s good for everyone.
There’s a reason the quill and parchment and typewriter industries are no longer with us.
Industries and technologies do not exist to provide employment. Industries and technologies exist to satisfy demand.