The human novel, meaning a book fully written by a human being, will soon be a thing of the past. This doesn’t mean there won’t be any human authors; it simply means it will be a novelty, hobbyist or luxury profession, quaint and archaic, and the vast majority of books will be produced with little if any human involvement. This will be a boon to the consumer, providing access to millions of books in every genre and language, at low cost and on demand. But of course it will be a tragedy for 99% of all aspiring professional writers, who will be more likely to find financial success playing the state lottery.
This future is inevitable with the advent and rapid evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems for writing, editing, book covers and so much more. Human obsolescence is coming whether you like it or not, whether you pay attention or not and, of course, whether you care of not. Though I hope you do care, because otherwise the human author will soon be, for all practical purposes, dead.
If you want a great if depressing overview of the rise of AI and how it will impact human labor, take a look at the (as always) excellent video from Kurzgesagt. It covers far more than just books, but you’ll get the idea.
Still, as Mark Twain never actually said, “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” and in this case human obsolescence can be prevented if we act now. And that action must be (as far as I can deduce) a complete update to copyright and labeling laws in the US and internationally. The market will not save us. Technology will not save us. We have to protect human artists today, or there will soon be too much industry money behind new AI technologies to allow for meaningful regulation and protections.
But for now, and because dystopian predictions are so trendy, let’s see what happens if we do NOT change copyright and labeling laws (as detailed below). What happens if we just let the fiction market evolve? Great question, but first a little background.
A Short Background on Self-Publishing
In today’s book market, there are two major ways to reach consumers aka readers. You can try to get your book published via a traditional publisher, meaning one of the big 5, or 4, or 3…or many other smaller presses, which in any case first means finding an agent who cares about your work. This is how you get into bookstores and, for many, how you feel like a “real” writer. It’s also a long, slow process at which most authors never succeed.
Alternatively, you can self-publish, meaning you write and do everything yourself or through contractors, and then publish and market the book all by your lonesome on Amazon, Barnes & Nobel and many other publishing platforms. You can thereby get to market quickly and, in some cases, make plenty of money, but you’re on your own and you’re unlikely to get into most bookstores. There are also hybrid publishers blending both paths, and vanity publishers, but for the most part self and trad publishing are how books get into readers’ hands.
And right now, that market is booming in some ways. By some estimates, between one and four million books are published each year worldwide (though no one really seems to know), with around three-fourths of this by self-publishing authors (though that’s also a guess), and many of them are as good as any trad published book. Entire markets have sprung up in support of self-published authors, from groups on Facebook to consultants on Fiverr and many, many more. There are freelance editors, cover artists, narrators and far more, all eager to serve the self-published author. Marketing has evolved to include #BookTok and #BookTube. It’s an exciting time in many ways, and self-driven authors have never been more empowered.
What allowed this boom in self-publishing? A lot of things, but at root it was a concurrent change in technology and business models. In the old world of the vanity press, authors paid to have their books printed and then distributed or gave them away themselves. This was largely for personal memoirs distributed to families, unpopular concepts, and probably a lot of otherwise unpublishable dreck. But then Amazon (and perhaps others: see more on self-publishing history here), offered three things. First, a platform that allowed authors to publish for free rather than paying upfront. Second, a platform for both distribution and marketing. Third, a device, the ebook (e.g., Kindle), that allowed for cheaper, faster and more private distribution of books.
It should be pretty obvious why publishing for free into the world’s largest bookstore would be attractive to authors. But what the Kindle offered wasn’t just convenience, it was discretion. No longer would you have the cover of your book displayed to everyone around you. On the Kindle, you can read anything without anyone else knowing, which led to the explosion of romantic and erotic books (pleasure without the embarrassment).
And just as importantly, it so vastly reduced the cost of distribution that entire new genres were financially viable. You’ll probably find very few erotic space alien reverse harem books at Barnes & Noble. But you can now find hundreds on eBooks on Amazon and other online retailers in that precise genre–which would never have been available otherwise. For instance, notice how Ice Planet Barbarians (space erotica sub-genre, rowr) has deeply penetrated the Science Fiction space, outselling more traditional titles like Andy Weir’s Hail Mary.
Why does this matter? Because the same market forces and technologies that enable the self-publishing human author to flourish will also make them obsolete. After all, if a few hundred new genres are better, why not thousands? Why not customize the book not just to market, but to the group or individual? And why search for a book if one can be written for you, on demand, in seconds? The answer to all these questions is the same; there is no reason not to offer readers more, better, faster, and more customized and personalized. And there is no way humans can compete in such a market. The human author will be obsolete because the AI author will offer them better, cheaper product faster. This is how capitalism works. The human reader will help AI kill the human author.
Uplifting, right? I’m no luddite or doomsayer. I think there is always hope, even in the darkest times (even when I’m not plagiarizing Ignitus). But I also think we’re not paying attention to what’s happening, and if we don’t act quickly, things will rapidly spiral out of control. So think of what follows as “What could happen if we don’t pull our heads out of collective artistic butts” followed by “Hey, let’s not let that thing happen!” But first, the doom.
Human Novel Processes in Order of Obsolescence
There are many pieces to a novel, and none of them are safe from the accelerating advance of AI and related technologies. When I talk about a “human novel,” I mean one written, edited, typeset, published, sold, etc. by human beings in some way. They might use technology (word processors, editing tools, etc.), but these systems are enabling and helping the human artist or professional rather than fully replacing any function or role (an admittedly subjective statement).
AI, in contrast, will seem the same at first–it will be oh-so-helpful–but then it will fully automate and replace the humans it was helping. The following list is my best guess at which functions will (start to) go obsolete first, meaning specifically which ones will suffer from substantial market disruption by AI at the earliest time. These are, in rough and debatable order:
- Human Audiobook Narrators obsolete by 2030
- Book Cover Art (Probably should be first)
- Editing (Proofing & Copyediting)
- Literary Agents
- Plotting & Editing (Development)
- Ideation (Creative & Derivative)
- Everything else (from blogs and blurbs to marketing and social media posts, including marketing video content, etc.) including, eventually, even traditional publishers
In each of these areas, a human-replacement AI system will have to meet very specific criteria: (1) the product must be “good enough” for the price point, meaning even if it’s not human-quality, it’s pretty close for a lot less money; (2) the product must be substantially lower cost to produce than the human version (at least, at first); and (3) the production platforms must be easy to use (as long as humans are using them).
Right now, for instance, you can find multiple AI engines producing potential cover art for books (e.g., Midjourney) that are easily good enough for some genres, cost very little, and take zero technical expertise (though some of the more powerful ones, like Midjourney, remain very geeky / early state and aren’t that user friendly); however, getting these artistic concepts from graphics file to book cover takes a few more steps that add complexity and cost. Once these issues are worked out, thousands of self-published authors will fall in love with AI book covers…even if they can’t be copyrighted.
For the sake of your sanity and time, I’m not going to cover all of these at once or in this post. Instead, I’ll do a separate post on each one (or groups) over the coming weeks, starting with audiobook narration. What’s important is not necessarily the details in each case, but the commonality of market evolution–which is very likely as follows:
- AI will offer helpful augmentation in each market segment, such as copyediting suggestions, rather than doing a complete edit without requiring verification
- AI will provide an offering that’s, well, crap. Think, early AI novels and screenplays
- AI will be “good enough” for the average consumer (initial disruption)
- AI will be nearly instantaneous and very low cost
- AI will be human-equivalent and error-free
- AI will be better-than-human and flawless (moderate disruption)
- AI will be customizable (by group, say, gender or race)
- AI will be personalizable (to the individual user or group)
- AI will offer many other features specific to a given market
- AI will eliminate the need for 99% of the human market (massive disruption)
But Wait, There’s Hope!
First, for the very best and luckiest, there will always be niches for human offerings as part of the ultra-luxury market where the rich can pay for their humanist fetish with massive bitcoin payments, even if those rich are also eventually machines (kidding, mostly).
Second, if you look at chess and the game Go, for years naysayers said nay to the idea of a machine every beating a Grandmaster. People are creative, innovative and insightful. Machines are just programming. And those machines now beat human beings at every level so easily it’s a bit embarrassing. Still, competitive human chess has not faded away. People still play and compete and chess. No one is dying to watch two machines battle for dominance. So the academic “Can machines beat people?” question has been answered, and now we’re going back to beating each other…and apparently cheating with anal beads. No computer can match that kind of drama. Can that same model (where machines are better but humans do just fine) work for commercial endeavors like publishing?
I doubt it. There’s no reason the average person wants to (or can afford to) pay a high premium for human art. Made in the USA labeling alone hasn’t kept China from dominating the production of materialistic crap bought in America, and a Made by a Human label won’t by itself keep machines from dominating every niche of creativity you can imagine. Which is pretty awful if any human ever wants to make even a subsistence living off of their art…or even have another human see it.
The only thing, literally the only thing I can think of, is a rather draconian law / regulation that says, simply, that no art of any kind produced entirely, largely, or substantially by machine can ever be copyrighted (under any conditions whatsoever). This means that every audiobook auto-generated by Google would automatically be public domain. Every book cover produced by Dall-E or its equivalents would be free to copy and distribute. And every book produced AI would be no more valuable to a publisher than the classics now in public domain–valuable only as backlist fillers, and not worth the effort to market unto themselves.
This will hurt some artists and professionals, of course. Novice self-publishers like myself won’t be able to take advantage of free audio book production (at least, if I want to sell it), and so on. But at least there will still be a market for human beings to make, produce, and sell art…and some hope to make a living at it…
A Proposal to Protect the Human Novel
All of the above doomsaying is leading up to a proposal–that we formally lobby Congress and other legal bodies to protect human art and artists in a very specific way, which covers far more than (just) novels and novelists:
- As mentioned above, make it illegal to copyright work created wholly, largely, or substantially by machines (AI or otherwise).
- Require all machine-generated art to be labeled something like “Made by Machine” or “Created by AI” and include the platform it was created on.
- Establish serious legal penalties or trying to pass Ai or machine-generated art off as human.
- Work to make this standard international law, to protect all human artists, everywhere.
You might think some of this is moot. Afterall, the US Copyright Office recently rejected a request to copyright AI art
The U.S. Copyright Office (USCO) once again rejected a copyright request for an A.I.-generated work of art, the Verge’s Adi Robertson reported last month. A three-person board reviewed a request from Stephen Thaler to reconsider the office’s 2019 ruling, which found his A.I.-created image “lacks the human authorship necessary to support a copyright claim.” – Smithsonian Magazine
But this is misleading. The USCO rejected the idea that the AI system itself could own the copyright; however, AI art created with human guidance or participation seems to be acceptable:
Right now, there is a big distinction between granting copyright solely to an AI learning system and granting the same licensing rights to a human who collaborated with an AI learning system on their project, as is the case right now with Kashtanova’s Zayra of the Dawn. — PopSci
Which is patently (heh heh) absurd from a practical standpoint. What we need is a clear law stating that AI-generated or AI-partially-generated art cannot be copyrighted, period, regardless of who files for protection.
This is, of course, complicated. A copyright was recently issued, for instance, for a graphic novel that was written by a human but illustrated by machine:
In what feels like an inevitable development in the debate around AI-generated art Kris Kashtanova has copyrighted a graphic novel that features images made using the platform Midjourney. It’s ignited heated responses on social media, but is the news really as significant as it sounds? (If you need to catch up on how AI art generators work, see our piece on how to use DALL-E 2). – CreativeBloq
Should this be allowed? It is, after all, written by a human. I suspect the right answer is the work and writing should be copyrightable, but the AI-generated images themselves should not be…
I’ll have much more on this later, but for now, I’d love to know what you think of this idea of artist protection by this means (or any other). Would you back it? What concerns do you have? What ideas do you have to protect human art and artists?
BTW, the featured image for this post was generated in less than 30 seconds from a single word prompt without modification on DALL-E. The idea that I or anyone would copyright it is just plain silly.
For now, can you take a moment to sign the Change.org petition to Protect Human Art & Artists from Artificial Intelligence (AI)?
Just a little more doom to get your motivated 🙂
ProWritingAid / “Will AI Replace Your Writing Job”
AI writers will eventually replace human writers, but not completely. In anticipation, human writers should focus on upgrading skills that are based on our innate humanity.”
So, you know, get right on that.
Quora / “Will AI Make Novelists Obsolete?”
The consensus? Probably.
Vanity Fair / “The New Generation of AI Apps Could Make Writers & Artists Obsolete”
In 2021, McKinsey predicted that algorithms and androids would vaporize 45 million jobs by 2030. And the Brookings Institute prophesied in a 2019 study that 52 million U.S. jobs would be affected by algorithms by 2030. – Vanity Fair
More to Come
- AI Audiobooks Will Make Human Narrators Obsolete by 2030
- Protecting Human Art & Artists from AI (Pending)
Are you aware of any coordinated community of people making a stand against the threat of AI art? I see disgruntled comments from individual artists of course, from time to time, but it feels like we should be organising at this point.
I get the impression that the art community is sleepwalking to its doom right now, with little awareness of AI art and the destruction it’s about to wreak on the viability of art & literature as a career.
Shawn C. Butler
I don’t see much happening; it’s even been difficult to draw people to the petition. I’m talking to some artist groups, but it is oddly hard to get things moving…
Right. I’m wondering what the best platform would be to raise awareness. I did think Twitter, but that’s owned by Elon Musk now, who’s got skin in the AI art game, so that might not be the best place…
Shawn C. Butler
Good question. I’m not really sure. Between Facebook sort of falling apart and Twitter dying, it’s hard to know where to look. I might try hive when they have an Android version…
In my humble and lay person opinion AI will replace the basic pulp, plot driven novel, but great works are quite another thing. Great works are unpredicable, their style, often counter-intuitive and unorthodox. The insights of great literature are piercing and original and for this I may be so bold to say you need consciousness. Perhaps replacing some writers with AI will be a good thing as only the best of the best human writers will be able to get published and we wont have to weed through so much trash to find the gems. The future Shakespeares, Dostoyevsky’s, Tolstoys, Faulkners, James Joyces and Cormac Mccarthy’s I doubt will be replaced any time soon. But perhaps I am underestimating AI.
Shawn C. Butler
Thanks for the comment, Jake. I hope that you’re right–it would be great if the greatest writing of human remained forever beyond the reach of machines–but I’m doubtful. People as a species tend to value ourselves rather highly, and we rarely take real scale into account. We think we have long lives but they pale in comparison to geologic time or the of the universe. AI will likely be the same, something that evetually reaches so far beyond us that we can scarcely comprehend what’s happening. The art produced by such advanced machines will apear masterly to us, genius…even if we can understand it. Hopefully, that’s a ways off, though…