A.I.’s Inroads in Publishing Touch Off Fear, and Creativity

The technology has the potential to affect nearly every aspect of how books are produced — even the act of writing itself.
A.I.’s Inroads in Publishing Touch Off Fear, and Creativity

The arrival of Amazon reshaped the retail landscape for books. The rise of e-books threatened the printed word. And the boom in self publishing gave writers a path to success that left out traditional publishing houses. Each time, the book business was able to adapt.

Now, publishing is facing a new disruption that is likely to be far more wide-ranging and transformative: the rise of artificial intelligence.

Some in the publishing world are already experimenting with artificial intelligence programs in areas such as marketing, advertising, audiobook production and even writing, weighing their promise of supporting work done by humans against the threat that the machines may take over some of those jobs entirely.

For others in the industry, the threat is already here. Writers have joined other artists, coders and content creators in suing A.I. companies, accusing them of using their work to train A.I. systems. The writers don’t want their work used without permission — especially since the technology can power chatbots such as ChatGPT, which can generate surprisingly evocative text, mimic well-known authors or even spit out whole novels after following prompts from a skilled human.

“It’s urgent for writers to engage with the issue of A.I.,” said the novelist Hari Kunzru, who recently signed a contract with Knopf for his next two books and specified in the agreement that the works could not be used to train A.I. “Right now, literary writers are less at risk than some, but there’s nothing to say that won’t change with the release of the next generation of models.”

Over the past few months, the technology made rapid inroads seemingly everywhere — in classrooms, hospitals, courtrooms and even in Hollywood, where screenwriters walked out on strike demanding better pay, but also protections against the rise of A.I.

In publishing, too, the technology has the potential to reshape nearly every aspect of the work that goes into producing a book — even the act of writing itself.

“The entire marketplace is going to be affected,” said Mary Rasenberger, the chief executive of the Authors Guild. “I wouldn’t be surprised if A.I. got pretty good at some kinds of genre fiction in the not too distant future.”

Many in publishing are taking action to protect their work. The Authors Guild recently organized a petition signed by thousands of writers demanding that companies seek their approval before using their work to train A.I. programs. Agencies representing illustrators have also revised their contracts to keep their work from being used to feed A.I. programs. Penguin Random House, the country’s largest book publisher, said it considers the “unauthorized ingestion” of content to train A.I. models to be a copyright infringement.

At the same time, there’s already been a boom in publishing start-ups that are tapping artificial intelligence to create, package, edit and market books, said Thad McIlroy, an industry analyst who has studied the impact of A.I., and tracked nearly 50 such companies.

Among the start-ups are Stockimg, which can produce book covers; Storywizard, a program that creates children’s stories; Subtxt, which acts as a writing coach by helping authors expand on a concept or develop characters; and Laika, an A.I. program that claims to mimic the prose of writers like Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe.

Large publishing companies are experimenting with the technology too, though in less overt ways, McIlroy said. “People are being quite secretive about it,” he said. “Big publishers are very worried from a legal perspective, and worried about author relations if they admit that they’re using these tools.”

The author and journalist Stephen Marche worked with three A.I. programs to produce a book called “Death of an Author,” which was published this year. He ran a plot outline and extensive plot points through one program. Next, he changed the tone, length and style of the writing with another. Then he used another program to elevate the language in individual sentences.

“To me, it’s the most fascinating, creative tool around,” Marche said.

Some authors are using A.I. as a writing and editing assistant that can help them brainstorm, organize material, develop characters or create an outline.

“Every writer I know is exploring how A.I. can help them,” said Josh Bernoff, a business writer who uses ChatGPT to summarize information and suggest ways to rephrase passages. But he would never use it to generate text, he said, for a simple reason: “The resulting prose is boring.”

Amit Gupta, a founder of Sudowrite, which harnesses A.I. to write texts based on user prompts, said that traditionally published authors have access to teams who help them produce their best work. The company, which has 10,000 paying users, aims to offer that kind of help to more writers, he said.

“Other artists, whether it’s photographers, videographers or musicians,” he said, “have these really powerful tools on their computers to help them make the art that they make.”

Some of the resistance among publishers to works generated by A.I. comes from its legal standing: Machine-written text can’t be copyrighted. If it was then modified by humans, it may be eligible, but that would be decided on a case-by-case basis, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.

That makes A.I. generated work much less appealing to publishers, which don’t generally want to buy a book they can’t exclusively license and sell, publishing executives said.

But finding writers — even writers willing to work for very little or for free — has never been a problem for publishers. The industry’s most pressing challenge is making readers aware of the books it does publish, a task that has gotten much more difficult in recent years.

News media outlets that cover books have dwindled, and more readers are shopping for books online, where they’re less likely to encounter a title they’ve heard nothing about. Many in the industry said they fear that a flood of A.I.-generated content could make it harder for traditionally written books to be discovered.

“The challenge for publishers is not generating more content, it’s solving the discovery problem,” said Madeline McIntosh, the former chief executive of Penguin Random House U.S. “That’s really where the gold mine is.”

A.I.-powered programs are already being used to try to solve that problem, helping readers find a greater array of books. Open Road Integrated Media, which provides marketing services to publishers, announced recently that it will use the technology to continually optimize the metadata behind individual titles, so they appear more prominently in search engines and on retail websites.

And A.I. is transforming the production of audiobooks, a rapidly growing and lucrative format for publishers.

Apple and Google both have programs that turn e-books into audiobooks for free using text-to-voice technology. Newer companies, including DeepZen and Speechki, are producing thousands of audiobooks with synthetic narration.

Judy Chang, the director of product for Google Play Books, said they are targeting titles that otherwise would not be made into audiobooks, including those that are self published or published by academic presses.

“This is trying to create a catalog for all those books that get left behind,” she said. That includes titles in other languages: Google now offers synthetic narration in Spanish, French, German and Brazilian Portuguese.

The biggest publishing companies still use human narrators. Audible, a leading audiobook producer and retailer, doesn’t use A.I. narration or sell synthetic audiobooks on its platform, the company said. But while it plans to continue to rely on professionals — Audible has worked with more than 600,000 authors and narrators — it also sees the potential for human performances and text-to-speech generated content to coexist.

Some worry that inevitably, audiobook narrators, like workers across the industry, will be at risk of being replaced by machines.

“The pitfalls are that people will lose work,” said Michele Cobb, the executive director of the Audio Publishers Association. “Technology is not going to stop.”