If you ignore the warnings from Terminator and The Matrix, artificial intelligence can seem quite exciting. But as with everything, there’s a time and a place.
Artificial intelligence has been used in the self-publishing industry for a few years now. At first, it caused widespread debate among the community when it was implemented to generate audiobooks. Then it was used to generate artwork for book covers and children’s books. Now, it’s being used to write entire novels.
As a self-publishing author, I see these debates online almost daily. I felt I should address both the pros and cons of A.I.’s place in the industry from the perspective of someone who has been impacted by it.
So, does A.I. improve the self-publishing industry?
It depends on who you ask.
Self-publishing has had its fair share of detractors in and around the wider publishing industry. Concerns and negative opinions about self-published content have not been without merit. While self-publishing platforms allow people to fulfil their dreams and publish their own content, there isn’t an agent or an editor checking the quality of the writing before it appears in the Amazon stores. You can literally publish anything.
In the beginning, this led to an influx of poor-quality books being published, which marred the image of all self-publishing content. Low-content books, such as journals or diaries, flooded the market, and the people producing them made a lot of money. They were essentially empty books, published under the guise of being useful. They were quick and easy to produce, and people began making money hand over fist. However, in recent years, Amazon has begun cracking down on this type of content, meaning it’s next-to-impossible to get one published now, and trying can result in being permanently banned.
A.I. provides scammers with a fast and affordable new method of mass-producing content, with zero focus on quality. The concern of real writers is that this will kickstart a second age of negative attitudes toward the industry.
But scammers are not the only ones who are embracing A.I.
Authors have used A.I. for audio narration. For the author, it is a cost-effective way to produce audiobooks. Professional narration isn’t cheap. Using A.I. allows authors to penetrate the audio market in an affordable way. Is it as good as human narration? No. But it still isn’t inherently bad, and providing the author is clear and upfront about using A.I. narration, the lower price point would perhaps convince readers to tolerate a slight dip in overall quality.
However, audio narrators, like authors themselves, are individuals trying to make a living by creating art and content. By using A.I. to produce that content, authors are taking opportunities away from the people with the real skills. A few heated debates between self-published authors and SAG-AFTRA audio narrators initially led to a divide between two key groups of the wider publishing industry.
This is a prime example of advancement for the sake of it. Artificial intelligence ultimately does not improve the quality of audiobooks. Yes, it provides a cheap alternative for production, but it doesn’t add value to the reader/listener experience because A.I. cannot replicate human speech. There’s no emotion or tone or natural timing — all of which are key elements of audiobooks.
A.I. has also been used for image generation. What began as a social media craze soon found its way into several industries, including self-publishing. Several authors, myself included, have dabbled with it to create images of our characters and have a bit of fun with our readers. But then some people began using it to generate book covers and low-content books, such as colouring books and journals.
The issue this time wasn’t just the poor-quality, deceptive content flooding the market. It was now a legal issue as well. As things stand, you cannot copyright A.I.-generated content unless it has been changed enough to be considered different from its original design. This is common practice. Most book covers are made up of individual elements and images that are edited together, then manipulated to create a new, composite image that publishers can then license and copyright.
But scammers saw that as another corner to cut. They began publishing low-content books that were 100% A.I.-generated, then listing themselves as the creator, which was not the case. Thankfully, these people have fallen foul of Amazon’s zero tolerance policies, and they were forced to either remove their content altogether, or actually do the work and make the content their own.
Now, services like ChatGPT can write full novels using only a handful of initial prompts. This is still in its infancy, but it is already taking huge strides toward improvement.
The issues remain the same. Legally, you cannot publish A.I.-generated content in its raw form, as it cannot be copyrighted. Therefore, you cannot claim to be the author. Morally, it’s another poor-quality shortcut that’s taking opportunities away from hard-working, talented authors who are trying to make a living.
A.I. might be a quick and cost-effective way to produce content, but it’s unlikely to ever be of an equal or greater standard to what a human do. Computers can replicate almost anything nowadays, but they cannot convey emotion. Storytelling isn’t a binary action. The emotions you feel when reading simply cannot be reduced to ones and zeroes.
That said, I’m not naïve enough to think the quality will never get to the point where it’s at least accepted by readers on some level. The latest iteration of ChatGPT, version 4, can pass the Bar exam at a higher level than almost 90% of the aspiring lawyers who take it. That’s both impressive and alarming.
As self-publishing continues to grow and evolve, I feel confident in saying artificial intelligence can help, but it’s unlikely to ever make human storytelling redundant. Yes, it can generate audiobooks for a relatively low cost, but they won’t ever be as good as ones narrated by a voice actor. Yes, it can generate written content from only a handful of prompts, but it will never be as good as emotive storytelling derived from the human experience.
That isn’t to say I don’t see an opportunity for A.I. to help improve things. Artists can use A.I. to create a starting point for their work, which they can build on and edit into a finished design. Similarly, I would like to see indie author services like Publisher Rocket or KDSpy utilize A.I. more, to help authors research metadata and write book blurbs that convert. This is an area of writing many authors struggle with. Quality prompts or guides to help with this content could really help authors improve their online visibility in crowded markets like Amazon.
A.I. could even generate story prompts for writers. But I don’t believe anyone could ever legally publish an A.I.-generated novel that would outsell a real author.
Authors, you shouldn’t feel threatened by artificial intelligence. It cannot replace you as a storyteller. At best, it will evolve to the point where it offers a plausible alternative, but readers are unlikely to pick a computer’s story over yours. Instead, think of it as a tool you can use to improve your publishing process. It is not a shortcut to a lucrative writing career. It is not there to replace any aspect of this industry. But it can be used to give you a starting point on which to build, should you need it.
Readers, you should continue to do what you always have: support your favourite authors any way you can. Buy their books, leave reviews, and tell your friends. In the coming weeks and months, you’re likely to see more and more A.I.-generated content appearing online. The vast majority of this will have had very little human input. While the legal, ethical, and moral issues are still being discussed, I would encourage you to avoid supporting the creators who are publishing this content purely to manipulate the system.
In the end, there are certain things that will always require the human touch, and writing is one of them.