AI will change the world of books forever. In fact, as I’m about to show you, it already is. But before you start crying—or rejoicing—over the idea of soulless artificial intelligence replacing all human writers, I’d like to share a different idea that might just change the way you see this whole topic of AI and books. I’ll also give you some ideas for how to best respond to and use this technology as a writer, and four potential paths it could be headed down.
Yes, AI will change books forever. Just not the way you might think.
Artificial intelligence has seen unprecedented growth in the past few months and years. It can write poems, prose, screenplays, and code. It can explain complex topics simply, help brainstorm ideas, summarize large bodies of text, edit writing, and pass the bar exam. It can create art, photorealistic images, music, and travel itineraries. It can even write books.
I. Death of an Author
In May, a murder mystery novella written almost entirely by AI was published by Pushkin Industries. Though it was organized and guided by journalist and author Stephen Marche, most of the words were produced by a combination of three AI programs.
The publisher, Pushkin Industries, was co-founded by Malcolm Gladwell, who’s rather famous for being, you know, a human writer. Here’s what he had to say about the book:
“Death of an Author is an extraordinary fusion of AI and human intellect, a thrilling literary experiment that heralds the dawn of a new era in the creative landscape.”
I must say, I can’t even be completely sure those are his words and not an AI-generated quote.
Assuming that quote reflects his actual thoughts, I think there’s something to be learned from this perspective, especially when compared to those who fear and demonize AI. Because like it or not, it’s here, and it’s not going away anytime soon. The worst thing writers and artists of all stripes can do in response to this new technology is fear it and cling to the past in the desperate hope that AI will simply disappear.
When you have the biggest companies on earth intent on using AI to change the world for the better, or more accurately, for profit, don’t expect this to disappear anytime soon.
So what’s the perspective of Stephen Marche, the author who guided AI in writing the book?
“I am the creator of this work, 100 percent,” Marche said, “but, on the other hand, I didn’t create the words.” (From a New York Times profile of Marche.)
Is this the future of fiction? Writers acting as directors, guiding AI to write stories for them? Is this the end of the human-written novel?
I’m going to take a wild guess… no.
Of course, this kind of book production process will doubtless continue to occur, even more so as the tech gets better. (Keep in mind, it still took a significant amount of work on Marche’s end to produce a coherent, decent book—and it’s not even a full-length novel.)
The book, aptly named Death of an Author, was reviewed in The New York Times as “clever, for sure, but it left me feeling hollow, as if I’d made a meal out of red herrings. The prose mostly has the crabwise gait of a Wikipedia entry.”
But it’s still a significant moment for AI in the literary world. And it raises the question—assuming human writers stick around (we will; we’re stubborn that way), what will be our place in a world of potentially endless AI-produced writing?
I actually think AI will have a markedly positive effect on the literary world. Why? More on that later.
Even some of AI’s leading figures are doubtful that writers will be replaced. Good writers, at least.
Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI (the company behind the AI chatbot ChatGPT), said on The New Yorker Radio Hour, “Maybe a future version of GPT will replace bad writers. I think in the sweep of emotion about ChatGPT and this new world, it is so easy to say, ‘the writing’s on the wall, there’s going to be no role for humans, this thing is going to take over,’ and I don’t think that’s going to be right.”
There’s a difference between doubting AI’s potential abilities and doubting its potential role in society. I have little doubt fully AI-generated novels will exist in the future—the question is, will anyone want to read them? Is our attachment to human writers, our empathy for fellow organic creators, too strong?
II. Show You’re Human
In the past, writers were enigmatic figures, largely inaccessible and separate from their readers. In the age of the internet, that’s changed. Though there are still some writers who remain distant from their audiences, most have an active presence on social media. Readers can contact and connect with their favorite authors more easily than ever before. This sort of parasocial relationship between writer and reader is relatively new, at least to the extent of connection that’s now possible. Authors can share the details of their lives and the process behind their books on a daily basis, to an audience of hundreds, thousands, or even millions.
I expect this trend to continue. I’m sure there’ll always be reclusive writers whose only communication with the outside world is the occasional book release, but most writers now and in the future will rely on fostering connection with their readers in a more consistent fashion. That connection, between a human author and a human reader, will become all the more important, and all the more valued by both parties, as AI writing proliferates.
Most of us, if not all of us, want a ‘human touch’ to many of the things we consume, art in particular. There’s a reason why ‘authenticity’ is such a buzzword nowadays. We already live in a world flooded by generic, vapid content that feels like it could’ve been made by a machine. AI is simply kicking that up a notch. I think those of us who care about supporting and connecting with real, human artists will increasingly value work with a clear connection to those artists.
So, if you’re a writer, how do you capitalize on your humanity? How do you create connections with readers so they value your work over anything AI can produce?
Well, the answer is tied to a concept I’ve been thinking about a lot and trying to implement myself recently. It’s the idea of showing your work. This is most clearly laid out in Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work!, which has a permanent spot on my desk right now. In this context, you could rephrase this as, Show You’re Human.
This means sharing your artistic process, giving followers a look behind the scenes, showing your successes and your failures. AI can imitate human artists, but its artistic process is… uninspiring and rather dull. I don’t think most readers would be interested in behind-the-scenes updates about how large language models are increasing their token context windows.
We’re so much more invested in a piece of art when we know the work that goes into it. For a great example of this, look at Mel Torrefranca, whose videos take readers behind the scenes of the creative process of her book Nightshade Academy. (We made a video all about that, which you can watch on YouTube.) Telling stories about real-life experiences that shape a work of art is something only humans can do authentically.
The story behind a piece of art can make it far more valuable. As humans, an advantage we have over AI is that the process of writing a book is a story in and of itself. Every writer goes on a journey over the course of crafting a novel. If we can share those real stories behind the fictional ones, not only can readers better connect with us, but they’ll also place a higher value on our work.
When thinking about the effect AI will have on the literary world, our minds are inevitably drawn to the future. I’d like to share a few ideas I’ve been thinking about regarding the future of AI, and consequently, how it might affect books in the coming years.
III. The Future of AI
I think there are four paths AI could go down—or perhaps four options for what AI already is, though it’ll take hindsight to recognize which it is. AI may be the new internet, it may be the new cryptocurrency, it may be the new self-driving car, or it may be the new fire.
If AI will be like the internet, then it’s another technological revolution that will change the way we interact with the world. It’ll have significant upsides and downsides, causing problems but also opening opportunities, doing damage while not completely jeopardizing the dominance and survival of humankind. AI wouldn’t be so much an existential threat as an evolution of technological tools at our disposal.
If AI will be like cryptocurrency, it’s overhyped and fraught with issues that will eventually lead to its downfall or rejection, at least for a time. (For those unfamiliar with the world of crypto, it’s essentially a market of digital currency, riddled with corruption and scams. It may not be completely meritless or gone for good, but the industry has struggled a lot in recent years.)
If AI will be like self-driving cars—which, of course, already use AI to function—it’s a promising new technology that will, at least in the foreseeable future, get bogged down in regulation and struggle to overcome a few small but important technical roadblocks. The technology of self-driving cars has gotten quite good, but because driving is a matter of life and death, even the smallest shortcomings prevent them from widespread acceptance. Considering AI is arguably a much more significant threat to humanity, might it end up in a similar situation? Possibly, though with how fast it’s moving and how much money there is to be found in AI… I doubt regulation and skepticism will do much to slow its spread.
And if AI will be like fire, it could truly usher in a new era of evolution and global change on a level not seen in millennia. This might sound overdramatic, but it’s a view many AI leaders and experts hold to varying extents. Never in the history of the universe, as far as we know, has there ever been such a rapidly rising challenger to human intelligence. AI could upset the hierarchy of intelligence, potentially displacing its own creators from the top. That could be apocalyptic for us—hence the importance of safeguards and limitations for AI.
Or it could be somewhere in between any of those options.
The truth is, no one knows exactly how this will play out. AI is very much still in the early stages of development. The tech may hit unforeseen roadblocks in the future. Like I mentioned, governments may impose regulations that limit its growth (as many AI leaders have called for, citing the dangers of rapid, uncontrolled advancement).
But I’m optimistic—if we play our cards right, AI will allow us to make greater progress in science and society.
And here’s where the positive effect of AI on the literary world comes in. I think AI will raise the bar for human creation. As Sam Altman said, a bad writer can easily be replaced by AI; a great writer, not so much. I expect we’ll see, particularly in the world of writing, an increasing emphasis on quality over quantity. AI can easily create low-quality content in large quantities, so to stand out, we have to harness our human strengths and put more of ourselves into our work.
IV. A Rebirth
So how will AI change books forever?
Not by replacing all writers or ending art as we know it.
But by compelling us to lean into what makes us human. To care less about content, and more about connection. To be artisans, focusing more on quality than quantity. To be authentic, sharing our creative process and the journeys we’re on. And that, I think, could be a truly positive change.
It can be tempting to fear change. To fear what we don’t understand—what in this case, no one completely understands. Looking at the rise of AI, you might start to think, We’re headed for a future where human creators are crushed beneath an endless surge of artificially generated content. Is this the death of art?
But I don’t think so. It is, perhaps, a rebirth.
One thinks of the response of painters when photography was introduced. Some feared photos would render art unnecessary, passé. But did painting disappear? No.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see a decline in poorly written, human-made books. Anyone who writes for the sole purpose of generating profit would have no issue replacing themselves with AI, which, as we’ve already established, is better than a lot of bad writers. There also could be a decline in authors writing to market, which is to say only writing books that have proven, profitable, wide appeal. Instead, authors might focus more on writing the stories that truly speak to them, and appealing to niche markets—which is increasingly easy in our ever more interconnected, globalized world. It’s the books written without artistic intent, books more accurately called ‘content’ than ‘art,’ that are most easily replaced by AI.
AI may become a regular part of most writers’ toolkits, the latest in a series of technological advancements that have streamlined—or, in some cases, complicated—the writing process. Pen and ink were supplanted by the typewriter, which was replaced by the computer. AI could be used as a research assistant, an editor, an idea generator. Stephen Marche made the case in the afterword of Death of an Author that AI could be used the same way musical artists might use samples; that there could be skill and even artistry in how one uses AI.
I have strong reservations about using AI for the creative parts of writing a book. Part of that is philosophical, part of that is legal, since copyright law regarding AI generated content is still very fuzzy and in flux. But I’ve found it useful in non-creative departments.
So, since AI is better suited for non-artistic work, I want to lean more into the art of writing. Because it’s not a science. And technology, useful as it is, often falls short in the less precise, calculable areas of emotion and artistry.
Not very long ago, I would set very ambitious goals to write a whole slate of books. Planning my future writing endeavors, I felt like Kevin Feige unveiling the roster of projects for the next Phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The sheer quantity of projects, the number of stories I could tell, was exciting.
But this was entirely the wrong approach to storytelling. I was focusing on getting as much out as possible. Quantity over quality. And there’s a place for that. That can be great advice, especially when you’re first starting out. But I’ve been writing novels for 11 years. I’ve written a lot of stuff, and the works I’m proudest of are the ones I didn’t rush.
Now, in this age of media saturation, with AI offering an endless flow of content to pump out into the world… I don’t want to speed up. I can never match the output of AI in terms of quantity. None of us can. Not even Brandon Sanderson.
But what we can do is focus on quality. We can go out and experience things and create stories with our lives that will inform our stories on the page. We can embrace our humanity, differentiate ourselves from AI, and become better artists as a result.
I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious.
I’d love to continue this conversation in the comments. What do you think about the rise of AI and how it’ll affect books, readers, and authors?
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– Grayson Taylor