“Will ChatGPT Do Away with Human Writers?” Hardly a day goes by without some version of that question popping up in my social media feed. But before you trade in your keyboard for a plumber’s wrench, consider that the writer’s job has always been evolving—from the invention of the printing press to the launch of the internet. And that’s just as true for editors and publishers as it is for authors.
After spending years in the editorial departments at New York’s traditional Big Five book publishers (it was Big Six back then), I took a job in 1999 as Executive Editor at iUniverse.com, a technology-focused publishing start-up whose New York branch consisted of two guys in the back of an Upper East Side townhouse. Soon after, in a roomy loft on West Nineteenth Street, iUniverse’s Manhattan office was fully staffed and raring to go. In those heady and fun early internet days, these brilliant young hires were eager and ready to explore bold new ideas about publishing.
Print on Demand
Numerous aspects of iUniverse’s business strategy were revolutionary, but one in particular captured everyone’s attention: Print on Demand (POD). At not great expense, any unpublished writer could sell a professionally made physical book. Both novels and non-fiction that might not be to the liking of traditional publishers would now be widely available—as books!— for sale on the Internet. Goodbye, gatekeepers.
This democratization of authorship and bookmaking was seen by some as revolutionary and liberating, and by others as the beginning of the end of literature and civilization. Yes, anyone could now publish a book.
POD titles would be widely available via the internet, but their price tag was higher than many traditionally printed titles because they weren’t cheap to produce. A trade paperback that normally might be sold for, say, $7.99 was instead priced at $12.99. Technology was evolving, but it was clear to everyone that we weren’t there yet.
One idea floating around at the time was that bookstores would have printing presses in the back that could produce finished books. If a customer’s desired title was not in stock at that bookstore, it could be looked up online, then printed and bound onsite. But where would all that paper be stored? Ugh. This didn’t happen.
Out of print no more
Before POD, many distinguished and prolific authors had titles that had gone out of print: small orders didn’t justify the expensive warehouse space. iUniverse saw another opportunity here. POD technology meant that book titles were always available and need never go truly out of print—so publisher Kenzi Sugihara and I presented our dog and pony show about iUniverse to various New York literary agencies.
Among many others, William Morris and ICM were curious to hear what we had to say, since they weren’t sure what was going to happen next either. Certainly, the idea that books would forever stay in print was appealing for agents’ commissions and authors’ royalties. But that also meant that rights to titles with small sales might never revert back to the author. This was a matter of concern to agents who might hope to sell those rights elsewhere.
We made a lot of deals, which meant that hundreds of out-of-print titles from various agencies and individual authors were made available POD by iUniverse. (You can only imagine the contracts.) Barnes and Noble also bought a stake in the company.
POD didn’t have the success that people had hoped for, but it expanded people’s ideas about who could write books. It may even have led to the explosive growth in self-publishing.
Plus ça change…
Funny thing, how everything changes and evolves. At a Bouchercon mystery conference in Milwaukee, I was giving a talk to writers about evolving publishing strategies at iUniverse and was heckled by an audience member who said I secretly represented the evil Barnes and Noble’s interests, to the detriment of authors everywhere. Far from true, of course, but I would remember that guy years later when so many authors were rallying to save their disappearing and beloved brick-and-mortar B&Ns.
In a fast-changing landscape, it’s understandable that authors—sensitive souls—can become worried, even paranoid.
After leaving iUniverse, I returned to traditional publishing, personifying a trend; the internet wasn’t about to take down the printed word and Big Publishing.
eBooks: The new mass market?
But the internet did revolutionize all commerce, and the (now) Big Five publishers strategized on the best ways to reach online readers. Were eBooks the next big thing? Early days, nobody knew if readers were about to abandon print books altogether and migrate en masse to cool new eReaders.
Readers could now read whatever they wanted when they wanted. This was the real revolution.
I’d started my publishing career as a paperback editor at Simon and Schuster’s Pocket Books, and many of the original or reprinted titles I oversaw were low-priced mass market books. Now, years later and amid the Internet revolution, our idea at Random House was that eBooks would be the new mass market paperbacks. We would publish original eBooks, and with smaller author advances and without printing and warehouse costs, we could keep the titles’ prices down. Remember: advances earn out, so we were all ready to make and share profits with the authors. Readers of genre books were our eBook target markets.
At Random House’s eBook mystery/thriller line, Alibi, it was an editor’s dream come true for me to acquire and publish so many novels from a wide array of amazingly talented writers—many of them debuts. The books were well-reviewed and even award-winning. It was like those exhilarating Wild West days of paperback publishing at Pocket Books. Ultimately, however, Alibi closed. [Sad face.] The original-eBook strategy had not been deemed a success.
From the stone tablet to the airport paperback, the way people “read” keeps changing. For example, sales of audiobooks have exploded now that millions of readers want to hear their books. Far from a threat to authors’ livelihoods, audiobooks enhance their royalties while expanding their readership. Are there concessions to this format? Sure. Some clever novelists have stopped writing “he said” and “she said” throughout their text, so it doesn’t sound odd being read aloud.
Three in ten Americans say they’ve read an eBook in the last year. And, of course, scores of readers remain stalwart devotees of the printed book. Print sales in 2021 were reportedly up a remarkable 7.8 percent from the previous year—at least 875.25 million sold—perhaps due to the pandemic. Certainly a physical book is a remarkably sturdy and well-designed object. Even so, books are words and words are data.
Writer as bot
The latest technological development that’s being heralded as the end of literature is ChatGPT. Launched in November 2022, the core function of this artificial intelligence chatbot is to mimic a human conversationalist, but its abilities are vast and varied. It can write student essays, fairy tales, music and—wait for it!— fiction.
Can a bot write better than you?
Maybe, if you’re a total hack, but ChatGPT is far from infallible. Like other language programs, it suffers from artificial intelligence hallucinations, producing plausible statements that can be totally wrong. And when Sergi Arguimbau, a 27-year-old computer programmer, tried to used ChatGPT to write a novel, he faced numerous problems getting the bot to delve into the story. (I know the feeling.) Also, other character names from other writers’ works kept popping into his story. Arguimbau’s 37-page eBook, This Book is Made by AI, is available from Kindle Unlimited.
Despite its creative limitations, Arguimbau and others think the bot can be a useful tool for fiction writers to generate new ideas. Musician Nick Cave is more skeptical of AI’s abilities. He was unimpressed when he was sent a song that was written by a ChatGPT “in the style of Nick Cave.”
Writing, he says, is “a blood and guts business … that requires something of me to initiate the new and fresh idea. It requires my humanness.”
Even so, you must be resilient and adaptable. This is true for authors and publishers too.
How does technology help (or hinder) your writing? Share with us on Facebook.