Outsmarting AI: Will artificial intelligence write the next bestseller?
(Disclaimer: AI did not write this blog post, but it probably could have)
Everyone everywhere seems to be jumping on the AI bandwagon. Many are convinced that it’s taking over as THE content creation way of the future. The general consensus is that artificial intelligence tools are replacing writers, musicians and other artists as the better, faster creators of pretty much everything, from digital art, to music, to sales emails, to advertisements, to news articles, and more.
Having played around with ChatGPT for creating copy, Canva’s text-to-image tool and a few others, I have to admit their output is pretty impressive. Given the right prompts, AI tools can turn out some decent results and be a significant time saver.
When it comes to written material, I was surprised at what these non-human brains were producing. I assumed they would come in most handy for creating fact-based content that could easily be scraped and compiled from multiple on-line sources. But AI tools don’t hesitate to also grab opinions, guesses, and approximations. These are mixed and meshed together inextricably with facts to create quasi-opinions of their own. They aren’t exactly forming new ideas, just slightly reformed ones, like throwing a bunch of leftovers from several different meals into a frying pan, sprinkling on some cheese and calling it dinner. Does it taste good? Maybe so, but it’s not exactly cooking.
Some are now suggesting that AI has advanced to where it’s capable of writing full length works of fiction. While not surprising considering the direction AI has gone, it’s still a sad and scary thought, especially for authors. The majority of authors, despite achieving the goal of publication, still struggle to sell books in an over saturated market. According to a publishing industry analyst, “only 6.7 percent of the new titles released by [the 10 largest publishers are] selling more than 10,000 copies in their first year of sales.” And that’s not even taking into consideration the many small publishers putting out volumes of quality books every year.
Being a New York Times best seller is reserved for the very few. The rest are left to toot their own horns, manage their own promotion, and market their own books. The number they sell is often dependent solely on the author’s own efforts. The idea of a nameless, faceless, all-powerful, cost-effective competitor coming onto the scene with the ability to craft the next best seller in a matter of minutes is sooooo depressing. But is it a real threat? Even if AI isn’t quite able to actually churn out the 50k or so words needed to make a novel, chances are it’s close and getting closer. The question is, will it be good enough that anyone will want to read it?
The ins and outs
The trick with AI tools is that, like with oh-so-many other things, the quality of the output gets better in relation to the quality of the input. Fine-tuning the input, or the prompts that are fed into an AI tool, takes time and practice. In order for an AI tool to create something as lengthy and complex as a novel, the prompt would need to be extraordinarily detailed. “Write a mystery book” certainly wouldn’t cut it. Even “Write a full-length mystery book that takes place in a London art museum in the year 2023 with a female main character that has elements of espionage, cyber crime and politics,” likely wouldn’t quite do it either. It’s just too vague for AI to work with. The input would need to be far more specific. And someone has to write it.
Side note: Could AI create the outline, which could, once approved, then be fed back into itself to write the book? Maybe so–time will tell.
Even when the prompt is right, a number of iterations may be required before the tool delivers what the user is looking for. Subsequently, the content will also likely need editing. Whether it’s a word or two or a more thorough line-by-line editing, chances are the output won’t be exactly the style or tone that was intended. So, a certain amount of human intervention will be needed.
After the prompt is written and input, the content is created and approved, and the material has been fine-tuned and edited, can we still say that AI has written the book? Again, maybe so, with a human editor or producer in the credits. It would still be faster and cheaper, and without the added weight of human authors slowing down the process. All things that would be appealing to the business side of the publishing industry.
Heroes and humans
They say never to meet your heroes. There’s something about the human behind the hero that’s destined to let you down. But ask any avid reader if they’d like to meet their favorite author and they’d line up, books in hand. Why? Because a great story goes beyond what’s written on the page. Hence the world of fan fiction, fan art, screenplays, movie adaptations, Halloween costumes, sequels, series, and so on. Great fiction creates whole worlds and characters and ideas that a reader can interpret, dream about, and fall in love with. And the minds that create these works of art are fascinating to readers.
What could be better than the opportunity to know the person who wrote the characters, the worlds, or the stories that have been so meaningful to you? To ask where the ideas came from? Or if there is hidden meaning in the color of a dress? If a character is truly evil or only misunderstood? Or how the author could have possibly let your favorite character die??
Chances are, the answers to these questions will not be exactly what you are hoping for.
The idea just came to me.
What did the color of the dress mean to you?
The character is both a little evil AND a little misunderstood.
And killing that character made the story more dramatic. (Sorry, we do that!)
Because, yeah, authors are human. And writing a book is far from a perfect process. Even a fantastic, beautifully written work of literature will have moments of imperfection or banality upon which meaning is placed much later.
I would argue that the author’s humanity–our imperfect life experience that finds its way into our writing, our misunderstandings and ambiguity that leave room for interpretation–is the best part.
Things we lost to the robots
There are Easter eggs throughout my writing. My book, Eleanora, is full of real pieces of my life that (I hope!) add an authenticity that I don’t think any artificial intelligence tool ever could. There are actual physical experiences, emotional memories, funny moments and tiny details I have lived through that, while not necessarily comprising the main plot points of the story, flesh out the realness of the characters and setting in a way that gives it texture and truth.
Can a computer describe the pain of depression like a human who has experienced it? Or include the subtle social nuances of an awkward conversation between two people both hiding something from each other? Will the electric atmosphere of a terror-filled moment ever be accurately captured by a machine that can’t feel? Will an AI written story ever contain a timeless character that evokes as much emotion as Elizabeth Bennet? Scarlet O’Hara? What about Sherlock Holmes or Gatsby or Harry Potter? Hard to imagine.
Despite the predictions, despite the incredible power and intelligence of these tools, I don’t see the threat as anything bigger than the many others authors already face. Are we in for AI generated, somewhat palatable, yet mostly forgettable mass market fiction? Maybe. Unique, soulful books you can’t put down and which live in your head long after you’ve finished them? I don’t think so. Without a human bringing real life to the words, the connection will never be the same.