AI Is About to Turn Book Publishing Upside-Down

From Publisher’s Weekly:

The latest generation of AI is a game changer. Not incremental change—something gentle, something gradual: this AI changes everything, fast. Scary fast.

I believe that every function in trade book publishing today can be automated with the help of generative AI. And, if this is true, then the trade book publishing industry as we know it will soon be obsolete. We will need to move on.

There are two quick provisos, however. The first is straightforward: this is not just about ChatGPT—or other GPTs (generative pretrained transformers) and LLMs (large language models). A range of associated technologies and processes can and will be brought into play that augment the functionality of generative AI. But generative AI is the key ingredient. Without it, what I’m describing is impossible.

The second proviso is of a different flavor. When you make absolutist claims about a technology, people will invariably try to defeat you with another absolute. If you claim that one day all cars will be self-driving, someone will point out that this won’t apply to Formula One race cars. Point taken.

This isn’t about Formula One publishing. I’m going to be talking about “good enough”—about what people will accept, what they’ll buy, and what they’ll actually read. I’m not going to claim that Formula One publishers won’t be able to do a better job than AI on many of the processes described below. But I’ll challenge you to consider exactly where the human touch brings sufficient added value to justify the overhead in time and costs.

Does any of this mean that there will be no future for great novels and fine nonfiction studies? Of course it doesn’t. That’s not my point.

Do I doubt that there will still be fantastic cover designs from talented designers? Of course there will be. We’ll still stumble on new books on bookstore shelves and, humbled by the grandeur of their cover designs, declare that there’s no way they could have been designed with AI. And sometimes we’ll be right.

. . . .

Professional copyediting is the kerning of 2023. The tech is not quite here today. I don’t think that GPT-4 can yet handle copyediting to the standard that book publishers require. But that ability is going to be here sooner, not later. While professionally copyedited books may still be “better” to a refined editor’s eye, you won’t be able to sell more books with the professional human touch. They will already be good enough.

What about developmental editing? You might not let a GPT make the final editorial decisions, but you’d be foolish not to ask it for suggestions.

And ChatGPT will become the patron saint of the slush pile. Its abilities to evaluate grammar and logical expression allow it to make a once-over assessment of whether a book is (reasonably) well written. It might not spot the gems, but it will know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Ah, you will say, recalling one of those manuscripts that were rejected by 100 publishers but went on to become an unexpected bestseller—surely a GPT might miss those, too. Yet so did 100 purportedly well-trained publishing professionals.

. . . .

For the publishing industry, online distribution and advertising have separated writers from readers. Self-published authors have proven that the closer one gets to their audience, the more fans they will get and the more books they will sell. While online resellers aggregate audiences into big broad buckets, AI disambiguates them, enabling writers and readers to forge direct connections.

Amazon has become an overpriced rentier that publishers can ill afford. It can still be a door opener for new authors, but for established publishers it charges too much for what it delivers.

Amazon’s dominant position in bookselling is not going to change overnight, nor even in the morning. But part of the publishing transformation that AI will engender will be a series of energetic attempts to disrupt Amazon’s position in the distribution ecosystem. As media continues to morph, AI seeds new delivery channels. Amazon will try to dominate each new channel via acquisitions, as it did so brilliantly when it bought Audible in 2008 for $300 million. But Amazon is a lesser player in the video and gaming spaces, and, as yet, in the new entertainment channels that AI is germinating. This is shaping up as a classic example of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.

But I see a bright future for bookstores. It can be chilly in AI’s uncanny valley, and bookstores will remain singular sources for camaraderie and the human touch.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

The last paragraph in PG’s excerpt raised the question in PG’s mind: “Are people who go to bookstores unable to find “camaraderie and the human touch” anywhere else?

PG imagined a book, “The Lonely Lives of Bookstore Customers.”

6 thoughts on “AI Is About to Turn Book Publishing Upside-Down”

  1. Regarding PG’s question, oftentimes the answer is “yes,” for a whole host of cultural and economic reasons.

    As to the article itself, tradpub really has no one to blame but itself if its ability to copy edit, figure out if a book is good, or do anything else can be matched by an LLM. Maybe try paying your people a living wage, you goons. (“But we can’t afford that!” Then consider moving your operations out of New York City. I hear Philadelphia and Richmond are nice.)

    Also, the obligatory dig at Amazon is hilarious. If it weren’t for the ‘zon, tradpub would be on life support in the hospital rather than in an assisted living facility like it is now.

  2. Developmental editing will be the last great bastion of the war: it requires (if it is to be of any use) someone who understands your book almost better than you do.

    Which is why those editors will continue to be worth what they charge – and why I will never use one.

  3. Amazon has become an overpriced rentier that publishers can ill afford. It can still be a door opener for new authors, but for established publishers it charges too much for what it delivers.

    What does that mean?

    What is the publisher’s revenue from a book sold through Amazon?
    What is the publisher’s revenue from a book sold to the Cabot Cove Bookstore?

    Amazon delivers one thing: a sale.
    Cabot Cove Bookstore delivers one thing: a sale.

    • It means that because the corporate publishers are pathologically welded to volume discounts since the last century and Amazon now moves half their books, by *their own rules* they have to give Amazon a large discount for picking up their orders, housing them, selling them, and rarely returning anything.

      Cabot Cove Bookstore is one of 2,524 ABA B&M locations that, *combined*, at best move 5% of the tradpub books.

      Tradpubs could easily cut Amazon out of their distribution channel if they were willing to do without their services. They did that in 2010 when Amazon only moved 17% of all books, to force them to move to Agency. They also did tbat to Borders to force them into chapter 7, to move their market share to B&N. Both times they got what they wanted and are still choking on it, 12 years later. Borders shoppers prefered to go to Amazon instead of B&N, and so did a majority of B&N’s 2012 shoppers. And ebook agency drove Amazon’s ebook market share from 54% to north of 75%. Possibly as high as 90%.

      The BPHs created Amazon and gifted them the keys to the ebook market by favoring proprietary epub over interoperable epub. No sympathy is due them. But curses and ill wishes aplenty? Yeah, those they have coming.

      The OP types, much like the BPHs, just refuse to accept that consumers have a right to choose where they buy books and authors have a similar right to publish at will.

      Credit the OP with (finally!) admitting that newcomer authors building fanbases and ramping up a career are better off going Indie and skipping the query-go-round, as opposed to legacy authors who “won” the dreamer lottery before 2010.

      For all the good that will do them in 2025 and beyond.

      For all the pretense that “books are special” price elasticity is real and high inflation is not going away this decade. Anybody willing to do math can see the traincrash coming.

      And it will have nothing to do with “AI”.

        • Golfers, quarterbacks, boxers, batters…

          There is a somewhat similar system for shooters. Attach the gizmo to the gun and it tracks muzzle movement due to trigger pull. You can see a graphical replay of how the trajectory moves off the aim point when the finger/hand contract to pull the trigger. It’s very good at correcting aim and can be used without live ammunition.

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