Do Donkeys Know About Spiders? — Some Thoughts About the Impact of AI on Book Publishing

From The Future of Publishing:

Like just about everyone in the world who can read and write, and who likes to look at pretty pictures, I’ve been captivated by the developments in artificial intelligence, LLMs, DALL-E, GPT-3 (and -4) and ChatGPT.

Tonight I was watching the wonderful Polish film, EO, mostly about a domestic donkey. There’s a moment where Eo breaks free of his pen and finds himself lost in the forest at the mercy of frightening creatures that he’s never contemplated. Including spiders. Lots of spiders.

Somehow it jarred, it didn’t make sense. How could a big-eared donkey be worried about tiny spiders?

ChatGPT knows, and far better than Google. Try googling the question. Useless links toward a nonsensical response. ChatGPT answers:

As far as we know, there is no evidence to suggest that donkeys have any knowledge or awareness of spiders specifically. Donkeys are intelligent animals and have a range of cognitive abilities, but their understanding of the natural world is likely to be limited to their immediate environment and experiences. Ultimately, the extent of a donkey’s knowledge is likely to be shaped by its individual experiences and interactions, just like any other animal.

I know, I know, you’ve now read far too many articles where the writer poses some question that’s of interest to them, and in the response, ChatGPT is either made out to be a genius or a fool.

AI and Book Publishing

Book publishing startups have been chasing AI for awhile now. Not with much success. What does publishing think of the latest developments?

The press is full of stories of industries and talents that could be made obsolete by GPT. Publishing isn’t mentioned. Nor editorial. Customer support and call centers are at the top of many lists. Financial analysts. Lawyers. All because of what GPT can do with words, with language.

How could we, in our publishing industry, mostly based upon words, have the temerity to think that we’re not going to be significantly affected by this wave of tech? Not just a little; a lot.

I’m truly terrible at predictions. My track record is atrocious. So I’ll put it another way. I don’t know for sure if GTP et al. are going to have a large impact on publishing. Oh, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if they did!

To me this is blank slate territory. The opportunity with this generation of AI software is to reimagine our entire approach to developing new books, and to reimagine the workflows from scratch.

The problem with applying new tools to old problems is that the focus then becomes the old problem, not the capabilities of the new tool. It’s not just about applying these tools to old problems. It’s about finding a way to expose the inherent strengths of these tools, and then to see what magic can result when their strengths intersect with the traditions of our industry.

Everyone says that enhanced ebooks failed. But did they? At the very least they challenged all of us in publishing to return to the question of, what is a book? OK, we once again decided that a book was words on paper, bound by a cover, and the ebook equivalent thereof, not some amalgam of multiple media pulled together digitally and called an “enhanced ebook.” The public didn’t embrace enhanced ebooks, a great relief to us all. But this at least gave us that chance to reexamine our beliefs, and to dream, if only anxiously.

And now AI. The new energy surrounds both words and images. Most book publishers are more concerned with words than images, but nearly all publishers deal with both. To read the media, this is the reinvention of how words are written. They don’t talk very much about books, more about advertising copy and social media posts. But we know that the trajectory of writing is from short to long. A phrase becomes a poem, a poem a story, and a story a novel. Ignore short-form prose at your peril.

And the images! Just say the words and an image appears. Show an image and the AI can describe it in detail. (To say nothing of other media: words become music, songs become videos, voices are cloned, and a make-believe Tom Cruise comes alive.)

Here’s what I want, what I want to know:

  • To get a good handle on LLMs and GPT and ChatGPT and on their approximate equivalents, such as Bing’s new GPT-enabled features.
  • To fully understand the current generation of technology. I’m not a scientist, so I’ll accept the advanced layman’s version.
  • To get a sense of the startup energy — what kinds of products are being developed and what audiences are they targeting?

Armed with this, I want to share my findings with my very smart publishing colleagues who perhaps haven’t had the time to delve as deeply as I. And I want them to then share their deepest darkest thoughts, along with their sunniest visions of where we’re headed.

Rather than condemning it, seek to understand it. That’s the junction where I sit. Some days I think I understand it, and then, on a day like today, I lose it. I thought it was “intelligent.” Then I learned it’s just a parrot, guessing one word after another. But I’ve seen that there’s a deeper process at play — because it understands the complex interrelationships between words, it understands language (not in its totality, but at least with more than a snapshot). And to understand language is to understand something about humans. And to approximate an understanding of reason.

I always delve deep in my studies of books and publishing. And so, the other day, I asked ChatGPT to find me articles about “the DNA of a book.”

First ChatGPT wanted to take issue with me about my use of the term “DNA” to characterize the contents of a book. It advised:

It is not scientifically accurate to say that books have DNA. DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) is a complex molecule found in living organisms that carries genetic information. It is responsible for the development, growth, functioning, and reproduction of all known living organisms.

However, we can use the term “DNA” as a metaphorical way to describe the unique and fundamental characteristics of a book. In this sense, the “DNA” of a book could refer to its genre, writing style, structure, themes, characters, and overall message. These elements are what make each book unique and distinguishable from others, just as DNA distinguishes one individual from another.

I was impressed by ChatGPT’s comprehension. With such deep knowledge I asked if it could point me to some scholarly articles that discussed the DNA of books. Sure it could. It identified six of them. Here’s one of the six, a representative sample:

“Automated Classification of Fictional Texts by Genre” by A. Mehler and T. Steinbach (2008).

          “This article discusses a method for automatically classifying books into different genres using a combination of linguistic and statistical techniques.”

It sounded like it would illuminate the issue. As did the others. And so tonight I went online to download these six fascinating articles.

As it turned out, ChatGPT had made them up — they don’t exist. 

Link to the rest at The Future of Publishing

As PG has said, this is very early days for AI that individuals can access online.

PG doesn’t have to work too hard to remember how fast personal computers took off once they gained critical mass and how quickly they got much quicker and more useful for a long time thereafter.

Here’ss 1977. Notice the cool external modem and two (count’em) two floppy disk drives. And that is the dottiest of dot-matrix printers.

Microcomputer and monitor, Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1. 1983.0169.01, 1983.0169.02. Printer, Radio Shack TRS-80 DMP. 2006.0132.20. Telephone interface modem. 2006.0132.21.

10 thoughts on “Do Donkeys Know About Spiders? — Some Thoughts About the Impact of AI on Book Publishing”

  1. Much ado about very little.
    Yes, GPT is about language…but publishing is about *ideas* more than the words that express them or the package–physical or digital–that monetizes those ideas.

    The things GPT can impact are in the workflow, much as word processors, spellcheckers, DTP, and digital formats did in decades past. Not in the core of the industry, which remains an author-to-reader relationship.

    The entire GPT story flood handwringing is just another expression of the “tsunami of dreck” fears of last decade. The only authors with cause to fear a software flood of dreck are human purveyors of dreck.

    The true impact of the new tech will be felt upstream, in helping authors organize their ideas and refine their output, and helping them get it to market more easily.

    • The much-lamented tsunami of dreck *never happened*.

      Because while the great majority of readers don’t care whether a book was written by indie human, tradpub human or a robot, they do care that the considerable investment of time and effort they put into reading that book pays off.

      We’ve all experienced the pain of being forced to read a book we did not enjoy, and that’s why readers will never accept dreck.

      The tsunami of dreck *did* hit us.

      A great number of poorly written and edited books were published via KDP and continue to be so. That’s awesome because I think writing a book is an important and rewarding experience.

      While these substandard books have made it somewhat harder for the good ones to be noticed, the massive oversupply of books has been a permanent feature of publishing and reading for at least a decade.

      And yet I have no difficulty in finding high quality books from authors and publishers who primarily publish Kindle books. Between Look Inside, the free sample, and easy no-question returns, any Kindle book that disappoints me is easily avoided or discarded.

      Will books that are primarily written by AI displace human authors? It all comes down to the quality of the books.

      If they are as good or better than human-written books, then yes: human authors will lose out.

      But while AI-written books are inferior to the better human-authored ones then it will make no difference, because KDP is already swamped with a huge oversupply of books.

      Currently, we are firmly in the situation of AI-authored books falling a long way short of readers’ expectations.

      As someone who coded a neural network way back in 1990, I’m entranced by what the modern ones are capable of. I love to experiment with them. Sudowrite is my thing at the moment. But as a professional author, I don’t feel the slightest bit threatened.

      For now, at least, we are in the situation that Felix described thus:

      “The true impact of the new tech will be felt upstream, in helping authors organize their ideas and refine their output, and helping them get it to market more easily.”

      And that’s what I’m doing: incorporating AI into my writing workflow to improve and speed the output and to counteract some of the effects of neurological illness that has been slowing me down.

  2. Step back six months. Who expected the ChatGPT results we see today would be available today?

    I expect AI will take a good share of the fiction market by creating new books at the users command from his specs. Bespoke Books will allow users to enter genre, protagonist specs, setting, and a few keywords. Then a book pops out, ready for download to an eReader. Nobody else has ever seen the book. Run it on subscription. Can’t be done because no AI is a real creative, real author, or real writer? Nobody will care. They just want a good thriller, romance, mystery, or western. Who needs a publisher?

    • I find that I must disagree. A very large part of writing a good story is in creating the protagonist (and secondary characters, if they are not to be “cardboard cutouts”). In genres like fantasy and SF, there is also a lot of work to create a consistent and believable setting. After that, yes, it is largely a facility with language – but most people don’t have the kind of creativity to do that upfront work.

      There are also biases that are built in to the AI to be considered. Can an AI write a good horror novel, or one of the “harem” novels? Not likely, at least so long as the biases of the current AI “writers” are present.

      • One notable case in *good* modern SF is James P. Hogan. His early stories were great idea stories, well plotted, good pacing and word smithing…but the protagonists were walking resumes… Then somrthing happended (a writing workshop , perhaps. Dunno.) and his next release the characters had lives. Everything he used to do well remined, but the charscters were recognizable beyond their resumes and plot roles. And those charscter traits weren’t simple or generic. The reader got to care about them, not just their deeds.

        He probably could have kept on as he was–his books were and still are excellent idea SF, worth recommending (INHERIT THE STARS, for one. An engrossing puzzle novel without a hint of violence or conflict.) but his latter works worked on multiple levels, not just the world of ideas. I suspect a great “AI” given an elaborate, well thought out series of prompts might put out a readable work. But I doubt it will dazzle anybody by its emotional depth.

        Take the standard “college creative writing” narrative voice and homogenize it even more by trying to sound like every published writer in its education. I don’t think it’ll evince more than a “Meh…not horrible.” Not any time soon.

        The problem boils down to complexity: even if somebody were to craft an “erudite” single genre “AI” that encompassed all the tropes, memes, and conventions of that one genre, it wouldn’t be bringing to its story anything new and uniquely its own. At best, it might craft a fluid melange of earlier works randomly glued together and produce something that might come from a Hollywood evening of “white line marketing”. That produces rolled eyes and shaking heads. “Who thought this was a good idea worth funding, anyway?”

        There are way more useful enhancements to be made first to the models than trying to tailor them to an already well served niche market. Its not as if there is a shortage of good human output material, or less good, for that matter.

      • Well, if AI can write novels with cardboard cutouts, they can take a good share of the market. And if they can do that, I would not be at all surprised to see their characters improve.

        I suspect the creativity factor may be a bit over-valued. Perhaps much creativity is just rearranging what has already been created. Formulas work. Blocked-out stories work.

        AI results we see today were recently attributed to creativity. We will probably start hearing about true creativity vs regular old creativity

  3. [Commenting on the picture]
    That’s appalling. The user was not required to solder anything. That’s the problem with these new-fangled trash-eighties: The newbs who buy them never learn anything about the guts, and couldn’t tell the difference between a diode and a capacitor on the best days they ever had… and think these tiny five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks are going to last! Ya gotta stick to paper tape and eight-inch disks — they’re tried and tested! I bet this ChatGPT thing is just an upgrade of the BASIC Eliza like I typed in from that book over on the shelf…†

    Shut up. If I could get up out of this chair I’d hit you with my cane. Nurse!

    † Only partly joking; that box with the 1970s computer manuals and such went missing in a recent move.

    • I learned about TRS-80s (“trash-80s”) at the same time I learned about spreadsheets (and Excel predecessors) — when they first came out and I was programming. What I liked about the TRS-80 (too pricy) was the fact that it had elements of a Greek character set right on its keyboard. Now that, I thought, was way cool.

  4. Another day, another set of GPT tools. Now it is Roblox developing GPT for its platform creators:

    In every significant case to date, the “AI” tools are being used as assistants and aids for human creators, not displacing them. Roblox, like Minecraft, is ridiculously popular because it allows players to easily create and distribute their creations within the environment/market of the games. Which makes them more than just pastimes. (Minecraft has an acclaimed educational version that teaches, among other things, problem solving.)

    The potential of “AI” for authors is inmense:
    Research Assistant: “What was divorce like in the Roman Empire?”
    Mission specific grammar checker: fiction vs email vs marketing vs corporate vs technical are all different writing domains. Being “correct” for one is generally sub-optimal in the rest.
    Ditto for proof reading.
    Consistency checker.
    How about a dialect transcriber? “Rephrase in 19th century cockney.”
    Possibly a genre-aware beta reader analysis tool.
    Many more options are now (or soon) doable.

    Like the old BASF ads said: “AI” won’t make your product but it will make your product better. If used correctly. And that is what will separate winners and losers, how well they take advantage of the new tools coming.

  5. Doesn’t concern me. None of my business. Since all of this started, I’ve decided to include this statement in the front- or back-matter of every short story, novella or novel I publish:

    “This fiction is a Creation, the result of a partnership between a human writer and the character(s) he accessed with his creative subconscious. This is in no part the block-by-block, artificial construction of any sort of AI or of any conscious, critical, human mind. What you read here is what actually happened there.”

    Writing is my job. Selecting what to read and judging it is the reader’s job. I like my job better.

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