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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Sci-Fi Publishers Are Bracing for an AI Battle

It began with a tweet of a bar graph depicting a sharp rise in the month of February: Neil Clarke, the publisher and editor in chief of the science fiction and fantasy magazine Clarkesworld, had plotted out the publication’s past few years of plagiarized and spammy submissions. Until late 2022, the bars are barely visible, but in the past few months—and especially this month—the numbers climb dramatically, mostly due to AI-generated content. Clarke wrote a post laying out the situation entitled “A Concerning Trend.” Five days and a massive amount of online chatter later, Clarkesworld announced it’s closing submissions for now.  

Clarke says they’ve seen this problem growing for a while, but they took the time to analyze the data before talking about it publicly. “The reason we’re getting these is a lot of the side-hustle community,” he says. “‘Make money using ChatGPT.’ They’re not science fiction writers—they’re not even writers, for the most part. They’re just people who are trying to make some money on some of these things, and they’re following people who make it sound like they know what they’re doing.” He adds that having seen some of the how-to videos in question, “There’s no way what they’re hawking is going to work.”

Clarkesworld has been publishing for nearly two decades, and while many sci-fi and fantasy (SFF) magazines have specific submission periods, the publication normally keeps submissions open year-round. As with its peers—and unlike some publications in the literary fiction space—there is no fee to submit your work. Clarke cites the SFF community’s dedication to Yog’s Law, a maxim coined by the writer James D. Macdonald that states, “Money should flow toward the author.” This openness is important to Clarkesworld: “We’re a wide market,” Clarke says. “We want to pull in from all over the world, and all types of voices.” But a commitment to receptiveness also means that fighting off AI spam can’t just mean putting up additional barriers to entry.

“We’re going to reopen—we have no choice,” Clarke says. “But we’re taking the stance that it’s going to be trial and error.” A computer scientist by training and the developer of the site, Clarke stresses that he’s not going to explain the exact technicalities of those trials—why give spammers a step-by-step guide?—but the changes will be small and targeted at the trends they’ve observed in their data collection. “As far as I’m concerned, what we’re dealing with is a scenario not unlike the battle over malware, credit card fraud, denial of service attacks,” he says. “It’s all the same sort of thing. You have to find a way to manage working in a world where these things exist.”

The Clarkesworld situation has been a subject of fascination far outside the SFF sphere: Clarke jokes about the robot in their logo, and the irony of a science fiction magazine falling victim to AI. But amongst many writers—both in SFF and more broadly—there’s been a sense of hopelessness, that the inevitability of AI-dominated art-creation is finally coming to pass. Even though the US Copyright Office recently rejected the claim of an AI-generated comic book, anxiety about what AI is going to mean for an already financially precarious industry is palpable.  

Clarke thinks writers are right to worry, but right now that worry is about the volume of garbage clogging up an already oversaturated space. “This is not a quality problem—it’s a quantity problem,” he says. “We’re being drowned; they’re being shouted out. And for a new writer right now, I really feel bad for them because this is going to be a problem. The number of markets that will take the shortcut to avoid this problem is not zero, and every one of those that happens is a harm to them. So they do have reason to be distraught.”

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But just as Clarke is searching for practical solutions to these current problems, other publications are also thinking practically about AI. Grimdark Magazine announced that it, too, was pausing submissions to assess the current AI landscape; Uncanny Magazine clarified that it isn’t dealing with an influx of AI-generated work—yet—but that it is a topic of internal conversation. FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction hasn’t seen anything like this yet either, but AI presents a different set of challenges for the publishers. 

FIYAH and other limited-demographic venues are used to a certain level of this spam anyway,”  says founding cocreator L D Lewis. “We publish Black authors exclusively, for instance, which aggravates a certain racist troll contingent, or non-Black (typically and specifically white) authors who want to try and prove we can be tricked into publishing their work, thus invalidating the concept of authentic cultural voice.” FIYAH already has some vetting to help protect against this, but the real AI worry is that people will use these tools to try and slip in racially traumatizing content. “We’re able to use keyword-filtering functions to help identify those passages,” Lewis says. “But AI exploitation is going to make these kinds of attacks much easier.” 

Publications’ differing needs when it comes to AI are among the top things on Matthew Kressel’s mind right now. The programmer and speculative fiction writer is the developer of Moksha, the submissions software used by dozens of SFF publications, and recently he’s been having a lot of conversations about computer-generated content. “The situation is rapidly evolving, and I have to keep that in mind before I develop any tools to deal with AI submissions,” Kressel says. He hasn’t heard of AI spamming amongst Moksha’s users, but he’s certain Moksha has received AI submissions in the past—and while no publication wants spam, he knows not everyone feels the same way about AI art. 

“Moksha was designed to facilitate publishers’ unique workflows and to be a sort of Swiss army knife of content managers,” Kressel says. “And because of those unique workflows, I have to accept that some publishers might be open to AI-generated submissions.” He cites the “CreatedWithAI” self-tagging feature on ArtStation as a potential model, but he knows that “CreatedWithAI” could mean different things to different people. “Some writers have told me they use AI to generate story ideas,” he says. “Some have used a few AI-generated lines in their work. So is the work AI-generated?” These questions, he says, are for individual publishers—as is deciding what to do when someone lies and claims they didn’t use AI when they actually did.

Both Kressel and Clarke say current detection tools for identifying AI art are so inaccurate they’re not worth using. Like Clarke, Kressel also believes it’s important that AI measures don’t wind up excluding authors, especially internationally. “We don’t yet know if these kinds of low-effort AI submissions are the beginning of a trend, or just a blip,” he says. “So part of the solution will be to find ways to reduce the number of low-effort submissions without unintentionally making it harder for marginalized or disadvantaged folks to submit. You always have to weigh the costs.”

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These knock-on effects also worry Lewis: “My main concern is the impact on racially/ethnically marginalized authors in general,” she says. “We’re only recently making strides in our published representation. So proposals like submission fees or confirmed bibliographies or memberships to literary organizations as a prerequisite to submission is going to close doors in the faces of a lot of new authors. I think short fiction markets are going to have to thoughtfully consider their approaches to existing publishing systems without creating barriers to real authors.”

But amongst all these AI worries, Clarke notes that publications are actually facing another, potentially bigger threat right now: In September, Amazon plans to discontinue the print and digital magazine subscription program that makes up a—sometimes significant—portion of a lot of SFF publishers’ revenue. “We’re getting hit from two sides,” he says. “But the one that’s going to take us out is the financial one.” Despite all this, he has faith in the SFF community’s ability to come together and solve problems in the face of adversity—a very sci-fi sort of spirit. “We know there’s a lot of people who like to read short fiction but not a lot of people who like to pay for it,” he says. “We’ve always had this struggle in our field. So I can’t see a path forward, but I know this community has this kind of weird, wild resilience, that it always finds a way.”

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