23.3 C
New York
Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Why Generative AI Won’t Disrupt Books

In the early weeks of 2023, as worry about ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence tools was ratcheting up dramatically in the public conversation, a tweet passed through the many interlocking corners of Book Twitter. “Imagine if every Book is converted into an Animated Book and made 10x more engaging,” it read. “AI will do this. Huge opportunity here to disrupt Kindle and Audible.”

The tweet’s author, Gaurav Munjal, cofounded Unacademy, which bills itself as “India’s largest learning platform”—and within the edtech context, where digitally animated books can be effective teaching tools, his suggestion might read a certain way. But to a broader audience, the sweeping proclamation that AI will make “every” book “10x more engaging” seemed absurd, a solution in search of a problem, and one predicated on the idea that people who choose to read narrative prose (instead of, say, watching a film or playing a game) were somehow bored or not engaged with their unanimated tomes. As those who shared the tweet observed, it seems like a lot of book industry “disruptors” just don’t like reading.

Munjal is one of many tech entrepreneurs to ping the book world’s radar—and raise its collective hackles—in recent months. Many were hawking AI “solutions” they promised would transform the act of writing, the most derided among them Sudowrite’s Story Engine (dubbed in a relatively ambivalent review by The Verge’s Adi Robertson as “the AI novel-writing tool everyone hates”). Story Engine raised frustrations by treating writers as an afterthought and, by its very existence, suggesting that the problems it was trying to bypass weren’t integral to the act of writing itself.

Last month, Justine Moore, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, provided a sort of bookend to Munjal’s “AI-animated books” proposal. “The three largest fanfic sites—[Archive of Our Own], Fanfiction.net, and Wattpad—get 3 billion-plus annual visits in the US alone,” she wrote. “Imagine how much bigger this market could be if you could chat with characters vs. reading static stories?” The thread was likely a reference to Character.ai, a startup that lets users chat with fictional heroes and villains; Andreessen Horowitz led a $150 million funding round for the company in March. The comment also came after the revelation that large language models (LLMs) may have scraped fanfiction writers’ work—which is largely written and shared for free—causing an (understandable) uproar in many fan communities.

Setting aside the fact that fandom role-playing has been a popular practice for decades, Moore’s statements felt like a distillation of tech’s tortured relationship with narrative prose. There are many kinds of fanfiction—including an entire subgenre in which “you” are a character in the story. But those are still stories, sentences deliberately written and arranged in a way that lets you lose yourself in an authored narrative. “Imagine having such a fundamental misunderstanding of the appeal of reading fanfiction—let alone reading fiction more broadly,” I wrote in response to her thread. What’s so wrong with people enjoying reading plain old words on a page?

The tech world has long been convinced that it understands the desires of readers better than they do themselves. For years, VCs have promised to upend books and the structures around their creation and consumption. Some came from within the publishing industry, but like their counterparts “disrupting” other sectors, including film and TV, many more did not. And for the most part, despite tech’s sometimes drastic (and often negative) effects on other industries, book- and reading-related startups failed to alter much at all. People are still buying books—in fact, they’re buying more than ever. Pandemic lockdowns brought a perhaps unsurprising boom in sales, and even though numbers slipped as restrictions lifted, print sales were still nearly 12 percent higher in 2022 than they were in 2019, and sales of audio books continue to increase dramatically year over year.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

One reason books haven’t been particularly disruptable might be that many of the people looking to “fix” things couldn’t actually articulate what was broken—whether through their failure to see the real problems facing the industry (namely, Amazon’s stranglehold), or their insistence that books are not particularly enjoyable as a medium. “It’s that arrogance, to come into a community you know nothing about, that you might have studied as you study for an MBA, and think that you can revolutionize anything,” says writer and longtime book-industry observer Maris Kreizman. “There were so many false problems that tech guys created that we didn’t actually have.”

Take, for example, the long string of pitches for a “Netflix for books”—ideas that retrofitted Netflix’s original DVDs-by-mail model for a different medium under the presumption that readers would pay to borrow books when the public library was right there. Publisher’s Weekly keeps a database of book startups that now numbers more than 1,300; many of them are marked “Closed,” alongside a graveyard of broken URLs. There were plenty of practical ideas—targeting specific demographics or genres or pegged to more technical aspects, like metadata or production workflows. But many more proposed ways to alter books themselves—most of which made zero sense to people who actually enjoy reading.

“I don’t think they’re coming to that with a love of fiction or an understanding of why people read fiction,” Kreizman says. “If they were, they wouldn’t make these suggestions that nobody wants.”

The “10x more engaging” crowd has come in waves over the past two decades, washed ashore via broader tech trends, like social media, tablets, virtual reality, NFTs, and AI. These tech enthusiasts promised a vast, untapped market full of people just waiting for technology to make books more “fun” and delivered pronouncements with a grifting sort of energy that urged you to seize on the newest trend while it was hot—even as everyone could see that previous hyped ventures had not, in fact, utterly transformed the way people read. Interactive books could have sound effects or music that hits at certain story beats. NFTs could let readers “own” a character. AI could allow readers to endlessly generate their own books, or to eschew—to borrow one particular framing—“static stories” entirely and put themselves directly into a fictional world.

AI isn’t remotely a new player in the book world. Electronic literature artists and scholars have worked with various forms of virtual and artificial intelligence for decades, and National Novel Generation Month, a collaborative challenge modeled after NaNoWriMo, has been around since 2013. Even now, as much of the book world loudly rejects AI-powered writing tools, some authors are still experimenting, with a wide range of results. But these bespoke, usually one-off projects are a far cry from the tech industry’s proposals to revolutionize reading at scale—not least because the projects were never intended to replace traditional books.

“A lot of interactive storytelling has gone on for a very long time,” says Jeremy Douglass, an assistant professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, citing everything from his early career work on hypertext fiction to the class he’ll teach next year on the long history of the pop-up book to centuries-old marginalia like the footnote and the concordance. “These fields are almost always very old, they’re almost always talked about as if they’re brand-new, and there haven’t really been a lot of moments of inventing a new modality.”

To VC claims that AI will totally alter books, Douglass takes what he calls a “yes, and” stance. “What people are actually doing is creating a new medium. They’re not actually replacing the novel; they created a new thing that was like the novel but different, and the old forms carried on. I’m still listening to the radio, despite the film and game industries’ efforts.”

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Tech entrepreneurs rarely pitch “yes, and” ideas. In their view, new technologies will improve on—and eventually supplant—what exists now. For all of his interest in the many forms of interactive fiction, Douglass doubts that most books would benefit from an AI treatment.

“There are extremely pleasurable aesthetic systems that aren’t intentional,” he says. “But how often when I’m reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X or The Joy of Cooking do I think, ‘If only a chatbot could augment this on the fly’? And it’s partly the fact that some communication is deeply intentional, and that’s part of the pleasure. It’s handcrafted, it’s specific, there’s a vision.”

That isn’t to say that Douglass thinks there’s zero appetite for AI in literature—but it’s “probably a very small slice of the pie. So when you say ‘all books’? Almost certainly not. For the same reason that we’re not reading 100 percent pop-up books, or watching all of our books on YouTube, or anything else you can imagine. People are doing that too, but it’s extra.”

The exact size of that small pie slice remains to be seen, as does the general public’s appetite for instant novels, or chatting with characters, or hitting a button that will animate any book in your digital library. But those desires will likely need to come from readers themselves—not from the top down. “If you just give the tools to everybody, which is happening in spite of venture capital, as well as because of it, people will figure out what they want it for—and it’s usually not what the inventors and the investors think,” Douglass says. “It’s not even in their top-10 list of guesses, most of the time. It’s incredibly specific to the person and genre.”

The recent history of publishing has plenty of examples in which digital tools let people create things we couldn’t have predicted in the analog days: the massive range of extremely niche self-published romance, for example, or the structural variation and formal innovation within the almost entirely online world of fanfiction.

But when the tech industry approaches readers with ways to “fix” what isn’t broken, their proposals will always ring hollow—and right now, plain old reading still works for huge numbers of people, many of whom pick up books because they want to escape and not be the main character for a while. “That’s a good thing,” Kreizman says. And as AI true believers sweep through with promises that this technology will change everything, it helps to remember just how many disruptors have come and gone. “In the meantime, tech bros will still find VCs to wine and dine and spend more money on bullshit,” Kreizman predicts. But for the rest of us? We’ll just keep on reading.

Related Articles

Latest Articles