As I initially began to write this post over a week ago, I was sitting in line waiting to pick up my niece from elementary school, ruminating on a particular issue affecting authors lately, and dictating it into my phone. I don’t normally dictate into my phone—mostly I wander around my apartment while dictating into a digital recorder when I feel the need to dictate something—but something’s been on my mind a little bit lately, and I feel like it’s worth making a post about here. And that something is the hot topic of the day: artificial intelligence, more commonly known as AI and sometimes, more specifically, referred to as generative AI.
I know, I know. Everybody’s talking about AI nowadays. Everywhere you turn, it’s AI this and AI that, and it seems like everybody’s trying to find hot new ways to use AI in their day-to-day lives. Just about every tool and application you can imagine has been trying to find ways to add AI to the systems, or so I’ve noticed when the company that owns Trello decided to add AI tools to the application and it suddenly started notifying me about its availability one day. And honestly, I really don’t have a problem with this sort of usage of AI. I don’t use it in that way myself (mainly because I haven’t hit the point of having either the time or the patience to learn how to do it), but I can see how some people would find value in using it to, say, streamline the smaller processes in running their author business. I’ve even explored using an AI-based calendar system myself to try to organize everything I need to do every day a little bit better. (I decided not to use it in the end, mainly because the price was a bit…prohibitive for what it was offering.) But from a utility perspective, I can see why some people would want to use it.
No, what I have a problem with is a lot of the other uses of AI that people have been using it for. Specifically the kinds of uses that are putting people out of work.
I know, you’re probably sitting in front of your computer or staring at your phone, reading this and thinking, My God, Jessica is such a Luddite. I can’t believe she’s objecting to something like technological progress. It’s not really the idea of technological progress that I have a problem with. There’s nothing inherently wrong with technological progress.
The line that I draw in the sand, though, when it comes to technological progress is when it starts to negatively impact people’s lives, and in the case of AI, especially lately, the people that are being negatively impacted are people like me, the creatives—the writers, the editors, the cover artists. People are being impacted by certain types of AI being introduced into our lives, and in my mind, at least, you can’t argue that something is progress when it’s a system that potentially puts thousands of people out of work or reduces or strips them of their livelihoods.
I started noticing this as a problem a little while back in one of the freelance writing subreddit groups I’m in. At first, it was just a trickle, a story here or there about how people were beginning to lose their clients because of AI, but then it started to become a lot more noticeable. And then it became an almost deluge of people being forced to find day jobs because suddenly, within the span of weeks, they’d lost so many clients to AI that they couldn’t afford to not go find a day job. These companies, who have an interest in preserving their bottom lines and maximizing profits wherever they can, were shifting from having multiple writers writing articles for their websites to having one or two editors handling revising articles that a computer was generating for them in order to save the company money. Sure, they might have to pay an AI service a monthly fee to access their systems, but it was still cheaper than having to pay an actual human being to do a job that, up until the past year, human beings had been the predominant purveyors of. And this might save that company money, but it also takes a huge chunk of income away from the one person in the equation with the least amount of power: the writer. (And notice I’m not even touching the other AI-related problem freelance writers are dealing with when it comes to losing clients, where their clients are insisting on running their original writing through AI-checker systems that are inherently flawed and keep flagging their original writing as being generated by AI.)
This is something that’s also happening in the world of book cover creation and book cover art, when Midjourney started being popularized, along with other systems similar to it. Authors who were looking to save a buck by not having to hire a cover artist absolutely flocked to these systems and attempted to get them to create artwork for their book covers for them. This put a lot of actual book cover artists—actual humans who create book covers—on their back foot, because now they were suddenly seeing a severe dip in their income due to writers trying to get things done for free that they were previously paying for. And, look, I get it. I’m a self-publishing writer, too. I understand. It’s a business decision. I can totally get why an author would want to do that, especially if they’re an author who isn’t making much money selling their books. But this attempt to save a buck is inherently harming the cover artists they used to hire that they’ve dumped in order to get computers to generate their covers for free instead. I have seen multiple cover artists being harmed by this—and even one that I know of directly who quit the business entirely because of AI negatively disrupting the graphic arts industry (it’s the same cover artist who created this cover, which is honestly one of my top five favorites of all the book covers I’ve had done in the past).
AI is even causing problems for self-publishing authors and editors. Now, I do have to state upfront that I am a little bit biased on this argument because I am a freelance editor. It’s my primary job, because right now I don’t make enough money with my books for that to be self-sustaining on its own. So my writing is technically my side hustle. But I’ve noticed in some of the writing-related Facebook groups I’m in more and more authors encouraging each other to save money by using systems like ProWritingAid or Grammarly or ChatGPT to edit their books. And this, in particular, reveals one of the biggest issues with using AI in the production process of a book: AI-based systems like that cannot read your work and dissect it the way a human being can, because these systems don’t think. Everything they put out is based on what you put into the system, and the quality of the result is highly dependent on your skill and understanding of what you’re even looking at. For example, if you’re terrible at grammar—let’s say you don’t understand the first thing about where a comma is supposed to go or how semicolons work—and you put your book through one of these AI systems, you’re not really going to understand or recognize if it suggests a change that alters the meaning of your words.
I have always believed that editing at all levels, whether it’s proofreading, copyediting, developmental editing, whatever—requires a level of human touch, because when it comes to grammatical rules, sometimes there are shades of gray. Sometimes a rule can or even should be broken in service to the story, but you have to have a deep understanding of the rules in order to know when the best time it is for them to be broken. And these systems can’t see that—they look at the manuscripts input into them in purely black-and-white terms.
And in all this rambling, I haven’t even touched on the ethics, or lack thereof, of the companies that built a lot of these AI tools, either. (Such as, say, OpenAI and their subcontracting to a company that pays Kenyan workers less than $2 an hour to help train their AI systems while exposing them to graphic, psychologically harmful materials.) I don’t know how many of you have seen this story, but there’s been a massive class-action lawsuit filed by the Authors Guild, along with a bunch of prominent authors alleging that OpenAI, which is the maker of ChatGPT, one of the most popular AI systems out there, basically stole intellectual property to train their AI systems. They took these intellectual properties without the permission of the rightsholders from a pirated book repository called Books3. The Atlantic recently did an article about this, and they included a tool that authors could use to see if their books were affected. Mine were—OpenAI used four of my novels, without my permission, to train their AI systems.
The problem with this is that it can potentially dilute an author’s brand. What I mean, in a very, very oversimplified way, is if you can go into ChatGPT and ask it to write a thriller in the same style as, say, John Grisham, it will spit out a book written in the style of John Grisham. And some nefarious actors use the ability to write books with ChatGPT to make a lot of money—sometimes creating fake works by authors and releasing them through Amazon’s self-publishing platform. This is already happening: there’s an author named Jane Friedman who had junk books written by an AI that were published under her name.
And that’s even beyond the inherent theft happening in Kindle Unlimited. I don’t know how many of you understand how Kindle Unlimited works, so just as a very quick-and-dirty primer:
Kindle Unlimited is a program that authors can put their books in where they give Amazon exclusivity—they can’t sell that book anywhere else. And in return, Amazon pays the author for each page read in their book. On the back end, Amazon sets a pot, say, $100 million. It’s usually a set amount that varies a bit each month. And because it’s a set amount, Amazon takes the number of pages read throughout Kindle Unlimited in its entirety and divides the pot by that number, and that’s how much each page read is worth. And the author gets that amount multiplied by the number of pages of their book that was read that month.
Well, a lot of these scammy people who are using AI to create junk books are stealing money from real authors, because they’re piling these books into Kindle Unlimited and are grubbing up those Kindle Unlimited dollars and taking them away from real authors. (This is yet another example of why we can’t have nice things.) The junk books on Amazon have gotten so bad that at one point, I saw an author who posted in a writing-related Facebook group upset because in their book category on Amazon, in the top 100 list, only two books were not AI generated. Everything else was AI junk books, which is a pretty good indicator that people are actually being fooled by these AI books, at least long enough to turn several pages before realizing what it is and dumping it. (And that’s assuming the publishers of said junk books aren’t using bots or paying people to download the books, turn pages for them, and then return them, rinse and repeat, in order to make a quick buck.)
It’s getting to be more and more of a problem, and this is the stuff that I have an issue with. When there are class action lawsuits being filed against something because it’s damaging so many people and their livelihoods, there’s a problem with the system. And the system in this case is the currently available AI programs being misused and abused, both by users and by the people who actually run the systems, with no real safeguards to prevent it.
I could go on all day about this, but this is already getting pretty lengthy as it is. (Heck, if I have further thoughts, there might end up being a part two to this post eventually.) But I do want to take a moment to state, unequivocally, that I have not ever used AI in the creation of my books. I will never use AI to create or even assist me with writing my books. I will never use AI to create a book cover. I’d rather have that human touch and my very, very talented cover artist to handle it for me because he knows better than a machine what I like and what I’m looking for. I will never support using artificial intelligence in a way that negatively impacts fellow creatives. When it comes to my books, what you see on the page is written and will always be written solely by me, with my two hands, my ten fingers, my brain, and my keyboard.