The Writers’ Race to Extinction

I came across two articles this week which had me doing what I always tend to do – stepping back to analyze, search for connections, and find the bigger picture. At first glance, these two articles are about completely different topics. Together though, they have interesting implications.

The first is an article over at The Guardian hailing the self-pub mega-sellers and their ability to cash in on markets once dominated by trad pub. It’s been circulated widely throughout self pub circles in a highly positive light – as it should be. There are some seriously talented writers out there who have also learned how to grab a complicated and fickle business by the horns and tame it to their will.

That is a feat worthy of an epic. A renaissance for publishing. How can any of this possibly spell doom and misfortune?

The single quote that stood out for me most was this:

“For an industry that is supposedly the playground for risk takers, it is a sad thought that self-publishing may in the future be dictated by the same thinking that drives the traditional publishers: prioritising risk avoidance over experimental and unique writing, always scrambling to keep up with rivals by pumping out imitations of every “surprise” success: Gone Girl, Fifty Shades, The Da Vinci Code and The Girl on the Train.”

If you’ve been following along on my sporadic blog posts, you’ll know I fully agree with this sentiment. Why go around the gatekeeper only to lock yourself in the same pen?

I realize at this point many are going to dismiss this as literary snobbery. But I hold no grudge against anyone who chases after the market. It makes perfect sense and is about the only way you can call this grind of rejection and fleeting success into a pay-the-bills career.

As I talked about in my last post, there’s been a big push toward this very thing in the speculative fiction markets in particular. Self-pub writers are laser-targeting markets and churning out books faster and faster in an attempt to stay relevant in both the minds of readers and in eyes of the mystical Amazon algorithm.

Everyone wants to share in the same success as the authors profiled in the Guardian piece. Millions of books sold. Buying houses with cash. I absolutely would not turn that down.

But then there’s this article from the MIT Technology Review: Experts Predict When Artificial Intelligence Will Exceed Human Performance. In it, they predict an AI will pen a NY Times Bestseller in less than 40 years.

Yes, I know, these are predictions. Prophesy. There’s no reason to believe they’ll ever come to pass. But it was just last year a Japanese AI passed the first rounds of judging for a literary prize. So is it that far-fetched?

If this is even a remote possibility, and I believe it is, the first to fall will be formulaic fiction. It’s this type of story which is most conducive for humans to hammer out on their keyboards in a few weeks. Establish a few guidelines, make an algorithm, maybe even one which Amazon itself creates using it’s proprietary data to predict market trends, and then set the processors loose.

You’ll never write faster than they can.

12 thoughts on “The Writers’ Race to Extinction

  1. angeliquejamail

    And so when formulaic fiction written by actual humans becomes obsolete, what sort of fiction by actual humans will be desired? Surely there will be some holdouts against work written by AI, just as there are holdouts against machine-made goods and GMO-food. (Note I’m not arguing for or against any of these positions.)

    Will the truly unusual stories be the ones that find success? The truly original? Won’t that be fun? 😉

    • Russ Linton

      I’m not sure. I think there’s always been a demand for formulaic fiction no matter who (or what) produces it. But it does have the potential to utterly drown out anything else, especially when there is a creeping monopoly in the places people tend to buy their books. Once that singular source makes a change it tends to send a massive wave through the rest of the ecosystem. They can essentially direct readers toward whatever it is they prefer them to see. In any case, writers should be uncomfortable I think, but brave.

  2. Larry Linton

    AI will have to advance a lot to include the human factors such as decision making, true thought process and emotions. These will be hard to include in writing as a human would further more the creativity for different plots and scenarios for different subjects. Maybe some day but not anytime soon.

  3. justinmckean

    This made me wonder just how many of the authors whose books I have enjoyed but who I have not met personally are not, in fact, military grade AI working out kinks.

    The limiting factor isn’t the pace of writing. It’s the pace of reading.Perhaps Watson cranks out a new full length novel every day. Most people cannot read that quickly.

    • Russ Linton

      Very true. Though if say a certain retailer cornered the market on book sales and then started flooding their digital shelves with “authors” they pay zero royalties to and inflating the rankings of said authors so they percolated to the top faster… Just sayin’.

      • justinmckean

        Agreed. The algorithm problem doesn’t go away. Maybe by then there could be a Radio Free Tablet or some such.

  4. Harold Trammel

    I retired the end of 2016 and only now do I have the time to read authors I’d never heard of. When I had to choose where I was going to spend my money on a book, I chose what I was sure of. This was especially true when all books were print. I’m now considering many new authors and finding valuable gems in “unknown” mines (the Linton mine being one of them). Even being retired, there is only so much time in a day to spend reading. I think the indie “practice” of providing free or 99⍧ first of series helps introduce “creative” writing to new readers. I agree with Justin, time is the problem.

    • Russ Linton

      Time is the reader’s problem, true, visibility the writer’s problem. If it ever becomes possible for an AI to pen a novel, they’ll do it in seconds. An army of bots could easily drown out the efforts of lesser beings. Or, imagine this – a made to order novel. You set the parameters (male/female protagonist, genre, romance level, etc.) and you’re served an original, custom book!

      Of course it’s all speculation. Angelique has a fair point though – it may have the effect of increasing the value of human-written works. But maybe that’ll be a niche thing, like vinyl. “How quaint! A human author!” 🙂

    • Russ Linton

      It’s definitely getting there. Both that and the japanese novel have plenty of word salad issues. I think in their current state, they say more about us as observers of what could be called art than they do about the form itself. I watched the film and you can definitely see the seeds of something there. The future is equal parts terrifying and inspiring!

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