This article, written by Troy Lambert, is from the April 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
ChatGPT and other AI programs have gone from science fiction to something a few users were playing with in various beta programs run by OpenAI, the parent company of ChatGPT, to something that is a part of our everyday lives.
And as more authors, copywriters, and marketers use AI to ideate or create prompts, outlines, book blurbs, and more, one central question has risen to the top of discussion boards: when is the human operator no longer an author? When does AI become a co-author?
It’s a question, among others, we can’t yet answer. But what are the pros and cons of ChatGPT and other AI, and how do authors really feel about it?
It took nine months for TikTok to reach 100 million users and that seemed fast compared to the two years it took Instagram. But just two months after launch, ChatGPT reached the same milestone, the fastest app to do so.
Whether or not we writers are ready to embrace ChatGPT, it’s likely here to stay, although there are some obstacles for AI, in general, to be truly viable.
This meteoric rise has colleges changing the way they teach, some professors embracing the technology, and even some software geniuses developing technology to detect text written by AI. The thing is, to do any of those things, you have to study and use ChatGPT to fully understand it.
So a certain percentage of users are logged in and engaged to learn how to defeat AI. But that’s a game it’s unlikely they will win.
The financial and environmental cost
There is a big obstacle to the mainstream adoption of AI: money. Despite investment of over $1 billion by Microsoft and other companies, ChatGPT is projected to make a mere $200 million over the next year. Why?
Quite simply, AI takes a huge amount of computing power. Even with the potential launch of ChatGPT Pro (starting at $20 a month, and with a waitlist) the expected growth that will result will likely cause costs to continue to outpace revenue.
This need for computing power has an environmental cost. While many big tech companies are nearing carbon neutral status, servers and data centers are still a huge contributor to greenhouse emissions and global warming.
So, while we’d love to keep using AI for free, in some ways this also causes us to overlook the other costs to humanity.
How do authors feel about ChatGPT?
- There are a lot of online forums and social media groups for authors where ChatGPT and AI dominate conversations. I conducted a survey including authors from all over and in several genres. When asked if they were using ChatGPT, about half responded yes. This may or may not be typical, but in several writers’ groups, this seems to be a nearly accurate trend. But that’s not where the real divide showed up.
- Because the survey also asked if writers thought AI was a good thing for authors, if they were not sure yet, or if it was bad for authors. To segment the unsure even further, I asked if the idea excited them or scared them.
- A very small minority feel it is actively bad for authors and their careers. A few felt that it is really bad, and that we are effectively training our machine replacements by using it. The majority, even those who are using ChatGPT, are not sure if it is good or bad. The writers surveyed are pretty equally split between being excited and being scared by the future of AI.
The interesting thing is that most authors are using ChatGPT for the same things. And those, at least in my mind, are good.
Most of those surveyed are using ChatGPT for help with blurbs, ideation, and marketing copy, all things AI can be good at. The key is that AI still needs your input. “It’s the same as any other program,” one ChatGPT user said. “Garbage in, garbage out. You still need to feed the program the right information.”
“Even if authors just look at AI and ChatGPT as a tool to have fun and experiment with, that mindset will help them to create stories in new and unique ways. I think AI is going to be an amazing tool to utilize as we continue forward,” author and creator of Author Revolution Carissa Andrews said.
“I can see using it for a jumping-off point, especially if you are stuck. Especially for short pieces like blurbs. It depends on the writer and how they view their creativity,” said Cindy Proctor-King, who has struggled with writing over the last few years after an accident. “AI might be helpful in breaking down pieces of work when things seem overwhelming.”
Some are using it, or other AI programs like Sudowrite, to spark ideas as well, and even to beat writer’s block. But some are not stopping there. And some of those things: well, some might think they are bad.
“The problem I see with it is the same problem I see with, for example, editing programs,” King said. “And that is the impulse to believe the program knows best when in reality you don’t have to accept every correction. So I think authors have to be careful not to sacrifice voice for the sake of convenience and efficiency. I would like to believe voice comes through best with original writing, but maybe I will be proven wrong.”
This is not an intentional or malicious use of AI designed to take anything away from the human voice or even human editors. However, the result, intentional or not, is the same. It’s bad for authors. But it is no worse than other things authors face: simply running books through Grammarly or ProWriting Aid and accepting every change, using programs like Autocrit and Marlowe and completely trusting a machine over their own judgment.
The other danger is becoming dependent on AI. More than once, due to unanticipated growth and the massive computing power required, ChatGPT has become overwhelmed and literally shut down. Not long before this writing, that shutdown lasted nearly two days, and some authors experienced several delays and lockouts for even longer.
“I’ve been using ChatGPT for blurbs and marketing,” Neil Plakcy said. “But I’ve been unable to get in.” Of course, ChatGPT has a solution. Those who pay will get a more stable platform, and monetization is underway. “Would I pay for it?” Plakcy said. “Yes, to a certain amount at least, because I already see the value for me.”
There are at least two keys to human writing that AI cannot, at least yet, take on. They are intent and author voice. But some writers are testing even those limits.
As with any other tech, things can get ugly as well. There are those writers who will use AI to write the majority of their work, fill in some blanks, and post that work as their own. Readers might grab up such trope-filled and likely poorly written fiction with little voice and consume it.
This could, just as the initial forays into ebook publishing, result in a flood of AI-written drivel to water down the real books being created. However, it is unlikely this will last.
But things like derivative works, adapted from public domain works by AI and told in different styles or voices, might emerge, and the question becomes, “When is the writer a writer or are they just an adapter of someone else’s work?”
It’s not as much of a legal dilemma as a moral one. And it doesn’t have a good answer yet. The truth is, this could get uglier before things finally settle and resolve, and we as a society, authors, and a publishing industry decide AI’s place.
This article is hardly comprehensive. Several points in it could be the focus of entire articles. But in summary:
- Authors are using AI already. Most are excited by what it can do for them and for authors going forward.
- A few authors are scared of what AI means. Some are even hostile toward it. That’s understandable. No one wants to be replaced by a machine, but I think we are far from that.
- AI can be good or bad. It’s simply a tool, like a shovel, that can be used to turn over garden soil or used to bludgeon a victim and bury them. It all depends on how it is used. The next question may become, “Who determines how AI can and cannot be used?”
- As with other tools, AI can, and likely will, be abused. The hope is that this will be minimal, and most people will use it for good instead.
As for me? I’m using ChatGPT and Sudowrite for various tasks. Will I pay for ChatGPT when the time comes? Yes. I’m already on the waiting list for ChatGPT Pro. I already pay for Sudowrite and will continue to do so.
And AI art and other issues with this rapidly growing technology? Who can be sure? The one thing we do know is that art and writing and the industry around them are being challenged, similar to how the printing press did.
And much like those challenging times, artists and writers will continue to emerge. Because like our stories, this story hasn’t been fully written yet. And no one really knows the ending.
Troy Lambert is an author, editor, freelance writer, and the education lead for Plottr. He’s written over two dozen novels, loads of short stories and novellas, and spoken at writers’ conferences all around the country. He lives, works, and plays in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and two very talented dogs.