28/03/2023: ‘Hey, Scripta – write me a story’: Preliminary thoughts on AI stories

I haven’t read any stories produced by AI, and I don’t intend to willingly do so. But I suspect I will soon be part of a dwindling minority. Why? Because most people want no more from a book than can be provided by a program that does no more than simulate human experience and mimic story-telling. That is all the average reader wants. That’s the truth.

Consider where we are. Publishers are happy – have always been happy — to publish books which aren’t very good, so long as they think they can be sold. Hence the proliferation of books by slebs such as TV game show hosts, politicians, social media influencers and minor aristocracy. The marketing is largely done for you, on account of who the person is; accordingly, the publisher’s bottom line is bolstered both by higher sales and by lower costs (i.e., less marketing spend is required to achieve a given sales level). The content, the quality of the book – that is irrelevant. (Doubtless some publishers and agents will say that they only support books that they believe have literary merit; and I know that some tell the truth when they make these assertions. But most, I believe, do not care). Briefly, the merit of the book, the skill or originality of the author, are of little consequence unless the author is well-known. That is where we are.

Now consider where we are going. If the purpose of publishing is only to make profit – and I believe that is its only purpose — then publishers’ profits will be maximised in any legally permissible way. And one step in the hunt for profitability is to remove the tedious necessity of paying royalties to the originator of the story. (I believe, by the way, that this is the reason some publishers are happy enough to bring out a book of, say, Victorian or Edwardian ghost stories, or similar – the stories are long published, the authors are long gone, royalty payments are unnecessary, profitability of the book is therefore that much more likely). An AI program probably will have no claim to royalties (although it is possible that the creator of an AI programme might start by claiming royalties on the sales of the AI’s creations, there would soon be a race to the bottom as other AI programs enter the market and compete on price). Why pay an author when you can use an AI program – and the reader won’t notice?

So, at this very moment, there will be groups within large publishers exploring the idea of setting up a little unit to produce and sell AI-generated stories. Just to see how it goes. Just to see . . . Variants on this approach include using software to write stories in the style of popular authors – either alive or dead – for the existing reader base of said authors (after all, it’s no different from famous authors employing junior writers to generate more of their stories than they could ever write themselves – is it?) Similarly, new entrants will grasp this opportunity and set up micropublishing businesses that produce and sell nothing but AI-generated stories. Some will be honest about this; some will use an imaginary authorial personality as a false front. However it happens, it has to happen and probably already is; the barriers to entry are so very low. The film industry too will jump at the chance to have scripts churned out by AI that works day and night, on schedule, without pay, without digging in its heels on dull considerations of integrity or art. Just plug in these determinants of character arc, of dialogue, of turning points, of mood, of setting — and come back in the morning.

Thus, the commoditisation of fiction comes, and with it, cultural ruin; from now on, literature will drown in non-human words, in artifice masquerading as emotion. Again: the average reader will neither notice nor care. Indeed, the next step is that this system will be directly embraced by readers. After all, if you are the kind of reader that enjoys AI-generated, write-by-numbers stories, why should you deal with a middleman? Why not simply get the software to write you a story—exactly the kind of story you are in the mood for – whenever you want? For example: Reader A will, finding themselves at a loose end, say ‘Hey, Scripta – write me a story.’ Reader A may elaborate: ‘Oh, and Scripta, set it in the far future, in a world far, far away, populated by unspeakable monsters eternally battling a tribe of humanoid settlers. Give it a love interest and neon sunsets and a bit of danger, but no goriness.” Scripta will duly oblige, perhaps in a matter of seconds, and the reader is kept happy. For free; at least, for no more than the Scripta subscription.

What does this mean for writers? I am afraid it is bad news, whichever way you look at it. If you are the kind of writer aiming at the write-by-numbers market that AI programs will address, it is very bad news indeed. Your job has been taken by AI, and you will have to do something else. That’s it. If you are the kind of writer that believes literature can have intrinsic merit, that it can present original stories that spring from genuine human experience – experience that is inimitable yet also universally applicable – and that have been written as a way of one human connecting with other humans, across space and time – then it is still bad news, but not quite as bad. The problem that you had of achieving visibility and/or a marketing budget – the latter being often a necessary precursor to the former, yet also often unachievable without the former – will get worse as the volume of publications increases, and as your need for a decent income becomes uncompetitive, all thanks to AI working for free. Readers already find it hard to identify quality offerings among the tsunami of published dross – that will now become harder still. Human authors must find clever marketing strategies, or disappear without trace.

Where will it all end? In particular, what can we expect for ‘Intrinsic Merit’ writers, who write from love or passion or due to the driving devil? These tortured souls may, I suspect, be forced into niche, artisan markets. Their books will be made in physical copies – perhaps only in physical copies – and in very limited runs. Each book will be a work of art in terms of material, font, layout and cover design. Illustrations throughout the book will become a common approach; collaborations between writers and artists therefore also will become common. Each book, then, will be a beautiful, collectible object; and will be bought by literate collectors. This, however, will permit neither author nor illustrator to make a comfortable living. And at that point, human authors will have come full circle, from the small print-runs of expensive, illustrated books common in the 16th and 17th centuries, through mass market printing of human stories, and then — thanks to commoditisation of literature via the convincing fakery of robotically-mimicked stories — back again to small print-runs of expensive, illustrated books made by a few humans. When they can afford to.

I don’t think this is a good thing. But I don’t see how to stop it.