A critical read of “Why Generative AI Won’t Disrupt Books”

Paolo Danese
5 min readOct 26, 2023

A slightly delayed rant on a Wired piece about tech vs publishing.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Obligatory disclaimers: I love Wired. I have for a long time. And I have nothing against the journalist who wrote this, she seems like a talented writer with tons of relevant industry experience and education. I have been a journalist long enough myself to know that sometimes the angle of a story is not necessarily the one of the person writing it. A good article is a good article, especially if all the interviewees line up nicely around a certain opinion. That, however, does not make the piece any less annoying.

And since this article touches the heart of some of my (many) issues with the publishing industry, I feel it deserves a little personal treatment.

First, the TL;DR (thanks, Claude):

  • The article argues that many tech entrepreneurs fundamentally misunderstand the appeal of reading, and their proposed AI “solutions” to make books more engaging reveal their disdain for plain old narrative text.
  • The article traces past waves of tech companies trying to reshape books and reading by incorporating trends like social media, VR, NFTs and now AI. It argues these ventures failed because they tried to “fix” something that wasn’t broken for most readers. People still buy and read huge numbers of traditional print books.
  • The article acknowledges some authors are experimenting with AI tools to generate text, but it doubts AI will overhaul most books. Some communication and expression in books is intentional and handcrafted. Readers want different experiences from different books.
  • The article concludes that any appetite for AI books will likely be small and come organically from readers, not be pushed from the top down by tech entrepreneurs. It remains skeptical that AI will dramatically alter reading and publishing as many technologists predict.

Here is what I can agree with:

  • (In an ideal world) Readers should drive changes in publishing, not have unwanted “disruption” imposed on them.
  • AI-generated creative content is just sad in its basic form (ahem), a point that the article makes quite delicately by claiming AI cannot replicate “communication [that] is deeply intentional.” Forget “deeply” intentional, in most cases we are below early primary school levels (and young ‘uns have far less data and training than LLMs to base their scribbling on).
  • Caution about the hype on AI capabilities is always welcome, as is the warning on the potential downsides like plagiarism of existing work. Let’s not even open the AI training ethics can of worms, at least today.

On the rest, there is much, much to say.

Not much since Gutenberg

It has been a good while since the invention of the printing press and, aside from the launch of ebooks in the 1990s, little has changed in the world of long-form fiction and non-fiction publishing. Trees are cut, pages are made, ink is poured, and books are placed on shelves to be loved, sometimes even read (and then gather dust for eternity). There is a certain magic in that, no doubt.

But while I do not want to dive too much into technological determinism here, and as a tech founder I have my own share of biases, I would at least suggest that open-mindedness about new forms of storytelling and story delivery should be an intellectual obligation for the thinking heads of the publishing world, authors included, who are often the most conservative and annoying of the bunch. To put it another way: in the same span of time since dear ol’ Gutenberg, we have gone from treating illnesses with leeches to DNA-customised drugs.

There is something called REST OF THE WORLD

The article is a fine display of the Western-centric approach to publishing that has led to the current state of affairs, namely an industry plagued by its lack of diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels, from the staffing of publishers to the diversity of content being published (a good review of one of the few big surveys done here).

Beyond the diversity issue within the developed markets, there is the bigger question of global diversity. The system as it currently stands simply does not connect audiences across languages and cultures. Translation (which most often is transcreation, really) is too expansive, time-consuming, and slow to even make a dent given the volume of books published (let alone the broader world of, ugly word, “content”).

Is it just possible, just maybe, that a powerful technology like generative AI could help cross the divide?

The article talks criticizes how “many tech enthusiasts promised a vast, untapped market full of people just waiting for technology to make books more ‘fun’”. Forget fun. How about accessible? How many billions worldwide are currently beyond the reach of a broken publishing supply chain? How many trees would we need to chop down to really get books into the hands of every human on the planet?

If only we all had access to powerful devices to give us access to the world’s knowledge and creativity in our hands. Oh wait…(1)

My point being, generative AI has all the required characteristics to take the digital revolution to the next level when it comes to publishing by allowing that content to be personalized and disseminated across languages, formats, cultures, and more. We are truly just at the beginning of this revolution, and as fun as it is to laugh at how pathetic chatbots are at telling stories, our creativity is the only limit here.

If books are still selling, what’s even the problem?

Another typical myopic view of the publishing world is that since book sales are inching up enough to keep this dinosaur of an industry alive (barely), all must be fine in the world. Except for the fact that (a) the world population has grown by about 2 billion people since the early 2000s, and (b) TikTok, which was launched in 2016 has 1.6 billion users.(2)

I Hate Tech Bros Too

Don’t get me wrong. As a white guy in tech, I am well aware of the plethora of diversity and other issues the tech industry has to address and I have made it a point in my own ventures to try and address those headfirst. For those interested, I would highly recommend a reading of Palo Alto by Malcolm Harris to get an amazing historical overview of how engrained and toxic those problems are.

But, despite that, looking back with fondness at medieval technology and the industry that has grown out of it is not the answer. It really is that simple. I say, let’s get creative, folks.

Footnotes:

(1) Not that I am a big fan of Tech Jesus

(2) TANGENT: I would give you an exact figure of the pathetic increase in book sales in the same period, but I can’t, because the state of data in the publishing industry is disastrous. And that is despite the near monopoly state of the business, with Amazon + Big 5 Publishers generating close to a third of global publishing’s total revenues all by their lonesome. Yet they have refused to figure out how to even count how many books are being sold across markets to provide transparency to authors and readers. Another win for traditional publishing.

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