I’ve felt the cold breath of obsolescence down my neck this week as I read some articles about the advancement of computerized content generation. Sure, automation has been taking jobs away from human workers for decades, but we don’t usually think of software being able to replace the human mind when it comes to the “arts”, including literature.
Perhaps the term literature is a bit of stretch when describing the output of computer programs to this point, but not by much, and mainly because the early focus has been on non-fiction content. If you’re the proud author of more than a handful of books listed on Amazon, you might want to sit down, because more than one hundred thousand Amazon listings are credited to a Marketing professor named Philip M. Parker and seven hundred thousand to his company Icon Group International, Inc. Of course, Parker himself didn’t actually write more than three of them. The rest were written by software he has created. The company specializes in producing books on niche topics, often economics or medicine-themed, written using software algorithms according to specified formulae, and directed to avoid plagiarism. Once the desired parameters of the book are entered, they take anywhere from minutes to days to produce, and cost pennies. That means terrific profit percentages, even for a book with a very small market. You can read about Parker’s work and watch a video here, or check out his YouTube channel, but if you’re an author, take a Valium first. He’s also making inroads into the production of videos and computer games.
Novelists can’t breathe easy either. A novel completely written by computer was produced and released by a team of IT and language experts in Russia back in 2008, based on the styles and plots of seventeen famous books, especially Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I don’t know how much progress has been made since.
Before we sneer too much, let’s remember that an awful lot of the fiction being sold these days is terribly formulaic, which makes it ideal for a computer takeover. Certain publishing imprints of romance novels and soft erotica are the most obvious examples, but in science fiction just take a look at the reams of Star Wars, Star Trek and other franchise stuff that clogs up the bookshelves. Some bestselling mystery and thriller authors have become franchises unto themselves, putting their names on books written by (supposedly in partnership with) other writers who usually aren’t called ghostwriters but might as well be. If their styles are that easily imitated, they’d be perfect candidates for computer ghostwriting instead. Imagine how the publishers of James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Clive Cussler must be salivating at that thought.
It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when, so I guess we authors need to hope that readers will be discriminating enough to prefer stories created by real live humans, and word of mouth will become far more important than name recognition. The top-selling books of any given year are often ones that carve fresh ground. The top-selling authors, not so much.