Until recently, Brett Schickler never imagined he could be a published author, although he had dreamed of it. But after learning about the ChatGPT artificial intelligence program, Schickler realized an opportunity had fallen into his lap.
“The idea of writing a book finally seemed possible,” said Schickler, a salesman in Rochester, New York. “I thought ‘I can do this.'”
Using AI software, which can generate blocks of text from simple prompts, Schickler created a 30-page illustrated children’s ebook in a matter of hours, putting it on sale in January through Amazon.com’s self-publishing unit.
In the issue, Sammy the Squirrel, crudely rendered also using AI, learns from his forest friends about saving money after finding a gold coin. He makes an acorn-shaped piggy bank, invests in an acorn trading business, and hopes to one day buy an acorn whetstone.
Sammy becomes the richest squirrel in the forest, is the envy of his friends, and “the forest began to prosper”, according to the book.
The Wise Little Squirrel: A Tale of Saving and Investing, available from the Amazon Kindle store for $2.99 (nearly Rs. 250) – or $9.99 (nearly Rs. 830) for a print version — netted Schickler less than $100 (nearly Rs. 8,300), he said. While that might not sound like much, it’s enough to inspire you to compose other books using the software.
“I can see people making a whole career out of this,” said Schickler, who used suggestions on ChatGPT like “write a story about a father teaching his son about financial literacy.”
Schickler is at the forefront of a movement that tests the promise and limitations of ChatGPT, which debuted in November and has shocked Silicon Valley and beyond for its incredible ability to instantly create compelling blocks of text.
There were more than 200 ebooks on Amazon’s Kindle store as of mid-February that list ChatGPT as an author or co-author, including How to Write and Create Content Using ChatGPT, The Power of Homework, and the poetry collection Echoes of the Universe. And the number increases daily. There’s even a new subgenre on Amazon: Books about using ChatGPT, written entirely by ChatGPT.
But due to the nature of ChatGPT and the failure of many authors to disclose that they’ve used it, it’s almost impossible to get a complete accounting of how many ebooks can be written by AI.
The emergence of the software has already angered some of the biggest tech companies, prompting Alphabet and Microsoft to quickly debut new features at Google and Bing, respectively, that incorporate AI.
ChatGPT’s rapid consumer adoption has spurred frenzied activity in tech circles as investors pour money into AI-focused startups and given tech companies new purpose amid the gloom of mass layoffs. Microsoft, for example, received fawning coverage this month about its moribund Bing search engine after demonstrating an integration with ChatGPT.
But there are already concerns about authenticity, because ChatGPT learns to write by scanning millions of pages of existing text. An AI experiment by CNET resulted in several fixes and apparent plagiarism before the tech news site suspended its use.
Threat to ‘Real’ Authors?
Now, ChatGPT looks poised to topple the book industry, as aspiring novelists and self-help gurus looking to make a quick buck are turning to the software to help create bot-driven ebooks and publish them through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing arm. Illustrated children’s books are a favorite of these budding authors. On YouTube, TikTok and Reddit, hundreds of tutorials have appeared, demonstrating how to make a book in just a few hours. Subjects include get-rich-quick schemes, diet advice, software coding tips, and recipes.
“This is something we really need to be concerned about, these books are going to flood the market and a lot of authors are going to be out of work,” said Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild writers’ group. Ghostwriting – by humans – has a long tradition, she said, but the ability to automate through AI could turn book writing from a craft into a commodity.
“There needs to be transparency from authors and platforms about how these books are created or you’re going to end up with a lot of low-quality books,” she said.
One author, who goes by Frank White, showed in a YouTube video how in less than a day he created a 119-page novel called Galactic Pimp: Vol. 1 about alien factions in a distant galaxy at war over a brothel staffed by humans. The book can be had for just $1 (nearly Rs. 80) from Amazon’s Kindle e-book store. In the video, White says that anyone with the resources and time could create 300 of these books a year, all using AI.
Many authors, like White, don’t feel obligated to disclose on the Kindle store that their great American novel was written wholesale by a computer, in part because Amazon’s policies don’t require it.
When asked for comment by Reuters, Amazon did not address whether it had plans to change or revise its Kindle store policies on authors’ use of AI or other automated writing tools. “All books in the store must adhere to our content guidelines, including complying with intellectual property rights and all other applicable laws,” Amazon spokeswoman Lindsay Hamilton said via email.
A spokeswoman for ChatGPT developer OpenAI declined to comment.
From conception to perception in just a few hours
Amazon is by far the biggest seller of physical and electronic books, commanding well over half of US sales and, by some estimates, over 80% of the e-book market. Its Kindle Direct Publishing service has spawned a cottage industry of self-published novelists, creating specific niches for enthusiasts of erotic content and self-help books.
Amazon created Kindle Direct Publishing in 2007 to allow anyone to sell and market a book from their couch without the hassle or expense of looking for literary agents or publishers. Generally, Amazon allows authors to publish instantly through the unit without any oversight, sharing any revenue they generate.
This has attracted new AI-assisted authors like Kamil Banc, whose main job is selling fragrances online, who bet his wife that he could take a book from conception to publication in less than a day. Using ChatGPT, an AI image maker, and prompts like “write a bedtime story about a pink dolphin that teaches kids to be honest,” Banc published a 27-page picture book in December. Available on Amazon, Bedtime Stories: Short and Sweet, For a Good Night’s Sleep took Banc about four hours to create, he said.
Consumer interest so far has been dormant: Banc said sales totaled around a dozen copies. But readers rated it worthy of five stars, including one who praised its “wonderful and memorable characters”.
Since then, Banc has published two more AI-generated books, including an adult coloring book, with more in the works. “Actually, it’s very simple,” he said. “I was amazed at how quickly it went from concept to publication.”
Not everyone is impressed with the software. Mark Dawson, who reportedly sold millions of copies of books he wrote himself through Kindle Direct Publishing, was quick to call ChatGPT-watched novels “boring” in an email to Reuters.
“Merit plays a role in how books are recommended to other readers. If a book gets bad reviews because the writing is dull, it will quickly sink.”
© Thomson Reuters 2023