Who Even Is an “Author” Anymore?

A small toy shaped like a robot sits on a desk in front of a laptop and a pink bucket of pens. The background is blurred.
The robots are coming! (Kindel Media / Pexels.com)

The Verge released a pretty ugly article recently, detailing the rise of artificial intelligence and content generators. In it, they interviewed at least one author who was using a content generator, as they sought reasons people either supported or didn’t support these new “tools.”

The article sparked a lot of debate, especially in light of the damning statistics the author shared to justify her use of AI in her books. She’d polled her readers about how long they’d wait for a new book. The average answer was four months.

Books Take Time to Produce

AI is attractive to a lot of authors. You can essentially hit a button and it’ll shit out a story for you. Then you just have to “edit” it.

I’ve seen some of what AI does, and I don’t think you can “edit” your way into a good story from what it’s currently producing. But that’s my take on the subject.

Writing, like all art, is somewhat fickle and difficult to pin to a timeline. I’m telling you this honestly, as someone who has worked in trad publishing for a decade and a half. Writers are almost constantly late turning their manuscripts in. Sometimes it’s a week, sometimes it’s a month. I’ve had authors blow their contract deadlines by years. (Nothing really tops the time an author turned in their manuscript a whole decade late.)

This is simply the reality of producing art, even under the best of circumstances. Sometimes, you’re inspired, and sometimes the characters in your head won’t talk to you. Sometimes, you start drafting, only to write yourself into a corner and dump the entire draft. And sometimes you’re mid-draft and the light bulb goes off, so you have to dump the entire thing and start over.

Again: fifteen years in trad pub. My motto, to authors, is shit happens. We’ll get through it, and the book will get out there. But we have to make time to let them breathe and be great. Rushing through the process almost inevitably ensures a bad product. And it usually doesn’t get the book out any faster in the end.

The Capitalism Crunch

Of course, this wraps us back to the problem our intrepid Verge interviewee identified: a consumer-capitalistic society is not patient. It’s about hustle, not about process. That’s why we’re seeing movements like slow food, which pushes back against the “get it done, get it done now” mentality that dominates so much of our daily lives. It’s why we see “hacks” everyone and people telling us how to increase our productivity. It’s why companies have swiveled to the “minimum viable product” model—iterate fast, fail fast, and move on.

And it’s why we see readers—allegedly—arguing that they want to see a book every four months.

Capitalism promises us immediate gratification. Nobody really needs one-day shipping from Amazon Prime, but we’ve become accustomed to it. We can connect to the internet and watch any video on demand. And with our eReaders, we can download a book instantly and start reading right now.

There’s also increasing pressure to “consume.” We see people plowing through 400+ books a year or people bingeing shows on Netflix, not necessarily because they’re so enthralled but because they’re wrapped up in hustle culture. The more you watch, the better off you are. There’s a flood tide of “content” out there, so much so that we can’t possibly hope to keep up with it all. The more you “consume,” the better you are as a capitalist subject.

I point that out here because there’s a certain ploy capitalism is playing here. They’re making us feel that to be truly worldly, to be culturally literate and sophisticated, we must consume more art.

Empty Calories and Mindless Consumption

I’ll wrap back to food here: isn’t part of the point of food to enjoy it? Sure, if you’re really hungry, then Mr. Noodles or a burger from a fast-food joint is great. But is it food you’re really enjoying? Or is it merely sustenance that you’re cramming in your face so you can get through mealtime and on to the next thing? (I’ll note some people do not derive pleasure from food, no matter what.)

And again, capitalism wants us to consume more. You can buy a lot of instant ramen packets for a few bucks, and they don’t take long to make. Not satisfied with one? Make another one. What about supersizing your meal at the drive-through?

A white man with dark hair dressed in a black t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, sits in a shopping cart, buried under orange boxes of Maruchan instant ramen, in front of shelves stocked with more of the product.
Unless you’re a college student, buying this much ramen might make you ponder your life (Edward / Pexels.com)

When food is slow and arduous and takes time to prepare, then we’re more apt to savour it—to some degree, at least. And, in turn, we likely consume less overall, in part because it took so much time and effort to prepare.

Capitalism doesn’t like that. You must consume more to spend more, to line the pockets of the corporate capitalists relying on you to consume quickly and be dissatisfied with your “meal,” so you move on to the next thing.

Advocating for Slow Art

You probably see where I’m driving with this. Much like slow food, we need slow art. Art should not be rushed. Pooping out a hundred thousand AI images in a few minutes removes the process, and, as a result, makes them far less satisfying.

I think this mindset has invaded the book world—and how could it not? Capitalism is relentless. I’m not knocking anyone who reads 400 books in a year—kudos to you! But I also wonder if people are reading that much because they aren’t savouring what they’re reading. They’re downing one book, then immediately hopping to the next. They don’t pause.

And they’re not pausing because capitalism wants them to consume more, more, more, so we have to rush, rush, rush from story to story.

Even without Capitalism, We Need Slow Art

This then bends into the desire to have our favorite authors publishing at breakneck speed. We’re reading at breakneck speed, and we really, really like this author—so why can’t they keep up?
Capitalism itself is often to blame here. Most writers don’t make enough to simply sit on their butts and write stories all day. Even if we remove capitalism from the equation, though, shit happens. A child is sick and stays home from daycare, an elderly parent needs help with day-to-day tasks, someone is moving house, someone died, someone got sick.

Shit happens.

Capitalism, of course, does not care. You get three days for mourning if someone in your family dies, and so help you if it’s a beloved pet. Get back to work already. We allow ourselves no time to be human; we constantly have to be hitting the grind.

So authors are caught in an impossible bind. To earn a living from their writing, they have to churn out content at an inhuman pace, in order to satisfy readers who consume art at an unsustainable pace. If they can’t keep up, they either burn out or they turn to “cheats”—like plagiarizing other novels, stealing fanfic, using ghostwriters, or hitting “generate” on an AI “tool.” This is the only way to keep up with not readers per se but algorithms.

Do Readers Really “Abandon” Authors?

I want to take a look at the other claim in the Verge article: that readers wait an average of four months before “abandoning” the author for someone else.

I think this is some tricky language, which I want to break down here. This wording frames readers as the problem, but I don’t think it’s true.

First and foremost, the four months is an average. That means some readers are even more impatient, waiting less than four months. (I think here of the lady who complained to Nora Roberts about the pace of Roberts’ publishing schedule.)

On the flip, it also means some readers are willing to wait longer than that. Full confession: I didn’t read the article, nor have I accessed any statistics associated with the survey, so I can’t tell you how long some readers said they’d be willing to wait. Maybe some will wait six months or nine months or a year. Maybe some are willing to wait even longer than that for a new release from an author they truly love.

Next, I really am perplexed by the idea that readers are “abandoning” authors if they don’t release a new book every four months on average.

What does that mean? Does it mean the reader swears off this author as being a snail? They’ll never, ever read their books again, even if they absolutely loved the stories?

I honestly do not think that’s happening. What this statistic means is that readers would like to see, on average, a book from a fav author every few months.

It doesn’t likely mean that the reader will never, ever, ever, ever read this author again.

Readers Will Come Back (If They Like It)

Don’t forget we live in a world of too many books, too much “content” to consume. Your readers are going and reading books by other people while you create new “content” for them. You do not have a monopoly on them.

The important thing is to keep people coming back. If people truly enjoy your work, then they will come back. They will “wait” for you to publish that next book. After all, it’s not like you’re the only person on their TBR list.

So, this wording seems to me like it’s intended to cause panic—and reinforce the idea that we’re in competition with our fellow authors. If we don’t crank out content, then we risk “losing” our readers to other authors who are publishing faster than we are.

That’s simply not happening. I took a several-month hiatus from publishing last year, and my most ardent readers were right there for my newest book when it hit the proverbial shelves.

I’m sure a few people got bored and jumped ship, but that can happen any time—even if you’re cranking out content every few months. Some people will simply tire of what you’re writing and head off for greener pastures. I feel like that’s especially true if you’re using AI to poop out variations of the same book or a “new” book every couple of months.

Readers Are Patrons, Authors Are Artists

A close-up of a likeness of Lorenzo d'Medici, who supported many works of art with his patronage. He is depicted in profile with curly dark hair cut over his ears, wearing red velvet, standing in front of an open window, with a bird perched near him.
We are all Lorenzo d’Medici these days.

I think this comes back to the issue around designating writing, music, film, and other art as “content.” Art is not merely a product for consumption, although that’s certainly how capitalism invites us to treat it. Under capitalism, we are expected to pick up a book or a TV show or a song, enjoy it—or “consume” it—then move on to the next thing.

Art often does so much more than entertain us in the brief moment we’re “consuming” it, however. Often, it resonates with us. It might evoke a lot of emotions—resulting in catharsis—or it might make us think deeply about some big question. Often, it inspires us to discuss it with others or even to create our own art. All in all, art evokes response—something capitalism ignores, unless it senses that there’s the possibility to monetize those responses.

But this comes back to the crux of the issue. Capitalism invites us to see consumers as ever-hungry pits we must continually dump “content” into, or risk them looking for their next meal elsewhere.

The Obligation of the Reader and of the Author

My argument here is twofold. First, as consumers, we should be willing to ask ourselves when we are satiated. Sometimes, we want garbage food—trashy, no-brain romance novels or fast food—and sometimes we want something richer and deeper. But that doesn’t mean we should give into the push to overbuy, to consume content simply to say we consumed it.

As authors, we need to recognize that we do not have a monopoly on our readers. Cranking out a novel every couple of months does not ensure a reader will stick with us, even if we’re meeting the “content quota” that will supposedly keep them happy. The most voracious readers are reading a book a day or more. You simply cannot keep up with that. Nor should you, because even if something like AI lets you do it, there is no guarantee the reader will choose to spend all of their “content quota” on you.

So, perhaps, consumers might be a bit more selective, and authors ought to realize that producing quality content—no matter how slowly you produce it—is always going to be a better lure than “I publish a lot of books really fast.”

A book is a slow-cooked meal: to be savoured at the same time it is devoured. Don’t give into the capitalist grind. It benefits no one: not you, not other authors, not your art, and certainly not your readers.

About the author

By Cherry

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