The AI Writer

How tech is changing what it means to be an author

If only James Patterson was surrounded by believers. The ad executive turned author had sub-par success with his debut novel The Thomas Berryman. While it had won the prestigious Edgar Award, it only sold 10K copies—a paltry sum. For his new book, a mass-market thriller entitled Along Came a Spider, Patterson wanted to do something different. He wanted to go directly to consumers with television advertisements. At the time, this just wasn’t something that was done! It was expensive and the publisher didn’t want to do it. Popular thought was that books were a higher medium, an art above: consumers wouldn’t want it being pitched to them on their TV. 

Patterson said, “fine I’ll do it myself” and shot the commercial on his own dime. The publisher saw and agreed to share the cost to show the ad in 3 markets. Despite the skepticism, the move worked. The book debuted at #9 on the New York Times bestseller list, eventually making its way to number 2 in the paperbacks. The book now has over 5M copies in print and is Patterson’s most successful work to date. More impressively, this move launched one of the most fiscally successful careers in the history of literature. Some estimates pin his yearly income at $90M+ and he publishes over 6 books a year. 

Patterson’s books are almost universally criticized. The prose is basic to the point of stupid, the plots contrived and gratuitously violent, and Patterson doesn’t even write the things himself. He simply makes an outline and lets the coauthor take it from there. Nevertheless, he makes bank. I love this story because however you feel about his work (to be clear, I hate it) you have to admire Patterson’s shrewdness. He played a different game than other authors. Rather than rely on the stamp of approval from elite media publications’ book reviews, he used mass appeal to accomplish his goals. 

The biggest takeaway from Patterson’s continued success is that he understands what he has. He isn’t creating art. He isn’t creating something to elevate the world’s consciousness, he has a product and he is willing to sell the hell out of it. His initial commercial success completely alters what he now creates. He recognizes that most people wanted contrived, easy-to-digest plots, and they want as many of them as possible. Ultimately, economic incentives have become totally inseparable from the art that is being created. I would argue that the market is the message. Market dynamics (such as the advertising channels that drive sales) determine what kind of content is being created. 

Just as Patterson first embraced TV as a marketing channel, writers are embracing new technologies to differentiate their products. This time around its not just acquisition. It is co-creation with artificial intelligence, it is going multi-product with Spotify, it is using TikTok to fill the top of the funnel. No part of the market is ever going to be the same. 

When a market changes like this there are serious fiscal rewards to be had; lots of people will make lots of money. That’s great and I support people trying to secure the bag. However, I think we don’t understand what the downstream effects will be on art, on literature, and on knowledge itself. We may end up in a much worse spot. 

Writing’s Atomic Unit 

Last week I argued that you could break down the core activity of any business into three buckets: Creation, Acquisition, and Distribution. In the pre-internet days, it looked something like this:

  1. Creation: A writer would gaze upon their muse, lick their pen, and set to work creating the next great epic. Their agent and publisher would cheer them on.
  2. Acquisition: Advanced copies would be sent to reviewers. Some form of marketing campaign would be run, and all of this would be coordinated by the publishing house. 
  3. Distribution: Books would be placed on bookshelves across the country. The authors with the best track record or with the most powerful agents would secure more prominent shelf placement.

All along the way there were gatekeepers who determined what content was successful or not. These gatekeepers were individuals with Ivy League degrees and “refined taste”. 

I want to be clear: this wasn’t some magical time for literature. Female and minority voices were consistently denied a platform. Books were non-competitive products that slowly lost market share to other entertainment offerings. And there isn’t something inherently wrong with mass-appeal, easy-to-digest formats. Charles Dickens, author of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, used the serial novel format to publish bite-sized pieces of his books. Serials were a great way to make money so that’s the format he used to write some of the greatest works of English literature. Economics and the technology of the printing press determined his format and his writing style. It wasn’t solely some sort of artistic sense. Again, this was just the way things were.

Distribution

If we come back to the present, everything changed yet again with the internet. 

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