SAN FRANCISCO – Until recently, Mr Brett Schickler never imagined he could be a published author, though he had dreamed about it.
But after learning about the ChatGPT artificial intelligence program, he figured an opportunity had landed in his lap.
“The idea of writing a book finally seemed possible,” said Mr Schickler, a salesman in Rochester, New York. “I thought, ‘I can do this.’“
Using the AI software, which can generate blocks of text from simple prompts, he created a 30-page illustrated children’s e-book in a matter of hours, offering it for sale in January through Amazon.com’s self-publishing unit.
In the book, Sammy the Squirrel, crudely rendered also using AI, learns from his forest friends about saving money after happening upon a gold coin. He crafts an acorn-shaped piggy bank, invests in an acorn trading business, and hopes to one day buy an acorn grinding stone.
Sammy becomes the wealthiest squirrel in the forest, the envy of his friends and “the forest started prospering”, according to the book.
The Wise Little Squirrel: A Tale Of Saving And Investing sold in the Amazon Kindle store for US$2.99 (S$4) – or US$9.99 for a printed version – has netted Mr Schickler less than US$100, he said. While that may not sound like much, it is enough to inspire him to compose other books using the software.
“I could see people making a whole career out of this,” said Mr Schickler, who used prompts on ChatGPT like “write a story about a dad teaching his son about financial literacy”.
He is currently on the leading edge of a movement testing the promise and limitations of ChatGPT, which debuted in November and has sent shock waves through Silicon Valley and beyond for its uncanny ability to create cogent blocks of text instantly.
There were more than 200 e-books in Amazon’s Kindle store as at mid-February listing ChatGPT as an author or co-author, including How To Write And Create Content Using ChatGPT, The Power Of Homework and poetry collection Echoes Of The Universe.
And the number is rising daily. There is even a new sub-genre on Amazon: Books about using ChatGPT, written entirely by ChatGPT.
But due to the nature of ChatGPT and many authors’ failure to disclose they have used it, it is nearly impossible to get a full accounting of how many e-books may be written by AI.
The software’s emergence has already ruffled some of the biggest technology firms, prompting Alphabet and Microsoft to hastily debut new functions in Google and Bing, respectively, that incorporate AI.
The rapid consumer adoption of ChatGPT has spurred frenzied activity in tech circles as investors pour money into AI-focused start-ups and given technology firms new purpose amid the gloom of massive layoffs. Microsoft, for one, received fawning coverage this month over its otherwise moribund Bing search engine after demonstrating an integration with ChatGPT.
But already there are concerns over authenticity, because ChatGPT learns how to write by scanning millions of pages of existing text. An experiment with AI by CNET resulted in multiple corrections and apparent plagiarism before the tech news site suspended its use.
Now ChatGPT appears ready to upend the staid book industry as would-be novelists and self-help gurus looking to make a quick buck are turning to the software to help create bot-made e-books and publish them through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing arm.
Illustrated children’s books are a favourite for such first-time authors.
On YouTube, TikTok and Reddit, hundreds of tutorials have sprung up, demonstrating how to make a book in just a few hours. Subjects include get-rich-quick schemes, dieting advice, software coding tips and recipes.
“This is something we really need to be worried about. These books will flood the market and a lot of authors are going to be out of work,” said Ms Mary Rasenberger, executive director of writers’ group The Authors Guild.
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 the authors and the 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 Mr Frank White, showed in a YouTube video how in less than a day he created a 119-page novella called Galactic Pimp: Vol. 1 – about alien factions in a far-off galaxy warring over a human-staffed brothel.
The book can be had for just US$1 on Amazon’s Kindle e-book store. In the video, Mr White says anyone with the wherewithal and time could create 300 such books a year, all using AI.
Many authors, like Mr White, feel no duty to disclose in the Kindle store that their great American novel was written wholesale by a computer, in part because Amazon’s policies do not require it.
When asked for comment by Reuters, Amazon did not address whether it had plans to change or review its Kindle store policies around authors’ use of AI or other automated writing tools.
“All books in the store must adhere to our content guidelines, including by complying with intellectual property rights and all other applicable laws,” said Amazon spokesman Lindsay Hamilton via e-mail.
A spokesman for ChatGPT developer OpenAI declined to comment.
Amazon is by far the largest seller of both physical and e-books, commanding well over half of sales in the United States and, by some estimates, over 80 per cent of the e-book market.
Its Kindle Direct Publishing service has spawned a cottage industry of self-published novelists, carving out particular 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 seeking out literary agents or publishing houses.
Generally, Amazon allows authors to publish instantly through the unit without any oversight, splitting whatever proceeds they generate.
That has attracted new AI-assisted authors like Mr Kamil Banc, whose primary job is selling fragrances online, who bet his wife he could make a book from conception to publication in less than one day.
Using ChatGPT, an AI image creator and prompts like “write a bedtime story about a pink dolphin that teaches children how to be honest,” Mr Banc published an illustrated 27-page book in December.
Available on Amazon, Bedtime Stories: Short And Sweet, For A Good Night’s Sleep took him about four hours to create, he said.
Consumer interest so far has been admittedly sleepy: He said sales have totalled about a dozen copies. But readers rated it worthy of five stars, including one who praised its “wonderful and memorable characters”.
He has since published two more AI-generated books, including an adult colouring book, with more in the works. “It actually is really simple,” he said. “I was surprised at how fast it went from concept to publishing.”
Not everyone is blown away by the software. Mr Mark Dawson, who has reportedly sold millions of copies of books he wrote himself through Kindle Direct Publishing, was quick to call ChatGPT-assisted novels “dull” in an e-mail to Reuters.
“Merit plays a part in how books are recommended to other readers. If a book gets bad reviews because the writing is dull, then it’s quickly going to sink to the bottom.” REUTERS