Authors such as Salman Rushdie grappled with the potential threat to human writing posed by artificial intelligence (AI).
The emergence of generative artificial intelligence (AI) has raised big questions for creators of all stripes.
Will artists be replaced by a simple prompt entered into Midjourney? Are journalists going to be needed to explain what’s happening in the world? And what about novelists and the stories born in their imaginations?
That latter question was one of the main topics of discussion at the Frankfurter Buchmesse (Frankfurt Book Fair), as the literary world convened at Europe’s biggest trade fair for books.
The industry has already seen an influx of cheaply-produced largely AI-generated novels on stores such as the Amazon Kindle store.
The spread of generative AI has also led to lawsuits against the companies behind the tools, with a group of authors in the US suing OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT.
According to Juergen Boos, Director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest book fair, which came to a close on Sunday, those involved in the industry feel "a deep sense of insecurity".
They are asking "what happens to authors' intellectual property, who really owns new content, how can it be integrated into value chains?" he explained.
The technology is already heavily impacting areas like translation, and is developing in scientific and legal publishing, but it remains marginal in literary creation - for now.
One of the biggest names in literature, Salman Rushdie, was a speaker at the conference, and he explained when it comes to writing novels, AI still lacks inspiration.
His thoughts after reading a short text generated in his style by software: "What came out was rubbish," he confided to laughter from the audience.
"Anyone who has ever read three hundred words in my own writing would immediately recognise that it couldn't possibly be mine," he said.
Can AI write novels?
AI's performance in fiction "is not very good yet," agreed Jennifer Becker, a German author and academic, at a round table discussion.
"I don't yet see the time when we'll be entrusting the task of writing to AI completely autonomously," she added.
On the other hand, "the potential is great for using it collaboratively," as a writing aid, she believes.
For romance novels, which rely on stereotyped narrative models and are intended for mass production, AI offers opportunities, and even "a certain relief,” jokes Fair Director Juergen Boos, for those who will no longer have to deal with this kind of content.
Ultimately, it all depends on the type of publication, points out Susanne Barwick, deputy legal counsel at the German Publishers' and Booksellers' Association.
"The scientific and specialist book sector is already more advanced and has already given more thought to the issue," she said.
Money at stake
One main grey area around generative AI is who owns the copyright on the content, explained Juergen Boos.
"This is a real mess and a very important issue. There's also a lot of money at stake," he said.
On Amazon's Kindle Direct (KDP) platform, dedicated to self-publishing, AI-generated books are proliferating, specialists observe, with some even becoming bestsellers.
KDP now requires authors to declare on the site whether their books are AI-generated (images, text or translations).
Alongside the lawsuits, this summer authors including Margaret Atwood and Dan Brown signed an open letter from the Authors Guild warning the tech giants that "millions of copyrighted books, articles, essays and poems are the 'food' for AI systems, endless meals for which there is no bill".