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Staying Positive as a Creator When Faced With Midjourney and Art AI:s

This is a reply to John Scalzi’s post on not using art AI:s.

I’m going to stick out my head to get it chopped off: I’m somewhat AI-positive myself.

Yes, that includes writing AI:s like GPT3, too, even though I’m a writer.

The reason for this is twofold:

First, I’m leaning against the lessons from the Bittorrent debacle in the late 90’s and early 00′. A lot of powerful people screaming how music piracy would destroy music, how no musician would be able to afford a living, and we’d all lose out.

What happened?

Well, according to the research I read back in the day (don’t make me quote, I’ve forgotten the authors), the effects were the opposite: instead of music consumption and music production going down, it went up. Both paid and unpaid.

And the big revolution came when legal streaming came into the picture, and music consumption shot through the roof.

In addition to this, the loss to artists wasn’t noticeable. Turns out that people willing to pirate music weren’t willing to pay for it, so no loss there. Indeed, a certain percentage of them became fans, and started buying things by their favorite musicians.

Win – win, right?

Not quite. What happened is that the big studios lost revenue. Some of the big artists lost revenue, too. Turns out that “free” hurts “established” a lot more than it hurts “up-and-coming.”

“Artist” had to adapt, true, but it wasn’t anything new. Movie theater pianists had to adapt when the motion picture soundtrack came (and the pianists weren’t happy about that). But the sound stage didn’t hurt movies, or music in movies. It hurt a certain way things were done. This happens. Mostly, people can adapt.

(For a great example of this, check out the Grateful Dead, who toured incessantly and earned heavy money from swag and fans, rather than having some studio dollop out charity payments for royalties.)

Secondly, we’re already in a market where fandom and personal reputation rule. Yes, there are people who’ll buy anything by Harlequin, but there are a lot more people who’ll buy anything by Nora Roberts, or Stephen King, or James Patterson. That’s not something that any AI can replicate, at least not for a while (actors selling their likenesses to movies studios aside – I’m guessing that IP-move will come back to bite them later.)

What does it mean for artists?

One option is the return of patronage. You write, a few powerful fans pay. Not an ideal situation.

Another option is expansion – more art, more books. It would require platforms to provide an option to cycle covers, the way Facebook can cycle ads. That way, you can design 10-20 covers, then A/B (…X/Y/Z) test them to find the one that draws the most – and possibly even yields the best reviews.

We’re already doing this, somewhat, but it’s piecemeal and requires a lot of effort. If it was available cheaply, you’d be able to target a niche that would yield you your needed Kevin-Kelly 1000 True Fans.

But wait, wouldn’t this still destroy the careers of visual artists if written word artists did this?

Possibly. But possibly there would be a new category of AI-assisted artist able to generate a lot of images in their own style, choose the marketable ones, fix them up, then deliver the experience while preserving the rights to creating derivative, high-quality works for their own fan bases.

This, BTW, is somewhat what happened in the board gaming industry – 30 years ago, nobody knew who the designer of a game was. Today, you talk to board gamer fans, they’ll have definitive fave creators. Reiner Knizia, Alexander Pfister, Jamey Steigmeyer – there are hundreds of brand name creators.

Sure, they’re not rock stars – but they’re a lot more rock star than they were in the 80’s before the German wave of Eurogames became a hit in the US.

The same thing could happen with visual artists, where artisanal covers, and art inside the book, could make up the income of a large mid-list (remember, “power” and “established” are hurt by “free”, “mid-list” and “fan-based” fares a lot better.)

Yet another option is what I hinted to above: going artisanal. Just like you can have a mass-produced poster on your wall, you can have a hand-made painting there, too. Posters didn’t make all painters suddenly stop painting, or stop making money.

Indeed, the high-end art market has exploded, and it’s dragged a lot of the mid-range upward with it. Still, it’s based a lot on fame, but there is a thriving cottage industry of part-time painters today, just as there was in the 1800’s. Sure, you won’t have the Paris Art Expo that would catapult an unknown impressionist to stardom, but hey, most unknown impressionists weren’t catapulted to stardom anyhow…

And if you do get an artisanal movement, with artist’s names being a draw on a cover, you’ll see a lot more opportunity for collaboration – smart artists would choose what books to make art for, building a reputation as a seal of quality – if painter Y drew the cover, then they liked the book, then it’s a good book. If movies stars can do an Oprah’s book club, why not artists?

Would this require more effort on the side of artists? Yes. Would it require so much effort that most artist wouldn’t be able to do it? I think not – looking at Faraway Voices (I believe) where you can do a profit share with a narrator, you already see that narrators choose projects they believe in so why couldn’t artists?

(And yes, I’m aware that some artists already do this, refusing to make covers for books that contain, say, racism, or misogyny, or sexism, or gore, or… Some of them already have a stable of indie writers that they cooperate with.)

So, putting this all together, what does it mean?

It means that things will change. There’s no avoiding that. Nowhere throughout history that I’m aware of has it worked to remove any advancement, law, or technology that has the potential for easy pleasure, power, or money (in a reasonably free society – Japan during the Shogunate is an exception but even there new inventions made their way in before the society collapsed with the Perry Intervention.)

You won’t be able to sit still in the boat and float along. Not if your art is at risk, or is already being used as a prompt, like Greg Rutkowski’s. As of yet, the Greg Rutkowski AI-prompt isn’t nearly as good as the real Greg Rutkowski, and while it’s free in terms of money, it’s being paid for with the user’s time, sort of.

Also, I imagine that we’ll see a lot more trademarks being applied to art, which is a can of worms that will most likely benefit the powerful and legally savvy, stifling new artists rather than encouraging them – if you can’t draw a dragon because Elmore owns the trademark on dragon art, what will you draw then?

(It might not be that bad – I’m not enough of an IP-geek to know. I imagine that dragons would be hard to trademark, as they’ve been drawn for ages, but perhaps you’d be able to trademark a style of dragon, or a style of painting. Banksy comes to mind, here. But IDK.)

But back to the AI discussion. Is it a good thing?

Yes and no.

AI, like any powerful new technology (and make no mistake about it, AI is incredibly powerful) has tremendous potential for abuse. Face recognition, deepfakes, stalking, things we haven’t even realized we can do with AI. And that’s just the tech. You can just as easily use the tech as a pretext to abuse a thousand other things, like trademark law, voting law, anything that will repress those who have little power and favor those who have a lot. Power hates a vacuum, expect people to use the excuse of AI to stay in power.

On our particular level, AI is also bad for the people currently earning their pay drawing book covers, posters, any kind of imagery, especially if they’re replaceable (although we already had that discussion with the race-to-the-bottom gig sites, and prime cover artists still exist, although not as comfortably.) An example: movie background images.

Say that you’re recording a movie, or a commercial, or anything at all, even a TikTok or YouTube vid. On your wall behind the action, there’s a poster. Today, the movie maker has to pay a licensing fee to the copyright holder. Even if it’s out of focus, even if it’s there for only a second or two. There’s a whole industry of IP owners (read trolls) who automatically scan (using AI – oh, the irony) others’ works for IPs that they own, then sue them. Most of these are settled out of court, for low sums (in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, depending on how rich the movie maker is,) but enough small streams a grand river doth make (that’s a Swedish saying, BTW.)

That’s likely to disappear if the movie maker can quickly generate a few blobs on the wall in a regular printer.

But again, I’m a firm believer that technological change works against the established and powerful, and for the small and nimble. Already, a lot of indie authors make their own covers. Yes, they pay for stock images, yielding heavy money to the micro-stock sites, and a few pennies to the stock photographers.

I imagine that they’ll use some AI art, and some stock art, and combine the two into wonderful imagery – what if you have a fantasy book with individual images for each chapter heading (like Brandon Sanderson did with some of his books?)

Speaking of Brandon – I expect we’ll see a lot of more mid-listers doing special editions when they can get custom art cheaply. Some of them will do everything themselves, but some of them will outsource their images. And as people get used to collecting special editions, that market will increase.

As of yet, that means going with quality art, meaning an artist. Will AI take over that? Maybe, maybe not. I imagine that for consistency and truly well-fitting art, the AI won’t be able to compete for years yet. We’re still at the stage where Midjourney (one of the most popular art AI:s) consistently draws six to eleven fingers on each hand. If you’re a tech-savvy artist, you’ll use that time to lobby for micro-payments on sources that are used to train AI:s. Either that, or figure out a way to pivot.

Seth Godin did a post on this recently: “It means that creating huge amounts of mediocre material is easier than ever before.” His conclusion is that: “If your work isn’t more useful or insightful or urgent than GPT can create in 12 seconds, don’t interrupt people with it.”

I agree. There’s no end of bad writing, bad reports, bad journalism, bad everything. When you can get away with coasting, some people will. The whole Kindle Unlimited “send-the-user-to-the-back-of-the-book-to-instantly-get-1000-page-reads-and-steal-money-from-real-writers”-debacle is proof of that.

But people get wiser. Companies get wiser. Customers object and if customers object enough, things change.

Will that mean that there will be an “Artisanal”-tag on hand-written and hand-drawn covers and books? Maybe, if enough people request it. If enough readers get burned on a bad AI-generated ending, or a bad AI-generated plot twist, or bad AI-generated art.

Will it mean that the people who will figure out ways to steal from the system, siphoning money away from non AI-work, will get caught and banned? Maybe, if enough money is lost, if enough customers complain.

But to look at this as “our AI-overlords are coming” is to do the whole creativity community a disservice. Right now, there are already tools to combat a cloud of crap: you can’t claim copyright for an AI generated image in the US (the UK is thinking of allowing it, we’ll see how that goes.) You can get sued for trademark infringement if you input the wrong prompt, or the AI spits out the wrong image (try using “Mickey Mouse in power armor” for your cover and see how fast Disney comes knocking…)

There will be people who lose their jobs. Some of those jobs were comfortable. Some of those jobs would have been gone anyhow. Take a look at what happened to typesetters when the first version of Adobe InDesign came. There was a huge outcry at the paper where I worked. Didn’t work. People still got fired. Some of them found different work. Others had to re-school. I don’t know of anyone who starved (although I do live in Sweden – socialized welfare FTW!)

But there will also be people who will find new careers, careers that don’t exist today, that can’t exist today.

And if music is anything to go by, we’ll see some quick, savvy, flexible mid-listers or long-tailers that will start to make a living where they couldn’t before.

So yeah, I’m somewhat AI-positive. I’ve stuck my head out.

Chop away.

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A Graveyard in the Sky book cover
Last Stand at Rimont book cover

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