What is the AI-Assisted Artisan Author? How can we use AI tools in our creative and business processes while still keeping our humanity at the core of our books?
As generative AI development continues apace and new possibilities emerge every week, the focus of AI discussions in the author community has been centered around productivity gains and high-volume output; copyright, plagiarism and piracy; and the fear of losing the artistic human aspect of being an author.
But there is much to be excited about if we can move past fear and doubt, and approach these tools with curiosity and a sense of wonder. We are only at the beginning of the opportunities of AI for wider society as well as for creativity and art, and it’s important that authors, writers, and other creatives be involved in order to shape the future as we want it to be.
In this article, I’ll outline the concept of the AI-Assisted Artisan Author, which is how I intend to surf the wave of change ahead, rather than drown in the deluge.
Today's show is sponsored by my wonderful patrons who fund my brain so I have time to think about and discuss these futurist topics impacting authors. If you support the show, you also get the extra monthly patron-only Q&A audio. You can support the show at www.patreon.com/thecreativepenn
Joanna Penn writes non-fiction for authors and is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller and dark fantasy author as J.F. Penn. She has sold almost a million books across 169 countries and 5 languages. She’s also an award-winning podcaster, creative entrepreneur, and international professional speaker. Her latest book is Pilgrimage: Lessons Learned from Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- Acknowledge the risks and understand the human response to change
- How generative AI has made me re-examine my self-definition
- Adopt an AI-curious attitude
- What is an AI-Assisted Artisan Author (or A4 for short)?
- Create beautiful books and products
- Double down on being human
- Write the books only you can write and include personal elements that can only come from you
- Foster connection and community with other humans
- Sell direct so readers connect you, the human, with your books (and other products)
- How to move forward
You can find more future-focused episodes here.
Acknowledge the risks and understand the human response to change
I have been talking and writing about the possibilities of AI since 2016, when AlphaGo beat Lee Sodol in what many consider as the first creative AI move. I have covered the topic as it relates to authors regularly since then and even written a short book on the impact of AI on authors and publishing.
I am the technology advisor to the Alliance of Independent Authors and helped formulate a submission on AI and copyright to the UK government in January 2022.
I am an optimist and AI-positive, but I also acknowledge the many questions and issues humanity must work through. There are risks and dangers associated with AI, in the same way that there are with other transformative tools that humanity has developed, and many smart people are working on how to figure out the way ahead.
Former head of Google Brain and co-founder of Coursera Dr. Andrew Ng, describes AI as “the new electricity.” Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google Alphabet, said that AI “is the most profound technology humanity is working on. More profound than fire, electricity, or anything we have done in the past.”
Fire, electricity, and indeed the internet have huge benefits — and can also destroy lives. But we have adapted and they are an essential part of modern life. Do you want to live without fire, electricity, or the internet? These are Tools and Weapons: The Promise and Peril of the Digital Age, as covered by Brad Smith in his book, written before the emergence of generative AI.
Yes, there are risks — but there are also incredible opportunities.
I focus on creativity, specifically writing here, but if you research any sector right now, you will see incredible potential emerging with AI tools.
Let’s face it, things are not all rosy and wonderful right now. Humanity has some huge challenges and we could use the help to solve issues that are way too complex for us to figure out. For example, DeepMind’s Alpha Fold is revolutionizing biology, which in turn will accelerate solutions for healthcare issues; and there are many applications for AI in helping to mitigate or even solve climate change [BCG], as well as re-imagine education [UNESCO] and other industries. Pick an area you’re interested in and research how AI is being investigated for future developments.
Of course, there are also legal ramifications around fair use, copyright, and plagiarism, which may take years to work through. I covered these in more detail recently in my interview with intellectual property lawyer, Kathryn Goldman. But technology always emerges ahead of regulation, and the latter will come, in the same way that laws around driving and internet safety emerged after those technologies started to be used more widely.
People always resist technology. That is human nature.
In Build for Tomorrow, Jason Feifer gives many examples of how people have reacted to change. Bicycles were considered damaging to society, and books were considered dangerous for women. US Founding Father Thomas Jefferson even said that novels were “poison [that] infects the mind.”
Cars were known as ‘devil wagons,’ and “people on the side of the streets started throwing rocks at [those in cars]. Oftentimes, bystanders would yell, ‘Get a horse!’”
When I was growing up in the 80s, TV was rotting our brains and computer games caused violence in children. Now we live in a golden era for TV and the gaming industry is bigger than music and movie industries combined [Gamerhub].
In the creative sphere, Feifer reports that musicians initially resisted recorded music, seeing it as a threat to their live performances, but then pivoted into embracing it when they began to make money from recordings. As I write this in May 2023, there is controversy over Heart on my Sleeve, a viral hit song created with the AI-synthed voices of two human artists, with debates over the ramifications for copyright and fair use legal frameworks [The Verge].
But some artists are embracing the change, with musician Grimes saying on Twitter, “I'll split 50% royalties on any successful AI generated song that uses my voice. Same deal as I would with any artist i collab with. Feel free to use my voice without penalty. I have no label and no legal bindings.”
The development of photography might be the closest comparison to where writers are now. As The Guardian notes, “For 180 years, people have been asking the question: is photography art?” It uses a machine to capture an image, and you don’t have to learn the skills of drawing or painting with a brush to create a finished picture. Some considered photography cheating and unfair on those who take longer to create by hand. Since anyone can do it, it’s essentially worthless, and it certainly can’t be considered art.
But now, of course, photography is considered an art form and people pay for beautiful photos to put on their walls. They visit galleries and exhibitions to see photos, and they buy photobooks and prints. The skill in photography is the choice of subject, the expert use of both the camera as a tool and the subsequent post-processing software, and the deeper human meaning behind the image.
Obviously, some photos are not art. Some are functional, some are just for fun, some are personal, many are worthless. Nevertheless, photography remains and the argument that it’s cheating and unfair to those who paint or draw by hand has largely subsided.
But photography is once again in flux. The winning image of the prestigious Sony World Photography Awards was later revealed to be created partially with AI.
There is even a new word being adopted by some: synthography, defined as “the method of generating digital media synthetically using machine learning,” [Wikipedia] and the same arguments are being raised all over again.
Technology moves on, and you get to choose how best to achieve your creative vision by utilising new tools, or remaining with existing methods.
But I know this goes deeper than semantics about what art is or is not. There is much more at stake.
How generative AI has made me re-examine my self-definition
When people ask what I do, I say, “I’m an author and a podcaster.” I write books and I record and publish audio, although I also do some professional speaking and teaching as well. Enough people pay me through multiple streams of income that I can make a living this way (thank you!) and I have been a full-time author entrepreneur since 2011.
This self-definition has worked for me — until just over a month ago, in March 2023, when Open AI released GPT4 (in the paid version of ChatGPT).
I’ve been trying out various AI writing tools for several years and, while interesting and useful, nothing has blown me away in terms of quality. I have happily used many of the tools in various ways without having an existential moment. Earlier this year, I even used Sudowrite and other tools to help me write my short story, With a Demon’s Eye.
But when I started co-writing with GPT4 (and it really does feel like co-writing), I had a moment of reckoning.
It is a step change from what has come before.
Based on my ideas and my structured prompting and using my own J.F. Penn fiction as examples to guide voice and tone, I was able to output words much faster than I could write them myself. I was so engrossed in the story as I prompted and GPT4 generated, that I enjoyed the experience far more than writing alone. It was so much fun that I was desperate to get back to the page to continue turning what was in my head into reality.
“The most impressive thing about Chat is the most difficult thing for any writer: the ability to spin out words. To do the work. With Chat, paragraphs pour out like rain.”
Of course, a rain of paragraphs, and thousands of coherent words, does not make a story that readers will love, or an engaging non-fiction book. A lot more goes into the process of crafting a finished book. But ‘outputting words’ has always been an important part of the job and what is a writer if not someone who can turn thoughts into words on a page by typing or dictating or hand-writing?
The problem is how we have defined ourselves — and that needs to change in order to move forward.
As Jason Feifer says in Build for Tomorrow, “We are not what we do. We are why we do it.”
I spent some time reassessing my self-definition, and perhaps this approach might help you too.
I help writers and authors with my non-fiction books, courses, speaking, and my podcast as Joanna Penn. My mission at The Creative Penn has always been to empower authors with the knowledge they need to make decisions about their career, to write and publish and reach readers in a more effective way. I want to be useful and I have always loved reading self-help. Early on, I wanted to be the introverted British Tony Robbins!
The Creative Penn Podcast has now been downloaded over 8.5 million times across 228 countries and I have wonderful Patrons who support the show, and people often email me or tweet me or leave a comment to say how much the show has helped them. Many of you have also said that you tune in for my introduction just as much as the interviews, and find my personal take on the industry useful.
While text and audio generated by AI can certainly help you with practical tips and information on writing craft and business, it cannot bring my personal experience or share the emotional rollercoaster that is the reality of being a human author.
My recent midlife memoir, Pilgrimage: Lessons Learned from Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways, is an even better example of a book that cannot be replicated by AI. The words could be duplicated, for sure, but it’s going to be a long time before an AI walks the Camino de Santiago and shares that emotional experience in such a personal fashion!
What about my fiction as J.F. Penn?
I write thrillers, dark fantasy, and crime. But that is not enough.
Plenty of other human authors can deliver books in these genres, and even if you don’t believe AI can do this now, then check out AutoGPT and generative story apps and consider where we will be in a few years.
AI tools can absolutely do that. And if you don’t agree that AI tools can do this now, how about in a year or two years’ time?
Why write fiction then, if readers can get their stories elsewhere?
You’re a writer. You know why! We can’t help ourselves.
Writing is how I figure out what I think.
For non-fiction, it’s what I think about the more practical things, and in my fiction and memoir, it’s the deeper aspects and fundamental questions of life. My fiction has underlying themes of good vs. evil, memento mori (remember, you will die), and whether there is more than just this physical realm (Is there a God? What about demons and angels? What lies on the other side of the veil?)
I’m writing this article because I need to work out my approach to co-creating with AI tools and figure out the next steps in my author career. Sharing my words as I work through this might help you.
I write fiction as I have this constant flow of story ideas. As I walk through the world, my mind constantly spins off into fantastic adventures and dark corridors that I want to get onto the page and into the world. I am overflowing with story ideas that I have yet to share and more arrive every day. Some of the stories that make it into book form touch other people and provoke deeper thoughts, or at least an escape for a while.
At heart, I write fiction for the old me. The Jo Penn who worked a corporate job for over a decade and who read thrillers and crime and dark fantasy to escape a job she hated. I read on the commuter train every morning, with lunch most days and on the way home as well as in bed every night. I still read fiction every day for pleasure and fun and escape in a different way, but back then, it was my lifeline.
So hell yeah, I’m going to keep writing — but since I intend to use AI assistance across my creative and business processes, I need to shift my idea of what the job of an author is.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines author as “the writer of a literary work (such as a book), and also “one that originates or creates something.”
The latter half of the definition works perfectly if you want to embrace AI-assistance. You can use AI tools through the creative process, with your ideas as the origin of the story or the non-fiction book, your hand-crafting through multiple prompting layers, your guidance and editing shaping the final version of whatever you want to create.
So yes, I’m an author and a podcaster — but I am not someone who just outputs words in text or audio format. It is the purpose behind the words that matter and the connection I make with other humans that has an impact.
As Joanna Penn, I help writers with inspiration and information based on my human experience as an author. As J.F. Penn, I help readers and listeners escape their lives for a time into a world of imagination, and explore the deeper aspects of human life through my themes.
I already use tools and services in my one-person, multi-six-figure business, and going forward, I intend to expand my use of AI tools to help me achieve these goals in different ways.
If you’re still with me, and want to do this too, how can we move forward?
Adopt an AI-curious attitude
Too many people are making pronouncements about AI in the creative sphere without trying the tools — or without trying them again, since there are developments every day and the tools are changing and improving at high speed. An opinion you held last week may now shift based on new developments, so question and test your assumptions.
Too many people are stuck in panic and fear and/or avoidance — which I completely understand as I have had those feelings too — but we need to move forward into curiosity and adaptation, as generative AI is not going back in the box.
Every week more companies roll out these tools in workplaces around the world. Just look at the pace Microsoft is releasing OpenAI tools into their Office products, and yes, that includes MS Word, which many authors use for writing. This is driving acceptance and awareness of AI tools in the workplace far faster than previous product iterations.
The biggest tech companies in the world — Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Meta — are rolling out generative AI tools for creativity, search, and office admin functions.
Huge multinationals are embracing these tools. The Wall Street Journal reports that accounting and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers is pouring $1 billion into generative AI and using GPT4 with Microsoft Azure to transform their business and client offerings. Law firm Allen & Overy is just one of the legal companies embracing AI to help draft legal documents, as reported by WIRED.
Even if the popular tools we use right now are shut down because of various legal cases over fair use and copyright, others will emerge built on top of new models created from appropriately licensed work.
For example, if you don’t want to use Midjourney because you’re concerned about its dataset, then check out Adobe Firefly, trained on Adobe’s copyrighted works. Since the tool is integrated with Photoshop, many book cover designers will soon be using it.
If you don’t want to use GPT4, then it won’t be long until you can fine tune a model built with proprietary data on Amazon’s AWS Bedrock using the Titan model. Since it only needs 20 examples to fine-tune the Foundation Model, even individual authors could use it with a backlist. Imagine what a publishing company could do with thousands of genre-specific books.
You are already AI-assisted and you already use AI tools as part of your daily life and your author business.
If you use Grammarly or ProWritingAid for aspects of editing, Google for research or Maps for navigation or email with auto-anti-spam, Amazon for publishing or advertising or shopping, Facebook or TikTok or Twitter for social media, Spotify for music discovery, or Netflix for TV, you are using AI-assisted platforms and tools. Even if you only use Microsoft Word, it will soon be enhanced by generative AI with Co-Pilot.
You can go back to writing by hand on paper and avoid AI altogether, or you can take a breath and follow your curiosity.
Try out the tools (many of them are free or cheap) and see how they might help you create what you could only dream of before.
If you are AI-positive or at least AI-curious, check out the Facebook groups AI Writing for Authors, and AI Art for Authors, which are full of great tips and tricks and recommendations for various tools and prompts to get started.
You can also get ideas from The AI Author Assistant by Elisa Lorello, or check out tutorial videos like Elisabeth Ann West’s videos on Sudowrite, or join J. Thorn’s newsletter about the impact of AI on creatives at creativeaidigest.com, or check out Monica Leonelle's essays at The Author Analyst.
This is the beginning of a new form of creativity, and everyone is finding their own way. We are all new at this.
Try things out and find your own process, in the same way as writers have always figured out their own way of doing things. You can learn from others — and people change their process every day right now as new options emerge! — but in the end, it’s your brain, your ideas, and your creative vision.
It’s also a great way to continue learning the craft of writing. In the same way that experienced artists construct the best prompts for AI art —
The better you are at writing, the more deeply you understand the craft, the more you can prompt the AI tools into what you want to generate — and of course, edit the output with your creative vision in mind.
While you experiment, I recommend that you don’t use other author or artist names in your prompts, whether for words, images, music, or voice. While this may not legally infringe on the originator’s intellectual property rights for doing so at the moment since the law is not certain, it crosses an ethical line (in my opinion) and you are far more likely to plagiarise if you use someone else’s name in a prompt. These are powerful tools, so let’s use them responsibly.
After all, you are creative. You are an author.
You want to create something that is uniquely you, so use your writing to prompt and fine-tune. You can use samples of your writing in your prompts even if you have never published anything, so just give it a go.
What is an AI-Assisted Artisan Author (or A4 for short)?
An artisan can be defined as “a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand,” or one made “in a traditional or non-mechanical way using high-quality ingredients.” [Oxford English Dictionary]
I tried to find a better word than artisan and no doubt some will argue with my use of the term, but I think it works because I intend to personally oversee and hand-craft my books and products while also incorporating AI writing and creativity tools into my process.
Some will choose to use AI tools in a high-production model, but that is not the only approach.
I aim to produce books of higher quality and work with the tools to go deeper into my themes and write in an ever more personal way than I have done before. As Anais Nin said, “If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it.”
Because it’s not about the production of words.
It’s not about the paragraphs pouring out like rain.
It’s about meaning and connection.
“A bright line is being drawn between creators today. Some think the job is to create content. Others know the job is to create connect. When you learn to matter more, you need to beg for attention less. Keep making what matters.”
So how can we do this?
Double down on being human
I often talk about this as a concept, but what are some ways you can practically demonstrate your humanity even as you use AI tools as part of your process?
Write the books only you can write and include personal elements that can only come from you
In Futureproof, Kevin Roose explains more about how he leaves handprints in his work as a reporter.
“I start every reporting assignment by figuring out how I can put my unique stamp on it, and not have it feel like a generic story that any other reporter (or any piece of AI software) could have written.”
As authors facing the same question — If a bot can write this book, what’s the point?
The goal is to make every book resonate with your humanity even as you use AI tools as part of your creative and business processes.
If you’re writing non-fiction, fill it with personal stories, not just tips that could come from anyone. If you’re writing fiction, explore the personal themes that keep you awake at night, or delight you and make you laugh, or help you escape into another world and inspire a sense of wonder. It’s a call to center your humanity and put more of yourself into your work.
I know how hard this is. Fear of judgment is my deepest struggle — with my books, with my podcast, and especially on controversial topics like this!
I was scared to publish my darkest book, Desecration, for fear of what people might think of my darker side. I was worried when I published The Successful Author Mindset, as I shared snippets from my diaries around the reality of being a writer.
Even after 15 years of being an author, I was terrified of publishing Pilgrimage as it laid bare my midlife depression, and thoughts I hadn’t even shared with my husband, let alone the wider world.
But that’s what we need to dial into.
AI tools can generate unlimited words in very little time, and never tire, never stop. But that doesn’t matter.
Your books are your ideas. Your prompts. Your curation. Your editing.
Your creative direction.
However you create — with or without AI tools — it’s more important than ever to find your voice and reach readers as one human connecting with another.
Create beautiful books and products
While digital products (ebooks, audiobooks, online courses) will continue to be important, generative AI will result in digital abundance, which will drive revenue down as there is so much supply.
Scarcity, therefore, becomes ever more important, and as such, I am excited about creating beautiful physical products (alongside the usual formats for my books).
While I read every day in ebook and audiobook formats, my bookshelves are full of beautiful hardbacks that I spend more money on. My most expensive book is an oversize edition with full-color images of Carl Jung’s The Red Book (which partially inspired Stone of Fire). Others include Death: A Graveside Companion, Heavenly Bodies by Paul Koudounaris, Dark Tourism by Rebecca Bathory, Lost Cities Ancient Tombs, and Anatomica: The Exquisite and Unsettling Art of Human Anatomy. If you like the sound of these, you might enjoy my fiction as J.F. Penn. Yes, I am a dark little soul!
I produced my first beautiful hardback book this year for my Pilgrimage Kickstarter, with silver foil on the cover, a flyleaf cover with a silken finish, full-color photos, and premium paper. (You can buy the hardback on my store, CreativePennBooks.com, also available in other formats).
I am proud of all my books, but this is the first physical product I have made that I truly love. While the content of the memoir is available in all the usual formats in all the usual places, this premium physical product is both an expression of my desire to make something beautiful for a book of my heart — and also makes me a decent profit. This satisfies my artistic and my business sides and helps my books stand out.
I intend to do more beautiful books and I have loads of ideas about future projects, potentially working with AI-assisted artists as well as my existing team. I will still publish all the usual formats on the usual platforms, but I will also be doing more special projects on Kickstarter and selling direct-only products from my store, CreativePennBooks.com
In this way, I can “Leave handprints,” as Kevin Roose suggests in Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation. “What will make us stand out is not how hard we labor, but how much of ourselves shows up in the final product. In other words, elbow grease is out. Handprints are in.”
[I also recommend Kevin’s podcast, Hard Fork, with Casey Newton, which offers weekly insights into AI developments.]
Foster connection and community with other humans
You can also use AI tools for marketing, and even some of those authors who are adamant about not writing with AI are using it for social media and marketing copy, character images, advertising, and more.
But even as we use the tools, we have to ‘leave handprints.’
Share aspects of your personal life that would be hard to replicate consistently over time by a machine. Yes, there are deep fake photos and there are photo-quality AI images of people who don’t exist, but you are real, so share real photos on social media or your website, preferably of your face so people can see you. In this vein, human me will still present this podcast until I tell you otherwise, even though my voice double gets better every week.
Of course, you need to protect your boundaries. I don’t share pictures of my husband on social media, but I share enough pictures of random things regularly that you know I am a real person with a varied life. It’s not just all about branding, or on-message photos like the kind generated by fake media purely for sales purposes.
Be a human with a physical body
Attend events in person so you can meet and connect with other humans. I know this is hard. I’m an introvert with a touch of social anxiety. I’m overly sensitive to sound and light, and find crowds and noise difficult. After 20Books Seville recently, I spent a day in bed recovering in silence and darkness and then I had to leave London Book Fair early, spending another day in bed, this time with a headache that completely shut me down. [Thanks to everyone who sent me tips on how to manage my energy better!]
This kind of person-to-person connection is critical, and increasingly so as the digital world becomes even more pervasive. People do business with people they know, like, and trust.
After 15 years of building a digital, scalable, online business, I am now searching for ways to be more physical, immediate, transitory, and in-person. Less scalable, more personal.
Of course, it can be expensive and impractical to travel to events and conferences, so try arranging a meet-up locally with other authors, or organize a reader event at a local library. Or consider how else you could do something in person. What might intersect with your books/stories/world?
Sell direct so readers connect you, the human, with your books (and other products)
When you choose to buy direct instead of through a big brand store, you connect with the creator.
When you sell direct, you have a closer relationship with the buyer. You get paid more quickly and you can email them over time, fostering the relationship — and yes, encouraging more sales!
The same happens with Kickstarter or other crowdfunding platforms. You connect with the author/creator more directly and you are choosing to help them create and make more of a profit.
For more on this, check out my resources and interviews on selling direct, including how I built my store and lessons learned from my first Kickstarter campaign.
You can buy my books in all formats at www.CreativePennBooks.com (or at your favorite online store, or order at your library or local bookshop).
These are just some aspects of doubling down on being human, and I’m sure more will emerge as this industry changes and shifts over time.
As Jason Feifer says in Build for Tomorrow:
“Do not panic. Do not focus on what is lost. Focus instead on what can be gained.”
Fifteen years ago, I embraced a new form of publishing, as one of the first generation of indie authors to use ebooks and digital audio as well as print on demand.
I originally self-published back in the days when it was seen as ‘vanity’ and a bad decision that would destroy your reputation. Now it’s seen as a valid choice for business-minded authors who want to write and publish the books they choose, own and control their intellectual property, connect with readers directly, and make a full-time living as an author.
I didn’t know it would turn out this way when I first self-published in early 2008, just a few months after the Kindle and the iPhone launched in late 2007. All I knew was that I wanted to join this exciting movement full of authors experimenting and forging their own path on the back of a new wave of technology.
I’ve experimented and tried new things along the way, pivoted and shifted, and grown since then — and I am still here, still writing, still creating, still running my own business.
In many ways, I am a successful author.
But as Aidan McCullen says in Undisruptible: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations, and Life:
“When individuals are at their most successful, we are also at our most vulnerable. We become so preoccupied with optimizing, enjoying, and defending the competitive advantage that made us successful today that we neglect to prepare for tomorrow.”
Indie authors are successful right now, but the old model is shifting, and I need to change in order to be successful in the next 15 years of my author career. I am only 48. I have a lot of life left in me (touch wood!)
At 20BooksSeville recently, someone described me as one of the ‘old guard’ of indie because I have been doing this for so long. I’m grateful for the last 15 years, but I don’t want to be the ‘old guard.' I want to be in the vanguard of this new exciting movement full of authors and creators forging their path on the back of this next wave of technology.
I’m experimenting and playing and trying new things. I’m pushing the boundaries of my existing creative process and slowly, I am shifting into being an AI-Assisted Artisan Author. How about you?
Let me know any questions or thoughts in the comments, or Contact Me here, and please be gentle. We are all still working this out together!
P.S. Could you tell which words were generated by GPT4 and what was all me? Does it matter if you found it useful and/or thought-provoking?
P.P.S. Human me wrote every word, but again, does it matter as long as you found it useful and thought-provoking?