Today on the Self-Publishing News podcast: A new ALLi Income Survey will reveal just how much indie authors really make. Also, the US Copyright Office issues ruling on AI-generated text, and how Silicon Valley bank failures impact your author business. News Editor Dan Holloway and News and Podcast Producer Howard Lovy discuss these and other stories making the news this month in indie publishing.
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About the Hosts
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines Earlier this year he competed at the National Poetry Slam final at the Royal Albert Hall. His latest collection, The Transparency of Sutures, is available on Kindle.
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last eight years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcripts: Income Survey and More
Howard Lovy: Hello, Dan, how are you?
Dan Holloway: Hi, I’m good, Howard. How are you getting along?
Howard Lovy: Oh, I’m getting along. I mentioned last month that I quit my freelance journalism career to focus more on my books, and it seems to be working. I finished a novel I’ve been working on, I’m a bit nervous about it because it’s the first piece of fiction I’ve ever written after a career of only non-fiction, and I’m sending it out to beta readers at the end of the month.
Also, a literary magazine has agreed to print an excerpt, which gives me hope that maybe what I’m writing might be worthwhile, but I’ll report back next month, either in tears or joy, we’ll see what happens.
Dan Holloway: Or it may be that you report back in many months’ time.
Howard Lovy: Exactly, yeah. I know I’m trying to speed this whole process along, it’s probably too fast.
Dan Holloway: It’s not always easy to speed things up.
ALLi’s Indie Author Income Survey
Howard Lovy: Right. So, I’m not only writing for fun, I’m also writing because I’d love to earn an income from it someday, which is a clever way of introducing our first topic in the news, which is ALLI’s Author Income Survey.
First, give us an overview, Dan, on what all this is about and what we’ve discovered so far.
Dan Holloway: The Indie Author Income survey is, it’s the first year that ALLi has been running this, it’s open at the moment, if you go to the main ALLi site, or if you go to my column from March the first, you will find a link to the survey, and we are looking for at least 2000 authors to take part.
What we’re looking for is people who spend at least 50% of their working time on either writing or writing related activity.
Howard Lovy: Writing related is something like marketing their own work or promoting it, or some other aspect of the author business?
Dan Holloway: Or some other aspect of the author business.
So, in particular, things like you, with editing for example, or people who do copywriting for magazines, that’s not necessarily under their own name. It’s teaching, writing, giving webinars, workshops, anything where you are making a living out of writing or the writing industry in some way.
The idea is to get a grasp of the figures, and what people are actually earning, but also then to treat it longitudinally. So, this is something that ALLi’s going to be doing every year, with the idea that we can follow it through and see how author incomes, where the trajectory is going.
So, we know from a lot of surveys of traditionally published authors and their income that the figures aren’t necessarily a hundred percent rosy. So, incomes have tended to go down considerably, and I think the idea is that those tend to exclude or be very skewed against indie authors. So, we don’t really have a picture of where we are within the overall cohort, and our trajectory could be very, very different from those of traditionally published authors.
Also, how we make our living, so I know that we might think of indies, for example, as being much more entrepreneurial in how we make our living, we might have more of a portfolio of things such as editing, such as writing in different genres, writing a mixture, you might even say of fiction and non-fiction.
Howard Lovy: Sounds familiar.
Dan Holloway: Being able to teach, offer workshops, all kinds of things that we do to make up little bits of income, as well as different formats that we sell in, and different markets on which we sell our rights.
So, I think it’ll be great to have some data to see whether those feelings are actually backed up.
Howard Lovy: Right, and this is useful not only for ALLi members, but for the outside world too. I don’t think, outside our own little bubble, I don’t think anybody’s aware that you can actually make a living off of this, or actually quantify how we make a living off of this.
Dan Holloway: Yes, I think there are some people who go into it and they’ve seen the headlines of, you know, bestselling self-published authors making seven figures, and they assume that all you have to do is put pen to paper and you’ll become a millionaire, and probably it’ll be a good reality check for those people to see how much time you have to spend doing other things, and how much of our income doesn’t come from the writing itself, but writing adjacent activities.
But there are other people who just assume that, oh, it’s just a hobby and would never be more than that, and for them it’d be really, really helpful to see, no, actually you can make a living and it can be the thing that pays the bills.
Howard Lovy: Right. So, there’s a lot of misunderstanding, either too rosy or not rosy enough. So, this is a dose of reality, I think it’s very useful.
Dan Holloway: Yes, and stats are always interesting.
US Copyright Office Issues AI Guidelines
Howard Lovy: Well, I think I hear our tech theme music in the background now, which tells me that it’s time to talk about tech, which is front and centre in the news pretty much all the time now thanks to AI generated text and ChatGPT, and things like that.
Sort of related to author income would be how much you can actually generate using artificial intelligence, and this is quite a controversy in the writing world and in the world at large.
So, I understand that the copyright office in the US just issued some kind of guideline or ruling on this?
Dan Holloway: Yes. So, there’s all sorts of AI news that has come up this week. I guess the first we should say is that OpenAI have just launched ChatGPT-4, which is a new and improved version, as though GPT-3 wasn’t sophisticated enough.
And yes, the US Copyright Office have issued guidelines on what do you can, and importantly what you can’t claim copyright on, in terms of AI generated content.
So, key takeaways is that there is a distinction between, I guess you would say individually generated items of content, and the overall format into which those individual items are put.
So, to use an example, if you generate an image using MidJourney, you can’t copyright it. You can’t copy text that has been generated by a single prompt using ChatGPT-3, for example.
But if you take a selection of images and a selection of prompt generated text and then do something interesting with them, then you might be able to claim copyright over that.
So, either if you compile them into something larger such as a graphic novel, or if you use that as a base and then modify the content you’ve generated, you might be able to claim copyright over that, which feels to me like what I had always understood copyright to be, which it’s not about the building blocks, because after all the building blocks that we use are the same words everyone else uses, but what you do with those building blocks, and that’s where the art is generated, and that’s where the rights are generated.
Howard Lovy: I’m wondering how this will affect, I mean, their whole business is built around improving your writing using AI. I’m thinking of SudoWrite as one example, they use ChatGPT technology to help you generate ideas for your writing.
Dan Holloway: That does fit perfectly into the other part of the guidance, which is that you can’t claim copyright on anything unless you declare any AI-generated text. So, having AI-generated text or having used AI isn’t a barrier as such, but you do need to declare that you’ve done it.
Howard Lovy: Interesting, and I’m wondering how this is going to be enforced. How do you know what’s been AI generated, and how do you know whether it’s being used word for word or whether it’s to sort of get your brain going and prompt an idea?
Dan Holloway: Yeah, that comes back to, I think it was a few months ago we had this discussion about the problems, that even OpenAI were having problems, because they realized this and they were trying to find a way of watermarking text, and they realized they couldn’t, because actually, it is really hard to watermark AI generated text. So, that is increasingly going to become hard to do.
In theory, you would reverse engineer it. So, for example, I work at a university, when we get electronic submissions for essays and so on, we run them through Turnitin, which can spot plagiarized text, not necessarily a hundred percent accurately, but it does a pretty good job, and my guess is that it would be an equivalent of that, but it’s a problem that might get away from us quite quickly.
As I say, OpenAI have already said they have been worried about how difficult it’s turning out to be to try and find a way of watermarking AI-generated text.
Howard Lovy: Like we were saying before the show, I think there’s going to have to be some case law on this before everything is really decided. Somebody’s going to have to sue somebody eventually.
But meanwhile, you mentioned that version four is out now. Do you know what the difference is? Is it better at, for example, it’s really lousy at math, I’ve discovered, at least version three was.
Dan Holloway: I haven’t had a proper play yet. There’s a very interesting article which I’m linking to in this week’s news column from the author of Bridgerton, or the novels based on the Netflix series, Bridgerton, who has been having a look and is clearly like, this is scary stuff, how good it is. So, my sense is that it is smoother and more human.
Howard Lovy: Don’t ask me why I asked it this, but I asked it what Keith Richard’s birthday was and how old he’ll be on a certain date, and it went through its entire logic to conclude that Keith Richards is in fact 169 years old, and then it said, but he likely is no longer alive because nobody can live to be 169 years old. And its internal logic was flawless except it was completely wrong. Keith Richards, as we know, is still alive, as you know.
Dan Holloway: And is way older than 169.
Howard Lovy: Exactly. So, kids out there, don’t depend on it to do your math for you.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, I think you still need a human sense check on it.
Howard Lovy: That’s right.
Dan Holloway: So, yeah, but it is a really interesting article, this BBC article on ChatGPT and romance, because it actually, one of the reasons people have been saying, oh, it’s going to come and take romance, is that everyone has this idea that romance novels are formulaic, and so that there’s some really good stuff in here saying, well, actually it’s not as formulaic as you think. So, if you think that this is the first genre it’s coming for, you might not be right.
Howard Lovy: Yeah, I think the first, I don’t know about genre, but the first job it might be coming for was what I used to do, called journalism. I don’t know if people remember that there used to be a profession called journalist.
Dan Holloway: That actually leads me to an item I’d forgotten, which I don’t think we talked about it last time, I think it’s come out since then, which is Wired, in Wired magazine, which now actually has an AI statement, and it promises that it will never use AI-generated text, other than where the AI generated text is the point of the story.
Howard Lovy: Oh, really? That’s interesting.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, that’s really quite an encouraging sign, that magazines are starting to see, or some magazines are starting to see this as a point of differentiation. It’s like our authors are really human.
Howard Lovy: That’ll go only so far until they discover they can save money by not paying reporters. But that’s good to hear. I used to freelance for Wired, back when I covered technology. So, it’s, it’s good to hear that humans are still behind them.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, we still have a use.
How the Silicon Valley Bank Collapse Impacts Indie Authors
Howard Lovy: Now, speaking of technology, and let me see if I can transition this well, in Silicon Valley there’s been some news about Silicon Valley banking system that actually has something to do with what we do.
So, let’s talk about the Silicon Valley Bank collapse and how that impacts indie authors.
Dan Holloway: Yes, this seems to be part of, or rapidly becoming part of a wider issue, because I’ve noticed credit suis is all over the news in the last couple of days. So, there seems to be a much wider problem, but this one started, or at least this part of it started with the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, and that matters because it’s where a lot of start-ups put their deposits. A lot of the companies who do the things that I report on and who generate the tools that we use had put all their deposits in Silicon Valley Bank.
I think the irony is it had made overly conservative investments, which is, I would say slightly ironic for an innovative culture bank, and that meant that it couldn’t actually get to any of its money, because it was all tied up in long-term bonds that were going to issue yields over time. Those yields were small but secure, but then because interest rates skyrocketed, all of a sudden, the yield they were getting was falling behind what they would’ve got if they’d, I’m not going to say if they’d invest it all in crypto, but if they’d put it in slightly less conservative, less secure places.
And they couldn’t get the money out, and all of a sudden, a lot of start-ups were finding they couldn’t make payroll because they couldn’t get to their money. So, the biggest start-up incubator, Y Combinator started a campaign to get people to invest in something that would help start-ups to pay their staff while things got sorted out. In the UK, the UK branch of Silicon Valley Bank was bought by HSBC for £1.
Howard Lovy: Wow, I could have bought that.
Dan Holloway: So yeah, we could have bought it and then sold it to someone for £2 and all of a sudden, you’ve made it.
Howard Lovy: Ultimately though, this kind of banking insecurity impacts start-ups, like, I don’t know if specifically, but things like Fictionary or SudoWrite, or the kinds of technology companies.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, that sort of company, and what we have seen over the last few weeks is just how much overlap there is between the publishing industry and the tech industry, and the interdependencies. Possibly the thing that brought this out most was a story I ran a couple of weeks ago about Wattpad, who are one of the world’s biggest publishing platforms, but they’re also essentially a tech industry. So, they have been affected by the unsettled nature of the tech industry and have just laid off 15% of their workforce.
Howard Lovy: Oh, really? Wow.
We’ve mentioned before on the show that they’re huge.
Dan Holloway: They are huge, billions of reads they have every month. So, we think of ourselves as a really old and analogue business, but a lot of what we do overlaps with the tech world, and we are quite reliant on technological tools, and a lot of the platforms we take for granted, like PublishDrive, Draft2Digital, who’ve got a really great new print tool out, I should mention. They’re all really new companies.
Howard Lovy: Right. Well, thank you as always, Dan, for your insights and analysis on the news. As always, you’ll continue to follow these trends on your blog at selfpublishingadvice.org, and we’ll put it all together again when we talk next month.
Dan Holloway: Super. Thank you.
Howard Lovy: Thank you, Dan. Bye.