Noted SFF magazine Clarkesworld recently had to shut down submissions to tackle an influx chatbot-generated stories. Time to think about the humans involved.
Two days ago, Clarkesworld shut its doors to tackle a rising tide of story submissions that had all the hallmarks of being generated by chatbots. The surge happened especially as ChatGPT functionality became more widely accessible in the last few months. Solutions have not yet emerged to this problem, but my industry of speculative writers, artists, editors, and publishers are working on it. The important takeaway for outsiders, and those generally interested in the “problem of AI”, as this story spreads beyond the world of SFF, is that this isn’t really a tech problem at its heart.
It’s a human one.
A little about the industry
Neil Clarke launched Clarkesworld in 2006, and ever since has been pursuing the development of international SFF. (Full disclosure: I’ve been published in Clarkesworld many times.) That’s no easy feat, especially when one focuses on backend improvements to the editorial process rather than flashy calls for special themed issues, which can have the effect of treating one’s demographic as a “token” perk, or commodity to boost sales. The alternative is to train one’s editorial team to be more open to story styles and tropes from a broader range of human communities, and to make the open submissions process as accessible as possible. This is what has allowed Clarkesworld to accept many pieces outside a fairly rigid Western mold for what makes a “good” story.
For instance, early on, Clarke worked extensively with Chinese translators to bring into English the work being done by SFF writers overseas: work that can often read as too heavy on philosophical or technical exposition for a Western readership more acclimated to individualist stories thick with protagonist action. In general, too, the magazine strongly prioritizes the presence of new writers and writers in translation in each issue. Just this year, it also launched a program to accept Spanish-language stories for consideration and translation.
Clarke’s publication was also among the early pioneers of pro-rated (that is, better-paying) online magazines for short fiction. He has always worked to improve the rates he can offer writers, and striven to grow the publication’s reach such that he can share more stories (and at greater word counts) each month.
This has made Clarke will situated to remark on the state of the industry, as he’s gathered data not only around submissions trends, but also declining revenue streams, and the especially pressing problem for short fiction magazines of readers not investing sufficiently in the content. Old-school SFF magazines like Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF never went the “free-to-read” route, so they have the arduous task of maintaining subscribers on the back of longstanding brands, without offering free material to intrigue new readers.
Online SFF, like Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Fantasy, Nightmare, The Deadlands, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, have the opposite challenge: how to convince folks to support free-to-read content. (And each of these publications has a different strategy, including staggered release of new content, annual fundraising drives, and multiple supporter streams through Patreon and subscription services.)
The scramble for stability, for publishers and writers
Which leads to our current crisis in short fiction. In December, Clarke also sounded the alarm of Amazon ending a subscription-based service, Kindle Publishing for Periodicals (KPP), that would dissolve short fiction publications’ long-curated subscriber lists and take out a key revenue stream. Clarkesworld was perhaps the third SFF publication to have adopted KPP, in 2011, but when the program ends in September, Amazon will be cutting off income to a wide range of magazines, in favour of a Kindle Unlimited program that requires people to sign up to KU to access any magazines joining the service. In other words, you will no longer be able to sign up just for the magazines you want via this Amazon product, and publishers will have far less direct control over pricing and distribution in general.
This is the “machine” of industry that SFF was dealing with already, while chatter about so-called “AI” reached a fever-pitch last fall and through January, around the splashy, sensational, ethically complex results of digital art generators and chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT. (We covered a few of them here at OnlySky, but I also wrote four pieces reflecting on missing facets of the equation: how futureshock is age-old economic anxiety, how we should fear corporations not bots, how careerism needs a huge rethink, and how we need to reclaim human agency when talking tech.)
Then on February 15, Clarke posted “A Concerning Trend”, which outlined the huge uptick in story submissions that had strong signs of being generated by chatbots. The critical component here is that this wasn’t general spam: human actors were trying to pass off these stories as human-generated content, for consideration by a publication that is an ideal target for anyone hoping to make easy cash. As Clarke noted,
I’ve reached out to several editors and the situation I’m experiencing is by no means unique. It does appear to be hitting higher-profile “always open” markets much harder than those with limited submission windows or lower pay rates. This isn’t terribly surprising since the websites and channels that promote “write for money” schemes tend to focus more attention on “always open” markets with higher per-word rates.
Here, though, is where many bystanders have started to get a touch confused, because to many in Western contexts the pay rate at Clarkesworld is still low in contrast to other forms of income. At 12 cents US a word, a 6,000-word short story is $720. Is that really worth the fuss, some have wondered. It must be that these scammers are pitching on a lark, to play around with a new toy while it’s shiny!
But as Clarke alluded to in the aforementioned piece, and when mentioning plagiarists submitting to the publication in the past, there is a “regional” component to this issue. Just as Clarkesworld has worked so hard to try to bring in the world, so too has the world of deep economic disparity also been more likely to take on any hustle that provides access to Western financing: maybe a “small” sum to folks in one-thirds-world countries, but a game-changer in many others. (I noted similar when writing about West African money rituals, and the “yahoo boy” cyber-hustles that preceded this brutal practice. Human need runs desperately deep.)
Which leads to the current question that wiser minds than mine are currently conking skulls over: How does one continue to advance egalitarian and equity-oriented practices on a creative front, when new technology is leveling the playing field in the most brute force way imaginable—by steamrolling over any player with an open-door policy? And when financial support for those open-door cultures has itself been threatened by corporations steamrolling over them, too?
Clarke has made it very clear that moving to a “greenlit” list of known writers is unacceptable. Although many publications in SFF only solicit content privately, fortifying existing geopolitical privilege among the writers on its pages, or else have narrow and spottily announced open submissions windows that continue to favor writers in networks of more immediate outreach, Clarkesworld‘s mission has always been more quietly inclusive. No submissions fees. Minimal favoritism (as much as any human being can avoid partiality to some extent). And on the backend? Always finding ways to make the editorial team more open to content from the world.
The trouble is, Clarkesworld exists in a world that is not at all equitable.
And all this chatter around chatbots, the thrill of suggesting that “science fiction has overwhelmed science fiction magazines!”, can easily distract us from that fact.
Yes, this new technology, and subsequent large language models that might produce content even more difficult to detect by future slush readers, is a problem. Just as spam and online scammers have been a problem for decades.
But so too, and perhaps more pressingly, is life in a world of such profound inequality, that while some of us (speculative writers, and other workers in similar creative field) might find ourselves worrying how we’ll get into short fiction magazines now, we’re dealing with a phenomenon brought about by the fact that whole segments of the world are living without great economic options at all.
The solution we need goes beyond better ways to filter out so-called AI from our submissions queues. And it even goes beyond finding ways to sustain specific SFF magazines against broader techo-economic attacks on livelihood.
Crises like the influx of spam submissions at Clarkesworld should be a wake-up call:
The current system isn’t working because no individual publication, however lofty its topical concerns, can ever be expected to remedy so deeply broken a world.
What this latest run of new technology calls for us to do, to paraphrase William Gibson, is to recognize that the future is already here, just not evenly distributed—and that we had damned well better get on that.