Is using AI art for books always wrong… or only sometimes?

Is using AI art for books always wrong… or only sometimes?

(the above image was generated with an AI prompt of "A weathered billboard that says "Is AI art a bad thing?")

In the early days of my fiction career, before my deal with Random House, I had to beg, borrow, and steal to get non-cover art for my work. I simply couldn’t afford to pay talented graphic artists what they were worth. Several people did art for me for free because they loved a particular story, or because they were big fans and were delighted to part of a project, or because they simply liked this monster or that and wanted to do their version. And, yes, some of these artists “worked for exposure,” so they could add a cool piece of art to their portfolio.

As time went on, I was able to pay artist for their work, but that shit was (and is) still crazy expensive. And it should be expensive — you’re not paying an artist for just that work, you’re also paying for the skill they have built up over many years.

You want a pro-caliber book cover that will catch the eye of many a reader? Pay the piper, brah. You want a mercenary/spaceship/monster/heroine/barbarian, etc, that looks like pro work? Pay said piper.

You want your work to look amateurish and cheap? No problem, just do the art yourself.*

Except now, thanks to AI art, you can do it yourself, and it can look amazing. And, hey, it’s free, or at least dang close to it.

But is it, though?

It’s free to you but it ain’t free. Great AI art looks great because the AI has analyzed the styles and techniques of talented artists. Those skills artists built up over many years that I mentioned above? Samesies, except the people who developed those skills are cut out of the deal altogether.

With a bit of time and a bit of patience, an author can create cover art and story-related art related that’s damn good, if not outright fantastic.

Which brings us to the question at hand: what if you use AI art to create elements that you would never have paid for in the first place?

Let’s skip book covers for now (we’ll hit those below, as it is an important subject).

Let’s say you write a wild monster-hunter-turned-hitman story called, oh, I don't know, let's call it "SLAY" just to keep this moving. In this hypothetical example, there is a secondary character who is a genius, billionaire, arrogant wizard. Let's call this guy "Kellius Droman." Say you want a visual reference of this character for internal storytelling consistency, but that visual won't be used in the book, for marketing, for social media, or for any revenue-generating efforts.

In this example, you would not pay someone to do a design of Kellius Droman because you will not recoup that expense.

Enter AI-drawn Kellius Droman: 


With AI, you can create a reference image and tweak it to be close to what you envision. You don’t pay an artist, but here's that gray area — you would not have paid an artist in the first place for that same art.

If you wouldn’t have paid for this secondary character art to begin with, and that art is not generating revenue (not used in social media, marketing, the book package, etc.), is using AI art wrong?

It is a genuine question because I don’t know the answer. On the one hand, AI scrapes the hard work of many talented people. On the other, those talented people wouldn’t have seen a dime for this art, because you wouldn’t have spent a dime on the project in the first place.

Yes, this is a slippery slope, especially because one thing AI is good at is learning what you like. You start out with a few works you wouldn’t have paid for (the first hit’s always free), and the next thing you know AI has a grip on your aesthetic tastes. Work gets done faster and it looks better. When that happens, how long until you would rather have the AI art than the real thing?

Which brings us back to book covers. They are a big deal; using AI for them is a flat-out no-no. So much so that the Science Fiction Writer's Association (SFWA) has taken a stand. Here's an excerpt:

In light of the concerns discussed in this statement and elsewhere, SFWA’s Board of Directors has instructed its staff and volunteers to avoid seeking out and intentionally using generative AI/ML tools for any internal or publicly published material for SFWA, except for the purpose of discussing these technologies as part of our educational mission.

Short answer here: Don’t use AI for your book covers.** The writing and design communities are quite unified on this topic. There is no gray area, at least not at this time.

Here's a Gizmodo article on Tor using AI art for a Christopher Paolini novel. Both Tor and Christopher can definitely afford to hire an artist, so this caused a bit of a stir.

If you can’t afford a cover artist, then save up until you can. If you can’t afford it no-way no-how, save money the way many publishers do — with font-based cover art (like we used for SLAY). The title and the author’s name, and you're good to go. Take a look on Amazon, and you’ll see indies and bigs alike doing this.

What are your thoughts? Is it wrong to use AI to make art you wouldn’t have paid for in the first place? Tell me in the comments below.

*You may think your art is pro-caliber. Odds are, it’s not. Odds are, it looks like garbage. Find a way to get unvarnished opinions of people who don’t know you and support you — you’ll find out fast if I’m right or I’m wrong.

**And don’t hire an artist who uses AI, no matter how “affordable” they make it seem. Doing so is still ripping off the artist scraped by AI.

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