Romantic fiction sales continue to rise, but with the genre frequently criticized for being formulaic, are its authors at risk of being replaced by book-writing chatbots?
Julia Quinn is the bestselling author of the Bridgerton series, which follows the love lives of eight siblings from a family of the same name in 19th-century London.
She claims that the inspiration for the books came from a duke.
“The character of Simon came first,” Ms Quinn says of the fictional Simon Basset, the brooding, troubled Duke of Hastings.
“I created this tortured character, and then I thought, ‘okay, well, he needs to fall in love with someone from the exact opposite background,'” she says.
As the duke is estranged from his father, Ms Quinn decided that he needed “to fall in love with someone with just the best family ever that you could imagine in that time period”. “And that’s really how the Bridgertons came around, as a foil,” she adds.
Characterisation and a human touch like this help to keep romance novels popular – and profitable for successful authors in the genre.
Ms Quinn, who lives in Seattle, is said to have more than 20 million books in print in the United States alone, and her TV adaptation of Bridgerton is one of Netflix’s most-watched shows.
But, is rapidly advancing technology about to endanger the livelihoods of romance novelists?
The issue stems from the release of ChatGPT, an advanced language processing technology developed by OpenAI, last autumn.
The artificial intelligence (AI) was trained using internet text databases, which included books, magazines, and Wikipedia entries. The system received 300 billion words in total.
ChatGPT can produce intricate writing that appears to have been written by a human when prompted.
It has made numerous headlines, with particular concern that students may use it to write their essays.
ChatGPT can also be tasked with writing fiction in a specific genre. And, while the quality isn’t quite there yet, technology will continue to advance.
This week, OpenAI released the latest version of ChatGPT, and other companies are developing competing systems.
Ms Quinn recalls reading some AI-written romantic fiction “and it was terrible” a few years ago. “Of course, I thought, ‘Oh, it could never be a good one.'”
Then ChatGPT appeared. “It makes me really queasy,” Ms Quinn admits. She does, however, remain optimistic that human creativity will triumph.
“I think the writer’s voice is so important in fiction,” she says. “And I’d like to think that’s something an AI bot won’t be able to do.”
Expert on chatbots Jill Rettberg says it’s “really important” to understand how they work.
“If you say, ‘I’m on my….’ on your phone, it will predict ‘way,'” says the co-director of the Center for Digital Narrative at the University of Bergen in Norway.
“All of these GPT things are the same, just prediction, but with a lot more text.”
This innovation is taking place in the midst of a romance-reading renaissance. In the United States, sales of romantic fiction increased by 52.4% last year, while adult fiction sales increased by only 8.5%.
Meanwhile, sales of the genre in the United Kingdom have more than doubled in the last three years.
Jen Prokop, co-host of the romance novel podcast Fated Mates, credits social media for some of this growth. She claims that this allows fans to connect with one another and share their enthusiasm for the genre.
“Now, with the rise of TikTok, podcasts, and Twitter… romance readers are finding each other,” says Ms Prokop, who also reviews and edits romance literature and lives in Chicago.
She goes on to say that fans of the genre are now much more willing to admit it. “When we say romance is becoming more mainstream or popular, I believe part of that is simply readers saying, ‘I’m not going to be ashamed of this anymore.'”
Helen Hoang, bestselling author of contemporary romance novels, believes there is now much more diversity in the genre, both in terms of fictional characters and writers. She claims that this is also bringing in more readers.
Her 2018 book The Kiss Quotient is about a young autistic woman who overcomes her fear of dating to fall in love with a man of Swedish and Vietnamese descent.
“I felt like it inspired publishers to really get on board with bringing in diverse authors, and these books that featured new kinds of narratives that you hadn’t seen before,” Ms Hoang says from her home in southern California.
She adds that that she “can’t see a robot or AI being able to create stories that really speak to the human experience, I just don’t see it happening”.
“My experience with writing and reading is that unless the author has felt it before, it’s not good,” Ms Hoang says.
Yet she hopes that AI could in the future be used to help “make the writing process easier for authors, but it’ll only be a tool, and it will never replace people”.