Why write books in a world full of AI answers?

Graphic by Dall-E

The marketing thinker Scott Wilder recently posed this question on LinkedIn: “Would you write a business book today even though in a few years all information will be created and discoverable using AI?”

What do you think?

Will all information be discoverable using AI?

You could have asked this question 15 years ago in the form: “Would you write a business book even though all information is discoverable using Google?”

And yet, even though Google has access to nearly all information, it didn’t solve the discoverability problem. Google often surfaces crap, rather than the information you need. Finding information isn’t the problem. It’s identifying the right information that’s the problem.

AI is better at this — it does a pretty good job of finding what you’re looking for, rather than just what you’ve searched for. You can follow up with more detailed questions rather than continuing to search from scratch. Even so, AI search is just a better way to navigate and synthesize the mass of content out there, much of which is wrong. This is one reason AI generates hallucinations — because the problem of distinguishing truth from bullshit is much, much harder than the problem of finding relevant stuff online.

I believe AI will get far better than it is now at finding the answers you’ve asked for. But it will not get better at finding the truth.

Books are for insight, not answers

Even if AI gets much better and finding answers, it won’t replace books, because books are not a compendium of answers.

A well-constructed book generates something far more important than answers: insight.

Insight changes the way you think about something.

No one reads Blue Ocean Strategy to get answers about strategy. They read it to learn to think a new way about strategy. This means Blue Ocean Strategy can enable you to plan and lead a company to places where there are no answers.

No one reads Atomic Habits to get answers about habits. They read it to learn a new attitude about how habits can improve your life and how to establish them when it’s difficult to do so. You can’t write “Tell me about how to establish a new habit” in an AI prompt and expect to get exactly the advice you need to finally change the way you live your life.

If you are writing a business book, you must ask, “How will the reader be different after they read my book?” How will change the way they think? What will they be able to do that they couldn’t do before?

Changing people’s way of thinking doesn’t happen because of a prompt. (If it was that easy, reading famous quotations from powerful thinkers would have changed everyone already by now.) Changing people’s way of thinking requires stories, argumentation, data, and thinking frameworks. It requires a book-length exposition because that’s how long it takes to change everything about the way someone plans, markets, manages, becomes motivated, leads, builds an organization, or whatever the book is trying to teach you to do.

Let me make it simple. A book that can be replaced by AI isn’t worth reading, or worth writing. But if your author aspirations are a little grander than that, you have nothing to worry about. AI isn’t going to replace books — ever.

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  1. Machine-generated text is the pink slime of writing, made by the same kinds of people with similar motivations and concern for quality.

  2. Thank you for digging into something I have been thinking about for a while. After reading your post, I did ask ChatGPT “Tell me about how to establish a new habit.” It did feel a bit like a book summary but it still makes me think about whether or not ‘I should write that book.’

  3. I believe that what you wrote here on 11/21/2023 about AI is true today. AI today apparently hasn’t generated a book that meets Josh Bernoff’s standards for what makes a book worthwhile. But you ended, “AI isn’t going to replace books — ever.” I don’t know that AI will ever advance to the point that it makes human creativity altogether obsolete and leaves it in the dust, though I don’t know that it won’t either, but I wouldn’t be shocked or surprised to see AI generating some books that meet Josh Bernoff’s standards for what makes a book worthwhile, and sooner than you might imagine.