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Eager Readers in Your Area!

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The sites had gone empty almost overnight. It was the deep learning models that had done it, with such power and force that everyone was left feeling a bit rootless. The writing had been on the wall, if you knew where to look for it, but for most, it seemed like one day someone had said “we have AI-generated prompt-to-prose models trained on the whole text of the Internet, and it can write stories that are better than a pretty above average human” and it turned out to be true. It started with a research paper, and people had debated whether it was art or not, or whether it actually was good, and then two months later there were a half dozen services that could spit out a million words of high-quality, evocative fiction in whatever style you wanted. You had to be a bit careful with how you prompted it, if you wanted the good stuff, but when people figured that out it came in a flood.

No one wanted to read the human stuff anymore, or at least not the kind of thing that had been put on WattPad, AO3, and RoyalRoad by the thousands in the decade that preceded the AI revolution. There were attempts to make those sites human-only, but that was hard, with the models so readily available, and the AI didn’t leave many fingerprints. There had been a relationship between writers and readers, and now the readers had all gone for greener pastures.

If you were the average writer, there was no more audience for you.

Charlotte posted anyway. She loved to write, she told herself. She had a unique, original story that she loved, about a lonely girl who turned out to have magical powers, and the dangerous prince who loved her. She worked on it every day, usually putting out chapters of two or three thousand words. Before the AI, that kind of output might have been impressive. Now a computer could do it in thirteen seconds. It could write continuations of her fic, nailing all the characters and doing a better job than she could. Still, she wrote. She told herself that it wasn’t necessarily better, just preferred by actual readers, but that felt hollow.

The first chapter had ten views, which might just have been phantoms. The eleventh chapter had a single view. The twelfth chapter, no one read, and it stayed unread for days. She kept plugging away at it.

She tried advertising, but that didn’t really help. It got a few more views, but only a few, and no comments. There was no proof that anyone had actually read her story. She tried doing a reading swap with another writer, but the other girl’s prose was dreadful, and Charlotte didn’t have it in her to finish. They ended up ghosting each other. Maybe the other girl had felt the same way.

The balance of supply and demand had shifted, and everyone felt it. Readers could go get the good AI stuff, and writers were scrambling to pick up readers. Some writers didn’t care, and just continued on, but others were desperate for any sign that what they were doing was meaningful or good or just something other than an irrelevant collection of squiggles on a computer screen.

Charlotte saw the first ad on RoyalRoad. It said “Eager Readers in Your Area!” She had thought that it was a joke, but she’d clicked on it anyway, biting her lip as she did when she was concentrating. There were rates for different services. It had taken a moment to parse it: people would read your stuff if you paid them. In the past, readers had paid good money to commission work from writers, had even put up money on Patreon to make sure the stories would go on, but now the tables had turned, and apparently there were mercenary readers. For $30, someone would read up to 15,000 words you’d written and tell you how it was. Charlotte closed the tab, but it stayed in her mind.

There were other options. WattPad rolled out their Artificial Engagement program, where an AI would read your story and make some comments on each chapter. At the trial level, you’d get five of those comments on every chapter. If you wanted to go premium, you’d get unique personalities for the AE users and full paragraphs talking about what they liked and didn’t like. At the ultra premium level, the AE would interact with each other and have their own little mock community with inside jokes and fanart and shitposting and memes. That was $50 a month. Of course, the technology was already there to do most of that yourself, if you wanted to live in a fantasy land. The real draw was that it was on one of the old websites that made it feel real.

She kept posting. She had almost a full novel, though it had nothing like an ending, or even really a middle. It was mostly just 80,000 words of a young girl discovering her magical powers. It had taken 30,000 words just to get the girl started on her adventure. Charlotte didn’t know whether that was too much, but no one was reading, there was no community to discuss it, no traction, not even the “TFTC!” that had once been ubiquitous.

Charlotte saw more ads. “Readers Seeking Stories!” and “Local Readers Want to Give Feedback!” and “Detailed Analysis!” and “Your Work Has Hidden Depths and These Readers Know It!” They came with photos, sometimes just of books, but more often with a studious intellectual with glasses looking down with interest at a book. Most of the time he was male. Sometimes there was an eagerness to his eyes. It was appealing, looking at a man like that and imagining his eyes on her work. She wondered whether everyone got the same ads, but she thought they were probably tailored to her. They might even have been generated by some deep learning model that had been pointed at her profile.

She clicked one, telling herself it was just to see. The prices had gone up since the last time she had checked. Some of it, it seemed like you could just do with the same AE stuff, which had started to be called ‘ash’ for unclear reasons, maybe because of the way it coated the writing websites, or the way it felt like it was choking the life from the hobby, or possibly just because it left a bad taste in a person’s mouth. For $100, someone would read 15,000 words and then write three paragraphs about whether it was good or not. She had frowned at that. It seemed like a waste of money, since they could just feed the story into the models and get it to spit pieces of criticism back out. It was just the illusion of a reader, she thought.

But if you wanted to pay more money, you could have a Skype call. Those were harder to fake, at least with the current technology. Realtime video was a problem that might be solved in another month or in five years, it was hard to say, but with a high resolution stable connection where the other person was responding to your questions and comments, you could be certain that there was a real person on the other end.

That didn’t really mean anything though. A real person could read from a script that an AI had written, and the AI could write it in real time. The person might be real, but they might just be an actor who hadn’t actually read anything. So maybe it was just a higher form of the old AE tricks, which had been in place for three months, and were practically ancient by that point. The ash had covered everything.

At the highest level on offer, you’d meet in person. The reader would read your work in front of you, then you’d spend an hour talking about it, or more, if you had the money. The website stressed that this was no joke, that they had readers in virtually every large city in America, that these were skilled, motivated readers who actually would read what you had written. You’d meet in a public place, which was safer for both of you. You’d put in a deposit. It was a gig economy thing, but the readers were vetted, people with lots of reviews on Goodreads or hundreds of comments on one of the bigger sites.

She left the tab open. Eventually she moved the tab to the left side of the window, in a place of prominence.

She’d come back to it, looking at the pictures. They didn’t show the actual readers, but they were supposed to be representative. There were three close by, with biographies. She liked the one for Roget, though that was an obvious pseudonym. He was a shy college student who loved fantasy fiction, it said, and he’d grown up on older classics like The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. She read his bio three times. The last time she had the sleeves of her sweater up around her hands, clutching at the edges, and she chewed on her thumbnail.

It was a lot of money, but she had some money, and she wanted … she wasn’t sure. She said to herself that she wanted someone to read it, to talk about it with, but that wasn’t quite true. What she really wanted, and would never admit out loud, was that she wanted someone to read it and love it. She wanted someone to get excited about her work, to share in the joy with her, to gasp at the revelations and wipe away a silent tear at the sad bits. That was what she wanted, but you couldn’t just pay someone for that, so she said to herself that she just wanted engagement, something, anything to feel like she hadn’t been creating nothing more than digital waste.

She paid the money. It was a lot. She had finished up the story at 100,000 words, though it was really more of a Book 1 ending than a real ending. She had more planned. She edited it, making two passes, and was surprised how bad the opening had been. She wanted Roget to like it.

On the day of, she felt butterflies in her stomach. She did her best to dress nice, to look presentable, to look like a Serious Author. She tried on a pair of glasses in the store, for that more studious look, but she didn’t actually wear glasses, and had put them back. She wore her best makeup, following a tutorial online. She wanted to present well. She wanted it to be perfect, or at least for her appearance not to get in the way.

They met at a coffee shop. He was different from what she had been expecting, taller, more handsome, with a thin nose and large lips. He wore glasses, and had a rakish hair cut. He looked posh, for lack of a better word. He seemed like the kind of guy that had grown up yachting off the coast of Maine, who’d had private tutors in ivy-covered buildings, who’d gone on ski trips to Colorado and had done a yearly vacation to somewhere exotic like Paris or London. He had khakis and a cornflower blue buttoned-down shirt, though no tie, and he didn’t look particularly formal, just like the kind of person who had found his personal style and it happened to be more polished than other people settled on. Charlotte felt bad about the small rip in the hem of her skirt that she’d hastily sewn the night before.

The introductions were brief. They had a booth in the back of the coffee place, away from prying eyes. He’d gotten there before her, and had a large, hot drink. He offered to get her something, before they had even exchanged names, and she had declined. There was a laptop sitting on the table, booted up, plugged in, and ready to go. She had a flash drive, which felt like an ancient bit of spycraft.

“I’m Roget,” he had said with a polite smile.

“Charlotte,” she replied.

“So, do you want to tell me about the story, or should I hop right in?” he asked.

“You want, um, a synopsis?” she asked. She hadn’t prepared one.

“Only if you think it’ll enhance the work,” he said with a mild shrug.

“Just read it, I guess,” she said.

“This is for you,” he said. “Anything you want, you tell me.”

“I just want it to be read,” she said, though she knew that wasn’t the truth.

“It’ll go better if you’re specific,” he said. “From experience, anyway. I like to know what I’m looking for, what feedback you want, what you wrote this for, so I can know what to read it for.”

“Just read,” she said, shaking her head. She was feeling shy. She’d wanted this, but now it felt like it was the most embarrassing thing in the world, to show something you’d written to someone. The questions were making her feel self-conscious, like she should have thought about this more, and she couldn’t say what she really wanted, which was for someone to read and like it.

“I’ll read,” he said.

He took the flash drive from her, loaded up the story, and spent a moment looking at the title. She could see it reflected in his glasses. “Before I start, I just want to let you know that there’s no funny business involved here. I’ve got nothing else running on the laptop, I’ll be reading the whole time, and maybe making a few notes as I go along, in Notepad, just so I can keep my thoughts organized.”

“Okay,” she said. She sat with her hands in her lap.

He started reading. She watched his eyes track back and forth across the screen. He had it in dark mode, she could see, and he had a tiny mouse whose scroll wheel he flicked from time to time to move the text along. It made a sound when he did that, and to her ears it sounded louder than the espresso machine that was steaming away not too far from them.

“Sorry,” he said after only a few pages, and her heart stopped as he looked up at her. “I was getting wrapped up, I had meant to ask before we started whether you preferred live commentary from me, post-chapter discussion, or for us to just have a talk about it when I’m done.”

“It’s one hundred thousand words,” she said. “I think … maybe after every chapter.” They were going to be there almost all day. The rates were premised on 250 words per minute, which seemed a little slow to her, and she’d been warned there would be a few bathroom breaks, a lunch break, and maybe time to get up and stretch. There needed to be time for discussion too, because that was part of it.

He went back to reading.

She watched his face. She wasn’t sure that she was supposed to do that, but he hadn’t told her not to.

It first happened two pages in. His lips quirked, just a bit, a faint trace of a smile that came and went, like she might have imagined it. She wondered what had been going through his head, and almost asked, but if he was finding something funny, that was good, it was very good, and she didn’t want to take him out of it. Just a little bit after that, his eyes narrowed, and he looked at the screen with puzzlement, and then an eyebrow raised in understanding, and he quickly typed something, then continued on.

Roget was expressive like that. His eyebrows seemed to move at the slightest provocation, and he’d tilt his head this way and that, down in concentration or up in understanding. His smiles were faint and brief. He stuck out his tongue when he concentrated, the pink tip of it held between his gleaming teeth, like he needed something to chew on. He took drinks of his coffee a few times, and one of those times he’d reached for the cup, picked it up, held it there for a full thirty seconds while his eyes darted back and forth, then placed the cup back down so he could make another quick note. He laughed, twice, though it wasn’t quite a laugh in a ‘ha ha’ way, it was a bigger smile and an audible exhale through the nostrils. Charlotte had meant to go get a drink for herself after he’d started, but she found herself captivated.

“Alright,” he said. She could see the second chapter title in his glasses. He looked up at her, and it was like he was rising up from a deep sleep. When he looked at her, it was almost as though he was surprised that she was still there, or like he needed to load up the part of his mind that was responsible for dealing with people. That was gratifying, to be able to turn someone into a zombie. She had never thought about it like that until she’d seen it. She wanted to see it again.

“Did you,” she said, but ‘like it’ withered on her lips. She was too worried about what he would say. She knew that there were flaws in it, and she hadn’t said that she didn’t want constructive criticism, but she didn’t want constructive criticism. “How was that?” she asked instead, stumbling over the words a bit.

“Really really strong opening,” he said. He looked down at the screen and flicked the scroll wheel, frowning for a moment. He bit the inside of his lip. “I like the protagonist so far, or maybe … maybe I don’t like her, I just find her compelling and true. A lot of how she thinks about her life, how she feels trapped and small — here, there was a phrasing that I really liked, ‘a mouse that found itself alone in the field’ — it’s tapping into something. And I think there’s a bit of meanness to her, and the way she thinks, that makes me think that she’s going to do something great or terrible.” He said that last bit as he looked up at Charlotte. “Sorry, it’s the nature of this that I might be totally off base, I’m going to keep reading and maybe my understanding of what you’re doing with this will be completely changed. That’s part of the fun of it.”

She wanted to ask whether it was good. He hadn’t actually said that it was good. He’d said there was a phrasing that he’d liked, and he’d said that it was a strong opening, but he hadn’t said that it was good.

“I’m going to keep reading, if that’s okay with you,” he said. She gave a mute nod and he looked back down at the laptop, where he’d scrolled back to the second chapter. But he was only there for a moment until he stopped and looked up at her, frowning ever so slightly.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“Can I be honest?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure,” she said. Her heart was suddenly hammering. Honesty could mean anything.

“I read a lot, from a lot of people, and most of it is — it’s from the heart,” he said. “I get why people want to share it, how they want to express themselves. There’s a vulnerability to writing that just doesn’t exist without people reading it. A lot of writers just want to be heard.”

His eyes went down to the laptop for just a moment, and there was a second of silence. “Charlotte, this is really good,” he said. He looked her in the eyes. “I don’t think it’s just the prose, it’s the feeling of it, the way it hits.”

“Oh,” she said. “Thanks.” She felt like she would die of shame, and also like her heart was going to expand and lift her up to the ceiling.

“Thanks for letting me read it,” he said. His eyes went back down to the laptop, as though drawn there, as though it was a movement that happened beyond his conscious control.

Charlotte sat and watched, smiling, as he read on.