Richard Charkin: Chatting Megatrends With ChatGPT

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

In considering international publishing’s megatrends, Richard Charkin consults the digital oracle—and then sets it straight.

Image – Getty iStockphoto: Dmitry Kovalchuk

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

Large Language
Having spent a bit of time thinking about the massive changes in our industry over the last 50 years, I thought I might try to summarize the really important megatrends in a digestible form. Of course the latest potential megatrend is the Large Language Model (LLM) and “artificial intelligence” revolution.

Being a practical fellow, I thought I’d start by asking OpenAI’s ChatGPT what it ‘thought’ were the principal megatrends affecting the publishing world.

The Bot’s Output

Here’s what ChatGPT—it/he/she/they—had to say on notable megatrends affecting the publishing world:

  • “Digital revolution: The emergence of digital technology and the Internet has had a profound impact on the publishing industry. It revolutionized the way content is created, distributed, and consumed. Ebooks, online platforms, and digital reading devices have gained popularity, leading to the rise of digital publishing.
  • “Self-publishing and independent authors: The rise of self-publishing platforms, such as Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, has empowered authors to publish their own work without traditional publishing houses. This trend has allowed for a greater diversity of voices and genres in the market.
  • “Ebooks and digital reading: Ebooks have become increasingly popular, leading to a significant shift in reading habits. Digital reading devices like e-readers, tablets, and smartphones have made it easier for readers to access a wide range of books anytime and anywhere.
  • “Print-on-demand (PoD): Print-on-demand technology has enabled publishers to reduce costs and minimize inventory risks. This technology allows books to be printed in small quantities as and when they are ordered, eliminating the need for large print runs.
  • “Hybrid publishing models: Hybrid publishing models have emerged, combining elements of traditional publishing and self-publishing. These models offer authors a mix of services, such as editing, design, and marketing, while allowing them to retain more control and ownership over their work.
  • “Globalization and international markets: The publishing industry has become increasingly globalized, with books being published and distributed across borders. The growth of international markets, particularly in countries like China and India, has presented new opportunities for publishers and authors.
  • “Diversification of content formats: Publishers have diversified their content formats to cater to changing reader preferences. This includes the growth of graphic novels, audiobooks, interactive ebooks, and multimedia storytelling.
  • “Social media and influencer marketing: Social media platforms have become powerful marketing tools for authors and publishers. Influencers and ‘bookstagrammers’ play a significant role in promoting books and engaging with readers, leading to new marketing strategies and opportunities.
  • “Data analytics and personalization: With the proliferation of digital platforms, publishers have access to vast amounts of data on reader behavior. This data can be used to personalize recommendations, target specific audiences, and make informed decisions about content development and marketing strategies.
  • “Sustainability and green publishing: In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on sustainable practices in the publishing industry. Publishers are adopting eco-friendly practices, such as using recycled paper, reducing waste, and exploring digital alternatives to printed materials.

“These megatrends have significantly reshaped the publishing landscape over the past 50 years, transforming how books are created, distributed, and consumed.”

‘Closer to the Realities’

Not too shabby, but somehow lacking in bite, invention, and practicality. So here is my version of the 10 points—perhaps not as good nor as accurate, but I hope closer to the realities of the work we do and the industry we hope to sustain.

Richard Charkin

Digital publishing: In a sense, the phrase digital publishing is meaningless. Arguably, using a telephone from the 1990s was digital publishing. Certainly the digital revolution has affected everything we do in life and in business but this generic use is unhelpful. More specifics later.

Self-publishing and independent authors: Specifically, this megatrend has resulted in ISBN hyperinflation. The last 10 years in the United States alone have seen author-published ISBNs increase more than tenfold to in excess of 2 million titles. On one hand, this can be seen as a healthy indicator of the cultural well-being of a country. On the other hand, such a plethora of new books has inevitably led to arteriosclerosis of distribution channels and reader confusion. I’m the last person, I hope, to argue against self-publishing, but we do need somehow to allow it to flourish alongside “traditional” publishing where each can benefit the other.

Ebooks and digital reading: The megatrend here is that for the developed world the switch to ebooks in the consumer market has stalled–whether temporarily or not, time will tell. Elsewhere in the world, digital delivery of entertainment, information, and learning surely will continue to grow. Probably the greatest change has been in academic publishing, where 30 years ago, perhaps 1 percent of information was read on a screen. This is now close to 100 percent.

Print-on-demand (PoD): This is indeed a potential megatrend, but it has yet to really begin. Publishers, including me, still print in one location, ship to multiple warehouses, regions, countries, and bookshops, then accept returns of unsold stock to add to the copies which shouldn’t have been printed in the first place. I first heard about PoD back in the 1980s and yet it is still lagging behind the “traditional” route. When we are spouting on about sustainability, we should ask ourselves why we haven’t changed.

Hybrid publishing models: This seems to me to be simply a subset of “Self-publishing and independent authors” above and symptomatic of the shallowness of AI’s currently rudimentary understanding. The truth is that hybrid models, however good and useful are a tiny proportion of the industry and cannot constitute a megatrend.

Globalization and international markets: This is, as we say in British English, bleeding obvious. What’s more interesting is the trend of Anglophone publishers moving from catering principally for Anglophone countries to immersion in countries where English is either a second or even third language. This has had implications for the language capacity of staff hired, for greater understanding of hitherto mysterious markets, and investment into sales, marketing, distribution, and promotion to non-English first-language readers. Additionally, we may be seeing a new megatrend in which translating a high proportion of books can be achieved at significantly lower costs through AI and the originating publisher is in a position to publish universally by language and format.

Diversification of content formats: I part company with my robotic friend here. Publishing has been hardly affected by many of the new media such as multimedia and virtual reality, not to mention the booming online games market. Of course, once again the greatest shift has occurred in STM (scientific, technical, and medical) where publishing employees seem more able to cope with technological innovation. We were running podcasts at Nature at the turn of the century, for instance.

Social media and influencer marketing: Yes but is it a megatrend or simply an extension of traditional publishing marketing? We’ve seen promotional opportunities opening up—think Oprah Winfrey or Richard & Judy. They are great but not mega.

Data analytics and personalization: I wish this were true, but it simply is not yet the case. Asking your friends what they think is still the most market research that general publishers do. Academic and educational publishers are beginning to take data analysis seriously, but it’s still too early to view this as a megatrend.

Sustainability and green publishing: Yes but see “Print on Demand” above. We have to cease talking the talk and begin walking the walk.

And now four megatrends that the robot missed.

Author sales revenue: Authors have increased their share of sales revenue despite constant complaints that publishers are not paying enough. The total author costs of a general publisher in the Anglophone world now—royalties accrued plus unearned advances depreciated—stand at around 35 percent of sales revenue. The publishers’ share of the retail price has fallen from 60 percent to 40 percent. At the same time, the literary agent’s share of the author’s earnings has increased from 10 percent to 15 percent and sometimes more—a genuine megatrend which goes some way to explain the proliferation of literary agency staff and numbers.

Toward e-commerce and away from traditional bookshops: Back in the 1990s, if a hypothetical fairy godmother had suggested to me a new system whereby every book published would be available for ever anywhere in the world at a discounted price and delivered to your home within 24 hours I’d have clapped my hands with joy (after overcoming my disbelief) and upped my sales projections by at least 25 percent. As we now know this wish was granted but overall sales have not increased by 25 percent or anything like that. Megatrend Amazon has done a brilliant job but overall sales have hardly budged. In other words, the megatrend is, whatever lovers of independent bookshops (like me) might say, the trend has been toward e-commerce and away from traditional bookshops. Sad.

Enhanced bibliographic systems: Slightly less visible or measurable, the invention and impact of enhanced bibliographic systems is important, although we now take for this granted. Without these system, discoverability of a particular book would be nigh impossible.

Women in publishing: Finally, the role of women in our industry has indeed been a megatrend, from assistants to leaders. Thank goodness.

I’d love to hear about other megatrends. There are many that neither I nor my robot have addressed. As an industry, we might do well to identify them and see how we can sustain our vital business and the livelihoods of authors of every type.


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About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the International Publishers Association and the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. For 11 years, he was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is a former president of the Book Society and non-executive director of the Institute of Physics Publishing. He is currently a board member of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, a member of the international advisory board of Frankfurter Buchmesse, and is a senior adviser to nkoda.com and Shimmr AI. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd., and has founded his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Charkin has an MA in natural sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a supernumerary fellow of Green College, Oxford; attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’