Meeting the Market: Mark Coker on AI, ChatGPT, and the Future of Publishing

Mark Coker

Mark Coker is an entrepreneur, author, and ebook publisher.  He launched SmashWords, a free ebook publishing and distribution platform, in 2008 with a mission to make it fast, free, and easy for authors to get their ebooks to readers, libraries, and bookstores.  In 2022, Draft2Digital acquired SmashWords, and Mark became the merged company’s Chief Strategy Officer. The combined publishing platforms include over 250,000 authors and publishers around the world, with over 800,000 ebooks and 11,000 print on demand paperback books.

In this 2023 interview, Mary asked Mark to share his personal reflections on today’s most disruptive publishing trends.

Q:  Mark, you were a pioneer in independent ebook publishing fifteen years ago. What major changes have impacted authors during that time?

Today, it’s easier than ever for any writer anywhere in the world, to write a book, self-publish it and have that book distributed to all the major retailers. That has led to new challenges as well as benefits for authors and publishers. In the past, print books would be forced out of print, based on a limited shelf space at physical retailers. With the shift to online retailing and ebooks, shelf space has become unlimited, publishing is unconstrained, and retailers can continue to sell the titles on their virtual shelves, even books that don’t sell a single copy for years.

Of course, that’s a double-edged sword for writers. it means your work is immortal; it can always be discovered and appreciated by a future reader. That’s what we all want as authors.  But digital publishing also creates a huge challenge for professional authors–the discoverability challenge.  How do you stand out? Authors are too quick to blame themselves for not figuring out marketing and advertising tools. The reality is that today even great books, even free great books, will have difficulty finding readers. It has become more and more challenging for professional authors to earn a living through writing.

Q: How will AI and tools like ChatGPT change the publishing landscape? 

AI is going to completely transform everything about publishing. I don’t think people fully understand how this will happen In the very near future. AI tools like ChatGPT transforms how books are written, to the point where it will force a rethinking about the definition of authorship, and what qualifies a person to call themselves an author.

When I first played with ChatGPT, I asked it to write a couple of short stories, including a short story on a topic that I had already written about. I was flabbergasted and shocked and terrified by the quality of what it spit out. Sure, there was some weird and anomalous information, but that could be easily edited out. What was shocking is how good the output was, how clearly it was drawing upon human knowledge about literature and, and artistry, including what makes a story we will enjoy reading.

Today, ChatGPT is just scratching the surface of the innovation we’re going to see in the next few years. We’re just in the Model-T era. Inevitably, AI will drive the rate of change in publishing exponentially. We will see an explosion of original written content that has been touched by AI in the next few years.

Q: Do you see any cause for optimism amidst these changes?

On the plus side AI will help all writers, including great authors, to write better.  But we’re only a couple of years away from AI tools writing full-length novels with amazing human complexity, with all the humanity, creativity, and fallibility that makes a novel great. And when that happens, even the best writers are going to face serious competition from machine-written stories and books. It’s going to become increasingly difficult to distinguish between what’s written by a machine and what’s written by a human.

There will also be an impact on the audience. Using AI, readers will be able to write the exact story that they want to read. There could be a completely new skill set that we’ll see develop, like when Google and other search engines first came on the scene, people needed to learn how to search for things. That’s a skill that we take for granted now.  I think that the people who enjoy reading are going to learn new skills to write great books, based on being able to describe the book they want to read to an AI tool  Millions, possibly billions, of one-of-a-kind books, high-quality, AI-generated books, will be created and enjoyed by individual readers. Maybe that explosion of content will be two years from now, five years from now, but the technology that will make it possible is already here, so that day is coming.

Soon we may see an AI tool capable of deciding what it wants to publish independent of human input, deciding on the topic, and the treatment and style, leveraging all the information that it’s automatically collecting about reader preferences. And some of this content is going to be very desirable to readers. Based on the history of exponential improvement in technology, we have to be prepared for a lot of these AI-written books to be very high quality. On the positive side, AI is going to do is unlock a tremendous amount of content, make it more accessible, more available, more affordable in more formats, to more readers. That’s a good thing.

Q:  What worries you as a publisher?

There’s already a darker side to social media and publishing. When anyone can say anything and can print in anything, fake news spreads faster than real news. We have to expect there will be a dark side to a lot of future AI-generated content as well. What do I worry about most? The things that I’ve been worried about now for the last decade. That includes anticompetitive behavior by companies that dominate publishing, the impact that has on authors and independent retailers, on the culture of books, I’m concerned about censorship by algorithm, where books are published and promoted based on rules that don’t necessarily reflect what readers are really looking for. When a dominant algorithm takes over, you can’t expect there to be bookstores in every neighborhood, serving different communities of readers.

To sum up. I would say generally, I’m very optimistic about the future of publishing and authorship, the future of books and literature. I think anything that makes writing more accessible, anything that encourages people to write and read and enjoy books can be a good thing. Yes, there will be turmoil, but I think a lot of good is going to come out of the next stage of publishing as well.

Meeting the Market

This is the first interview in a series by Mary J Cronin, highlighting different perspectives on publishing, marketing, and sales trends that impact authors.  It appeared in the Boston Authors Club newsletter.