Richard Charkin in the Publisher's Chair

Richard Charkin in the Publisher's Chair

Richard Charkin is a former president of the International Publishers Association and the Publishers Association. For 11 years, he was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held senior posts at 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 and NeuroTech 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. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’

Welcome, Richard and many congratulations on the publication of your book, My Back Pages. Can you outline why you wanted to write this book and what the book is about?

It's a pleasure to be here! After fifty years of publishing other people's books, several people approached me with a request to share my own perspective on the events and changes that unfolded during that time. Initially, I was hesitant, as I didn't want to add another self-serving memoir to the literary world! However, a friend of mine, Tom Campbell, expressed interest in collaborating on this project. We decided to give it a try, with no specific intention of publishing it. Our process involved weekly meetings in a cafe or pub, where I would recount the events and history. Tom would take notes and together we turned it into a book. Surprisingly, after completing it, one of the referees who reviewed it asked if they could publish it. That's when I realised it had potential, and we agreed to have it published.

How are you promoting the book? Are you planning any book tours or events to promote it?

Yes, absolutely! One of the highlights for me was being invited back to Oxford University Press to talk about the book with their staff. It was a promotional opportunity as well as a chance to reminisce about my fourteen-year tenure there. Apart from that, we are actively participating in podcasts, giving talks, and there are some events in the works, including one at the London Library, another at Macmillan, and one at Burley Fisher Books in East London. Another new development is that we recently sold the Spanish language rights to a Spanish publisher, opening up the possibility of reaching new audiences in different languages, so it’s a really exciting time!

That sounds like a fantastic lineup of events and opportunities to engage with readers. Delving a little bit into the writing process, did you find it enjoyable to write this book?

In one word, yes, it was enjoyable. However, there were significant aspects that we had to omit from the book. Some stories were excluded because it would have been inappropriate or legally problematic to include them. Other times, certain details were left out simply because they were not engaging enough. So, the book ended up being relatively concise, attempting to cover the entire history of fifty years of publishing in fewer than two-hundred pages. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to express my gratitude to an industry that has provided me with so much joy and to say thank you for the experiences and opportunities it has given me.

That's lovely to hear. Over your five-decade-long career, you've worked in various roles and types of publishing companies. What motivated you to explore these different sectors?

I never consciously made specific career decisions throughout my life. Opportunities presented themselves, and my nature is such that I rarely say no! For example, when I was responsible for medical books, someone asked if I could also oversee journals, and I accepted the challenge. This led me to learn about subscription systems and eventually delve into software. Each transition from one aspect of the industry to another revealed new insights and brought enjoyment. I have simply ‘gone with the flow’ and embraced the various opportunities that came my way.

Is there one area or one type of business that you enjoyed working in the most? What are the challenges between the startups that you've worked in or publicly owned or family owned?

I have had the opportunity to work in various settings, the most recent being my own start up, Mensch Publishing. It’s a one-man band operation and I have found it incredibly enriching. I’ve had to really dive into the nuts and bolts of the business, such as obtaining ISBNs, understanding high-resolution requirements, and figuring out book spines. On the other hand, I have also worked with organisations like Oxford University Press and currently serve on the board of Liverpool University Press. These presses have their unique characteristics, as they need to balance profitability with their mission of disseminating scholarly information. In contrast, publicly owned companies like Bloomsbury have additional obligations to their shareholders, which include delivering financial returns while maintaining high-quality publications. So, each type of business presents its own set of challenges.

You mention in your book that over the course of your fifty-year career, you have witnessed significant changes that have shaped the industry. Could you elaborate on some of these changes and their impact?

Certainly. One significant change that has had a profound impact not only on the publishing industry but also on society as a whole is the increased role of women in senior management positions. When I started, most senior positions were held by ageing white males like myself today. However, I have observed a remarkable shift, with more women occupying top positions and leading successful companies. When I was at the Nibbies Awards last week, I would say at least seventy percent of the people in the room were women and over eighty percent of the winners were women. It’s been a fantastic change for the better.

Technological advancements have also transformed the publishing landscape. I recall the transition from hot metal and movable type printing to phototypesetting. The emergence of computers revolutionised the way we operate, from tracking book sales to word processing. I even recall the early days of digital publishing when dictionaries were being converted into software on floppy disks. 

Years ago, I read in Publishers Weekly that Penguin Random House were licensing their dictionary to a software company to generate floppy disks. I wrote to the software business suggesting they use the Oxford Dictionary in preference to Random House. They listened and converted the pocket Oxford Dictionary onto a floppy disk which was effectively the first electronic spell checker! 

A little anecdote for you about this dictionary. I arrived in New York and they showed me what a floppy disk was (packaged in a square white box which actually belonged to the ladies’ stocking company upstairs!). They showed me this first iteration of the ‘spell checker’ and they told me to type something in and see if a spelling mistake came up. There are certain words which aren’t in the dictionary which you might not want to be told are a spelling mistake such as your own name, so there was an advanced facility which allows you to add these words. I added Charkin and it said ‘you’ll find it alphabetically between ‘Chard and Charm’.

What they don’t tend to have in American dictionaries is four-letter words, so I put in the obvious four letter word beginning with F to see if they had indeed taken out four-letter words. Sure enough, it said this word is misspelt and asked if I would like to add it to my personal dictionary to which I said yes. It told me that ‘f**k’ has been added to your personal dictionary, you will find it alphabetically between ‘frustration’ and ‘fulfilment’...!

That’s hilarious! Looking ahead, what are your thoughts on the future of traditional print books in the face of digital publishing's prominence?

If we consider the entire publishing industry, including financial, legal, and scientific publishing, a significant portion has already transitioned from print to digital formats. In some sectors, digital publication now accounts for around 95% of the industry. Even if the remaining 5% were to disappear, it would not greatly impact the dissemination of information.

However, when it comes to trade publishing, there will always be a place for physical books. Many people find comfort and pleasure in reading physical books, and they appreciate the tangible experience they provide. Additionally, there is a collectible aspect to books that adds to their appeal. For instance, certain books are bought not just for reading but also for their value as collectibles or investments.

While the industry has adapted well to the digital environment, there will continue to be a demand for print books. That being said, digital publishing offers numerous advantages, such as sustainability and accessibility. It allows for the widespread availability of books without the need for physical production and distribution. So, while the landscape may change, the underlying intellectual property and the creativity of writers will remain constant.

How do you feel about new services like print on demand or the rise of selling direct-to-consumers?

Well, first and foremost, I believe that selling directly to consumers has already become a prevalent practice when we look at the industry as a whole. For instance, in scientific publishing, subscriptions used to go through subscription agents who received discounts. However, now major publishers conduct around 90% of their business directly with universities, bypassing intermediaries. So, one could argue that they are already supplying directly.

Regarding print on demand, the greatest waste in our industry is the destruction of stock. While I don't have exact proportions, I estimate that a substantial number, let's say around 20%, of all printed books never leave the publisher's warehouse. Additionally, a portion of the books that do leave, approximately 20%, end up being returned. This means that approximately 30% of all books are ultimately destroyed. This not only results in wasted resources, such as trees, but also contributes to carbon emissions, especially for publishers like myself where 50% of our books are exported.

Anything that can address these issues is of utmost importance, both economically and environmentally. Print on demand allows us to ship electrons instead of physical books. For example, when my book was published, it was instantly available worldwide through local printing, eliminating a significant amount of waste. Furthermore, all books are sold at a firm sale, meaning there is no risk of returns, which also reduces carbon emissions. 

It provides continuous availability and ensures that we never run out of stock. I find it astonishing how slow the industry has been in adopting print on demand, despite its potential to make a substantial positive impact. While the unit cost of a digital book may be higher than traditional printing, when considering the overall savings and benefits, I believe print on demand is a winner for many books. If you don't anticipate selling more than a few thousand copies, print on demand is the better option. I think that the ‘tipping point’ number is rising, and print on demand will likely become even more important in the future.

Can you tell us a bit about Mensch Publishing and how you are addressing some of these issues through that?

I stepped down from the main board of Bloomsbury at the age of 70 and after that I set up Mensch. The changes I am implementing may seem trivial, but they have a significant impact. For instance, we don't print the recommended retail price on the covers of our books. This is because 50% of our books are sold in countries where the local currency differs from pounds, making the printed price irrelevant. Additionally, considering the prevalent discounting practices, the actual price paid often doesn't align with what’s written on the book; and finally the barcode contains the price anyway so a bookseller can find it quickly by scanning that.

I’m turning to POD for almost everything and also removing the paper jackets on hardback books. What is the purpose of the jacket! It adds to complexity, cost, CO2 generation, it gets ripped and we can print perfectly well on boards and save money. 

I don’t pay advances to authors. There’s nothing wrong with advances to authors and it’s part of the established structure but I couldn't make my business work if I paid advances because I have a higher royalty than most people. If someone wants an advance, they won’t come to me. Everyone gets the same royalty (25% of my net receipts) so I don’t have to explain why someone gets more or less. I use freelancers for some of the publishing services and pay invoices immediately which benefits me and everyone else. 

I also always contract for world rights including all languages. I think a publisher owes it to the author and I feel responsible for the sales in every country and in every medium.

Who are your authors?

They’re a mixed bag. By and large they’re people who know me or know of me. About half the books come through literary agents and whilst they don’t like my terms because they like having big advances, they do accept them. I spend a lot of time rejecting people but I try to do it quickly, just like going to the doctor! 

Looking back on your career, what would you say has been your highlight?

It's challenging to pinpoint a single moment, but if I had to choose one, it would be my involvement in the Oxford English Dictionary project whilst I was at Oxford University Press. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I led a team that digitised and consolidated the various supplements and editions of the OED into a cohesive and accessible database. This project was crucial because the dictionary was constantly evolving, with new words entering the English language. 

Building the international network at Bloomsbury was also a highlight and accelerated the academic side, which complemented the trade side perfectly. It gave us a more stable source of revenue and a digital element, with Drama Online and Bloomsbury Fashion Library.

What advice would you give someone looking to enter the publishing industry or hoping to move around within the industry? 

Firstly, buy my book! And then I’d say don’t worry about your career, worry about your job. When people worry about ‘career development’ I say, first of all, just do your job. The publishing industry has become more professional and that’s a good thing. But it is still one industry and being inquisitive about how it all works as a whole, is really important. All-rounders are far and few between now so if I was advising someone I’d say get nosey and find out what everyone else is doing in their jobs! 

At the end of the day, all we are doing is taking an author's work and finding a reader who will pay for them. So if you can do that you’ll be ok. Everything is possible and don’t listen to people who say you can’t do that. Keep challenging yourself!

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year or so? 

About 45 years ago I was approached by a young Marketing Assistant at OUP for a pay rise. She told me that she had recently got married, and her husband wasn’t earning anything because he’s writing a novel. I told her that I couldn’t really help with that but I got to know him, and he was writing a book called A Good Man In Africa. This man was William Boyd and it’s certain he made it work! We became friends and he sent me an email recently asking me to read a memoir by a friend of his. I agreed and absolutely loved it.

The book is I Fear for This Boy, by Theo Fennell. He left school prematurely and his headmaster wrote those words which ran true throughout his life. Nonetheless he became a very successful jewellery designer but every chapter is a disaster of his own making. It’s a unique business biography where everything goes wrong and I cannot recommend it enough. Every page induces you to smile and laugh at the shambles he found himself in, it’s brilliant.

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