Richard Charkin in 2023

Your book tells a rollicking story of 50 years in the book trade. What’s immediately striking about your career is the enormous variety of publishers you’ve worked in, from one-person start-ups to venerable, established houses and some of the biggest publishers on the planet. All this across trade and education and STM. Do you think it’s still possible for anyone starting in publishing today to gain that level of broad experience?

I wish I could answer with a yes but I fear I cannot. Over these fifty years the publishing industry has become hugely more professional. The days of the all-round Jack of all trades is mainly over which is a little regrettable for dinosaurs like me but it is now more than ever vital that we have experts in every operational department and in the choices of market addressed. When I started, most publishing businesses in London were a mixture of trade books, educational books, scientific journals and so on. For instance, Macmillan had offices publishing educational materials all around the world but they also published Nature and Nursing Times – and owned Picador and Pan, not to mention St Martin’s Press AND Bedford Books. Similarly Hodder & Stoughton published Lancet alongside Jeffrey Archer. All these former all-round publishers have now chosen one or other market in which to concentrate thus making it difficult, or even impossible, for new entrants to learn about the breadth of publishing. It was one reason I wrote the book. 

You were President of the IPA when the Publishers Association of China finally joined in 2015. In your book, you talk about the tumultuous IPA General Assembly in Frankfurt where this happened. How do you think the IPA has coped with the addition of China to the Executive Committee? Are we better or worse off for that adjustment?

The vote over China was not the first of such disagreements. There was a less public but no less divisive argument over the admission of the Emirates Publishers Association and we don’t have to think hard about the huge benefits this has brought in influence in the Middle East and in the superb President in the shape of Sheikha Bodour. Unlike the Brexit referendum where there is no doubting the damage that vote has done to the UK, the vote on China has led to better communication with the world’s second largest publishing market and greater understanding of different views. In a world full of conflict IPA has managed to build an environment of respect between its members and a desire to work together on so many levels and in so many fields of common interest.  

In the book, after you describe some of the IPA’s work around our two policy pillars of copyright and freedom to publish, you say that ‘the IPA continues to quietly do good work in the background, withahem a seasoned chief executive.’ What advice do you have for us? Can we do better in promoting the two pillars and do we need to do it less ‘quietly’?

That’s a toughie. I am instinctively a shouter about the good work being done and your public communications have never been better. However, you do need to temper this, particularly on issues where individual PAs rightly see themselves as the standard bearers. Sometimes things may be achieved more fully operating sotto voce and letting others take the credit. So much of the IPA’s role requires diplomacy rather than public relations. 

My Back Pages Richard Charkin Cover

The ex-Penguin Random House supremo, Markus Dohle, speaks ebulliently about this being ‘the best time to be a publisher since Gutenberg’. You end your book similarly by talking about ‘why 2022 is better than 1972’. Can you give us a potted version of why you are so optimistic?

First of all, we have moved away from class-driven, male management structures to a much more diverse, creative, and female workforce with all the benefits that brings. Couple that with technology that not only enhances how we publish but what we can publish and how we can discover new markets to replace fading ones. And whilst copyright is now respected by most governments around the world, we can confidently build new structures for our authors incorporating other media into print and digital offerings and sell these new products everywhere. National markets are being replaced by linguistic ones. 

One of the constant features of your 50 years in the business has been technological change. You rightly mock some of those moments in the past (like the appearance of CD-Roms) that were touted as ‘game changers’ or harbingers of disaster for so-called ‘traditional’ publishing. The current flavour of the month is Artificial Intelligence, which is also being touted as a disaster for publishers. You make passing reference to AI in your book. Please take out your crystal ball and tell us where you think we’re headed.

AI can clearly be contentious when it is involved in the writing of books; equally, where it is not respectful of copyright. Yet there are ways in which it can clearly help the publishing industry. It can make operations much more efficient, reducing waste, more accurately matching production with demand, managing warehouses and generally making businesses more sustainable. It can also serve to unlock the creative genius too often hidden within unturned pages of books. Historically, most titles had only a cover design to bring them to life. Now, the nature of each book, its unique DNA, can be manifested by AI bringing it to life, evocatively inviting the reader to explore the world within its words. More mundanely, it can also optimise metadata and produce marketing copy that is not the natural output of authors or editors. 

You’re now four years into a whole new phase of your publishing life as the boss and sole full-time employee of Mensch. Tell us about the joys and surprises of this new life. What, if anything, has it revealed about your previous perceptions of the way publishers operate?

Publishing is much more complicated than I ever realized. Not complicated for key decisions – what to publish, how to price, how to package – but for the tiny interlocking elements. The importance, for instance, of ‘merchandising’ Amazon’s pages to ensure they are displaying the correct info. Updating information for collecting agencies. Paying royalties accurately despite the complexities. Tearing hair out when a tiny error delays publication and you have no one to blame but yourself. On the other hand, the friendships with authors are so rewarding and them becoming once more a pivotal as opposed to a managerial part of the process is a joy. Also the joy of not having to hold or attend editorial meetings, cover meetings, or deal with HR issues, office politics, offices themselves, all of which come from having no staff and no bosses.

As a past President, you remain a welcome and regular adviser to the IPA, and you’re currently especially focused on the issue of sustainability — or more correctly, the lack of it in the way publishers do business at the moment. Can you tell us the five things that publishing must do to get its house in order to reach Net Zero in time to make a difference?

Here we go, in no particular order: 1. Abandon the folly of the current trading between publishers and retailers which requires more stock than is necessary; 2. Reduce the number of times a book is handled between manufacture and final purchase (my estimate is typically 24 times in the case of trade books in UK or US); 3. Manufacture as close to market as is feasible. Piling books on to ships (or worse planes) is madness; 4. Print to order not to expectation; 5. Stop flying around the world for anything but a sales opportunity. 

You mention the existential threat posed to copyright at the moment by those platform behemoths with the deepest pockets on Earth and business models that don’t value content or its creators or even truth, but instead measure success by eyeballs, personal data, clicks and traffic. There are currently notable attempts in Europe and elsewhere to push back. Do you think we’ve reached ‘peak platform’ or is that just hopeful thinking?

I am delighted that the EU is pushing back and I am sure other governments will do similar but I fear these platforms will not be eliminated and their attitude to copyright is unlikely to change for the better. What we can do and have done successfully so far is to work together as an industry to make us an unattractive prey because of our spikiness. I like to think (probably incorrectly) that my theft of a laptop from Google at Book Expo America in 2007 and its subsequent media coverage might just have made the search engine wonder whether stealing copyrights was such a good idea after all.

You admit in the book that after graduating all you really wanted to be was a journalist and that working in a publishing house was just a way of getting the required union accreditation. Well, after 50 years, you’ve now written a book and had it published. What’s next?

I wish I knew what my next adventure might be. When people ask me how my career developed as it did I say with complete honesty that at no time did I plan the career but I have no ability to say ‘no’ to colleagues or friends and have thus ended up with more excitement (good and bad) than I could have dreamt of. I used to say that the toughest management challenge of my life was captaining a village cricket team. The toughest thing I now do is having to say no to potential authors who deserve to be published but I only have limited capacity. So what next? My current obsession is with a digital sheet music business,, which is revolutionizing where, how, and what musicians around the world play. Like all the best publishing ideas it is focused on its market (musicians in this case) rather than internal structures or external financial pressures. Serve your market well and the numbers will stack up.