Richard Charkin: Seed Questions for an ‘Agony Journal’ for Publishing, ‘Ask Emma’

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

In his exclusive column for Publishing Perspectives, Richard Charkin asks why ‘the largest advances … go to the authors who need the money least?’ and other questions for a journal he’d call ‘Ask Emma.’

‘Why do publishers continue to print too many copies,’ Richard Charkin asks, ‘when digital and print-on-demand technology make it possible to print to demand?’ Image – iStockphoto: Yakubov Alim

By Richard Charkin

Proposing That Publishers ‘Ask Emma’
My wife used to edit a scholarly journal entitled Notes & Queries. English literature researchers would write in with a “query” about some obscure medieval manuscript or a facsimile edition of Persuasion. After some time, another researcher might write a “note” answering the query. Typically several years would elapse between “query” and “note.”

Richard Charkin

While obscure, the journal used to make a steady profit and probably still does. The only time it went into the red was when Oxford University Press actively promoted it, thus unintentionally reminding subscribers that they were paying for a journal they didn’t really need.

I have frequently thought that there should be a similar journal for publishing, a sort of agony column for wannabe publishers, authors, booksellers, librarians, or even normal people. We might call the journal Ask Emma.

Here are a few of “queries” I have, the answers to which I (and I suspect others) would appreciate.

  • Why is that authors are typically paid a percentage of a notional retail price (very notional in most English-language markets where retail price maintenance is a distant memory), which hardly any customer pays? Books are discounted or sold in an export territory that doesn’t even use the currency stipulated. It’s hard to audit and unfair both to author and publisher.
  • Why do publishers allow retailers to return unsold stock, particularly where there is no retail price maintenance? It’s environmentally unsound (millions of trees cut down to little purpose, millions of gallons of fuel shipping books backward and forward), and financially wasteful.
  • Why does it generally take approximately one year between a final typescript being submitted and publication? It’s usually explained by the need to reserve retail space, but that support is now so limited–and with the bulk of sales made through the Internet–can it really be worth the delay in all but the biggest potential sellers?
  • Why do the largest advances against royalties (and typically the resulting high unearned advances) go to the authors who need the money least, and vice-versa?
  • Why is a book handled on average 20 times between manufacture and purchase and sale (and a similar number on the way back)? I’m exaggerating but think of this: printing machine to printer’s goods out. On to lorry. Lorry into publisher’s goods in. On to bulk store. On to forward store. On to goods out. On lorry. Into retailer’s warehouse goods in. On to forward store. Goods out. Lorry. Retailer’s back room. On to shelf. And so on.
  • Why are author contracts (and thus royalty statements) so impenetrably hard to understand, to codify, and to audit? The current industry standard, at least in English-language trade book publishing, is wasteful and pointless.
  • Why do some English-language books need both an American and a British editor while others do not? And if the answer is something to do with understanding the market, why don’t books have dozens of editors–Indian, Australian, New Zealander, South African…?
  • Why do publishers continue to print too many copies when digital and print-on-demand technology make it possible to print to demand? Yes, the immediate costs might be higher but the write-down costs of stock in our industry remain horrendous.
  • Why, when granted a legal monopoly (copyright) do authors and publishers dilute it by splitting rights on a territorial basis, this creating a duopoly (much less profitable) in open markets and effectively in some closed ones too?
  • Why do Coca-Cola, BMW, and Facebook find that having a single global look is a good idea but publishers feel they have to change cover designs for just about every market?
  • Why do publishers and booksellers price down their bestselling titles and price up their worst-selling ones?
  • Why do publishers make available their least affordable format (hardback) at the time of maximum publicity exposure for a book and then issue the affordable paperback when there’s greatly less exposure?
  • Why do American, German, French (and other) publishers feel it necessary to print on covers of novels that the book is a novel? And why do British publishers not do so and think all other nationalities are naïve?
  • Why is everything to do with book publishing so complicated?

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here.

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 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.’