Richard Charkin: How (Not) To Start a Publishing Company, a Case Study

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

‘What I hadn’t anticipated was just how difficult it is to start a publishing business,’ writes Richard Charkin in a Frankfurt installment of his exclusive series for Publishing Perspectives.

Image – iStockphoto: Lapwing Media

By Richard Charkin

‘And Then There’s the Launch Party’
A few weeks ago, a press release was issued to announce the startup of Mensch Publishing, resulting in this coverage at Publishing Perspectives and elsewhere.

Richard Charkin

I received an extraordinarily large and gratifyingly positive mailbag, although appended with the occasional comments from experienced publishers and good friends along the lines of “You must be mad.” I suspect quite a few others were too polite to say that, including my wife.

Why would anyone want to start a publishing company? Least of all an un-literary 69-year-old just retired from executive positions in publishing after 46 years?

Why indeed? As usual, there was no single trigger. After 46 years of working for others, I fancied working for myself. I feared being bored. I didn’t want to lose touch with the industry (although there was little danger of that, given my many other roles). I wanted to put into practice some of my theories about how publishing could be better.

What I hadn’t anticipated was just how difficult it is to start a publishing business and how much I had to learn about an industry I thought I understood.

So here are some of the things I have had to do or learn.

Could anyone tell me how many publishing companies are founded every year worldwide? I don’t know and couldn’t find out, but I’ll lay money it runs into the tens or hundreds of thousands. The reason is that we think the cost of entry is not unreasonably high—or so I thought.

It Started Well

My son bought the URL for the very reasonable fee of £15 (US$19.60).

Why Mensch Publishing? Somebody else had already registered (promoting among other things personal injury lawyers—decidedly unmensch). The name Mensch was first discussed some 20 years ago with a novelist friend and we agreed on Mensch as the umbrella name with sub-imprints such Menschkin for kids, Ubermensch for fitness fanatics, Menschmunch for cookbooks, and Menschdench for drama. You get the idea. I have nothing so ambitious now.

And then the logo. I asked a long-time friend and artist, Roger Law, if he could come up with something. He did.

Image: Artwork by Roger Law for Mensch Publishing

I loved them all and decided on the third one. However, it was pointed out that they’re entirely inappropriate for use on the books themselves—too colorful, too fiddly, too detailed.

So I had to commission a simplified version which I also love.

This is all very well, but I was told I needed ISBNs before anything else.

How do you get an ISBN? Nielsen of course.

Did I want one ISBN, 10, 100 1,000? I went for 100. More money.

But we needed a first book and for once luck was on my side. I was aware that novelist Guy Kennaway was writing the nonfiction story of his mother and her husband (his stepfather) trying to recruit him to help with their joint suicide before they became too infirm.

Here’s the blurb which took at least 20 iterations to get right.

Some Things in Life Are Too Serious To Joke About. Assisted Dying Is Not One of Them.

In 2017 Susie Kennaway asked her son Guy to kill her.

Eighty-eight years old, with an older and infirm husband, Susie wanted to avoid sliding into infantilized catatonia. Kennaway immediately started taking notes, and Time to Go is the result.

In turns a manual for those considering the benefits of assisted dying, a portrait of a mother-son relationship, and a sympathetic description of old age, this book is a route map through the moral, legal, emotional, intellectual, and practical maze that is the biggest issue facing the senior generations today: leaving life on their own terms.

During their conversations about when and how to make Susie’s final exit, some of the difficulties of their fractious relationship mellowed and some even melted, as the reality of what they were planning brought them together.

Many elderly people, like Susie, have clearly stated that they wish to die in a manner and time of their choosing. But the church, the law, the medical profession, and the pharmaceutical industry stand in the way, wagging their fingers.

But a change is coming for the rights of the elderly, the way it has come for the rights of women and gay people. Time to Go is a rallying call in this fight.

Life is too precious not to be lived properly. As with a job, a relationship or a party, you have to know when it’s time to go.

Fortunately, Guy and his literary agent were happy to sign a contract with Mensch on the grounds that I understood some of the sensitivities and that my offer, while not leading with a high advance, was both fair and transparent.

I insisted (and will continue to insist) on world rights, which will probably limit my attractiveness to some literary agencies.

Real Expenditure

I found an excellent copy editor who has done a superb and timely job.

I found a publicity firm—probably the most important part of marketing the book—which is developing a publicity plan for Time to Go and for Mensch Publishing (although I really want the effort to go on the book not the company).

And then the cover. I cannot remember how many versions and emails have led to what is now, I hope, the final version.

And the audiobook needs an actor—actually two in this case because the main text is read by a man but there’s a chapter by the author’s mother which needs a female voice. And the mother, understandably, wants to feel that the actor’s voice is not too unlike her own. As we say in some circles, oy vey!

But perhaps the most difficult bit is simply ensuring that sales and distribution systems are fully working; and that metadata will be correct and that typesetting will enhance the book, not add errors; and that printing will be on time such that copies can reach Australia, the USA, Ireland, Waterstones, Amazon, etc. on time and correctly billed.

And then there’s the launch party, of course.

I could go on. We publish our first book in February 2019. I shall have invested some £20,000 (US$28,184), and my fingers are firmly crossed that we have at least a good seller if not a bestseller and that the author (and his mother) are happy; that all my helpers, including Bloomsbury, which is my sales and distribution partner, do well out of the book; and that Mensch can build on a successful launch.

What I haven’t mentioned is the flood of emails offering me books to publish and people to hire. I have resisted saying yes to any of them.

I shall report again in due course.

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.’ In the June 2024 King's Birthday Honors, Charkin was made a member of the Order of the British Empire, OBE, for his "services to publishing and literature."