Richard Charkin: Don’ts for Publishers in 2019

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Change ‘may be neither necessary nor useful,’ Richard Charkin says, at your publishing house. So skip the strategy meeting. And the layoffs.

Image – iStockphoto: Ulzanna

By Richard Charkin

‘Don’t Underprice Your Books’

A subsidiary of Bloomsbury, A&C Black was founded in 1807. Bicentenaries in publishing are quite rare and can be used to generate sales. A savvy editor was dispatched to the warehouse to see if there was anything of value in the dusty archives. She found old copies of two books first published in 1913, Don’ts for Husbands and Don’ts for Wives.

Not a propitious date for gift books, I imagine.

The editor spotted the market potential for such retro (and rather sweetly formatted) books and arranged for them to be republished as part of the bicentennial celebrations. They have now sold more than two million copies and have spawned a series and indeed a genre.

I’ve often thought someone should produce a Don’ts for Publishers. As an aperitif, here are a few ideas for what publishers might choose not to do in 2019.

‘Don’t Overcomplicate the Book Business’

Richard Charkin

Don’t enter any auction with more than three participants.

Winner’s curse is almost certain to eventuate and the underbidder usually comes out smiling. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but over time and across the industry, it holds.

Don’t take on a new book simply to fill a perceived revenue gap.

Invariably gap fillers eat up overhead, underperform, and add nothing to profit, cash, or asset value of a business.

Don’t overcomplicate the business. It is complicated enough already. I cannot imagine that any other industry has so much complexity for such relatively small revenue.

This complexity affects every aspect of the business. How many people does it take to make a commissioning decision? How many to decide pricing? How many to decide print number? How many to check proofs and covers? How many sales support people do we really need? How many layers of management?

Don’t have a strategy meeting or an away day this year.

Strategies should be long-term and shouldn’t normally change every year, and tactical moves can deal with non-strategic issues. Annual strategy meetings justify themselves as catalysts for change, which may be neither necessary nor useful.

Not having an away day would also save money. This saving could be spent on enhancing the bottom line, paying staff better, improving bonuses, or perhaps doing more for the industry than any strategy meeting, donating the saving to the likes of the Give a Book project, which facilitates the pleasure of reading where it really matters, in elementary schools and in prisons.

Don’t restructure the business for a year (at least).

Restructuring is, of course, a euphemism for letting people go, which is a euphemism for sacking people. It is tempting to enhance profitability by laying people off but that itself is costly in cash, in reputation, and in humanity.

I’ve been as guilty as anyone (perhaps even guiltier). Sometimes it was and certainly felt necessary, but I’m sure that overall the net effect has been more negative than positive. It’s so much better not to hire people in the first place and to move people around the organization when change is needed.

I once estimated that the cost of laying people off was roughly the same as the total profit of the industry. Not doing it would double the bottom line, at least in theory.

Don’t print as many copies as you think you can sell, print as many as you know you will sell and don’t underprice your books—they’re all great value.

Have very happy holidays.

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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.’