Richard Charkin: Hardy Perennials

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

‘What can we deduce from these hardy perennials?’ asks Richard Charkin. He looks at some of the leading reference works for clues to lasting sales success.
Richard Charkin at the Houses of Shemozzle

Richard Charkin at the Houses of Shemozzle

A programming note: Those joining us at the Jerusalem International Book Forum will find that Richard Charkin is moderating a panel on Monday (May 13) at 3 p.m. in his capacity as founder of his own independent venture, Mensch Publishing. “The Challenges, Changes and Advantages Facing Independent Publishers Today” features Sigrid Rausing of Granta (UK); Iftach Alony of Afik and the Short Story Project (Israel); Constanze Neumann of Aufbau (Germany); and Emily Chuang of Emily Publishing Company (Taiwan).—Porter Anderson

By Richard Charkin

Resilient References
I I was recently invited to a reception at the Houses of Shemozzle (formerly known as Parliament) by the UK Publishers Association. The event’s purpose is to lobby our lawmakers—including some elected law-breakers—into recognizing the value of the book industry.

I noticed that the sponsor was Springer’s journal Nature, celebrating being 150 years old this year and, incidentally, in better shape than ever. In a moment of unnecessary competitiveness, I couldn’t resist reminding my friends at Nature that in terms of longevity, my much-treasured publishing responsibility, Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, has outlasted them. Wisden has just published its 156th successive annual edition, despite two world wars, several other cataclysmic events, and even Brexit.

This got me thinking about the longevity of some publications I’ve been involved with. What do they have in common? How have they survived? Are there any lessons for what we publish today?

I submit these in order of first publication.

‘A Highly Priced Quasi-Academic Major Reference Work’

Who’s Who, 1849

Who’s Who began as an almanac listing the ranks and posts of the British establishment and those holding them. It evolved into the huge volumes we now see on library shelves and one copy at least on the shelves of newly-honored biographees.

I suspect it began as a competitor to other Victorian almanacs in the general books market but has morphed into a properly edited and highly-priced quasi-academic major reference work.

Its digital version available alongside the Dictionary of National Biography online is extraordinarily valuable as a research tool allowing complex and obscure search strategies. It has had several owners, but A&C Black transformed it and it is now nurtured within the Bloomsbury Publishing group.

Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack, 1864

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack (originally The Cricketer’s Almanack—note the moving apostrophe) was the brainchild of a retired fast bowler, John Wisden, known as The Little Wonder. For more, do read Robert Winder’s account, The Little Wonder: The Remarkable History of Wisden (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Its original aim was to print full and accurate scores of all first-class and similar cricket matches. It has become much more, the Bible of cricket, and appears religiously every April to record, analyze, challenge, and entertain.

Its first edition was priced at one shilling. It’s now priced at £55 (US$71.50) and is available in multiple formats including digital and online editions.

Nature, 1869

The journal was originally intended, as its first “object” was described—the “mission statement” had yet to be coined—in a statement about “placing before the general public the grand results of scientific work and scientific discovery” and “urging the claims of science to a more general recognition in education and in daily life.”

It has since spawned innumerable ‘sister’; and ‘daughter’ journals and is the centerpiece of Springer Nature.

Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1879

Grove was originally published as A Dictionary of Music and Musicians in four volumes for anyone interested in music.

It was intended to be comprehensive although the word comprehensive tended to exclude any music that was not Western, male, classical, or contemporary. It’s now part of Oxford University Press, a significant part of that publisher’s scholarly cultural contribution alongside Grove Art.

Oxford English Dictionary, (OED) 1884

I have written about the OED in a previous column here at Publishing Perspectives.

It began life at Mill Hill School as A New English Dictionary based on historical principles and funded by the Philological Society. Its aims were lofty and challenging, its costs enormous, its time scale incomprehensible.

It still exists, largely as a digital resource, as one of the great monuments of global scholarship.

Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), 1885

DNB is another example of a great Victorian edifice now managed and published by Oxford University Press.

It began life as Biographica Britannica and was doubtless hoping for the same general consumer success as the more famous Encyclopedia Britannica. It now exists largely as a digital publication in partnership with Who’s Who.

Palgrave’s Dictionary of Economics, 1894

Palgrave’s was first published as a Dictionary of Political Economy. Its sales were disappointing and there were some doubts about some of its editorial decisions.

However, it powered on and the low unit sales were compensated by higher value sales deriving from a huge expansion in extent, reputation and price. It now lives on in digital form within Springer Nature.

Lessons Learned

So what can we deduce from these hardy perennials? What do they have in common?

  • They all had simple and transparent objectives, unlike some recent proposals doing the rounds.
  • I’m certain none of them was supported by a sustainable business plan or machine-generated risk analysis.
  • They all struggled financially in their early—and sometimes later—years.
  • They were all committed to editorial excellence but this has had to be tempered by commercial pragmatism in every case.
  • Over the years the publications have become larger and typically more academic or up-market. Abandoning the larger consumer markets consumer for the safer territory of libraries seems to have been one of the key success strategies.
  • If contemporary annual budgeting, KPI analysis, and similar had been applied, nearly all would have been killed at birth or during adolescence.
  • Sustainable publishing projects require patience as well as editorial and marketing excellence.
  • Adaptability is the key to longevity. Markets and technologies don’t stand still. All these examples have adapted both in their creation and their promotion and are stronger with each adaptation.
  • These projects all illustrate the importance of focusing on building intellectual property assets rather than immediate profits.

And on that note I”ll end with an example of a great publishing house built on literary assets. Toby Faber’s entertaining and informative Faber & Faber: The Untold History of a Great Publishing House is my pick of the year.

It chronicles, through internal and external correspondence, the ups and downs of being a publisher, and it’s the best publishing history I’ve ever read and enjoyed. Do take a look—preferably buy it—and please note that Faber would probably not have survived its early years without the cash flow generated by publishing and then disposing of Nursing Mirror.

Like many publishers of that era—and I would contend of this era too—there’s more interaction between literary, general, scholarly, and professional publishing than meets the eye. The evolution of the “hardy perennials” happened within the context of businesses willing to take risks and willing to ignore traditional market-facing divisional structures.

I’m conscious that I have focused on upmarket British reference books. There are many other long-living titles at various levels and if you’re interested in the history of reference publications, do check out Jack Lynch’s You Could Look It Up (Bloomsbury, 2016).

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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.’ 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."