Richard Charkin: A Year of Running Mensch Publishing

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Anniversary assessment: Richard Charkin reveals some of the lessons he’s learning a year into running his small press, Mensch Publishing.

Image – iStockphoto: NorthStar

By Richard Charkin

‘Can This Be Right? Can It Be Sustained?’
I am approaching three anniversaries—a significant (for me) birthday; plus 12 months since stepping down from the board of Bloomsbury; and the first birthday of Mensch Publishing. The first two are of little interest to anyone but I thought I might try to share a little of what I’ve learned from 12 months of being an independent publisher (whatever “independent” means).

Richard Charkin

In June 2018, I handed over many of my various responsibilities at Bloomsbury to others and began to think about my future. I had, and have, quite a few publishing jobs during a 47-year career but I had never owned my own publishing business. This was the opportunity and although a little late in life it didn’t feel too late.

I opened a bank account in the name of Mensch Publishing and transferred £10,000 into it—US$12,650 at today’s Brexit-damaged exchange rate.

Lesson one: I had to learn how to do Internet banking.

Next, as I related in a column last autumn, the task was to persuade my old friend Roger Law to come up with a logo—and Phillip Beresford simplified the idea to work on the books. Then there were ISBNs to attain. That was easy to do, courtesy of Nielsen but how many to buy? Five, 10, 100, 1,000? I opted for 100 for no good reason as I had no business plan nor idea how many books I might publish.

I had to get a site built and was blessed with two former colleagues who proceeded to build something that even I can more or less manage. But it’s a lot harder than I ever realized.

Lesson two: Everything is more difficult than one could possibly imagine.

I had to think of something I could attach the ISBNs to and put up on the site. Luck smiled on me. I won’t bore you with the story (and my editor at Publishing Perspectives quite rightly told me not to make this a puff piece for my books).

But just to say I found a book which met my criteria: it was entertaining, it was narrative nonfiction, the author can write, the story line has legs, the subject is important and will remain so, the author is great to work with, and my publishing terms were accepted—no advance, generous royalties, world rights, and royalties based on net receipts, not a hypothetical published price.

We signed the publishing contract for Time to Go (attachment 7) on August 2, 2018, and decided we should publish fast (by book publishing standards) on February 7, 2019. I had to get my skates on.

In rapid succession, I signed up with the Publishers Licensing Society to ensure I could collect photocopying and other reproductive rights income; with Creative Content to co-publish the audiobook; most importantly with Bloomsbury to handle rights, sales and distribution worldwide, and to persuade them to help with production of the book and the e-book. They have been magnificent in every respect, thank goodness.

And finally, the key to marketing in my view is publicity and it needs to be handled professionally. Step up Ruth Killick.

Lesson three: Negotiating contracts is hard and takes longer, and the longer it takes the longer the contract becomes.

While all this was happening, news of Mensch was seeping out, which resulted in a burst of around a100 book proposals. I decided it would be unmenschlich simply to ignore them and so replied to every one (without reading them) to say that until Mensch had proved it could publish successfully it was inappropriate to consider anything else. I had a surprisingly good response to this approach, if only for taking the trouble to reply.

Lesson four: It costs nothing to be polite and you never know how it might help your business.

There was much grinding of teeth as the first book moved through production and as I had to persuade sales staff that a six-month lead time to global publishing was not impossible and was indeed desirable.

“In the six months since publication we have sold (invoiced) 3,270 hardbacks at recommended retail price of £16.99/Us$24 and a disappointing 210 ebooks.”Richard Charkin

Books were delivered in November and shipped around the world for publication in February, when we had a fabulous launch party at White Cube thanks to the generosity of its owner, Jay Joplin. Serialization in the Daily Mail was followed by a brilliant interview in the Observer/Guardian and terrific reviews in many parts of the world, and interviews on BBC radio.

Now to the business. In the six months since publication we have sold (invoiced) 3,270 hardbacks at recommended retail price of £16.99/Us$24 and a disappointing 210 ebooks.

This generated in total for Mensch £16,389 (US20,688) out of which we have paid royalties, print costs, publicity costs, copyediting, design, and site.

When I add it all up, I’m probably £2,000 (US$2523) out of pocket, but with many further income opportunities still to come from audiobook sales, special promotions, paperback and so on. The book has been a critical success and a marvellous way to launch Mensch.

Lesson five: Revenue is always lower than anticipated, costs are higher, and cash comes in more slowly than it goes out.

If a book as successful as this only just manages to cover its costs over time, what’s going wrong in our industry? Of course there are many ways to lose money in publishing. Excessive author advances, overselling resulting in high returns from retailers, underpricing, overstocks, absurd overheads, all of these do their bits to undermine profitability. I’ve tried to avoid these but there were two aspects of our business I could not avoid.

Of the 3270 hardbacks sold, approximately 2,000 were in the UK, although that’s probably inflated by the excellent British export booksellers, library suppliers and wholesalers. These 2,000 hardbacks generated revenue of £14,000 or £7 a copy. The recommended price began at £4.99 and then £16.99.

In other words, the retailer is on average receiving a potential, before discounting, of £9 a copy, by far the largest element of the value chain with no stock risk attached.

Can this be right? Can it be sustained? Can our industry afford for it not to be sustained?

And Then Libraries

The second serious difficulty, at least in the UK, is the impact of the destruction of one of our great cultural institutions, the public library system.

“There was a time when a good but not bestselling hardback could notch up a couple of thousand sales to UK libraries. This has all but disappeared.”Richard Charkin

There was a time when a good but not bestselling hardback could notch up a couple of thousand sales to UK libraries. This has all but disappeared with immediate economic consequences to authors and publishers and with longer-term damage to the habit of reading itself.

Libraries are funded by the government and implemented by local councils in line with their local priorities.

It would appear that these councils view the book holdings of libraries as subsidiary to their existence as social centers.

As a result, the budget for purchasing printed books is a mere 3.9 percent of the total budget.

The total spend on books was £29 million (US$36.6 million)  the spend on library staff was £434 million (US547.99 million).

This paucity of books leads to fewer library visits and ultimately in closures. Fewer library borrowings mean less word-of-mouth for books and less opportunity for people to discover the educational, social, and cultural value of books. That this development undermines publishers’ business models is relevant to our industry but is immensely more important to the health of our country.

Elsewhere in the world, notably the United States, libraries are still valued as the success of the American Library Association attests. I am grateful to Tim Coates for the data here and for fighting so diligently on behalf of libraries around the world.

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.’