Richard Charkin: An Ode to Frankfurt (His 47th)

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

‘A physical representation’ of the world publishing industry, the Frankfurter Buchmesse, says Richard Charkin, is a community.

With an author, during one of Charkin’s 46 Frankfurter Buchmesse trips. Image: Provided by Richard Charkin

By Richard Charkin

‘The Centerpiece of the Publishing Year’
At this time of year, the English cricket season ends with a series of five five-day, seven-hours-per-day matches against Australia ending in a 2-2 draw, but with Australia retaining The Ashes, bamboozling all Americans and nearly everyone else.

The Brexit shemozzle continues to fail to reach a conclusion. Literary agents return from their palaces in Tuscany, and authors from their shepherds’ huts in the Cotswolds. The Booker and other literary prizes gently move from longlist to shortlist to inevitable controversy. The big guns of fiction lay down their wares for the coming holiday season (known quaintly in the UK as Christmas).

So publishers’ thoughts turn to Germany and more specifically the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Richard Charkin

This will be my 47th Frankfurter Buchmesse. I missed one in 1992 when attending Harvard’s Advanced Management Program. The highlight for me from that expensive education was the discovery that being a manager did not have to involve being good at everything. I concluded, perhaps unwisely, that I was better at things I enjoyed and that I should avoid things I disliked.

As a result, I’ve made it a rule to have as little as possible to do with the allocation and design of office space and business-plan spreadsheets, which are generally simply a higher-tech version of eviscerating goats for their entrails to tell the future.

I remember my first Frankfurt in 1972. I can’t remember why I was there, but I have a clear recollection of the shock and awe of the size, of the event, the masses of people, and the loneliness of the crowd. Everyone seemed to know everyone else but I knew nobody. When eventually I spotted a familiar face, she was too busy even to acknowledge me.

Frankfurt is clearly the centerpiece of the publishing year. There’s business of course—deals, rights, discoveries, hyped advances—but it’s more than that.

It’s a physical representation of the global publishing community, as are all the other book fairs and organizations. While technology has changed the way we work, particularly how we communicate, nothing, I hope, can replace human interaction in the real world (if Halle 4 can be described as the real world).

“Community building” has become a buzz word and we’re all trying to identify and serve communities: crime fiction lovers, lawyers, romance readers, university students studying biology, and visually-handicapped people needing quality audiobooks. I could go on.

Back in the early 1990s, I was involved in a strategy review of a B2B operating unit of Reed Elsevier, a unit now called Reed Business as part of RELX. Our strategy consultants told us to focus on business communities in which the Reed group had plenty of assets, which could be used synergistically—remember that word?—to reinforce sales, develop a dominant market share, and thus enhance margins. We looked at scores of business units in industries from aviation to Hollywood films, Dutch agriculture, IT, real estate, transport, and more.

In no case did we find the critical mass to dominate the sector. Except one. You’ve guessed it. The book industry.

“This is the community in which we all operate and whose participants need to understand the whole network if it’s to function optimally.”Richard Charkin

At the time, we owned the leading German library and bookseller information publisher K.G.Saur; London Book Fair; the “ABA,” now known as BookExpo; what became Books+Publishing in Australia; Publishers Weekly; Library Journal; Bowker; and trade shows in Japan and around the world—I’ve forgotten most of them.

So what happened after we identified this marvelous opportunity? The individual units were dispersed and the opportunity missed. Ah well, that’s corporate life and that’s the fate of many business strategies.

However, what that episode triggered in me was a recognition of the importance of the community for book publishing.

The industry is a complex global community encompassing paper manufacturers, software designers, content reproduction rights organizations, trade associations, search engine optimizers, as well as the more traditional booksellers, wholesalers, printers, librarians, proof readers, copyeditors, scouts, literary agents, cover designers, publicists, sales reps, rights people, editors, translators, and, of course, authors and illustrators.

This is the community in which we all operate and whose participants need to understand the whole network if it’s to function optimally. Trade shows are clearly among the principal facilitators, but there are others. For instance in the UK, there’s The Book Society in London, of which I’m proud to be honorary president; and Motovun, a group of friends who like editing exceptional books; and, importantly, for our future the Society of Young Publishers.

In the interest of transparency, I should say that I serve on the international advisory board of the Frankfurter Buchmesse, and that Publishing Perspectives is a project of Frankfurt Book Fair New York.

That said, after 46 years, I still get a sense of anticipation as the fair approaches and I can’t leave you without sharing the old, grainy, and embarrassing photograph of me and the author of one of my least successful projects. I hope you’ll have a more profitable and enjoyable Frankfurt 2019.

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