Richard Charkin: A Little Grumble and a Big Hurrah

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin7 Comments

Richard Charkin wonders if the winners of rights auctions are, in fact, winners. And he considers whether Nigel Beale is right to say there’s more to the book business than money.

Image: From Nigel Beale’s ‘Literary Tourist’

By Richard Charkin

A Publishing Rant
Recently we’ve seen a slew of headlines in the various book trade news media along the lines of “Publisher X Triumphs in 14-Way Auction for Debut Novelist” or “Publishers Slug It Out for Exceptional Treatment of WYZ” or “Publisher Y wins fourth Auction in a Row” or “Publisher Z Preempts Extraordinary Short Story Collection.”

Richard Charkin

It’s great that these typically debut books are getting a breath of advance publicity, but I have two related questions.

First, has anyone ever analyzed the success rate of the results of these auctions systematically?

And second, can someone explain to me how it is that with 12 intelligent publishers deciding that the advance being paid for a book is too high, the winning 13th is described as “triumphant?” Might “nervous” be a better adjective?

It is, of course, entirely possible that the 12 intelligent publishers are wrong and the 13th is right. That sometimes happens. My suspicion is, however, that over time the winners of these auctions are literary agents rather than the publishing industry.

But enough curmudgeonly comment.

A Literary Tourist

In my last column, I wrote about the book publishing community as showcased at or by Frankfurter Buchmesse.

Nigel Beale

Another eclectic, broad, and incisive showcase has been built by a Canadian fan of books, Nigel Beale.

There are many publishing histories around the world, and many attempts to capture publishing history as it happens. See, for example, this extraordinarily long series of interviews at WebOfStories.com with the late Peter Mayer, a doyen of Frankfurt and global publishing at all levels. Another example from a different branch of publishing is this Collège de France video at YouTube of my old friend Vitek Tracz.

But back to Nigel Beale. He describes himself as interviewer, writer, and literary tourist. I’d describe him as a chronicler of our industry, thus creating an invaluable archive of late 20th-century and early 21st-century publishing, bookselling, writing, and collecting.

He has interviewed me a couple of times, so I thought I’d turn the tables and interview him but my technological ability doesn’t stretch to editing audio files.

And so here are some thoughts from our conversation. I was most interested in why Beale has undertaken the task of attempting to document the book industry.

He says it was triggered by a serious bout of depression in middle age and the realization that there’s more to life than making money, even though enough money is a necessity, of course.

Beale says he’d become obsessed with books, and persuaded CKCU, an Ottawa radio station, to allow him a 60-minute slot on Mondays at 6 a.m. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t attract a massive audience at that hour but was hooked on doing the show and began podcasting.

There are now more than 400 interviews with writers, book collectors, librarians, copy editors, designers, booksellers, publishers, in his Biblio File archive of podcasts, and Beale says he won’t stop until he has reached at least 1,000.

He describes the Biblio File as a ball with pins stuck in it. Each interview is a pin, the ball is the book industry. The ball will never be big enough and there will never be enough pins.

Three interviews I’d recommend are this one with Faber & Faber CEO Stephen Page and founder Geoffrey Faber from January of this year; James Daunt on the turnaround at Waterstones, also from January; and Jonathan Galassi of FSG from June 2018.

What’s the business model? There is none.

Beale and his wife spend little and travel cheaply for their Literary Tourist adventures. The driver isn’t financial, it’s much more than that. It’s the opportunity to spend time with some of the most interesting people in the creative and commercial worlds while finding and living a passion.

Clearly Beale’s archive will at some point need a permanent home in a bookish institution. It may not be a scholarly archive in the strict academic sense, but it’s a resource of immense importance to future scholars of writers and books.


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 IPA and for 11 years was Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press and Reed Elsevier, and has led many other organizations, such as the UK Publishers Association and The Book Society. Richard has an MA in Natural Sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a Supernumerary Fellow of Green College, Oxford; and attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and he is a Visiting Professor at the University of the Arts London.

Comments

  1. Thank you Richard for the reference to Biblio File. I love and collect books about books and publishing. Sometimes people think publishers are typesetters and printers. And thank you Nigel Beale.

  2. Curmudgeonly indeed, which is okay in itself. But also wrong. The winners of those auctions are, of course, the authors. And authors and agents are just as much part of the publishing industry as publishers.

  3. Dear John, You are, of course, correct. The authors receiving these (usually unearned) advances are the winners, at least in the short term. But these auctions only affect a tiny proportion of authors (perhaps less than 1%). The cost is effectively not being borne just by the ‘victorious’ publisher but by the 99% of authors whose royalty rate is lower than it might have been had publishers not had to write off large unearned advances. I would also add that, whilst easy cash early in a career is obviously welcome, if the book fails it can damage the author’s long-term aspirations. Publishers don’t readily sign up ‘failed’ authors. Thanks for opening up the debate. Richard

    1. Thanks for your response, Richard. Your arguments still follow the “Zero Sum Gain” approach of your article, setting high-selling authors against lower-selling authors, for example. Such a snapshot view of a deal seems to assume that large deals fail to “earn out” more often than smaller deals. Do they really? Authors are not your enemies, not even bestselling authors.

      Please excuse me for seeming to point out the obvious to a very experienced publisher such as yourself, but publishing, like most fields, has its own peculiar semantics which other readers may not understand. “Advances” are only “unearned” in the very narrow sense that a deal has not yet generated royalties.

      “Advances” are actually fees paid for the use (effectively a lease) of the author’s copyright. If the ultimate sales royalties fall below the advance that increases the effective royalty percentage rate but does not necessarily produce a loss for the publisher. You seem to suggest that the underbidders (or non-bidders) in the auctions might pay their authors higher royalties than the “winner”. I see no basis for that. Also, the differences between the bids may not be very large, so it’s not as if the winner is completely wrong and the underbidders completely right, or vice-versa.

  4. To take your excellent points in order. Do big deals fail to earn out more frequently than smaller ones? I have never seen any data but for sure the big failures hurt more.

    If advances are fees then there would be no need nor financial case for royalties – not a great idea in my opinion.

    That an unearned advance doesn’t necessarily result in a loss for the publisher is certainly true in theory but rarely in practice, I fear.

  5. To take your excellent points in order. Do big deals fail to earn out more frequently than smaller ones? I have never seen any data but for sure the big failures hurt more.

    If advances are fees then there would be no need nor financial case for royalties – not a great idea in my opinion.

    That an unearned advance doesn’t necessarily result in a loss for the publisher is certainly true in theory but rarely in practice, I fear.

    But I’ve already said that!

    1. Publishing advances are indeed license fees, similar to the license fees paid to authors and other creators for movie or other rights. Movie and other rights deals frequently include future payments based on sales or profits.

      Many thanks for your responses!

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