Richard Charkin on Publishing’s COVID-19 Challenges: Open Up New Channels Now

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Coronavirus Worklife: ‘Forget all the failed attempts at finding synergies with multimedia corporations,’ says Richard Charkin to publishing’s leadership. ‘Try again.’

In the 31-acre London Fields park west of Mare Street in Hackney, citizens have come out for the spring weather amid modest easings in the UK’s lockdown restrictions, not always in compliance with distancing and face-cover guidance. Image: Richard Charkin

Editor’s note: Today, Richard Charkin refers to the Boris Johnson government’s efforts to segue from ‘Stay Home. Protect the National Health Service. Save Lives’ to the reopening slogan ‘Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save Lives.’  Bookshops in the UK have been provisionally approved as non-essential retail allowed to open starting June 1. In the one hour since our last check at  the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the UK has added 317 new COVID-19 cases. Its death toll: 34,716.–Porter Anderson

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘Actively Pursue Relationships’
Last month I wrote about the importance and value of rights deals in the publishing ecosystem. Their currency will only mean more going forward, not least because of inexorable changes in social behavior, literacy levels, and the emergence of new technologies for entertaining and informing readers.

When the UK government last month announced the removal of VAT on ebooks and audiobooks in order to help readers though the pandemic while bookshops were closed, I and many others celebrated a victory for the pleasure and centricity of reading.

I was taken aback by the number of people complaining that this gesture was making life relatively harder for traditional booksellers because they already enjoyed no tax on books. The ability to turn good news into bad is dispiriting, to say the least.

Richard Charkin

It’s also dispiriting to read articles in the general media describing how the book trade might emerge from this crisis. Learned literati describe how their excellent local bookstore will reopen shortly with new social distancing measures in the shops, how literary festivals will once again flourish, how publishers will adapt by selling more books direct-to-consumer, how everything will be okay for the publishing world we love so much.

What these articles fail to mention is the pandemic’s economic impact on the total publishing world, most of which is invisible or of no interest to literary journalists.

How can libraries survive when governments worldwide will be cutting expenditure wherever they can? How can university students afford to buy textbooks? How can academic publishing ride the waves of reduced international collaboration, higher costs, and lower print runs? And how can any bookshop compensate for the loss of even a few percent of its customer base, having been accustomed by the pandemic to buying from online booksellers and one huge and comprehensive “everything store” in particular?

And will new readers experiencing their stories through many different media return to the printed book itself?

I’m an optimist. The book trade is resilient and has overcome many challenges. It will, I’m sure, pull through this time, too. But it’s surely going to require new thinking, new products, new distribution methods, and new courage.

‘Our Supply Chain Is Expensive, Cumbersome, Slow’

Here are a few ideas to start discussing or dismissing now.

  • Embrace varied ways of helping authors communicate with their readers: Not just ebooks and audio streaming.
  • Actively pursue relationships with new and old media businesses, reaching out beyond books and bookshops.
  • Extend your relationships beyond selling rights to other publishers: Focus on clients who need high-quality content but cannot create it themselves.
  • Either help the likes of Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney, etc. to find the best material—or compete with them
  • Forget all the failed attempts at finding synergies with multimedia corporations: Try again.
  • Persuade authors that the publisher is their best partner in exploring these other opportunities, so that authors will grant publishers the necessary rights.
  • Empower individual editors and publishers to take responsibility for the success and failure of their projects. Teamwork and input from other departments—such as sales and marketing—is important but should be advisory and not mandatory: That tends to distribute and dilute responsibility.
  • A corollary: Cease gathering hordes of people to “help” make decisions. This is time-wasting and overhead-generating, and it rarely improves the end result.
  • Shorten the supply chain between the manufacture and the purchase of printed general books. Envisage the current chain: Binding machine spits out a finished book complete with jacket; the book is transferred to goods-out at the plant; the distributor transfers it to a lorry, which drives to its goods-in point at the warehouse; it’s moved to the bulk store; from there to the forward store; from there to goods-out, then onto the wholesaler’s lorry to goods-in at the wholesaler, bulk store, forward store; then goods-out, lorry to bookseller, into the bookshop storeroom; from there to the shelf and the potential purchaser. Of course, some stages are sometimes bypassed. But there are sometimes even more stages based on chain bookstores’ investments in their own distribution facilities or when exporting and multiple documentation stages need to be added. Just imagine the costs of all. We need to rethink.
  • Not only is our supply chain expensive, cumbersome, and slow, but it’s also environmentally unfriendly: Printing more books than you need intentionally to cover the inevitability of returned copies; printing more copies than you need to “improve” the margin; printing copies thousands of miles, by air or ship, away from the marketplace.
  • As some positions in publishing become less important or less cost-effective, be creative in building new roles in the new economy to protect your business and to respect your workforce.

And finally in an echo of the British government’s attempt at a slogan for our time: Stay agile. Protect our industry. Help save the world’s most important cultural and educational asset, literature in all its forms.

Another look at London Fields and questionable distancing during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Image: Richard Charkin

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here.  More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

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."