Richard Charkin: Ten Publishing Things That Will Never Be The Same

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin even takes aim at publishing’s parties as he considers some of the practical lessons of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic—and revisits the hairstyle of his youth.

A postman in the early-20th-century Pays de Buch area of France’s Landes de Gascogne delivers mail on stilts. Both mail carriers and shepherds used stilts in the region to navigate boggy tidal-plain terrain. Richard Charkin likens this tradition to ‘print in the new world—charming but ridiculous.’ Image: Public domain

Editor’s note: As we publish Richard Charkin’s June column today (June 7), the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center in its 6:33 p.m. ET (2233 GMT) update shows the United Kingdom as fourth in the world for COVID-19 caseloads behind the United States, Brazil, and Russia. The UK is confirmed with 287,621 cases and 40,625 deaths. In fatalities, this puts the market second in the world, behind the USA’s 110,425 total. BBC News’ rolling updates report Scotland showing no deaths in 24 hours for the first time since the pandemic’s onset.


By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘Surely Work From Home Will Continue’
This comes to you after 90 days of quite intense lockdown in Hackney, part of North and East London.

Richard Charkin, June 2020

As you can see, I’ve resisted the temptation to grow a beard, although I must own up to laxity in the matter of daily shaving.

And my hair length is reverting to a previous version (see the shot below), albeit in a different color and thickness.

I suspect my hair length will go back to pre-COVID-19 days and I’ll have to get used to shaving daily again.

But some things will never—or never should—be the same again. While I’m absolutely certain others that others will have their own—and probably better—ideas, here’s my list of irreversible changes in our industry.

In Publishing’s Post-Pandemic Future

No longer will we print 200 copies of an academic monograph, ship 150 to warehouses around the world, then on to university libraries, and hope the remaining 50 will evaporate somehow over time. Should any library actually want a print copy for archival or other reasons it’s perfectly easy to produce one on a print-on-demand basis and that single copy will cost less in money and damage to the environment.

  • As it happens, the same technology and attitude will pervade the thinking of general as well as academic publishers when maintaining the availability of backlist titles.
  • This will of course lead to a complete revision and rethinking of reversion clauses.

Richard Charkin in another recent photo

Scientific publishers will abandon any semblance of print production including the age-old tradition of printed offprints of an author’s article.

  • Print in the new world is akin to the old French tradition of delivering the mail by postmen on stilts—charming but ridiculous.

And how about the absurdity of sending printed copies to media for review?

  • During the lockdown, newspaper mailrooms have been empty and it has been pointless to send printed books. It turns out that for the purposes of review and criticism, a PDF is perfectly adequate in all but heavily illustrated art, lifestyle, and children’s books.
  • Of course the reviewer will find it hard to sell the PDF on eBay as a way of supplementing the paltry reviewer’s fee but perhaps it’s about time that reviewers were paid properly for their important function.

Universities, local authorities, and schools will be even more budget-conscious than ever. And the rapid and efficient delivery of information through the Internet—whether of ebooks, digital resources, audio downloads, or video—has shown that print purchases can be replaced and budgets adjusted accordingly.

  • This is the continuation of a trend but the days of ever-increasing library budgets are over once and for all.

Can anyone imagine any learning environment without a significant digital dimension? From the library to the lecture theater or classroom, the buzzword in educational publishing for schools and colleges has been “blended learning”–essentially a teacher, a book, and some digital supplements.

  • This will be reversed and will become a digital course supplemented by a teacher and the very occasional printed textbook.
  • It will still be blended learning but as in any blend everything depends on the proportions of the ingredients. In education, these proportions will never be the same again.

Surely working from home will continue, with benefits to family life, avoidance of commuting stress, the economics of publishing, and the trust and empowerment of publishing employees.

  • Amazingly—to me, at least—it has worked really well. Any skepticism I harbored about whether people would really work as hard and as well in a domestic environment has been shattered. Surely this will continue with benefits to family life, avoidance of commuting stress, the economics of publishing, and trust and empowerment of publishing employees

With more people working from home, how can our industry justify typical midtown offices? How can senior executives justify large offices for themselves and battery-hen cubicles for lower-level staffers?

  • Old-fashioned offices and structures will not survive to be replaced by more employee-friendly work spaces and work practices.
  • Adieu, 9-to-5 work schedules. I’m very glad I haven’t invested heavily in big-city commercial property, and I’m pretty certain that most publishers will be looking to reduce their rent bills by taking less space and renegotiating leases.

Attending crowded meeting rooms in real life is exhausting and unsatisfying—as much as is staring at a screen full of talking heads for hours on end. The more people at a meeting the more opinions, the more politics, the fewer good decisions.

  • We should now progress beyond the typical editorial or marketing meeting to (a) greater empowerment for the key decision-maker with (b) input from as few people as necessary resulting in (c) quicker and more focused decisions.
  • Farewell to those meetings with the cast of Ben Hur.  Those gatherings’ only purpose was to have a meeting and be seen to be there.

No more sales conferences in exotic places.

  • No more teeming academic conferences.
  • No more all-company rallies.
  • No more flying around the world when a phone call would suffice.
  • Leaving parties will be sadly frequent but less grand.

And finally, of course, the parties.

  • No more book launches in lovely but pokey independent bookshops.
  • No more cheap white wine.
  • No more self-serving speeches by the publisher.
  • No more shushing in order to hear the author’s speech or reading.
  • No more air kisses and mwah mwah.
  • No more trying to persuade staffers to mingle.
  • No more sucking up to journalists in the hope of a one-line mention in a diary column.
  • No more bundling up the unsold books to return to the warehouse.
  • The post-COVID-19 launch parties will be digital. Many more people can and will attend. The wine and refreshments will be top-notch. The author can be heard and seen. The event can be recorded and shared universally.
‘Creatively Pushing Water Uphill’

So at least 10 things will never be the same again, but among those that will not change:

  • More books will be published. Sales will be hard to get but there will be bestsellers.
  • Authors will jump from publisher to publisher for greener fields.
  • Editors will change publishers for more money and more autonomy.
  • New marketing wheezes will be developed.

The publishing world will continue and thrive, as it always has, by creatively pushing water uphill.


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About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the IPA and the UK PA 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, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is president of The Book Society, vice-chair of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, and a member of the International Advisory Board of the Frankfurt Book Fair. He is a non-executive director of Bonnier Books UK, Liverpool University Press, Institute of Physics Publishing, and Cricket Properties as well as founding his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Richard 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.