Richard Charkin: A British Publisher at Harvard Business School

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Almost 30 years ago, another Cambridge was where Richard Charkin learned about ‘the need to see things through others’ eyes.’

Harvard Business School’s Baker Library. Image: HBS, Susan Young

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

A Mid-Career Break
It was September 1992, the start of the United States’ presidential election. Bill Clinton was to outgun George H.W. Bush and the independent outsider Ross Perot. I’d recently been appointed CEO of Reed Consumer Books, a subsidiary of Reed International.

Reed Consumer Books was a decent business with sales of around £180 million (US$230 million) and profits of about £15 million (US$19). It had a plethora of terrific intellectual property assets, commonly known as authors or books.

Richard Charkin

On the trade side, the backlist contained the majority of the works of Graham Greene, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Neville Shute, John Steinbeck, and many others. The frontlist published Bill Bryson, Sue Townsend, Irvine Welsh, Roddy Doyle, James Kelman, Thomas Harris, Louis de Bernieres, and John Banville.

In children’s books, we were the proud publishers of the series on Winnie-the-Pooh; Thomas the Tank Engine; Babar; The Jolly Postman; and Tintin; as well as Ant and Bee; and Fireman Sam. The illustrated books division—comprising the imprints called Conran Octopus, Mitchell Beazley, George Philip, and Hamlyn—published Hugh Johnson; Alex Comfort of The Joy of Sex; the Michelin Road Atlases; Miller’s Antiques price guides; and a vast range of lifestyle books.

I was about to be promoted to run the overall books business, Reed International Books. It also contained the hugely influential African Writers Series, the Ginn 360 reading scheme, and leading market positions in primary education through Ginn and secondary through Heinemann Education. Finally, there was a highly profitable tertiary division. Butterworth-Heinemann was publishing journals, textbooks, and high-level management and architecture books.

Clearly my bosses thought I was in need of some management polishing before I could move to these giddier heights. I was dispatched for three months to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to learn everything Harvard could teach me about managing businesses in general and improving the performance of the book publishing businesses in specific.

There were students on the course mainly from the United States but with a reasonable sprinkling from Japan, India, South Africa, Brazil, China, the United Kingcom and continental Europe. There were only eight women and only one African-American in the American contingent. Most of the participants had risen in their corporations through the financial or legal side and the purpose of the program was to broaden their understanding of business through segments on marketing, production systems, world affairs, human resource management, and so on.

We were split into groups to focus on three case studies a day relating to the relevant lectures being delivered. The following day, each group would present its findings from the case studies to the lecturer and the other students for discussion and debate.

I determined not to waste this educational opportunity, having wasted much of my time as an undergraduate at the other Cambridge. I’d diligently spend two hours on each case study. I’d listen carefully to the lecturers and keep extensive notes. I’d not cross over to Harvard Square and spend time in the bars and restaurants there. After all, the course was costing some US$70,000 in addition to my salary and expenses.

I confess I failed on all these resolutions.

I did, however, learn a few things, not necessarily from the course itself but from taking a mid-career break from day-to-day business.

Lessons Learned

At Harvard Business School. Image: HBS, Susan Young

  • I was brought up to believe that however bad you are at a particular task, you had to perform it if it was part of your job. It turns out that it would be better not to do things you don’t enjoy because you’re probably doing them badly. In my case that meant I could stop worrying about office space planning and creating spreadsheets. It turned out that there were always plenty of people who loved doing those jobs and did them so much better than I ever could. I could focus on what I do enjoy: Having ideas for books, marketing tricks, and studying data.
  • Managing people means helping them manage themselves. There are those in publishing and probably all industries who cannot resist backseat driving their teams, instructing and controlling their colleagues. The message from Harvard was to empower people. Let them make mistakes, let them learn to believe in themselves, let them take full responsibility. I was skeptical, but it works. Not only do people perform better when they feel trusted but it saves a whole lot of trouble for the managers. In our new COVID-19 infected world, this lesson has become even more relevant.
  • Investment decisions are about risk and reward. Publishing projections tend to focus on the costs of a particular project—whether it’s affordable, whether it’s achievable, whether it fits a publishing strategy. Similarly, in poker you’re tempted to evaluate your own hand and bet accordingly. But what really matters, in poker and in publishing, is not the size of the bet but the size of the reward. Publishers invariably underestimate the costs of any project and overestimate the potential revenues. Given the significant risks in any publishing project this a pretty dangerous combination. A classic example is the investments publishers make in literary fiction. The only way to get a decent return is for a title to be shortlisted or win the Booker Prize. There are probably several hundred potential winners in any year, which means the vast majority will lose money. Is the occasional win enough to compensate for the losses?
  • I discovered that my personality as measured by the Myers-Briggs test was ENFP. Extraversion, intuition, feeling, perception. It sounded okay until I discovered that 70 of the prospective CEOs had the polar opposite, ISTJ. Introversion, observation, thinking, judgment. Only three others shared mine. I clearly wasn’t cut out to be a CEO in the Harvard mold. Incidentally, the other three ENFPs were the CEO of a huge Brazilian insurance company, the chair of the supervisory board of Germany’s largest bank, and an admiral in the US Navy. The worrying thing was that someone with my personality profile potentially had his finger on a nuclear button.
  • In spite of the range of nationalities,  communication was excellent. Learning about business through case studies brought people together and differences were minimal. I’d assumed that I would get on best with other British people or with Americans with whom we share so much culture. It transpired that I had more in common with continental Europeans and Commonwealth colleagues, the former because of shared political and social views, and the latter because of sport and history. In any event, it was my first exposure to the concept of cultural intelligence and the need to see things through others’ eyes.
And Other Lessons

Harvard Business School. Image: HBS, Greg Hren

There were probably other lessons and plenty of highlights. I’ll end, though, with some lowlights of a college program in the United States 28 years ago.

  • Brevity seemed not to be valued very highly. Everything took longer than I thought necessary: the length of the lectures; the time suggested for studying the case studies; the summarizing of the case studies the following day. By the end of the three months I was screaming for brevity.
  • It’s a cliché that British irony was not much understood. I was reprimanded for proposing, tongue in cheek, that we wager our entire entertainment budget on Ross Perot to win the presidential election. This was considered an undemocratic suggestion, although in my opinion it might have been more fun than the entertainment committee meetings.
  • While I was on the course, we published Madonna’s extraordinary illustrated book, Sex. I went to the equally extraordinary launch party in New York’s meat-packing district where scenes from the book were played out live for guests’ entertainment. I managed to get a commitment from the Madonna PR company to consider coming to Harvard to give a lecture on marketing. She was, at the time, probably the best marketer in the world. I was told by the marketing professor that such a lecture would be “inappropriate” for Harvard Business School. I thought Oxbridge comprised the leading bastions of reactionary thinking.
  • One morning, I was awakened at 4 a.m. to be told that Reed International was merging with Elsevier. It didn’t take me long to work out that the businesses I was running would be jettisoned by the incoming Elsevier chairman, Pierre Vinken. Elsevier had been in talks and share swaps with Pearson, which had foundered on Vinken’s distaste for books in general and for Penguin in particular. There was no reason to think that Reed Books would be any different. And that is exactly what happened within a few years.
  • I was disappointed to discover that American football and baseball, while okay in their way, are simply not a patch on rugby and cricket.
  • I discovered that in terms of effort versus financial reward publishing compared unfavorably with other industries including banking, construction, information technology, auto insurance, and the rest. But in cultural importance, complexity, and fun, it was the outright winner.

In spite of all this and a degree of cynicism about executive education as it relates to publishing, the whole experience was transformational. The one remaining niggle—and it remains to this day—was the ghastliness of American filtered coffee.

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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.’