Richard Charkin: Brexit Ushers British Publishing Into New Territory

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

An inevitable ‘sea change in trade book publishing,’ writes Richard Charkin, may accelerate as Brexit puts the UK industry’s EU exclusivity into a new light.

A shot from February 6 in London’s Parliament Square. Image – iStockphoto: VV Shots

Editor’s note: This week, contacts at the UK’s Publishers Association tell us that Brexit’s impact on publishing still are unclear, but many in the business have worried aloud for years that the tradition of British exclusivity in Europe could be threatened. When The Bookseller’s Mark Chandler and Katherine Cowdrey wrote about the issue (February 9), we asked Richard Charkin in London to give us his take on the situation.—Porter Anderson 

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘Blaming Brexit’
Cards on the table: I think the decision to leave the European Union was a catastrophe for Britain, a setback for the EU, a challenge to democracy, a threat to Western values of human rights, and an example of political expediency over moral governance.

However, we now have to live with the consequences, at least until the British (English) electorate and leadership come to their senses and find a way of re-energizing our European links and heritage. Blaming Brexit for all unpalatable change helps nobody.

Richard Charkin

EU exclusive rights is an example of such unwarranted blame.

Exclusive territorial rights of any sort are a matter for contractual negotiation between author and publisher. Whether or not an author licenses a British publisher to have exclusive rights in the UK, EU, Australia, or India, for that matter, is simply a business decision. Britain’s membership or not in the EU has little bearing on that decision, any more than granting exclusive Canadian rights would be affected by membership in NAFTA.

Of course British publishers would wish to acquire as much exclusivity as possible in order to protect their investment in an author, the advances paid to that author, and the ability to control the profitability or otherwise of any geographical market. Copyright is, after all, a legal monopoly and we all understand that monopolies are intrinsically better investments than duopolies—also known as open markets.

Those arguing for open markets throughout Europe are typically United States publishers and agents understandably wishing to expand the market for their licenses. Those arguing for exclusive EU terms—typically British publishers and agents wishing to press publishers to increase EU royalty rates to the same as UK—are looking to preserve the status quo. This tussle will continue irrespective of Brexit.

However, perhaps there’s another question we should ask: What is the point of establishing separate territorial rights for English-language titles? Let’s ask why the system exists in the first place.

‘The World Has Changed and Will Change Even Faster’

Traditionally, publishers were country-located and principally served their home markets, thus requiring a partnership or license deal with other publishers for other markets.

  • Editorial tastes differed across countries, as did sometimes spelling and grammar. Thus a separate edition was deemed important.
  • Design tastes varied across countries—and still do—thus requiring different packaging and marketing campaigns.
  • Agents discovered the joy of selling the same book to two different publishers simultaneously, thus increasing the chances of achieving a double unearnable advance.

All good and understandable reasons, but the world has changed and will change even faster.

Publishers are no longer country-based. All the major trade, academic, and educational publishers are now global. There’s no need for them to strike deals with other English-language publishers. A book published by, say, HarperCollins in the States can be published, sold, marketed, and distributed by HarperCollins in English as well as any other publisher.

“Agents discovered the joy of selling the same book to two different publishers simultaneously, thus increasing the chances of achieving a double unearnable advance.”Richard Charkin

Digital distribution of ebooks, audiobooks, and any other yet-to-be-invented formats has greatly facilitated worldwide distribution and logistics, further reinforcing the possibility of a single publisher license from the author.

Book retailers were once national independents or chains. This is no longer the case. Amazon is, of course,  the prime (sorry, couldn’t resist) example but the shared ownership of Barnes & Noble and Waterstones, the international consolidation of supermarkets, and Asian booksellers such as Kinokuniya are transforming the bookshop landscape.

In parallel, book production has become global and will become more so as our industry tries to reduce its carbon footprint and thus print closer to market rather than closer to publishing headquarters. This has been happening in Australia for quite a while but there’s logic to applying the same logistics around the world. Print on demand technology, availability, and price will accelerate this, too.

And then there’s the marketing. Scientific and academic publishing has always viewed its marketplace as global. The very idea of territorial separation is alien. Trade books do have separate markets with different tastes but those differences are diminishing.

Just ask Netflix whether they should have separate brands for the USA and the UK or EU. Their bestsellers are, by and large, bestsellers everywhere. Michelle Obama was a bestseller in English everywhere. No need for exclusive or non-exclusive EU rights. No need for a different cover in Australia or India. Whether we like it or not, our tastes are becoming more homogenous, an undeniable trend but fortunately mitigated by a huge growth in numbers and choice of titles by virtue of self-publishing and technology.

Finally, the ability to promote a book via other media—newspapers, radio, TV, movies—is also becoming more global, either through media conglomeration (for example News Corp) or by Internet penetration (for example The Guardian or the Daily Mail digital footprint in North America).

‘A Sea Change in Trade Book Publishing’

All this points to a sea change in trade book publishing, a change which has been signaled for decades but has been obstructed by squabbles such as EU exclusive rights and the short-term-ism of hunting the biggest possible advance as opposed to the best possible deal.

It’s about time that trade book publishers took the plunge and offered their authors genuine worldwide support through their extensive infrastructures. And it’s about time that literary agents focused on their authors’ careers rather than the next big advance.

My earlier mention of Netflix has triggered a thought. I’ve been loving their series called in English Call My Agent. So much of it reminds me of the trade book publishing industry, not least the jealousies and egos.

What’s puzzling me is the French title, Dix Pour Cent. How come actors typically pay their agents 10 percent while authors typically pay their agents 15 percent? And how did literary agents manage to increase their share of the cake by 50 percent without any apparent resistance? You have to admire their skill.

I wish publishers could increase their share so effectively.

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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.’