Richard Charkin: Ten Lessons From the Pandemic We’ll Probably Forget

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Porter Anderson

‘Some things remain constant,’ writes Richard Charkin, as the pandemic proves ‘a tunnel longer than hardly any of us envisaged.’

In London on March 21, 2020, sun reflecting off 22 Bishopsgate. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Amarjeet Singh Hardeepsingh

Editor’s note: Our congratulations today to columnist Richard Charkin, who has become an adviser to the digital sheet music subscription app called Nkoda. We wonder if this hasn’t helped him reference The Byrds, as you’ll see him to in his piece. You’ll find his earlier piece column, ’10 Publishing Things That Will Never Be the Same’,  here, worth reviewing. On May 24 at 2 p.m. GST (11 a.m. BST, 6 a.m. ET), Charkin is to join International Publishers Association president Bodour Al Qasimi in a streamed conversation at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. –Porter Anderson

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘A Time to Build Up’
Writing this in my comfortable office in London with two rounds of vaccination under my belt, it’s all too easy to think we’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel.

But only a moment’s contemplation of events in India right now–and the almost certain events to follow in neighboring South Asian and African countries–to know that this tunnel is longer than hardly any of us envisaged.

  1. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
  2. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
  3. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
  4. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
  5. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
  6. A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
  7. A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
  8. A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
  9. What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?
  10. I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, King James Version, KJV

‘A Time to Retrench’

Richard Charkin

I’m not religious, but as I started to write the words above from the Bible, The Byrds’ rendition, Turn, Turn, Turn, floated into my mind.

I try to keep these monthly pieces light-hearted but it’s tough when dealing with such a tragedy. There will be plenty of moving words written by brilliant people covering the huge and universal issues created. I can only try to address the lessons that we, the book industry, should have learned and should remember. So here goes.

Lesson 1. Community. All parts of our industry have come together in any number of groupings to share knowledge, experience, and support. Perhaps the most striking has been Publishers Without Borders on Facebook. Established in March 2020, it now has 4,000 active members, has hosted debates, raised money for COVID-19 research, helped individuals, and forged friendships. It’s truly global and should continue way beyond this crisis.

Lesson 2. Generosity. Authors, and others in our world, are suffering from lack of income. They need support. One successful effort has been the Authors Contingency Fund, housed at the Society of Authors. The fund has paid out more than £1.3 million in grants for writers of all types (US$1.8 million) since a campaign in 2020 bringing together many charitable organizations. Most of the grants are relatively small but have made a huge difference for many writers. Long may it, and other similar initiatives, continue if we’re to have a diverse and flourishing author community.

Lesson 3. The real frontline. If you read the book trade press (as I do, avidly), you’d conclude that the business was kept going by brilliant editors winning 10-way auctions for debut novelists or global CEOs reporting on their latest strategies for improving the world and their business. The truth is that many publishers were able to survive and prosper during the lockdown through the efforts of their distributors. The real heroes were those employees who turned up for work in warehouses to ensure that books could reach readers. I’m sure we’re grateful now, but will that gratitude last?

Lesson 4. The retail paradox. We all love bookshops and we should move heaven and earth to support them. But can we ignore the fact that most publishers’ results seem to have improved, at least in the short term, while traditional bookshops were closed in many countries? Logic says that publishers are losing money servicing these accounts and thus we have to find new business models to ensure their continuity. Losing money is not a sustainable option.

Lesson 5. Our workforces. I love office culture. Building team spirit, sharing experiences, learning from others, generating trust, providing a safe place to work, monitoring performance. These are the benefits of office working. But it’s clear that, while significant, these activities are not essential for successful publishing. Many publishers are now offering much more flexible working hours and greater liberalization of working from home. And our workforce has shown that it can be trusted. The more corporations trust their employees, the more that trust will be repaid. Will such a rosy relationship survive as future economic stringency exerts ever more downward pressure on overhead costs?

Lesson 6. Personal appraisals. Is there anything more stressful than an annual appraisal? During the COVID-19 pandemic, stress levels have rarely been higher and appraisals conducted via the Internet are less effective than usual. As we return to normal and to face-to-face meetings, I propose that all appraisals and indeed perhaps all one-on-one discussions should be held outside the office while walking. I think walk-and-talk is so much more effective than facing across a table or a desk. Try it and see.

Lesson 7. Travel. One of the joys of my career has been visiting other countries, trying get my round other cultures and markets. God, it has been fun. It is, however, extraordinary how much has been achieved in the last 18 months with effectively zero long-distance travel. That isn’t to say that we haven’t lost some sales or opportunities or created new networks but it would appear that the benefits are outweighed by the costs. How about all of us setting a target to halve travel costs and halve the number of people traveling. A benefit to sustainability as well as to the bottom line.

Lesson 8. Meetings. We seem to have managed perfectly well without 30 people mingling in a stuffy meeting room to discuss covers, contracts, marketing plans, and the rest. Of course, Zoom and Teams will have taken up some of the slack but I question whether we might do better to empower more employees to make decisions (for good or for bad) on their own. The danger of meetings is that they diffuse responsibility. How about trying to halve the number of meetings and halve attendance at each? It would certainly save money and might even improve decision-making.

Lesson 9. Technology. All publishers have benefited from the application of technology to all their activities, of course, but it’s noticeable that academic publishers have invested much more and much more innovatively than general publishers. This is partly a function of greater profitability, greater customer acceptance of screen data, and greater scientific expertise in the workforce, but surely the lesson is that technology investment is crucial for all publishers, and the cost might be paid for by overhead savings in other areas (see above).

Lesson 10. To everything there is a season. There is a time to invest. There is a time to retrench. There is a time to take risks. There is a time to be cautious. There is a time to create committees. There is a time to disband them. But some things remain constant. Authors are our life blood. Staying in business is our prime objective, and we can only achieve that by serving the author community. That’s the constant we should never forget.

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.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.