Richard Charkin: Notes From a Small Publisher in London

In Feature Articles, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin12 Comments

Totting up the pros and cons of being an independent publisher, Richard Charkin assesses Mensch Publishing on its third anniversary.

In London’s Charing Cross, June 19. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Darren Clarke

Editor’s note: NPD Books’ Kristen McLean has pointed out the “opportunities for nimble publishers that can take advantage of domestic printing to gain market share as other publishers wait for overseas orders.” And we expect to bring to see ‘nimble publishers’ evolving their positions in world markets, post-pandemic. Our columnist Richard Charkin takes stock of Mensch Publishing.


By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

The Book Business ‘at the Micro Level’
It’s three years since we announced the formation of Mensch Publishing to an uninterested world.

Richard Charkin

I have accounts from inception to March 31, which includes setup costs and writing off of all stock and work in progress on a cash-expended basis.

Total cumulative revenue, including some consultancy fees and rights deals, is £278,000 (US$384,453) and profit before tax of £106,000 (US$146,593). I started with £10,000 (US$13,829) in a dedicated bank account and now have £30,000 (US$41,488) after paying advance tax. Not a huge bonanza but at least we are solvent and the on right side of the ledger.

We’ve published 14 titles, the bulk of them having been supported admirably by Bloomsbury’s sales, rights, and production teams and MDL’s distribution. Four have been published using IngramSpark’s self-publishing platform. I’ve managed to run the business with no full-time staff but a wonderful freelance team of editors, designers, and publicists.

One of the purposes of the business, apart from keeping me occupied and testing out some of my publishing theories, was for me to relearn the business at the micro level. So what have I learned and which of my prejudices have been confirmed or undermined?

Complexity and Tight Margins

I’ve railed against the over-complication of the publishing industry and have tried to eliminate unnecessary noise. I have failed.

One measure of complexity I use is the number of emails in my saved folder for a particular title. I delete duplicates and aim to keep only the final email of an exchange. Nonetheless the average is 500 emails per title. If we posit a cost of £10 (US$13.83) per email by the time it’s written, replied to, read, ignored, we have an overhead of £5,000 (US$6,915) simply keeping track of a book’s progress or ensuring an adequate publication process.

This excludes all the overhead costs of editing, producing, cataloging, selling, marketing, accounting, etc., not to mention printing and royalty costs. And given that the average revenue of the titles I’ve published so far is £20,000 (US$27,655)—probably fractionally better than the overall industry average—you can see how tight the margins are for any but genuine bestsellers.

Editorial Specialization and Not

I’ve consistently argued for editorial specialization. Just because an editor is a good judge of literary fiction doesn’t make that editor a good judge of history or cooking or politics. I’m sure that still holds true for larger publishers, but small ones have to be opportunistic and Mensch’s range of titles shows absolutely no evidence of focus whatsoever.

Just take a look at this range of covers to see how we have failed to establish a genre for Mensch.

The only editorial rule I set was not to publish any fiction (which usually requires either a large and experienced publisher or an author self-publishing) but I broke that rule when I could not resist The Accidental Collector by Guy Kennaway, who has won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction 2021.

Contracts and Some Distinctions

Some key contractual rules I insisted on with all titles and authors in spite of initial resistance were:

  • No advances
  • Net-receipt royalties based on actual revenue received by Mensch
  • All rights, all languages

In spite of these rules, more than half the authors of the books are represented by literary agents and I’ve had no complaints about these terms (so far).

The benefits of creating a partnership with authors in which we share the proceeds equitably are enormous, and we couldn’t have asked for more enthusiasm and support from all our authors in the quest for sales and readership.

Two intentions but not contractual rules are (1) to pay royalties quarterly on the same day I receive quarterly cash from sales, and (2) we try to avoid withholding a percentage of money owing against potential future negative sales from returned copies. Sometimes the latter is implemented if we’ve sold, or more accurately lent, materially more copies to bookshops than they’ve sold, but we’re normally able to ignore this.

Wastage and Its Costs

Wastage is endemic in the publishing system. Wastage of time, wastage of materials, wastage of effort. I thought we could eliminate much of this waste through intelligent and quick decision-making, avoidance of redundant stock, avoidance of unearned advances, and bad debts.

To some extent we’ve succeeded, particularly when we’ve used print-on-demand technology through IngramSpark. There, books are only supplied on firm sale, thus eliminating returns altogether, and there’s no need to monitor stock levels and worry about the necessity and size of reprints.

On the other hand, this tends to exclude many traditional booksellers who rely on relatively high discounts and generous returns policies from publishers. There’s a balance to be reached between maximal distribution and minimal wastage and we have yet to establish that point of balance.

Publicity and Its Limits

It seemed to me that general publishers spent too much on relationships with booksellers and not enough on promoting books to the end-user through media and social media exposure. Thus my largest expenditure per title is on publicity and we’ve had some great coverage thanks to Ruth Killick’s imagination and diligence at her publicity firm.

Clearly reviews are important, but rarely do they result in a measurable increase in sales compared with feature coverage.

It seems the book pages of newspapers are not nearly as popular as the news and views sections. Fortuitous events (generated by effort) are what make the difference, but the bulk of publicity effort achieves very little. It can be soul-destroying for individual publicists and my admiration for them is boundless. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again is the publicist’s motto.

Acquiring all rights from authors requires Mensch to do everything possible to use those rights–by arranging translations, doing serialization deals, and creating ebooks and other digital texts, as well as audiobooks. The last one has been the trickiest.

In spite of the media coverage of growth in the audiobook market it turns out that only a very few audio titles really perform well and even then the financial return after the digital retail distributors have taken their cut is disappointingly small. There are, of course, exceptions but I have to admit failure, really, in this field, although that could change significantly with the release of audio publisher Bolinda‘s audiobook edition of Delia Smith’s You Matter: The Human Solution (coming march 3).

Cons and Pros

So what are the biggest frustrations of being a tiny publisher with no permanent workforce?

Frustrations

  • I’m not a complete illiterate, but I do find handling pictures, PDFs, and spreadsheets harder than I should, and I have nobody to turn to apart from the occasional good Samaritan
  • Maintaining the Mensch site at anything like the right frequency and with the right links
  • Raising invoices, chasing payments, doing VAT reporting, calculating royalties. All these and more make me realize how important and necessary finance departments are beyond generating straightforward(ish) management and fiscal accounts
  • Having to send three emails on average before receiving an answer
  • Pushing water uphill. I guess that 95 percent of books require extraordinary efforts to ignite sales. Plod, plod, plod, waiting for that lucky moment when one of the initiatives works. But in a related field, the brilliant South African golfer Gary Player summed it up: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” It’s true in publishing too

Rewards

  • It’s a truism, but helping authors create their books and find their markets and share a common set of goals is immensely rewarding–when it works
  • Building a catalogue of intellectual property rights with copyright protection for at least 70  years
  • Nurturing backlist titles to an extent impossible in large houses with their imperative to publish new books every year
  • Maintaining and developing industry relationships around the world
  • Living in the hope of big commercial success against all the odds is fun

Perhaps “fun” is how I should end this episode in the life of a small publisher. As soon as the business ceases to be fun—or at least the fun bits outweigh the problems—it will be time to hand over the reins. Meanwhile, shoulder to the wheel and on to the next potential bestseller.

Image: Mensch Publishing, artwork by Roger Law


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

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.

Comments

  1. Congratulations! I was far too young and inexperienced when I started my publishing company in Slovenia back in the nineties. Luckily, I turned to write novels a decade ago. Your column is inspiring and offers guidance to newcomers. We hope there will be many in spite of all odds.

  2. Thanks Tanja. I have fond memories of Slovenia when it was transitioning from Soviet hegemony to a modern Western state. I think I even stayed in Tito’s palace on Brijuni courtesy of a Slovenian publisher friend.

  3. The most dispiriting, tedious, frustrating, time-consuming, worrying, agoraphobic and thankless task I have ever undertaken in my random walk through this industry was, as part of a much wider brief, to volunteer to maintain and curate a website on behalf of a collective initiative supported by a conglomerate of publishing trade associations. Talk about pushing water uphill, with inadequate and inevitably underfunded tech support. Never again, but then I am extremely unlikely to be asked.

  4. I can imagine. Not dissimilar to creating and negotiating new formulae for subscription levels for membership of the International Publishers Association.

  5. Wonderful piece, Richard. A few additional items from my own experience, although mine was in the world of academic publishing.

    1. I wrote many guidelines for writers beyond a standard style sheet, all of which explained as much as possible ahead of time such matters as copyright and fair use, citation rules and requirement, photo permissions and specs, etc. I insisted they read them thoroughly to reduce individualized explanations by email.

    2. I also wrote DIY publicity guidelines as part of my push for authors to have “skin in the game,” and learn how to become effective publicists of their own work beyond the reaching out to friends and family.

    All of these guidelines were intended to facilitate the work process–and with certain authors, they did. But they sometimes also riled authors who insisted on the publisher doing all their job, which more often than not was just a euphemism for “I’m leaving it for you to clean up my mess of a manuscript.”

  6. Dear Bennett, This all rings so true. One thing that has emerged over the last 18 months or so is the willingness (indeed eagerness) of authors to participate in the marketing of their book, be it Zoom launch parties, regular and creative use of social media, podcasts, and interviews. The truth is that in nearly case authors know their marketplace better than publishers and if encouraged and supported can amplify the book’s reach enormously. This is something that academic publishers have understood for decades and trade publishers are realising now. Thanks for the nice comment too! Richard

  7. This is all incredibly interesting to hear – you don’t often get an honest look inside a small business like this. Thank you! I wonder how difficult it was to find great manuscripts before Mensch was off the ground? Did you have to aggressively reach out to authors or were they landing on your doorstep from the moment you said ‘give me your manuscripts’?

    1. They landed on my door. One of the problems publishers face is the gulf between supply of manuscripts and demand for books. Did I find ‘great’ manuscripts? That is for others to judge but I was (and am interested) in authors as much as individual titles and the authors I have been privileged to publish are great.

  8. Congratulations on Mensch’s 3rd birthday. So grateful to you for essential advice on marketing and such like — much appreciated.

    1. This reminds me of a survey into the use of English in business correspondence back in the 1970s. Apparently the word ‘please’ was many times more frequent than ‘thanks’ or ‘thank you’.

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