Richard Charkin in London: ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin8 Comments

The season puts Richard Charkin in mind of a dozen things he’d like to see arrive, come about, or evolve by Twelfth Night.

At the More building in London, December 10. Image – Getty iStockphoto: S Hansche

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘This Season of Goodwill’
As we near the holiday season, as my American  friends insist on calling it—I call it Christmas—we should not forget that the vast majority of the people in the world will not enjoy snow, reindeer, robins, holly, or many of the red, green, and white icons of this season of goodwill.

Thus I share with you the final verse of the lyrics of an Australian version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

On the twelfth day of Christmas
My true love sent to me
Twelve parrots prattling,
Eleven numbats nagging,
Ten lizards leaping,
Nine wombats working,
Eight dingoes digging,
Seven possums playing,
Six brolgas dancing,
Five kangaroos,
Four koalas cuddling,
Three kookaburras laughing,
Two pink galahs,
And an emu up a gum tree.

As a publisher, I’ve meditated on what 12 gifts I would like, or am likely, to receive from my true love. I’m sure everyone’s list will be different. Do share them.

Charkin’s Dozen

Twelve new rules to counter COVID-19: There are not only 12 complicated rules for my country but for just about every country in the world, with different variations and interpretations. Is it any wonder that the virus seems continually to mutate and breach our defenses? Perhaps this gift might be that everyone recognized the importance of being vaccinated, wearing masks, and being sensible in spite of the lack of genuinely credible leadership from most governments.

Richard Charkin

Eleven hard-hitting articles defending copyright: That is, defending copyright against all comers including Internet giants, unprincipled pirates—even worse, principled pirates—and worst of all publishers failing to understand that it’s only by resisting copyright incursions that we can hope to guarantee our authors’ income, readership, and legal support. The last year has seen uneducated attacks on copyright from governments in various countries, including my own. Thank goodness local and international trade associations exist and are funded properly.

Ten fulsome apologies for past misdeeds “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Perhaps one meaningful action would be a change from statistically invalid and self-serving reports from publishers on race, gender, and sexuality among authors and publishers. That would be a genuine gift.

Nine actions to improve our industry’s environmental sustainability, including reducing returns from booksellers; resisting the temptation to print more copies to achieve a meaningless gross profit percentage; printing locally to avoid international transit emissions from planes, boats, and trains; cutting travel budgets to the bone; reducing the size of showpiece offices; accelerating the move to digital; reducing the size and number of physical meetings by constructively using Zoom etc.; far greater use of print-on-demand technology; and perhaps most importantly cutting down on the hot air emanating from executive suites.

Eight new authors to compete with—and in some cases to usurp—JK Rowling, Ken Follett, David Walliams, Jilly Cooper, Elena Ferrante, Neil Gaiman, Ian Fleming, and Richard Osman. If my true love would grant just this wish I would be forever in thrall and our industry’s future would be more secure.

Seven times seven times and more new bookshops opening around the world, offering a glorious physical environment—coupled with the best online offering including all digital formats and all entertainment media. They should link into the local community through libraries, reading circles, and schools.

And on similar lines six times six times six and more new public libraries opening in countries, towns, and regions that are desperately in need of affordable literature, education, and entertainment, and whose governments see vote-earning gestures as more important than real community support. And while I’m on libraries, better provision for schools and in particular for prisons.

From the 1780 printing by J. Davenport, George’s Court, London of ‘The 12 Days of Christmas.’ Image: Public Domain

Five releases of authors and publishers languishing in jail for the crime of speaking their mind when instructed not to. The brilliant Prix Voltaire from the International Publishers Association highlights the plight of some victims but not all, and I’m not sure how many of their ‘winning’ entrants have been released. It is fine to highlight but it’s better to succeed.

Four bestselling titles that almost no one predicted would sell. These are the ones that make a mockery of detailed budgeting or obsessive study of Nielsen data. In my time, I’ve observed these gifts such as The Bridges of Madison County; the Harry Potter books, of course; the Adrian Mole series; and Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. They’ve had impact way beyond their initial success, setting up the author and publisher for decades to come.

The three arms of academic publishing—scholarly journals, university presses, and college textbooks—would cease being attacked by the academy for making profits and instead be congratulated for adapting to a rapidly changing environment while reducing costs, improving author service, and investing in new navigation systems and new business models. Being loved by your authors and customers is not essential but being harangued for doing your job is dispiriting.

Two changes that would be a gift for everybody in the world: remove taxes on the sale of all intellectual property, whatever medium is being used, and use political might to break up monopolies and monopsonies in the book trade, thus ensuring a greater diversity of books, authors, publishers, and routes to market.

And finally—and this is completely personal and in many ways insular—could my love please bring me news of Britain’s application to rejoin the European Union? This would strengthen the EU and the United Kingdom; help balance the tensions between the two national superpowers; reinforce global rather than national concerns; and make possible more solutions to the immediate problem of the current pandemic and the longer-term challenge of climate change.

This would really be a partridge in a pear tree or indeed an emu up a gum tree.

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here. Mensch Publishing is his own independent press.

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the International Publishers Association.

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.


  1. Good on you, Richard. If only half of your desired gifts were delivered, the world would be a better place. And to answer your question about Prix Voltaire laureates: unfortunately, the following are all still languishing in jails around the globe: Vietnam’s Pham Doan Trang, Khaled Lotfy from Egypt, China’s Gui Minhai, and Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, while this year’s laureate, Lokman Slim of Dar Al Jadeed publishing, was brutally murdered in Beirut in February. The Prix Voltaire is therefore both inspiring and tragic.

  2. Without initiatives like the Prix Voltaire there would be many more courageous publishers still in jails around the world. Let’s keep up the pressure. And, publishers, be generous in support. Fine words butter no parsnips.

  3. Richard

    I think this is a very good article.

    My own focus is on what you say about libraries, in which you are completely right. I regret that the library ‘profession’ pays too little attention to maintaining the quality of their book collections . It is that failure that brings declining use of libraries and in its turn the disinterest of library funders (mostly politicians) – and while that problem has been very serious in the UK for two decades, it is now spreading around the world. Librarians are far too defensive and unrealistic and need to face their problems properly

    Libraries also operate in diverse communities in a way that book stores tend not to. In London, for example the majority of the public libraries stand in communities of which more than half the population are not native English readers. The publishing and distribution service for these people is, frankly, very poor. ‘Diversity’ is not really about head counts among authors and publishers’ staff (as it is frequently depicted) – it is more about serving large pockets of population with origins and culture that are quite different, but just as fascinating, as those of the large part of the publishing establishment. That is the matter that needs to be addressed. It can’t be too hard, because in other countries from which people come, both reading and publishing flourish. It would be good to see, for example, Bloomsbury acquire trade publishing operations in India, or China, for the purpose of selling books in the UK and America. And Gardeners, the wholesalers, operate in Asian and Middle Eastern languages, for sale in the UK. Even our largest book chains hold very poor stocks of books in languages other than English

    You have a very good agenda

    Tim Coates

  4. Tim, Bloomsbury has set up businesses in both China and India, one of the purposes of which is to export books from those territories to the rest of the world. But I agree with everything else you say about libraries. Richard

  5. It honestly nearly reduced me to tears. Everything you said makes such TOTAL sense, Richard…let’s just hope that in this grisly and venal climate at least some of these dreams might come true. If only everybody had the same ideas as you…
    But thanks for making this weird and unsettling Christmas week a bit more heartening, cheers, Debby Moggach

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