Richard Charkin in London: A 2022 Publishing Resolution

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin6 Comments

‘Improving publishing by measuring things’ is Richard Charkin’s intent in proposing 15 metrics for examination in the new year.

The ‘Great Bell’ named Big Ben in London had its tower’s four clock faces cleared of scaffolding to ring in 2022, after being silenced for more than four years of renovation. This daylight shot of the landmark being prepared for New Year’s Eve is from December 21. Image – Getty iStockphoto: VV Shots

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘The Importance of Collecting and Analyzing Data’
I‘m writing this on January 1. It’s exactly 50 years since I turned up at the side entrance of George G.Harrap & Co., at 182-184 High Holborn, London, WC2, on January 1, 1972, having been interviewed and accepted for the job of a “Young Scientific Assistant Editor.” January 1 wouldn’t become a bank holiday in England until 1974.

I owe my career to Ron Hawkins, the interviewer and my first boss. I also owe a lot to the Harrap family, which owned the business—Mr. Paull, Mr. Ian, and Mr. Olaf—for allowing me a paid apprenticeship and bearing the losses I inevitably incurred through my inexperience.

By the time I left after two years or so, I had visited more than one printer; taken more than two publishing training courses; attended two Frankfurt Book Fairs; sold rights; done book-club deals; published trade, educational, and academic titles; worked out how to cost books and how to generate ideas for new books; had my first expenses-paid lunches; and stayed in semi-posh hotels. They even awarded me my first company car, although it was generally agreed to have been the worst British car ever manufactured.

That was then and now we say goodbye to 2021, a revolutionary year in many ways for the publishing industry.

Most publishers opened their eyes to inequality and attempted to put right many decades of unfairness to authors, employees, and readers from minority groups. Audits have been commissioned, published, and acted on. Committees have been established to try to ensure compliance with new rules about what to publish and, specifically, what not to publish. Human resources departments have tried to ensure prejudice is eliminated from the recruitment and advancement processes.

Richard Charkin

In addition to this swath of audits, there is, of course, the traditional audit, the purpose of which is to confirm that neither profits nor assets are under- or overstated and that the accounts of the business reflect its commercial success or otherwise. However, you might also like to look back at a Publishing Perspectives column from October 2018 on what I consider to be the real measure of a publishing company’s commercial value.

All this activity is overdue, important, and commendable. One lesson that may have been learned from this—and indeed from the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic—is the importance of collecting and analyzing data, and then interpreting that data in a meaningful way. I think we should start applying this skill to other areas of concern in publishing.

So my resolutions this year relate to improving publishing by measuring things other than those I’ve mentioned above.

The 2022 Audit Wish List
  • How long does every individual in the business take to reply to an email from point of receipt?
  • How long does an editor take to respond to a proposal from a literary agency?
  • How long does it take from an editor’s enthusiasm for a book to the point of offering the terms of a contract?
  • How long does it take from agreement-in-principle to a final contract?
  • How long  does it take from the receipt of a finished and acceptable manuscript to publication?
  • How long, on average, does it take to earn back advances paid?
  • How many titles earn the revenue specified on acquisition forms?
  • How much additional revenue is generated by the marketing spend?
  • How many additional copies are sold as a result of coverage in various media?
  • Which covers make a difference?
  • What percentage of book purchasers are swayed by the eloquence of a blurb?
  • Which price points are truly hurdles?
  • What proportion of authors is happy with the publication process?
  • What proportion of authors is happy with the maintenance of their backlist titles?
  • How quickly are suppliers paid—particularly freelancers, translators, and contributors?

I suspect that, like the traditional audits,the results of these audits will themselves help to drive behavior and improve performance. As the traditional Peter Drucker management maxim goes: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” All these proposals and many more are measurable, should be measured, and usually are not measured.

My resolution for 2022 is to get out my tape measure and use it on an as many variables as I can. The idea will be to measure everything possible and to interpret and implement the results.  It would be good if others in the book business—particularly the larger firms where the size of data makes results more reliable—did the same. Scientific journal publishers have been doing much of this for decades and I wouldn’t mind enjoying their margins.

In any event, this is to wish all my friends, colleagues, and competitors in the book and journal trade the very best for 2022 as we navigate a rapidly changing world with products, both print and digital, that educate, entertain, and inform and very rarely do evil. I’m deeply grateful for the 50 years I’ve enjoyed in a great global industry and look forward to a few more yet.


Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here and more from us on industry statistics 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. Corrigendum. My actual start date was Monday 3 January 1972 exactly fifty years ago today, although I suppose I was paid (£1200 per annum before tax) from the beginning of the month.

    1. I love “The 2022 Audit Wish List”! I am pasting this on my wall. Great New Year’s resolution. Hope the brute self-analysis won’t lead to undue self-flagellation as most small publishers tend to do. Wishing you all a wonderful year ahead.

  2. Whenever metrics are raised, I like to consider how they work in the context of Goodhart’s Law https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodhart%27s_law.

    “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”.

    Some of the metrics look like they would actually make useful targets (“How quickly are suppliers paid”), while others look as if achieving a “good score” might be counter-productive to efficient business operations (“How long does every individual in the business take to reply to an email from point of receipt?”).

    Have you thought about whether these are amenable to being used as targets?

  3. I think measuring and targetting are different things. Targets are blunt instruments and frequently lead to absurdities. Measuring can be analysed and trends detected. For instance, are we getting better at responding to queries or worse? Why is one department (or person) so much slower than another? Seat of the pants is okay but cannot be systemativ and is frequently plain wrong. It’s a good debate in any event!

  4. I suggest that one of the metrics be a measure relating to how many translated titles are released by the publisher. I think knowing how open a publisher is to translated works should be one of the variables in the mix.

  5. I have to confess that Mensch Publishing has a self-imposed rule to contract only books with world all language rights. This eliminates translations although we broke our own rule by publishing Jordi Nadal’s wonderful Book Therapy. Friendship and quality trump rules!

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