Richard Charkin: Digital Publishing, Then and Now

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin2 Comments

The trick in digital times, says Richard Charkin, is for publishing’s senior management to ‘back untested ideas’ outside their comfort zones.

Richard Charkin with newly arrived Ukrainians at his favorite spot in the Tarn, in the south of France. Image: Richard Charkin

Editor’s note: From his summer place near the French village of Puycelsi, Richard Charkin has sent back the above photo and a note about how much he admires ‘the strength and resilience of the Ukrainian people’ including ‘the determination of these six Ukrainians, who traveled 3,000 kilometers to escape with their two dogs and a cat to a safe place in France and wait for the moment to return and rebuild their lives and their country. Slava Ukraini!’

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘The Key to the Future’
While we’re all working furiously to help the Ukrainian people, we should not forget the importance of our collective day job, publishing.

Emilie Marneur

One of the major developments in our industry has, of course, been the ability for us to publish digitally as well as in print. This column is all about digital publishing and, given my extreme age and waning faculties, I’ve been assisted on the recent developments by the much younger and more digitally-savvy Emilie Marneur, the director of audience and business development at Bonnier Books UK. She oversees Bonnier Books UK’s digital strategy and manages its digital-first imprint, Embla Books.

It all started for me 40 years ago when I heard about a New York-based start-up, which was developing electronic versions of reference books for distribution on quaintly-named “floppy disks.”

I managed to license them various smaller Oxford dictionaries for an absurdly high advance with promises of untold royalty wealth to follow. I don’t think we ever saw a royalty check but we did have some electronic products to boast about, and the advance helped pay for a few lexicographers. Less than a decade later, we were able to sell the whole of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary on just two CD-ROMs.

General book publishers in the 1990s were way behind. It wasn’t until the launch of Amazon.com in 1994, opening up a completely new sales channel, and the subsequent launch of the Kindle in 2007, that publishers began to wake up to a new world order.

How would traditional bookshops survive? Public libraries? What would be the appropriate royalty rate? Is the sale of an ebook a sale or a license? How to protect the content from piracy? How to avoid monopolization of the distribution channel without breaking antitrust regulations?

In parallel, the 1995 launch of Audible.com opened up new markets and new commercial issues, particularly when acquired by Amazon, thus cementing the superpower’s position as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the intellectual property distribution world.

Authors and publishers had to adapt. Major booksellers tried but with little or no success. But the book in all its formats sailed on into the new worlds of self-publishing, Kindle Direct Publishing, subscription models, and new supply-chain imperatives. This brings us to today and the new opportunities and challenges for our industry, for authors, retailers, and of course publishers.

Proliferation and Specialization

While Amazon, including Audible, remains the dominant retailer for ebooks and audiobooks, we’re seeing the emergence of many new online retail platforms and business models.

Most of these start-ups focus on English-language content, but some of the most innovative may well be operating in Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, and other heavily-used languages. The English-language businesses range from highly-specific entities serving the higher-education market such as Perlego or Kortext and professional support such as nkoda supporting music and musicians. There are more general offerings for foodies such as ckbk and for people with limited reading time such as the German-based book-summary service Blinkist.

And of course these and other businesses can interact directly with authors, potentially cutting out the publisher’s role altogether. Substack has attracted significant authors and has earned some of them significant income from their writing. And there are more traditional self-publishing sites for authors. How much these sites will suck revenue and energy from traditional publishers is unknown but they’ve represented a wake-up call for publishers to focus more on the value of services they offer authors.

Then we come to the so-called audio boom.

There can be little doubt that listening to books, radio, and podcasts online has increased and this growth is reflected by industry statistics. Audiobooks again saw double-digit growth in sales in 2021, and continued growth for the 8th year running. With that growth has come an appetite among retailers for exclusive and original content, not unlike what we see with video-streaming players.

More recently, we’ve seen interesting shifts and developments in audio-streaming and subscription platforms. Storytel reported 24-percent growth in its subscriber base in 2021 across 28 markets and will be entering the United States’ market with the acquisition of audiobooks.com. Bookbeat’s user base meanwhile rose by 38 percent year-over-year going into three new markets last year alone. And we’re waiting to see what Spotify’s acquisition of  Findaway will become.

While the revenue models represented by those services remain controversial for many, these programs and platforms are also significant channels with which to reach engaged and avid consumers and to drive author- and title-discoverability, the joint objectives of publishers everywhere.

In all areas of publishing businesses, digital activity holds the key to the future.

The problem, as I see it, is not the lack of great ideas but the difficulty of implementing those ideas, particularly in large organizations in which much of senior management is understandably more comfortable reviewing the P&Ls of existing business units than backing untested ideas to their cash-absorbing next stage.


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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. dear Richard, you say Substack has attracted significant authors and has earned some of them significant income from their writing. I wonder whether this new income matches the advance that authors like Salman Rushdie are receiving from their publishers. Any source providing figures? Of course, you are right, that today, publishers must service authors and readers to the best possible extend. I trust that this is quite an exciting challenge.

  2. I guess the answer is that sometimes Substack income will exceed possible advances and sometimes not. Authors such as Rushdie sometimes attract huge advances in excess of any likely royalty earnings for reasons of status, image enhancement or simply over-optimism. Definitive figures would be nigh impossible to discover, I fear, and maybe better undiscovered!

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