Richard Charkin: On Trust and the Trade

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Porter Anderson

In book publishing, ‘Everywhere, our industry is seeing a plethora of legal or quasi-legal activity.’ Richard Charkin writes.

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By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘Author and Publisher Need to Trust Each Other’
I have just published a book by an author who’s universally trusted. Almost every review of Delia Smith’s books and life refer to how “trusted” she is. It got me thinking about trust and, as usual, I turned to my “trusty” Oxford English Dictionary for enlightenment.

Richard Charkin

There are, again as usual, some 20 subtly and not-so-subtly different definitions and citations dating from the 13th century and the word and its derivatives fall roughly between trussing and truth. Putting aside the complexity of the OED entry, the definition of the noun which stands out for me runs: “Confidence in or reliance on some quality or attribute of a person or thing, or the truth of a statement.”

Trust is essential for most human interactions. In business it has been replaced to some extent by legal contracts. It’s the job of lawyers to seek to create watertight contracts. Let’s consider how watertight the typical author-publisher contract is.

A line from that contract might read:

“The Author shall unless prevented by circumstances outside the Author’s control deliver the Work …”

What are circumstances outside the author’s control? “I’m going through a divorce”; My back has been giving me grief”; “The dog ate my manuscript”; and so on.

Author and publisher need to trust each other to interpret this. The next passage is more chilling for the author:

“If in the sole opinion of the Publisher the Work as delivered is not professionally competent and/or does not conform in nature, scope, length, format and style to the specifications agreed with the Publisher and/or with any synopsis or proposal or any other material on the basis of which the Work was commissioned or acquired and/or does not comply with the warranties given hereunder and/or substantial editorial work is necessary then the Publisher may terminate this Agreement ….”

Note the phrase sole opinion of the publisher. The contract can be canceled unilaterally by the publisher on the flimsiest of grounds.

Just about every clause in the agreement with the author is dependent on the parties being honest with each other, trusting each other. But the contract is just words. Without trust it’s worthless.

As Groucho Marx memorably said: “The first part of the party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the first part of the party of the first part shall be known in this contract. Look, why should we quarrel about a thing like this? We’ll take it right out, eh?”

‘All These Acronyms’

It’s not just the author’s contract that depends on trust. Every time someone is employed, notwithstanding the contract of employment, there must be established a mutual trust. The employee will do her or his best for the business and the business will treat the employee with respect and fairness. It’s rather sad that employment contracts have become ever longer and more complex when the central relationship is so clear and straightforward. I’m not convinced that these long contracts give the employee nor the employer more protection in reality as opposed to on paper.

Retailers used to negotiate terms with publishers, and an exchange of letters specifying the discount and credit terms granted sufficed. I remember the original contract with a well-known Internet bookseller which ran to some 30 pages and included a “non-disclosure” clause. I asked them whether the existence of a non-disclosure clause would be subject to the non-disclosure clause or not. They were puzzled and didn’t give a clear answer, so I assume it’s okay to say that there is so little trust between publisher and retailer that a non-disclosure clause is required.

Everywhere, our industry is seeing a plethora of legal or quasi-legal activity, often with three-letter acronyms. We try to measure employees’ performance with KPIs (key performance indicators). We make rules for distributors and print suppliers with SLAs (service level agreements). And we gag each other with NDAs (non-disclosure agreements). We track ASPs (actual selling price) versus RRPs (recommended retail price). Of course many countries no longer have NBAs (net book agreements) but academic publishing revolves around APCs (article processing charges).

All these acronyms use up time, introduce cost, and achieve little.

Without trust, how could we do deals in person at a book fair? Imagine agreeing to terms for a translation on your stand at Frankfurt and then, sometime later, one side simply pulls out. There had been no physical contract. There couldn’t have been. Trust would have been destroyed.

The more we rely on legal interpretations the more cost and the diminution of commitment to trust.

Ernest Hemingway got it right: “The best way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them.”

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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.