Richard Charkin in London: An Updated A-Z of Trade Publishing

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Back from his emcee role at Sharjah Publishers Conference, Richard Charkin updates his first Publishing Perspectives column, published four years ago.

Since Richard Charkin enjoyed taking photos of autumn leaves in Frankfurt (see below), we return the favor here with a look at the leaves in London’s Postman’s Park in London, October 28. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Wirestock

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘A Vastly Changing Environment’
More than four years ago, I wrote my first column for Publishing Perspectives. I couldn’t possibly have imagined that I would still be hard at work on the monthly column nearly 50 articles later.

Richard Charkin

That first column was an adaptation of the notes from a speech I gave in 1989 at the Society of Bookmen—now the Book Society.

This was shortly after I’d moved from the scholarly pastures of Oxford University Press to the back streets of general book publishing in London and Octopus Publishing. Octopus Group became Reed International Books and was then broken up with the pieces swept and landing in what are now Penguin Random House, Hachette, Egmont, and a few other stray bits landing elsewhere. My task initially was to create a paperback arm for Heinemann, Secker, and Methuen, as well as a few other imprints. Octopus had lost control of Pan to its co-owner Macmillan.

Complicated, I know, and one day I might try to explain all this properly.

The nub of the speech, and the subsequent article, was to highlight what I thought were the absurdities of trade publishing compared with academic or “professional” publishing, and perhaps to make people smile.

The four years since that first Publishing Perspectives column have seen our industry having to adapt—successfully, as it happens—to a vastly changing environment. I reckon it’s time to update my “vocabulary” with this refreshed A-Z of Trade Book Publishing.

  • Agent: This usually refers to literary agents who now wish to be thought of as intellectual property (IP) purveyors. They are, by and large, slightly more ethical than estate agents, or realtors, talent agents, travel agents, or secret agents.
  • Brexit: Whereby a country consciously—albeit misled by deceitful self-serving politicians—elects to distance itself from its largest market and closest allies resulting in a GDP decline of 10 percent, a devaluation of its currency of 20 percent, and damage to its key industries, including the creative as well as financial services.
  • Communities of interest: These used to be called a market segment. Now the phrase is used to justify a new project in which the revenue stream is hard to identify but, it’s asserted, will somehow emerge from the members of the community.
  • Diversity and inclusion: The legitimate aim to increase the number of non-white, non-male, non-binary authors, employees, and readers—at almost any cost.
  • ELT/EFL: The inexorable rise of the English language globally has spawned the English Language Teaching (ELT) industry and English as a Foreign Language (EFL). There is, however, a paradox, in that the countries with the most developed student textbooks for the learning of English seem to have the lowest degree of English speaking and understanding.
  • Finland: Everyone’s favorite country.
  • Gastro-pornography: Cookbook publishing.
  • Headliner: Very expensive speaker at international conferences.
  • Identity politics: Whereby it’s assumed that a person identified is, by definition, either oppressed or oppressing.
  • Jacket: A unnecessary, costly, and unsustainable wrapping for a hardback book.
  • King Charles III: A potential subject for sycophantic and/or character-assassinating pointless books whose purpose is simply to make up shortfalls in publishing companies’ budgets for the next several decades.
  • Library: A building in which to offer yoga classes, dance studios, coffee, and a warm place for the homeless.
  • Magisterial: A very long, impenetrable volume to be kept on a coffee table unread or reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement.
  • Net Book Agreement: An obsolete, archaic form of price fixing in the UK beloved of publishing cartel members, some of whom pray for its resurrection—as unlikely as my good friend Jeffrey Archer winning the Booker Prize.
  • Office: Building for meeting colleagues from time to time.
  • Psychobabble: Nonsense used by human resources, strategists, and CEO suites when explaining publishing underperformance.
  • Representation: Another term for diversity and inclusion. It used to mean selling books (representatives), so this is a major shift of meaning and focus.
  • Self-censorship: What you have to apply—me in particular—if you don’t want to be “canceled” for expressing an opinion.
  • Triage: This used to be called the “slush pile,” but now is more like a slush mountain requiring artificial intelligence (AI) to sort the very rare wheat from the overwhelmingly common chaff.
  • United Kingdom: The disunited kingdom left behind after the Brexit debacle. Now that Northern Ireland is part of the European customs union while the rest of the UK is not, there may be questions of the integrity of UK exclusive licenses in certain titles. As usual, the lawyers will win.
  • Vilification: The precursor to fully canceling an author whose books are not universally admired.
  • WFH (Work From Home): The opportunity to lie in, take the kids to school, or mow the lawn.
  • X Factor: What all publishers are searching for, that which makes the difference.
  • Zoom: A technology allowing more people than ever to attend a meeting and contribute nothing.

Sadly some of these definitions have become more serious. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the age—or my age.

Let’s hope my next effort in four years will be more light-hearted.

An October 2022 shot of leaves in a Frankfurt park during Frankfurter Buchmesse 2022. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Richard Charkin


Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here. Richard Charkin’s opinions are his own, of course, and not necessarily reflective of those of Publishing Perspectives.

More from us on the still ongoing 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 International Publishers Association and the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. For 11 years, he 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 a former president of the Book Society and non-executive director of the Institute of Physics Publishing. He is currently a board member of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, a member of the international advisory board of Frankfurter Buchmesse, and is a senior adviser to nkoda.com and Shimmr AI. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd., and has founded his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Charkin 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. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’