Richard Charkin: A Selective Year-End Assessment

In Feature Articles, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin looks at several book publishing figures and estimates from 2022—and calls for ‘more rigorous analysis of data.’

In London’s Hampstead Heath, the morning of December 11. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Abdul Shakoor

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘Elements of Our Industry in 2022’
Each year, The Economist publishes a special edition in which it encapsulates the state of the world as expressed by numbers. These articles are authoritative, accurate, well-researched, and comprehensive. I couldn’t hope to emulate them in a review of the world in publishing. But a few numbers, randomly chosen and sometimes more approximate than precise, may serve to illustrate some elements of our industry in 2022.

Richard Charkin

After having only one woman—Argentina’s Ana Maria Cabanellas—among the 35 presidents of the International Publishers Association (IPA), we’re enjoying a run of three female presidents in a row. The United Arab EmiratesBodour Al Qasimi‘s two-year term ends with 2022; Brazil’s Karine Pansa opens her term with the new year; and the Republic of Georgia’s Gvantsa Jobava is starting her term as vice-president, traditionally a role that leads to the presidency. It’s taken a long time for women to play significant roles in our industry, and we should celebrate them.

Thinking of diversity, there are any number of audits being issued by major publishers, either to prove their commitment to a good cause or at least to answer potentially difficult questions.

Here are some positive and practical numbers from the IPA, our international trade association. In the last decade, the number of countries represented by the association has risen from 51 to 76, thus increasing the markets represented—per the IPA’s estimates—from 52 to 83 percent of the world’s population. The remaining 17 percent may be hard to land while Russia pursues its war against Ukraine.

The United Kingdom, Exports, and the Home Market

Here’s a number from the Publishers Association in London for the United Kingdom’s publishers to think about. The British market’s export sales are some £3.8 billion (US$4.6 billion) out of a total £6.7 billion (US$8.8 billion). That’s to say that roughly 57 percent of all sales are not made in the UK.

In addition, a material portion of the sales in the United Kingdom are then exported by UK booksellers, and export discounts are typically higher, in order to take account of freight and double warehousing, likely putting the total level of sales outside the home market in excess of 70 percent of British publishers’ output of books, journals, and databases. To paraphrase Marilyn Monroe, 25 makes a girl think–70 percent should make us think even harder.

Freedom to Publish

Since the 2014 inception of the IPA’s 10,000-Swiss-franc Prix Voltaire awarded to publishers fighting for the freedom to publish—or being prevented from publishing—there have been eight winners. We should celebrate and support them. There couldn’t be a more diverse and courageous group.

  • Thanapol Eawsakul (Thailand, awarded 2022)
  • Lokman Slim (Lebanon, awarded 2021)
  • Pham Doan Trang (Vietnam, awarded 2020)
  • Khaled Lotfy (Egypt, awarded 2019)
  • Gui Min Hai (Sweden/Hong Kong, awarded 2018)
  • Turhan Günay and Evrensel Publishing (Turkey, awarded 2017)
  • Raif Badawi (Saudi Arabia, awarded 2016)
  • Ihar Lohvinau (Belarus, awarded 2014)
Inflation and Pricing

And now turning to inflation, one of the scourges of 2022 in many countries, the UK’s inflation stands at above 10 percent, according to some estimates, for example those reflected in Richard Partington’s reporting at The Guardian. That 10 percent is a shock in recent times, but inflation levels even higher than this have plagued my publishing life.

I was involved in the UK publication of film director Garson Kanin’s Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir in 1972.

I freelanced for the Australian publisher Angus & Robertson, now defunct, to top up my paltry wage from my employer, Harrap, which paid me £1,200 (US$1,447) per year, my starting salary as a commissioning editor. Adjusted for inflation to today’s economy, that equates to £13,000 (US$15,681). Things have genuinely improved in that respect.

What has changed is the pricing. The book, on release, cost £3.25 for a 300-page hardback (US$3.92). The average discount granted was 40 percent—more for WH Smith, less for independent bookshops, of which there were many. To maintain the same income in 2022 for the publisher, and thus the author, the book would have to be priced above £50. Not a chance.

Numbers and Numeracy

My next set of numbers also encompasses a perennial and personal grump. When I started in publishing I was astonished by the lofty contempt shown to the concept of numeracy. It was as if literacy and numeracy were mutually incompatible. An accountant could never have a valid opinion about a book and an editor could not be expected to perform simple arithmetic calculations. Statistical analysis is not always simple but it’s extraordinary, to me, at least, how happily some publishers and journalists almost willfully misinterpret numbers.

Some excellent research undertaken by the “CREATe” Centre at the University of Glasgow for the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) and released earlier this month suggests pretty conclusive evidence that authors are extremely badly paid and that it’s getting worse, and that there’s an implied racist and gender problem in these findings. Headlines followed, including “Writers’ Earnings Have Plummeted, With Women, Black, and Mixed-Race Authors Worst Hit,” along with such secondary headlines as, “Research Shows That the Income of Professional Authors Averages Only £7,000 in the UK, Making the Profession ‘Inaccessible and Unsustainable’ to Most.”

It doesn’t take much effort to read the full report of the researchers’ findings and raise question marks about such headlines.

First of all, how representative of authors is the research? It turns out that some 60,000 questionnaires were sent out to authors, but only about 2,700 responded, including only partially completed responses. That’s not an overwhelming response and perhaps is not representative. I’d imagine that the respondents were more likely to be authors earning rather less than the average.

How was a “professional” author defined? One might think that professional means full-time writing, certainly as implied in news headlines. But it also includes “primary occupation” authors, people for whom writing books is a part-time activity. These are academics, journalists, scriptwriters, and others.  In the survey, only 658 people actually identified themselves as working full-time as authors. For those people, median earnings were not the headline £7,000 but actually more like £25,000 or more—still not a huge figure but roughly four times the number reported. And less headline-grabbing.

I could bore on about this research and its interpretation. I’m not in any way suggesting that authors are well-paid or that race and gender don’t play a part in authors’ incomes. But I do think that rather more sophisticated analysis of the data would give the headlines more credibility.

I salute the Licensing and Collecting Society for backing this research and using it to promote authors’ rights and income, but the report’s authors stress several times that inferences from their demographic data and from comparing results from one period to another with different populations should be treated with caution. In other words, the data is not robust.

What will the numbers of 2023 hold for our publishing industry? Apart from the obvious wishes for more reading, more literacy, more sales, better books, less CO2 emission, and enough profit to sustain the business, I’d like to add more rigorous analysis of data, wherever it is generated.

Also see: Sureying the Profession(s): How Much Do UK Writers Earn?

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. 

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s global media partner.

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 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.’ In the June 2024 King's Birthday Honors, Charkin was made a member of the Order of the British Empire, OBE, for his "services to publishing and literature."