In England, Richard Charkin: Three Gifts for Publishing’s Christmas

In Feature Articles by Richard Charkin

‘The real stars of this parable are the three Iranian sorcerers bearing gifts for our infant industry,’ writes Richard Charkin.

The Magi in the Nativity façade at Barcelona’s Basílica de la Sagrada Família. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Oliver Chan

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘A Cold Coming We Had of It’ – TS Eliot
It’s hard, I agree, to imagine the world’s publishing industry as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, surrounded by an Earthly father, a mother, a motley crowd of shepherds, several donkeys, and three Iranian sorcerers. But let me try to explain.

Richard Charkin

We can argue about precisely when the seeds of our industry were first planted: the Tang Dynasty 2500 years ago; Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz more than 500 years ago; or the Berne Convention more than 130 years ago. What’s indisputable is that publishing—the sharing of knowledge, stories, and ideas—predated any of these by tens of thousands of years.

Printing technology and legal protection for creativity undoubtedly catalyzed the development of publishing more than anything beforehand. Even so, I’d argue that the newer technologies, somewhat incomprehensible to oldies like me, are just beginning to transform how and where and to whom we communicate.

In that sense, publishing is still a baby.

So let’s return to the manger. Where is it? It has to be somewhere in the Middle East. I suggest Sharjah during its annual Sharjah International Book Fair, where a developing market for trading intellectual property is sparking a new era.

Who is the father, Joseph? Well I guess he looks very much like Gutenberg or William Caxton or maybe the Sui emperor Wen-ti. Their jobs were done with a spark of imagination and forcefulness but it was their offspring who changed the world.

And the mother, Mary? She has to be the Berne Copyright Convention which protects and nourishes the infant allowing it to grow and repay that love.

The shepherds are, of course, authors, translators, literary agents, booksellers, and all those who are vital to the infant today and in the future. You can pick your own shepherds, but I’m going to nominate my choices.

  • First and foremost, JK Rowling, who has done more to encourage reading for pleasure than anyone.
  • My second shepherd would be the late Carmen Callil, so important in the feminist revolution in publishing–not just the books Virago published but the concept of female leadership now strongly in place, at least throughout the Western world.
  • Then Paul Hamlyn and Allen Lane for helping make books affordable and desirable to all strata of society.
  • And let’s not forget James Daunt, founding a fine independent bookstore chain and then going on to rescue Barnes & Noble and Waterstone’s from a possible demise; and perhaps leading these chains out of private equity ownership in due course.
  • And there in the background are the wise donkeys, often overlooked but essential, such as IPA, IFFRO, IFLA–the International Publishers Association, the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organizations, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions–national trade associations, collecting agencies, the printing industry, and all those organizations supporting authors and illustrators.

But the real stars of this parable are the three Iranian sorcerers bearing gifts for our infant industry.

The Gifting Magi

First up in the Nativity scene is Balthazar. His name is Jeff Bezos. Of course he might bring a better understanding of the balance in the book ecosystem between creators and readers. He might de-program his negotiating teams to stop demanding better terms every year until we inexorably end up with a discount of 100 percent, authors starved, and bankrupt publishers. But what I’d actually like to him bring would be a commitment to use his enormous wealth and follow in the steps of Andrew Carnegie by repaying authors and publishers through a massive injection of funds into the library systems of the world—public, school, and university libraries. It would be so much greater legacy than his juvenile race to space against Elon Musk and others.

Caspar arrives on stage next. Being a sorcerer, he’s carrying an Aladdin-like oil lamp. Rubbing it will deliver three wishes.

My one wish is that our industry finds the way to eliminate the waste that costs money, pollutes the atmosphere, distances authors and readers, eats up time, builds barriers to progress. Specifically let’s send books as electrons to bookshops and libraries to print on demand when and where required. We’d eliminate transport costs. We could avoid printing unwanted copies. We could publish globally simultaneously. We could publish in a month not a year. We could afford to pay higher royalties as well as generating more capital for investment in the future technologies we need to develop.  Who is this Aladdin? Greta Thunberg is my choice. Who is yours?

Finally, here comes Melchior. What a resonant name. This gift is the greatest of all but requires Melchior to be an amalgam of several people, in this case all men. This Christmas their names are Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, you get my gist. They shall promise to follow these obvious commitments:

  • Tell the truth
  • Allow freedom to publish—really, not just in name
  • Cease killing others in order to flatter their egos or their psychopathies
  • Spend money on food and education, not arms
  • Lead by serving, not by threatening
  • Eliminate all the -isms which cause so much distress
  • Most all, rediscover their own humanity, which in some cases seems to have been lost without trace

With apologies for those readers who do not celebrate Christmas religiously (like me) or socially (like me) but with good wishes to all of you in our best of all publishing worlds. Merry Christmas and a happier 2023.

Oxford Circus in London, November 16. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Wirestock

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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."