From Richard Charkin’s ‘My Back Pages’: ‘Cutting-Edge Publishing Technologies of the 1970s’

In Feature Articles, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Exclusive: Today, we open our series of excerpts from Richard Charkin’s ‘My Back Pages,’ releasing on April 17 from Marble Hill.

Editor’s Note: On the eve of London Book Fair, Marble Hill in London will publish Richard Charkin’s ‘My Back Pages: An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing, 1972-2022.’ Publishing Perspectives—the home of Charkin’s regular columns—is pleased to be the pre-publication media partner for this memoir, co-written with Tom Campbell. Today, we have the first of five excerpts you’ll find exclusively here at Publishing Perspectives. Each Monday through April 17, we’ll have a new excerpt from ‘My Back Pages,’ which bookselling icon Tim Waterstone has said “should now become a compulsory text for new career entrants into the publishing world. It’s that good.”   At London Book Fair: Charkin will be signing copies of his book at the Bloomsbury stand (6D60) from 1 to 2 p.m. on April 19, with thanks to Nigel Newton and the Bloomsbury team.

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘Cutting-Edge Publishing Technologies of the 1970s’
The words digital and technology are now used almost inter-changeably, but for the first decade of my career, there were a range of technical innovations that had little or nothing to do with computing. In my brief time at Pergamon I came across several of them, for Robert Maxwell was a great enthusiast for new inventions and took pride in ensuring that his business was equipped with the very latest devices and gadgets. I didn’t see many computers in my time there, but we did make extensive use of one of the quintessential publishing technologies of the 1970s – the microfilm.

Richard Charkin

To anyone much under the age of 50, the microfilm will mean almost nothing, in much the same way that the fax machine is a mystery to anyone in their 20s. But it was one of the most talked about technologies of its time. As people started to worry about the information explosion, so microfilm was seen by libraries, institutions and even consumers as a solution to housing the ever-more published material. Improvements in film, and the advent of smaller, portable scanners and readers all seemed to herald an era in which the traditional book form, bulky and expensive to produce, distribute and hold, would be no more. The entire works of Shakespeare could now be photographed and kept on a single film that could be stored in a small box and viewed with a handheld device. The text wasn’t searchable and all you could do was read it, but it was still seen as revolutionary, in the same way that the CD-ROM would generate similar levels of excitement twenty years later.

At Pergamon, microfilm was not just an end product, but rather used as part of the production process. An enormous form (a primordial version of the Biblio publishing management system of today) would be typed into on special double-size typewriters to create a single huge sheet. This contained all of the information, what we would now call meta data, which the publisher needed in order to produce a book: author, title, ISBN, royalties, print run, contract etc. This form was then photographed, shrinking all the information onto a microform, which could then be accessed by a microform reader at the various production stages. Whether it actually made things any easier I’m not sure, but it certainly felt modern and radically more advanced than anything I had encountered before.

Another technological innovation which I saw for the first time at Pergamon was the ‘word processor’. As everyone knows, for the last forty years this has been a software program that runs on general purpose computers, but back then a word processor was actually a specialist machine, best thought of as a sort of hybrid between typewriter, printer and computer, albeit with limited functionality. Robert Maxwell acquired several of these at great expense not long after I started at Pergamon, and was incredibly proud of them. On one occasion, never forgotten by all those who witnessed it, he was gleefully showing them to East Europe officials who had come to visit the office. Eager to demonstrate that these enormous contraptions could be folded up and easily stored, he attempted to do exactly this by folding up the entire table that one of the machines was bolted onto. A man of considerable size and strength, he actually succeeded in this: lifting and folding, and naturally breaking, the table and machine.

These innovations were all hints of a world to come, but it would be at least another five years before digital technologies would start to change things. At OUP in the 1970s, as in so many other ways, modern technology had yet to make an impact. All of my correspondence was typed by a female secretary whom I would dictate to, and the fact that secretaries were equipped with IBM Golfball typewriters was seen as a notable advance over the traditional typewriter. Photocopiers were not commonplace until the 1980s, and so the secretaries would make three carbon copies – one to be sent out to the correspondent, a copy for the editor’s file and then what were called ‘thirds’ – a common filing system that all staff could access at any time, like a sort of paper-based intranet. Unlikely as it seems, people would regularly go through this, and it was probably used more than any number of corporate intranets and knowledge sharing systems that I would encounter in later decades.

An excerpt from ‘My Back Pages: An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing, 1972-2022.’ Copyright 2023 by Richard Charkin and Tom Campbell. Reprinted by arrangement with Marble Hill Publishers. All rights reserved.

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s 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.

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.’