From Richard Charkin’s ‘My Back Pages’: ‘The Perils of Literary Publishing’

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Exclusive: In this second of our pre-publication excerpts from Richard Charkin’s ‘My Back Pages,’ a look at what Charkin describes as a ‘mismatch of incentives’ in literary publishing.

The St. James Tavern on Great Windmill Street in Soho. Image – Getty iStockphoto: PurplePhotos

Editor’s Note: Today, we have the second of our excerpts from Richard Charkin’s ‘My Back Pages: An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing, 1972-2022,’ set to be published on the eve of London Book Fair, April 17, by Marble Hill in London. 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. You’ll find these excerpts exclusively here at Publishing Perspectives, with one each Monday through April 17.   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

‘The Perils of Literary Publishing’
Although I had been in publishing for almost twenty years when I started at Reed, literary editors were a new experience for me, and one that took some getting used to. This period, from the late ’80s to the mid-’90s is now regarded as something of a golden age for British literary publishing. It’s not obvious that the literature itself has been especially enduring, but it was certainly a lucrative time for a number of writers—and also their agents. These were years of unprecedented advances for literary fiction and, all too often, the publishers were being taken to the cleaners.

Richard Charkin

At the root of the problem was a mismatch of incentives: editors weren’t especially bothered about the size of the advances, because the abiding motivation for them was not to save the company money or even make a particularly good financial deal. Rather, prestige, career progress and industry status came from being able to say that they were Martin Amis’s or Salman Rushdie’s editor. In fact, a spectacular advance, irrespective of whether it represented good value, was all the more likely to get their name in the media. And this was a time when literary advances, prizes, feuds and rivalries were very much being covered by the papers and magazines, and not just the trade press. A big book launch in London in the early 1990s could be a major cultural event—attended by media and celebrities, and invariably costing the publisher a fortune.

Compounding things, there was also a skills mismatch between the agents and editors. Many of the top literary agents were experienced industry figures and formidable negotiators. The likes of Gillon Aitken, Michael Sissons and Andrew Wylie were steeped in commercial publishing, and far more knowledgeable about ancillary rights, contract law and sales projections than the starstruck editors they were negotiating with. And of course, unlike most of the editors, they had a direct ownership and stake in their agencies, and were determined to get the best deal not just for their clients but also themselves.

In fact, agent-editor “negotiations” makes it sound more adversarial than it actually was. Editors and agents were usually friends, and had often worked together previously. All too often this led to an unhelpful tendency among some editors to see “management” as the enemy, and they would readily side with their authors and agents against the company that employed them. In this respect, there was as much a drinking culture as there had been in my previous jobs, but it was very different. It was bars and restaurants in Soho rather than the pub around the corner from the office, and literary editors were more likely to socialize with authors, critics, agents, journalists and editors at other publishing companies rather than direct colleagues. This didn’t make management easy—after a party or launch attended by editors, it was a familiar occurrence to read accounts of company disagreements in the pages of Private Eye and the diaries of newspaper columnists.

“We never got to the bottom of exactly what happened on Lady Antonia’s doorstep, but it proved costly for us and was a lesson in how easily in the literary world one can wreck an author-publisher relationship.”Richard Charkin, 'My Back Pages'

One event in particular from these times illustrates the hazards of working with big literary figures. Reed sent couriers over to all of its Methuen authors who were being asked to novate their contracts—essentially to update their contracts, with the same terms and conditions, to the new legal entity. A motorbike courier duly went to the home of Lady Antonia Fraser, whose acclaimed historical biographies we had been publishing for many years, to get her signature, Unfortunately, the door was answered by her partner, the dramatist Harold Pinter, and in the course of the exchange with the courier an altercation arose. The notoriously short-tempered Pinter became extremely annoyed at what he saw as the impudence of the request. Shortly afterwards, not only did Pinter announce he was moving all of his copyrights from Methuen to Faber, but his great friend, the playwright Simon Gray, wrote to tell us he was doing the same. We never got to the bottom of exactly what happened on Lady Antonia’s doorstep, but it proved costly for us and was a lesson in how easily in the literary world one can wreck an author-publisher relationship.

Previously published from ‘My Back Pages’ by Richard Charkin with Tom Campbell:

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.’