From Richard Charkin’s ‘My Back Pages’: ‘Accidental Successes’

In News by Richard Charkin

‘The best editors are always alert to opportunities,’ writes Richard Charkin in this exclusive pre-publication excerpt from his forthcoming book, ‘My Back Pages.’ Object lesson: Macmillan and Jeffrey Archer.

Jeffrey Archer at Oslo Bokfestival, 2012. Image: Bjørn Erik Pedersen, CC BY 3.0

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 third 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.’  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

‘Accidental Successes’
One of the perennial tensions in my time at Macmillan was that many of the board directors were always calling for greater strategic focus. They would query why we had publishing interests in Zimbabwe or three offices in Namibia or so many different education companies. But actually, the strength of a large publishing company is often in this very diversity. There is an old adage in Hollywood, coined by the screenwriter William Goldman, that ‘nobody knows anything’ – no matter how smart or experienced, nobody in the film industry knows what works and whether a film will be successful. And in many ways this is true of publishing as well – from talking rabbits to schoolboy wizards, the greatest sellers of the last half-century have never been predictable.

Richard Charkin

So there is a good deal of luck in publishing as with everything else – but the best editors are always alert to opportunities and ready to act, wherever they may arise. This was certainly the case with Jeffrey Archer.

In the summer of 2001, the politician and best-selling novelist was found guilty of having lied during his famous 1987 libel case involving the prostitute Monica Coghlan, and was sentenced to four years in prison – one of the longest ever sentences for perjury in British history. Immediately after this, Harper Collins cancelled their contract with him on the grounds of late delivery of a manuscript, which is obviously a common enough occurrence, but gave them the pretext they needed to distance themselves from a man now regarded as a public disgrace. They were by no means alone – the Conservative Party and Marylebone Cricket Club were highly critical, and a principal concern of government and much of the media at the time was how he might be stripped of his peerage.

With Archer in prison and out of contract, the head of trade publishing at Macmillan, Adrian Soar, saw his chance and went to visit him at the open prison in Lincolnshire where, after an initial stretch in Belmarsh, he was serving his sentence. It was there that they did the deal for his three-volume memoir, The Prison Diaries – the complication being that, as it is unlawful to profit from a crime, we were unable to offer him an advance. Always prolific and with little to distract him, Archer wrote the entire memoir while in prison. The first volume, which came out while he was still behind bars, was a tremendous success, and with the additional help of a serialization arrangement with The Daily Mail, extremely profitable – though for legal reasons, Archer was unable to fully benefit from this, and all of his earnings had to be restricted to royalties once he was released.

After Archer came out of prison, I was asked to meet him at his penthouse flat on London’s South Bank. He had clearly been briefed by someone and began by saying: “I gather you think that fiction is a waste of time, and that science is more important than stories.” But he was reassured when I told him that, as a publisher, it wasn’t stories or science, but the sales that mattered. We quickly agreed a further deal and, still cross at having been dropped by HarperCollins when at his lowest ebb, he moved all of his backlist over to Macmillan.

Archer’s total works have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide and over the next twenty years, he probably earned the company something in the region of £2 million profit a year [US$2.5 million]. As I got to know him better, I persuaded him to start writing a blog and that helped to bring in a younger generation and develop a global readership – most notably in India, which has become his biggest market, and where there is little interest in his travails with the British criminal justice system.

Previously published exclusive excerpts from ‘My Back Pages’ by Richard Charkin with Tom Campbell are here:

This article contains 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.’