From Richard Charkin’s ‘My Back Pages’: ‘The Challenges of International Diplomacy’

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Publication day: ‘The IPA continues to quietly do good work in the background’ on the freedom to publish and diplomacy, writes Richard Charkin in ‘My Back Pages’—his memoir releasing today.

Editor’s Note: Today (April 17), on the eve of London Book Fair, Marble Hill in London releases 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 last of five excerpts you’ll find exclusively here at Publishing Perspectives. 

At London Book Fair: Charkin will be signing copies of his book at the Bloomsbury stand (6D60) from 1 to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, April 19, with thanks to Nigel Newton and the Bloomsbury team.

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘The Challenges of International Diplomacy’
While I was at Bloomsbury, at the Frankfurt Book Fair of 2014, I was elected president of the International Publishers Association. My personal priority in my two-year term was to make the IPA much more international.

Richard Charkin

Founded in 1896 in Paris and based in Geneva, for most of its history it had been driven by European and North American interests. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, this was no longer tenable, and the most obvious omission was China–a country which not only wanted to join, but was home to the second biggest publishing market in the world.

There was a considerable amount of opposition to this—and also to Saudi Arabia, which had also applied to join.

This was in many ways understandable. Since its inception, the two pillars of the IPA have always been the protection of copyright and the freedom to publish, as a fundamental aspect of the human right to freedom of expression. On the first of these, at least, China had made considerable progress. For the first thirty years of my career, it had been largely ignored by British publishers, both trade and academic, as not much more than a gigantic site for piracy. After the fourth Harry Potter came out, a number of Chinese publishers decided that rather than wait for the rest of the books to be written by J.K Rowling, they would just hire authors to finish the series for them, producing highly eccentric works of literary fantasy. Amusingly, these were then pirated in turn by other Chinese publishers. But a condition of joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, was that China signed up to the Berne Convention, the international agreement for the protection of literary and artistic works. The Chinese government is nothing if not resolute and, in a very short space of time, China went from largely lawless with regards to intellectual property to highly compliant, with prison sentences of up to ten years for those that infringed copyright.

But on the second IPA pillar—the freedom to publish without censorship—things were (and are) much more problematic, and on this point many of the European publishing associations remained firmly opposed to China, not to mention Saudi Arabia, joining. As is so often the case, however, the size of the markets that these countries offered began to sway minds. It certainly helped that China was prepared to match the contribution of the United States, which was the top subscriber.

Several member-publisher associations remained opposed, at least in public, when we assembled in Frankfurt in 2015 for our annual assembly. Given the strength of opinion on both sides, I decided to let the discussion run until everyone had had their say. It was a highly intelligent debate, with good arguments made from all sides on the issues of censorship and the nature of freedom to publish. As president, I didn’t have a vote myself (unless in the case of a tie), but did not want to absent myself from the issue and so, at the end, put forward my own opinion, which was that both national organizations should be allowed to join. When it eventually came to the ballot, both the China and Saudi Arabia associations were admitted to membership, bringing in revenue and also increasing IPA’s global relevance.

But just because they were now members, the IPA did not by any means give up on its principles. The next year we beefed up the IPA’s Freedom to Publish prize, renaming it the Prix Voltaire, in tribute to the French philosopher and writer, and secured sponsorship so that it is now worth ten thousand Swiss francs each year. It was my great satisfaction to present the inaugural award to Ensaf Haidar, the wife of Raif Badawi, founder of a secularist site in Saudi, who was serving a ten-year sentence under the country’s blasphemy laws.

These kinds of debates will forever be at the heart of international relations—over the last twelve months, various economic, culture and sports bodies around the world have been deliberating on whether to eject Russia. Spats like this also tend to attract news headlines, but the IPA continues to quietly do good work in the background, with a seasoned chief executive. Located next to WIPO in Geneva, it has a surprisingly small number of paid officers—fewer than five people. But they help ensure that the publishing industries, and writers and businesses that depend on copyright protection, are represented alongside those (often much larger) interests who derive their value from patents and trademarks. There are authors around the world receiving royalty checks from overseas sales who probably have no idea at all that this is in part because the IPA is defending their interests and protecting their works.

On each of five Mondays, we’ve published an exclusive new excerpt from ‘My Back Pages.’ The piece above is the fifth and final such excerpt. Our four previously published excerpts from the book by Richard Charkin with Tom Campbell are here:

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.

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s world 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.’