From Richard Charkin’s ‘My Back Pages’: ‘The Culture of Bloomsbury and Industry Progress’

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

A ‘Miss Pergamon’ contest, Bloomsbury, and ‘prominent roles taken by women,’ in this excerpt from Richard Charkin’s forthcoming memoir.

On Oxford Street, London. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Simon Shepheard

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 fourth 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 April 19, with thanks to Nigel Newton and the Bloomsbury team.

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

The Culture of Bloomsbury and Industry Progress’
The four founders of Bloomsbury in 1986 included Liz Calder, the legendary editor who had also helped to found the Groucho Club and the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Richard Charkin

Although Liz had left by the time I joined and the company had grown considerably, the culture she had established was very much still there, and this included the prominent roles taken by women–not least, Alexandra Pringle, who was a superb editor-in-chief for 20 years. Across the company as a whole, probably 70 percent of the staff were female during my time there. This was a reflection on Bloomsbury, but also how the overall culture of publishing had changed over the years – according to the Publishers Association’s most recent survey, women now occupy just over half of the industry’s senior management positions.

Despite this progress for women in the industry, it has not always been straightforward. Take the instance of The Society of Bookmen, which had been founded in the 1920s as a monthly dining club for professionals from across the book trade, bringing together publishers, booksellers, printers, librarians and the occasional author. The dinners, held at the Savile Club in Mayfair, had long been an important part of London’s publishing scene – a place to socialize and do business, and for younger publishers to learn and make contacts. Forty years into its existence, the Society had belatedly admitted women in 1972, and I joined in 1988 shortly after I started at Reed. But by the 21st century, with 40 percent of the members being female, many felt that the name “Bookmen” was increasingly problematic. There had been two attempts to get it changed, but it required at least two thirds of the members to vote for change in a ballot and had failed to pass. In desperation, the chair of the Society called an emergency motion at one of the monthly dinners and, in a show of hands held there and then, it was renamed The Book Society.

I had been at this dinner and obviously voted for the change of name, but was troubled by the use of an emergency motion as a way of avoiding a full democratic ballot and submitted my resignation to the Society’s management committee. Instead, as is the way of things, I accepted their suggestion that I should become president of The Book Society and work with the chair to help ensure that principles of good governance were upheld in the future. A couple of years after this, a member of the Society pointed out that membership of the Savile Club where we regularly dined was restricted to men, and so an unsuitable host venue. I spoke with the Club manager who confirmed that this was the case and was unlikely to change in the foreseeable future – their only female member being someone who had joined as a male and then subsequently undergone a sex change! And so we moved to the Conduit, a club in Covent Garden. It was a shame to end the long association that the Society had enjoyed with the Savile Club but also, I strongly believed, the right thing to do.

It was a small but symbolic mark of how far publishing had progressed. We should never be complacent, but when I look back over the last 50 years, the progress has been astonishing and hugely positive. When I had been at Pergamon in the mid-1970s, there had still been an annual “Miss Pergamon” contest. As announced in the staff paper, the Pergamon Gazette, in August 1974, this wasn’t the “usual kind of beauty contest” and the judges were “looking for other qualities as well, such as personality, poise, confidence and efficiency.” The winner would receive a weekend holiday in Paris, a new wardrobe and a “titled sash, cloak and crown” which would be needed for when she greeted VIP visitors and was in attendance at official company events. Pergamon, it should be borne in mind, was an Oxford-based scientific publisher that at the time was considered one of the most forward-thinking and dynamic publishing companies in the UK.

Image: Used by permission. From Richard Charkin’s ‘My Back Pages: An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing, 1972-2022,’ Marble Hill Publishers. All rights reserved.

Each Monday through April 17, we’ve had an exclusive new excerpt from ‘My Back Pages.’ Previously published excerpts from the book by Richard Charkin with Tom Campbell are here:

This is 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.’