In London, Richard Charkin: ‘A Publishing House Is a Field’

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

‘There can be little doubt that God or fate or luck play a significant part in the success of any publishing endeavor,’ writes Richard Charkin.

Farming in France. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Richard Charkin

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘To Scatter the Good Seed on the Land’

We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land;
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand:
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.

—From the 1782 text by Matthais Claudius, which was translated to English from German in 1862 by Jane Montgomery Campbell

I have been very busy the last few months. You may have seen the five extracts from a book I’ve written serialized here in Publishing Perspectives.

Richard Charkin

Becoming an author, albeit briefly and part-time, has given me a slightly different perspective on our industry.

The god of publishing may not be the creator of the universe, the worshiped and revered of the world’s religions, but there can be little doubt that God or fate or luck play a significant part in the success or otherwise of any publishing endeavor.

But first we must plough the fields.

A publishing house is a field. It needs to be made ready for its authors (the good seed). It needs to have leadership to establish what crops it is going to grow. Should the farm be mono-cultural—pure science or academic, or poetry, or children’s books, or commercial or literary fiction? (An aside: I was delighted to see that Spare by Prince Harry was classified in Amazon UK as literary fiction, not an obvious description.). Or should the farm be business books, or biography or history or ice?

Or should it spread risk by having a mixture of genres, markets, and opportunities? And does the farm need to be prepared for all forms of media to grow?

The farm and its fields need to have the best editors to ensure that authors’ books are as good as they can be; the best accountants to ensure rapid and accurate collection and disbursement of money for authors; the slickest and quickest production team fully abreast of the latest technologies for manufacture; the best legal advice and support for authors; an infrastructure whose primary function is to enable writers to reach their audience as effectively as possible.

And then clearly we need to scatter the good seed on the land.

‘In the Hands of an Outside Force’

The fruit of the seeds is the book in all its forms. The farm must provide sensitive, imaginative, and effective design in order to inform and attract potential readers. The book must be a desirable object whether in print or in digital form, something its author can be proud of. It must be supported by the highest level of publicity and marketing affordable and this requires intelligence as much as money: the intelligence is to see the angles in the book that will attract media coverage; the intelligence not to follow the traditional route—proofs, review copies, literary editors, launch parties—but to read and understand the author’s aims and his or her readers’ interests.

“Of course this farm needs to enjoy the best distribution so that the would-be purchaser anywhere in the world at any time can pay some money to acquire the book. This sounds easy. It is not.”

Marketing must be supported by a motivated and creative sales force, whether through merchandising retailer platforms, finding new outlets, negotiating better terms, or simply supporting traditional bookshops with high-quality customer service. The concept of the sales representative has changed and is changing. What matters is that they represent not just the publishing house, the farm, but also the author, the seed.

And of course this farm needs to enjoy the best distribution so that the would-be purchaser anywhere in the world at any time can pay some money to acquire the book. This sounds easy. It is not. Our industry has made enormous strides in improving the logistics of distribution in many countries but we’re still hindered by over-complicated and inefficient supply chains, government-erected barriers to trade, and an overdependence on CO2-generating transport systems.

As the hymn says, the feeding and watering are in the hands of an outside force. Every book, every author, every publisher needs those gifts from heaven–the television series that ignites sales; the textbook adoption for California which justifies the huge investment made; the fulsome review in the essential media for that book; the book club order which underpins the print run; the scientific paper that heralds a new area of science and is cited forever; the controversy created by an attempt to censor the book or imprison the author.

All these and others are, in the main, acts of God over which we have only limited control.

What we, as good farmers must do, is to be alert to these opportunities, adapt the farm and the fields as necessary, and be unafraid to invest in whatever crop will make us the most money, sales, reputation, pleasure, and seeds for next year’s planting.

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest 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.’ In the June 2024 King's Birthday Honors, Charkin was made a member of the Order of the British Empire, OBE, for his "services to publishing and literature."