Richard Charkin: On Becoming an Author

In Feature Articles, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

‘Authorial neurosis kicked in’ right on schedule with ‘My Back Pages,’ as Richard Charkin recounts.

Richard Charkin and Tom Campbell. Image: Richard Charkin

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘Other People’s Books’
After 50 years doing my best to publish other people’s books, 2022 saw me embarking on a new adventure: becoming an author, a truly new experience for me.

John Banville said, “The sentence is the greatest human invention of civilization.” Writing thousands of sentences to form a book is one of the greatest challenges.

Richard Charkin

My challenge began some years ago when a handful of people asked me if I was ever going to write my memoirs. I said no for many reasons.

First, who needs another self-serving memoir of a book publisher of only modest distinction? Second, as I age, my memory deteriorates and I wouldn’t be able to record events accurately. And third, I didn’t have the time or the energy. All pretty good reasons to avoid any temptation which might be lurking.

And then last year, a longtime family friend and Bloomsbury author, Tom Campbell, offered to become my Dr. Boswell. We agreed to meet a few times to see if my incoherent memories might form the basis of notes which could become sentences and paragraphs and which in turn might come together as a highly informal history of the book business in the last exciting 50 years.

The meetings took place in various unprepossessing cafés and bars around Newington Green in North London, halfway between our homes—the beginning of an entirely 50-50 relationship. The process turned out to be enormous fun, with Tom guiding me and quietly cajoling me to dig out whatever interesting stuff might be hiding deep in the recesses of my faltering brain.

Six months later, after 20 meetings and three drafts, we had a Word document of 65,000 words—a book. And that’s when the first signs of authorial neurosis kicked in.

‘Is It Readable?’

London’s Belle Epoque Patisserie on Upper Street, where Richard Charkin says he conceived and wrote most of ‘My Back Pages.’ Image: Richard Charkin

Who is it for? Publishing recruits, students and researchers, authors, librarians, colleagues, friends, enemies? We probably should have decided at the outset but eventually plumped on the core market being people new to the industry.

Is it at all accurate? How embarrassing to be wrong about key issues. Somebody has, for instance, written to me that I’d named the wrong print union at one point—forgivable given the acronyms (ASTMS, NGA, SOGAT) and the tedium of long pointless negotiations with them at the time. Fortunately I had the good fortune to identify a dozen “referees” to read the manuscript from their points of view and with their critical eyes. They were brilliant and saved me from any number of errors.

Is it readable? Again, the “referees” were able to point out where I’d become tedious as well as inaccurate. In a sense, it seemed to me that many brilliant books are scuppered by their length, density, and lack of an engaging narrative. Multiple edits were needed to fix this and I was still fretting.

‘All of Three Minutes’

From left, Tom Campbell, Francis Bennett, and Richard Charkin. Image: Richard Charkin

Who might publish it? It might seem strange that a publisher would embark on such a project without a contract or at least an idea of who might publish it. I was relieved of any decision-making by one of my “referees,” Francis Bennett of Marble Hill Publishers, who—rather than critiquing the book—offered to publish it.

The deal took all of three minutes to be consummated. Had I not had that stroke of luck, I’d have had to beat the undergrowth of the publishing industry for a willing partner, having decided that it would be inappropriate and inefficient to publish it myself.

As it happens, I found the perfect publishing partner, one who is caring, enthusiastic, creative, thorough, reliable, and most of all is able to smile when I try to “teach my grandmother how to suck eggs.”

‘Would Anyone Review It?’

A club in North London where ‘My Back Pages’ writing sessions took place. Image: Richard Charkin

Would anyone buy it? I could envisage all this work ending up with a half-dozen copies moldering in some mid-Western university library vault and my publisher wishing he’d never heard of the book. Authors frequently think it’s exclusively the job of the publisher to make a book sell. Not so. The author is frequently best placed to think up plans for sales, for promotional ideas, and indeed for implementation in cahoots and with the support of the publisher.

How will we tell the world about the book? Again, luck smiled on us. Because my publisher is nimble and imaginative, we were able to plan for a publication date a mere five weeks after delivery of the manuscript. The ideal date was, unsurprisingly, the day before the opening of the 2023 London Book Fair, at which many of the world’s publishers were to congregate. In the run-up to the fair, Publishing Perspectives agreed to publish an extract every week. A better platform for the book is hard to imagine. The publishing world, at least, knew something was afoot.

What will the book look like? The book was printed and distributed by the brilliant team at IngramSpark, but until you hold a book in your hands, you simply don’t know. Phew, I said to myself, as the first copy arrived. It was beautifully designed and manufactured, better even than I’d anticipated.

But then disaster struck. Turning the book over to admire the back, I spotted Paul Hamlyn’s name corrupted to Paul Hamlin. As a publisher I might—I hope not but sometimes needs must—have looked the other way. To an author, that was inconceivable. We had to fix it and we did, but not before my author angst level was raised a few more notches.

Would anyone review it, privately or publicly? We sent PDFs to a wide range of what we now know are called “influencers”—from authors to booksellers, academics, and publishers. A good response, but where were the reviews in newspapers and magazines? Fortunately for my publisher, I’m old enough to know how hard it is to bag a few lines in the mainstream media. British newspapers disregarded all our efforts, but then the Sydney Morning Herald came to our rescue with a full and positive review. Phew, now I could relax. One review doesn’t make a bestseller but it’s certainly better than none.

‘And What Have I Learned?’

Tom Campbell at Richard Charkin at the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association offices for a ‘My Back Pages’ launch party. Image: Richard Charkin

Lynette Owen

The first buyer was Lynette Owen, the megastar of international rights and editor of the indispensable Clark’s Publishing Agreements: A Book of Precedents [Bloomsbury, 2022].

And the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association kindly lent me their offices for a place to thank friends and family for all their support.

How are sales going? Of course, the first thing I do every morning is check the book’s position on you-know-where in the category of “history of books.” It briefly reached No. 2. Just a few more sales and we’d be able to claim bestsellerdom but so far not quite.

International? Surely my myriad followers in the United States and elsewhere would be rushing to buy. Well, yes, a few but not enough to use the word myriad. The elation: out of the blue, a request to translate the book into Spanish, followed by interest from China and Germany. My insecurity about sales was mitigated by the anticipation of a flood of beautifully translated and designed copies flooding in.

What now? I look forward to receiving some royalty income, some rights income, many speaking events—some overseas, all expenses paid, I hope—some brickbats, some sarcasm, and plenty of relief that my worst fears have not been realized.

And what have I learned that I can share with fellow authors? Writing is hard. Editing is essential. Publishers add enormously but it is more important to find the right publisher than to chase the money. Try to write to one audience not several, as if talking to a single person. Take criticism in the spirit it’s made. Work hard at every aspect up to and beyond publication date. Enjoy the ride.

My Back Pages: An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing, 1972-2022 was published on April 17 by Marble Hill Publishers.

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.’