Richard Charkin on Being a ‘One-Person Band’ Publisher

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

There’s no rest for the world’s small-press independent publishers, Richard Charkin says, even when much of the industry is on holiday.

The pool at Richard Charkin’s place in the south of France. Image: Richard Charkin

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘My Life in a Day’
It’s still August, the silly season. Little politics apart from raging wars in Europe and Africa. Little news apart from climate change catastrophes all around the world. Few people in publishing answering phones or emails. ‘Out of Office’ rules.

Richard Charkin

Few sales as retailers hang onto their cash in preparation for the tsunami of big new books emerging in September and October. Media desperate to fill the void left by politicians but books, by and large, don’t figure.

But for tiny, one-person band publishers there are no excuses for not responding to emails, texts, etc.

Life goes on, despite the temptations of the pool, the wine, and the delicious figs, plums, and blackberries ripening within walking distance.

So this is my life in a day.

  • Coffee. More coffee. Check three separate email accounts. I really only use one but messages still come to the vestigial organs. Check SMS messages, WhatsApp, and Discord. Remove all advertising and other nonsense. This feels like work, but it’s the work-equivalent of brushing your teeth, a necessary but not particularly taxing operation. It’s actually displacement therapy to postpone the unavoidable real work which follows.
  • Proofs of a new book have landed and needed reading. I could outsource this, but I’d rather save the cost, do the job myself (feeling virtuous), and get to know the book much better than I would in a typical cursory reading. Thank goodness. It’s absolutely brilliant. My editor at Publishing Perspectives has warned me, quite rightly, not to use this column as a promotional tool, so I can’t name the book. But keep your eyes open for a novel set in Jamaica by one of Britain’s greatest under-discovered writers. One hour reading, 30-minute swim, and then on to the next issue.
  • To reduce stocks of those books I publish traditionally—fix a print run from limited data, transfer to the main warehouse, ship the stock to other warehouses and bookshops around the world, wait for returns, and then count the number of copies loitering in the original warehouse—I’ve offered all the authors a special discount for personal purchases. Most of the authors have taken this offer. I place the orders and then accumulate roughly six emails per order tracking the books’ journeys to the authors’ houses. Once the books arrive with an author, I raise an invoice. Next problem, one of the author’s cannot cope with Internet banking. Can I advise? Send a check, I suggest.
  • I’m working with a brilliant start-up business using AI technology to enhance sales of backlist titles. My job is to help the founders better understand the publishing industry and some of its stranger ways. Many Discord and email exchanges and a couple of phone calls in which I try to explain how marketing budgets are established; how territorial rights work (or don’t work); how most sales people don’t sell books but lend them to retailers; how royalty rates are linked to a recommended retail price which few customers pay, either because the book is discounted or is bought in another country with a different currency; how backlist titles are more profitable than frontlist but are supported only minimally; and so on.
  • Turning to the emails again, I see there are three unsolicited submissions. I make it a personal objective to respond to every submission on the same day. Right now, I have my hands full with existing authors, so I’m not even considering new ones. But it seems the least I can do is respond politely, firmly, constructively, and quickly. It’s extraordinary how grateful authors are for a response, even a negative one. I quite understand large publishers not wishing to be deluged with unwanted submissions—it’s impossible to know how many completed manuscripts in English alone may be looking for a publisher at any one time—but it only takes a few minutes for me to say no.
  • Various emails about the several other businesses with which I’m involved: a university press navigating the choppy waters of strategic shifts in academic publishing’s business models from reader-pays to author-pays; a sports site dependent on advertising and sponsorship at a time when corporate budgets are pretty constrained; and an aggregator of digital sheet music for schools, colleges, conservatories, and individual musicians moving its business model from predominantly B2C to B2B, in which the time it takes to close a new, substantial customer is agonizingly protracted.
  • Several emails from the translators of My Back Pages into other languages—Spanish, Arabic, Chinese so far—asking legitimate questions such as, “What is the meaning of the square root of bugger all?” and “Can Aubrey be a man’s name?” My admiration for the task translators face has never been greater.
  • Time for 50 lengths to clear my brain.
  • Refreshed, I return to the technology fray. I’m a loyal member of the Book Society—in an earlier age, the Society of Bookmen. Their next dinner features a talk by HarperCollins UK CEO Charlie Redmayne. It should be good but it’s a struggle getting into the site, remembering my password, clicking the right order. But I get there and experience a warm glow of smug self-satisfaction. The smugness dissolves as I fail to find the necessary hi-res covers for a promotion I’m doing, and as DPD Tracking refuses to accept my carefully saved password to enable delivery monitoring.
  • However, much has been achieved today until I dip into Amazon to see how the Mensch titles are doing by way of reviews or sales positions. The first title I check looks a bit strange. No ebook listed. I check another. No ebook listed. All Mensch titles’ ebooks have disappeared. I then check Kobo. Same thing. Barnes & Noble. Same thing. Mensch ebooks have been cancelled everywhere. And it’s a weekend so nobody is available at my distributor to fix it, nor to listen to my ranting.

It’s not all fun, this independent publishing malarkey. Let’s hope tomorrow brings ebooks back to life and news of a lucrative television deal with Netflix or Disney. We all live in hope and expectation.

And now that I’ve written this piece for Publishing Perspectives, I can finish the day relaxing with a beer and watching the moon rise from the barn. All things considered, not a bad life in a day.

The barn in the evening at Richard Charkin’s place in France. Image: Richard Charkin

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.’