Frankfurt-Bound Richard Charkin: ‘Think Deeply About the Rights’

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Ahead of Frankfurt Book Fair, advisory board member Richard Charkin urges CEOs to focus on the ‘rights’ line on each P&L statement.

At St. Katharine Docks, a marina development named for the 12th-century hospital, St. Katharine’s by the Tower. Image: Richard Charkin

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘Our Single Most Important Asset is Copyright’
One of the joys of the publishing industry is the individuality of publishing companies and their people. Our businesses are based on sparks of creativity, determination to push water uphill, and commitment to the best interests of authors, illustrators, and educators.

Richard Charkin

However, sometimes that individuality can be a constraint when working together is more important than plowing one’s own furrow.

An example is the resistance to the introduction of SBNs—the prequel to ISBNs—in 1967.

Two publishers in the United Kingdom, Collins and Macmillan, were certain that their self-generated numbering systems for the identification of books were superior to any trade-wide proposal. It required the leading bookshop chain of the time, WHSmith, to refuse to purchase from Collins and the Greater London Authority similarly canceling orders for Macmillan school textbooks before the publishers stood down and adopted the SBN system with all its benefits. It’s incredible now to imagine the chaos without such a global system.

A more recent example is collective licensing, which is at the heart of rights protection and income.

I recently visited the offices of the UK’s Publishers Licensing Services (PLS) overlooking the gorgeous St. Katharine Docks. The PLS is the publishing arm of the Copyright Licensing Agency, founded 40 years ago. Writers have their own Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Agency (ALCS). And visual artists are represented by DACS and PICSEL .However daunting the acronyms and however far from the minds of most publishers these agencies are, we should celebrate them and their equivalents around the world.

Of course, in the beginning, publishers were, as ever when facing something new, reluctant participants. The breakthrough came when educational publishers realized they were not benefiting from photocopied extracts in schools. Collecting agencies stepped up to the plate, building secure systems to track usage; to negotiate terms with institutions of all types; and in most countries, to collect money and then account to authors and publishers and now also visual artists, through their respective representative organizations.

Right now, the UK’s publishing industry benefits to the tune of £42 million (US$52 million) a year bottom line–repeat, bottom line.

No sales reps, no warehouse, no printing, no freight, no returns. You don’t even have to oversee the authors’ royalties in the United Kingdom as that ‘s handled by ALCS. Given the average margins of the average book publisher, this equates to around £800 million of book sales (US$990.6 million) and the collecting agencies do the work at minimal cost. Imagine how many additional people a publisher would have to hire and pay to identify and chase individually small transactions, which in the aggregate become enormous.

But these agencies do more than simply collect money from copying. They’ve automated the granting of permissions for the use of illustrations or chunks of text. They’ve built a global network allowing, for instance, Australian authors to benefit from use of their work in United Kingdom or United States or continental Europe with no effort required. They’re constantly on the lookout to protect authors and publishers as new and sometimes dangerous technologies emerge and also to explore new revenue opportunities through licensing, subject to the blessings of publishers and authors.

Collective licensing has been a success story wherever it has been implemented. Commercially and operationally, our licensing societies are contributing enormously to our industry. There’s more to it than just those commercial benefits.

‘We Shoot Ourselves in the Feet’

Our single most important asset is copyright.

We depend on it for the protection of our authors’ works and for the sustainability of our businesses. Copyright, on which we all depend, is strong but it is also flexible. It must be protected but at the same time it must not be an obstacle but a facilitator to access to intellectual property. Making it easy and cheap for users to license material legally undermines piracy and strengthens the copyright regime. Strangely, or perhaps inevitably, regions most suffering from abuses of copyright are those with the least developed collective licensing schemes. There is an obvious solution for them.

Collective licensing is just one aspect of the importance of rights income to any publishing company.

As we approach another Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 18 to 22), I would ask every CEO to inspect their profit and loss accounts. Pass over the sales, cost of sales and royalty lines. Take note of the line defined as “rights,” “other income,” “subsidiary income,” etc., and wonder whether we’re allocating too much resource and time to the top lines and not enough to rights. And then think deeply about the rights that are contracted.

Still, some trade magazines headline brilliant acquisitions of a debut novel by such-and-such editor with UK and Commonwealth rights excluding Canada or North America only. The book might be great but how much better would be the deal and how much more responsible would be the publisher if the rights acquired were wider, included other languages, audio etc.

We shoot ourselves in the feet when old habits take too long to die.


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 nkoda.com 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.’