Richard Charkin: It’s a Smaller World Now

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Richard Charkin sees in David Shelley’s US-UK Hachette CEO appointment a chance for more commitment to world English rights.

In a shop in Kolkata. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Sinha Images

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘Language, Not Territory’
In the late 1999s, I had just been appointed CEO of Macmillan, overseeing all the Holtzbrinck Group’s English-language publishing outside the United States.

Richard Charkin

The US publishing group under the ungainly title of VHPS—Von Holtzbrinck Publishing Services—was run by my good friend, colleague, and corporate cousin John Sargent, whose recently published memoir, Turning Pages: The Adventures and Misadventures of a Publisher (Skyhorse, September 19) is a must-read for anyone in the industry. Von Holtzbrinck Publishing Services encompassed an array of great trade, academic, and educational units such as St Martin’s Press; Bedford Books; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and Henry Holt.

I had joined from a digital scientific publisher, Current Science Group, and on returning to trade publishing I was astonished at how little seemed to be changing. I was asked to give a talk about how I saw the future at the NYU publishing school and leapt into an arrogant prediction that the days of separate United States and United Kingdom editions of English-language books were numbered and that the industry had to change to reflect the changing world in which we lived.

After the speech, John took me to one side and explained why he thought my prediction was premature. Literary agents enjoyed having two publishers, each of whom might pay an unduly high advance. Authors enjoyed the idea of having separate editorial, marketing, and sales teams on either side of the Atlantic. North American tastes in book covers were different from those in the UK. With a few rare exceptions, books were published in two editions and were likely to remain that way for some time to come. John was right.

I’ve spent the three decades since trying to encourage our industry to see the world in terms of language, not territory. But maybe, just maybe, things are now changing. The recent announcement that Hachette Book Group in the US and Hachette UK will in January begin sharing a CEO, the brilliant David Shelley, suggested that the two previously largely separate businesses would now have a common strategy and a more global outlook, including, I wouldn’t wonder, a commitment to acquiring world English rights in the majority of cases. About time too, in my opinion.

The Arguments, One by One
  • American English is distinct from British English. Of course it is, but nobody on either side of the Atlantic or elsewhere in the world cares. Hollywood has never had to create two language editions of movies and The Crown doesn’t struggle to reach audiences in the United States. With a few exceptions such as the use of eggplant vs. aubergine in children’s books or weights and measures in cookbooks, the language dilemma is irrelevant and has been for decades. Not many people will worry too much about recognise or recognize, foetus or fetus, lift or elevator. What matters is that books should reflect the author’s style, including his or her spelling choices.
  • It’s sometimes said that having two editors or editorial teams is better than one. Are two excellent editors on a single book—say, Alexandra Pringle in the United Kingdom and Jonathan Galassi in the United States—really better than one? They either agree with each other, so why bother, or they disagree causing confusion rather than clarity.
  • Design tastes are said to differ. It’s certainly true that British and American publishers take great pride in redesigning one another’s covers. It’s also true that publishers quite often listen to feedback from retailers, and that differs from country to country. But do we really believe that readers are more attracted to one or other by virtue of their home country? These two Elena Ferrante covers are from Europa Editions, the UK cover on the left. I wonder what made them decide that it was better to halve the impact of a recognizable cover. It’s hard enough—although not in this case—to make an impact with a book without such dilution. If you speak to booksellers in open-market territories such as Japan or Germany to ask whether their customers prefer the UK or the US edition cover of a title, they shrug their shoulders and say it’s just a matter of price. And so it is, leading to …
  • Having separate publishers competing with each other to sell the same book into typical open-market territories probably does enhance sales. But what it also achieves is price competition on that title leading ultimately to lower royalties for the author. Not such a great idea.
  • With the emergence of global media companies—television, newspapers, podcasts—it follows that international marketing of books must follow. But if two separate companies are responsible for marketing the same book through the same channels, who decides on the campaign and who pays?
  • Do Japanese publishers feel the need to have separate editions for their Japanese language books in Tokyo and New York? Do French publishers create completely separate editions in Canada? Or German publishers in Namibia? Of course, where a language is significantly different in different territories there’s an argument for, for instance, separate Catalan and Castilian or Rioplatense Spanish in Argentina and Uruguay. But really, English variants are nothing like as material.

In short, I was completely wrong 25 years ago and book publishing is still attached—for dubious reasons in my opinion—to territorial demarcation of rights to English-language books. But I sense that the tide is changing and that global linguistic rights will become the norm.

The major trade publishers are moving in this direction, as evidenced by Hachette Livre’s announcement of Shelley’s appointment. Academic publishers have been global for decades. Non-English-language publishers who want to serve their diasporic communities can now do so independent of territory.

And a final question: Despite long and often heated discussions about the most appropriate covers for separate English-language territories, do we really think that a book buyer in San Francisco is a fundamentally different person than a book buyer in Sydney, London, Vancouver, New York, or Cape Town? Let’s cut the nonsense and focus on creating a single image for a book worldwide.

English-language publishers are blessed with their universal language. Discarding this through split rights and multiple cover images is a travesty in the process of being put right by the more far-sighted elements of the industry.

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.’

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