Richard Charkin at Year’s End: Asking the Unaskable

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As the clock runs out on 2023, Richard Charkin in London has questions for the industry, some of which he knows may elicit a ‘Bah, humbug.’

On Regent Street in London, ‘The Spirit of Christmas’ annual decor ─ an updated LED rendition of the 1954 original display ─ here seen on November 22. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Ogulcan Aksoy

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘Eight Dangerous Questions’
I‘m often struck by the number of symphonies composed by the likes of Mozart (41), Haydn (106), and others. I guess the symphony was the musical equivalent of the novel, the greatest use of the available orchestral technology and presumably a ready marketplace of music lovers. Today, composers by and large don’t write symphonies. There are so many competing musical genres, and the market for symphonies has declined, largely serving the white elderly middle classes.

Richard Charkin

This thought has led me to ask the first of eight dangerous questions that some may feel are unaskable in polite publishing society.

  • Are serious novels quite simply past their glory years? There are more novels being published every year, but the total consumer base for fiction is pretty static in most markets. In other words, more supply less demand─not a great economic model. Of course great novels are still being published and great symphonies are being composed but perhaps the audience is waning and moving elsewhere, not least to much shorter audio, video, and computer game formats. Maybe it’s time for poetry to make a comeback to take center stage?
  • Might it be that the efforts to diversify the publishing workforce aren’t working? In the West at least, the gender balance is hugely skewed toward women, particularly among entrants and, judging by the make-up of publishing students I meet, likely to become even less balanced. This, of course, as I concluded in my informal history of the last 50 years in publishing (My Back Pages), is an unarguably good thing but it doesn’t on the face of it meet any diversity balance criteria. Other diversification strategies are pretty inconclusive too, as referenced in the next question.
  • Has the effort to hire more people from ethnic minorities really made a difference in improving racial diversity among publishers, booksellers, writers, and readers? Certainly publishers are trying hard to move away from a monocultural white author and reader community, but it’s far from clear that the burgeoning number of new titles from ethnically diverse writers has boosted overall sales or changed society.
  • Is it possible that the tracking and publication of race, gender, sexuality, and social class audits achieve little apart from a warm feeling within the boards of publishing companies? Meanwhile the cost in overheads and management distraction of these audits, committees, and strategy days is significant at a time when junior staffers in particular are desperate for better pay to cover the cost of living. Might it be better to spend less on audits and more on people, which might just attract the more diverse people the industry needs?
  • Might there be too many “international” book fairs? It seems that every country and every major city is hosting a book fair. Most are funded one way or another by governments in an attempt to burnish their cultural virtue and to enhance their soft-power reputation. For local publishers and booksellers, the public-facing sales and marketing elements of these fairs can be a terrific way of engaging young people in reading events, and they can give a platform for local authors. All good, but do we really need the huge influxes of international publishers enjoying trips at the expense of their companies and, of course, the damage to the environment through aviation carbon emissions? Clearly the major fairs are essential marketplaces for rights sales and serendipitous meetings, but wouldn’t Frankfurt, Bologna, Delhi, London, Guadalajara, Sharjah be enough? Might local fairs be more focused and more useful without the international invaders?
  • One potentially useful regulation is that for every new law, one or even two old ones should be dropped in order to contain legal hyperinflation. Might we apply this rule more intelligently to book prizes, which are sprouting everywhere thereby reducing the impact of each of them? I don’t have access to the data but I am pretty certain that sales of Booker Prize winners are, on average, significantly lower than in previous decades. Of course it’s great for authors and publishers to win and be seen to win prizes but might not over-abundance breed contempt?
  • Why don’t more publishers venture outside their own languages in order to serve their authors better? There are some notable exceptions such as HarperCollins and of course Bertelsmann, Hachette, Bonnier, and Holtzbrinck, but these typically don’t use their global reach to publish translations where they have world rights. French publishers, for instance, bemoan the low numbers of great French authors being translated into English. Why don’t they do it themselves? And outside literary fiction, couldn’t artificial intelligence greatly ease the cost and effort of producing editions in various languages, at least in creating a first draft? Language can be a barrier to learning and culture. We may now have the technology─both automatic translation and digital distribution─to reduce the barrier.
  • In trying to improve access to scientific research papers, could the open-access movement in academic publishing have created more cost, more uncertainty, and a drive to the bottom in terms of quality? The complexity of the various ways of paying for publication open to everyone to read─green, gold, diamond, transformational agreements, pay-and-read─has enriched lawyers and generated any amount of discussion at meetings around the world. But the evidence that there have been any savings or more than a marginal improvement in access is scanty. Is it impossible to consider an academic publishing house focusing on the quality of its journals and books being reflected in a market wishing to pay to read; and a market in which library budgets are spent on offering the widest possible access rather than on funding authors’ papers?

These unasked questions are listed in no particular order. I’m sure there are many other questions that should be asked and I may regret asking some of these, but fortunately in most parts of the world freedom to ask questions and generate debate is baked into our constitutions. We should use that freedom to ask questions which might make us feel uncomfortable.

Wishing my reader─or readers if more than one─a very happy holiday season, may the mad men leading many of our countries come to their senses, and good will to all authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians, and readers.

At London’s Qudrant Arcade, November 20. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Jonathan Wilson


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.’

Comments

  1. I like these questions, Richard. Thanks for asking them. And I embrace your wish for the new year. Someone please find a salve for the feverish, troubled minds of these world leaders.

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