Richard Charkin on 2024: Why Publishing Matters

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin8 Comments

Looking at the world’s issues and hot spots, Richard Charkin writes of ‘how important publishing is, now more than ever.’

At Kew Gardens, London. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Colimachon

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘Existential Threats’
A new year is a’ time to think about the future.

Richard Charkin

Predictions abound about the future of bookshops, libraries, celebrity memoirs, and novels; the impact of artificial intelligence; the future of the office itself; and of course the health or otherwise of our industry. These are all important matters but the challenges publishers face are nothing compared to the existential, actual or potential, threats facing countries and populations around the world.

Every region of the world seems to be affected by defensive or offensive aggression—Guyana and Venezuela at odds about oilfields; the ghastly Middle East catastrophe; civil war in Sudan; territorial arguments in East Asia; and of course Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And forgive me for not mentioning others. There are so many it would be too depressing.

I’ve been following the news avidly from trusted sources such as the BBC, the Washington Post, Al Jazeera, and others. I have also been deluged by opinions on these global events from social media, most of them either wrong, partial, or plain nasty.

All these regional conflicts reminded me of a book published while I was working at Heinemann in 1989: How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, 1938-’39 by Donald Cameron Watt. This distinguished historian dug into the world as it was immediately before the outbreak of World War II. There were too many similarities with the world today for it to make comfortable reading, but it made me realize how important books and scholarly journals can be in a world drowning in instant, unproven, and mainly unreliable information.

This book, written a quarter of a century ago and still available, was the result of an inquiring and intelligent mind; an ability to write for the layperson as well as for the scholar; an in-depth editorial process that would not allow inaccurate or biased information to be published; and distribution around the world.

It made me realize how important publishing is, now more than ever. Despite my sometimes jaundiced view of some of the absurdities of parts of our industry I was reminded of the many of its important attributes.

Book publishers care about the quality of what they publish. While commerce is a vital element, it’s not the only thing that matters. Reputation matters, brand matters, call it what you will. The best authors want to be published by the best editors, the best publishing houses, side by side with other great authors. Houses including Chicago University Press and Allen Lane and Kodansha can be relied on to publish what’s good and avoid publishing inaccurate or second-rate material. That cannot be said of social media.

No industry is perfect when it comes to courage in the face of economic threats, but our industry has frequently proved its resilience.

Governments around the world have frequently taken control of media outlets, particularly television, radio, and news businesses, which are seen to be useful propaganda instruments. Books are much tougher to control, thanks to the huge numbers of publications, the commitment to editorial standards, and the ability to fly below the radar.

Of course sometimes the forces of censorship win, but typically not for very long and not worldwide.

‘A Greater Catalyst’

One day, wannabe censors might learn the lessons of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher. The initial print run was around 2,000 copies, an optimistic number for what was a rather dull book by a dull author on a relatively dull subject.

However, the British prime minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, decided it was a threat to national security and had it banned in the United Kingdom. The full and much more interesting story is told in The Spy Catcher Trial by the author’s and publisher’s lawyer, Malcom Turnbull, who later would become prime minister of Australia. The result of Thatcher appointing herself marketing director by mistake resulted in worldwide sales of more than 4 million copies with the help of publishers refusing to be bullied.

It costs many millions to make a movie; tens of millions to launch a newspaper; hundreds of millions or even billions to set up or buy a social media platform. Books can be published on a shoestring, allowing minority voices to speak and to be heard. They can be published on the whim of a publisher concerned more with promoting truth than making a buck or pleasing a government master.

While publishing is largely a commercial enterprise, there are any number of examples of underlying philanthropy where it’s necessary.

The efforts of scientific publishers to make research information available to scientists in emerging economies through low-cost subscriptions or open-access models was exemplified by the STM industry’s rapid and universal response to the dissemination of COVID-19 research results.

General book publishers’ support for literacy charities has been generous and consistent, as in the case of Book Aid International to address global needs for information or Give a Book supporting work in prisons and schools in deprived urban areas of the United Kingdom.

JK Rowling. Image: Debra Hurford Brown

And has there ever been a greater catalyst for encouraging children to read and enjoy books than the Harry Potter series? However hard education ministers try to encourage literacy in their countries, they’re nothing compared to JK Rowling.

In a world of mega-technology companies typically owned and managed by mega-megalomaniacs, publishing offers an alternative, more diverse, and responsible alternative ecosystem. While it’s true that a few publishing companies are large and in danger of becoming soulless smaller versions of their big-brother technology partners and competitors, the vast bulk of publishing is undertaken by companies with less than US$1 billion in sales, minnows of the corporate world. And rather than a handful of companies controlling markets, we have tens of thousands of creative businesses frequently swimming against the stream, pushing water uphill, and making a nuisance of themselves. Hooray.

Finally, publishing is both the gatekeeper to ensure accuracy of information and the ringmaster linking authors, authors’ societies, authors’ agents, designers, illustrators, learned societies, translating publishers, collective rights organizations, technology support businesses, wholesalers, retailers, librarians via conferences, book fairs, personal acquaintances and all the activities driven by the desire to communicate as widely as possible.

This community, in which I’ve worked all my career, may be flawed in many ways, but it’s above all else collegiate, decent, mutually supportive, and, unlike some other industries, genuinely does no evil.


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. Thanks for this Richard. A powerful reminder of why we are in this noble industry and do what we do !

  2. Couldn’t agree more. As you may remember Richard I’ve shared your frustrations with our industry’s flaws not least it’s short-sighted resitance to anything that seemed to threaten it’s cherished practices (as you may remember) . But it was a business I loved for my almost 30 years on the inside and still do in my various incarnations on the edge since then. Great piece of writing sire!

  3. Thank you, Richard,
    I found your article sobering and a reminder that we watch the world around us almost self-destruct. The social networks and unchecked media arguably are destroying our sense of morality and ethics and the “keyboard cowards,” as I call them merrily toss out their rubbish and bullying into our inboxes and devices. I was happy to be reminded by you as to the importance of books which you have suggested so eloquently. It’s refreshing to realize we can count on the industry for a relatively safe haven. I am proud to have been part of that industry and can add that even in my years prior as a mass market children’s publisher, we cared, had limits and choices we made for the good of all readers and their families. Thanks for reminder, I had forgotten.

  4. Thanks Richard, very well said, for me especially these:
    “Reputation matters, brand matters, call it what you will.”
    and
    “This community, in which I’ve worked all my career, may be flawed in many ways, but it’s above all else collegiate, decent, mutually supportive, and, unlike some other industries, genuinely does no evil.”

    As a book rep, my only asset is the relationship I have with booksellers. And as you point out, we share a common love of books (despite that being such a cliched phrase), and this allows us to see common goals.

  5. Thanks Colin. Much appreciated. My only asset is the folder containing the publishing contracts with authors – plus, of course, the relationship with those authors and the digital files of their books.

Leave a Comment