Richard Charkin: ‘Unintended Consequences,’ the Sequel

In News by Porter Anderson2 Comments

On the eve of London Book Fair, a second exploration of Charkin’s Law: ‘Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.’

Outside Waterstones on Gower Street in London’s Bloomsbury. Image – Getty iStockphoto: VV Shots

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘There Have Been a Few Snags’
No good idea should go without a sequel. Good ideas can lead to bad outcomes. Sensible decisions can prove to be mad.

Richard Charkin

Many years ago when I was working at Reed International, I was asked to attend a strategy meeting to discuss the future of London Book Fair. My view was that it would be wise to sell the business before it suffered the same fate as the American Booksellers Association Convention and Trade Show (later called BookExpo America.)

How wrong I was as I contemplate the 2024 edition with stands, conferences, deals, unanticipated partnerships, and fun. Long may I continue to be proved wrong.

‘Rightly Proud’

Many European countries and other markets are rightly proud of their efforts to foster a diversity of bookshops, publishers, and authors through retail price maintenance for books.

“In several European countries, not only is it impossible to regulate the prices of used books, but it’s also impractical to regulate the prices of books published outside the country in question.”Richard Charkin

Essentially, this protects booksellers’ margins by preventing the use of discounts—typically by larger retailers such as supermarkets or Internet giants beginning with A—to build market share and ultimately force the weaker retailers out of business altogether. In turn, this protects publishers’ margins and the authors’ royalties.

There have been a few snags.

It’s clearly impossible to apply this to used books. Once a book has been sold the purchaser is entitled to sell it at whatever price they choose. However, how can you be certain that a book is “used”?

Presumably a used book is not as pristine as a new one. One Internet retailer in Germany wanting to discount books to enhance its market share came up with a ploy to very slightly scuff the covers of new books, thus making them eligible for discounting—a dastardly deed and an unintended consequence, but not one that has survived (I think and hope).

There has been another and more insidious unintended consequence of retail price maintenance in several European countries: Not only is it impossible to regulate the prices of used books, but it’s also impractical to regulate the prices of books published outside the country in question.

Thus imported books are not subject to these restrictions and e-tailers were and are able to discount imports at will.

‘Angli-Colonization’

With the growing dominance of English as the international language of business, movies, television, etc., many non-native English speakers were moving toward reading new English-language books in English before the local language edition was published. This was most noticeable at the time when Harry Potter volumes were being almost literally devoured by children across the European continent, unwilling to wait for their domestic editions to appear.

On top of this social and educational trend came the discount marketing clout controlled by major chains, making English-language books ever more affordable.

There’s much moaning and groaning among European publishers about the damage being done to their domestic programs and the dangers of angli-colonization. It’s an unintended consequence of well-meaning actions.

‘Standards of Scholarship’ and ‘Sustainable Economics’

Here’s a much more personal incident of unintended consequences.

“It might have been unimportant to me but it was massive in the mind of the author and he was a diligent street fighter.”Richard Charkin

In the 1980s, I used to chair editorial meetings of the academic and general division of Oxford University Press (OUP). Editors would prepare a costing and a form about the book and the author and present it to the editorial meeting before a contract was ratified by the governing body, the delegates of the University of Oxford.

An excellent general books editor put forward a proposal for a popular book on philosophy by an unknown writer. The idea wasn’t convincing, nor were the numbers. I asked to see the file where I discovered that not only was there a rejection letter from Penguin but also a note from the academic philosophy editor at OUP saying the book was hopeless.

I asked the editor to ring the author to say the book was not approved. He did and returned later to say the author had threatened to commit self-harm because of the decision. That seemed a little overdramatic but I didn’t want to be responsible for a suicide and had the editor suggest that the author rework the manuscript in line with the recommendation of a distinguished academic referee.<

First mistake by me: We should have stopped the book with a single blow. The author resubmitted in due course. We sent it again to the distinguished academic referee who now agreed that the book was hopeless. (I wish he’d said that before.) The editor told the author that we had reviewed the revised manuscript and were not going to publish it.

The next thing was a letter to me from the author claiming breach of contract. He had been recording the phone conversations with the editor who had led him to believe the book would be published. I had other bigger things on my agenda than a small, not-very-important general book on philosophy and so I hired a relatively inexpensive local solicitor to deal with the matter.

Second mistake: It might have been unimportant to me but it was massive in the mind of the author and he was a diligent street fighter. The local lawyer was no match for him.

The unintended consequence of my wanting to maintain standards of scholarship and sustainable economics was a high-court case—hundreds of thousands of pounds going to the fees of expensive lawyers, and an extraordinary waste of time and energy. It would have been so much easier simply to have let the book through, lost a few thousand pounds, and garnered a few negative reviews. To this day I’m unsure whether I was right or wrong but the consequences were pretty awful.

‘Still Contributing’

And finally, as we embark on another London Book Fair, it was six years ago that a chance conversation with Publishing Perspectives resulted in this piece—a definite unintended consequence was that I’m still contributing a monthly column.

I hope you enjoy these micro-essays as much as I have enjoyed writing them.


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. 

More of our coverage of the 2024 London Book Fair:

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

Comments

  1. Hi Richard – lovely piece/s of reflection, and well appreciated. Wry, candid and interesting. I quailed as you recounted the deepening, Sod’s Law nightmare of your entanglement with the street-fighting philosopher, and found your observations at the end food for thought. Look forward to the next instalment on this theme (or any other). Best wishes to you.

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