Richard Charkin: ‘Transitioning’ to Digital Distribution

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin4 Comments

In transitioning Mensch Publishing to a ‘wholly digitally-driven model,’ Richard Charkin looks at the pros and cons.

Image: Getty iStockphoto: M-A-U

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘Available in Every Market Simultaneously’
This month’s column describes the transition of Mensch Publishing from using a mixture of traditional print and distribution to a wholly digitally-driven model.

The Downsides

Change is hard and frequently expensive.

The files I’d created for the traditional route and held by my publishing partner were, it turned out, formatted to the first, normally hardback edition. This master file was used to hold any corrections or changes.

Richard Charkin

In moving to a print-on-demand solution, paperback is the preferred format for reasons of cost and author and customer pressure. I only discovered the problem when proofs, and in a couple of cases of finished book, were reformatted with illustrations in the wrong place and new pagination. We had to re-typeset most of the titles.

I was grateful that I’d taken an early decision that Mensch titles wouldn’t have indexes. If anyone really wanted help in finding a name or whatever, they could buy the ebook and search to their heart’s content, which would have entailed even more work and cost.

Even where there was no change in format, the paper used in on-demand printing is likely to be of a different thickness,  meaning that cover artwork had to be revised to take account of a changed spine width.

The next downside is the reluctance of retailers, both traditional and on the Internet, to stock print-on-demand titles because of perceived, although not actual, non-immediate availability; limited returnability; and typically lower discounts, lower retailer margins—all valid reasons from the retailers’ point of view: They’ve enjoyed increased discounts; increased stock security; and improved delivery schedules over the last few decades. They were obliged to resist, even at the expense of reducing the range available to their customers.

Of course there’s nothing about print-on-demand requiring a firm sale or lower discounts to retailers—these are publisher choices but my choices were and are driven by a commitment to reducing waste; maximizing author income; and focusing on marketing to drive sales rather than positioning in terrestrial bookshops.

The corollary of this lack of retail support has been a certain amount of author discomfort at not finding his or her books where they’d like to see them. My riposte that the proportion of new titles prominently displayed at traditional independent and chain bookshops is very small. Ask even the major publishers how many copies of non-automatic best sellers are subscribed into brick-and-mortar stores.

However, there are always exceptions, and launch parties in bookshops can happen if strict discount and returns policies are temporarily waived. The downside of this is that these special arrangements need to be separately accounted, thus undermining the overall pure simplicity of the new model by adding accounting complexity.

And of course right now, print-on-demand books cost more per copy to print, but the savings elsewhere in the supply chain are significant.


Every book is available in every market simultaneously without the need for special shipments or inter-warehouse arrangements. In a world of international media, this is, in my view, an essential service to authors. What would an author think of a great review in, say, the Guardian in the United Kingdom, a review downloaded hugely in the United States—but Americans couldn’t purchase the book because the US publication date was later than the UK’s?

With print-on-demand, there are no are no out-of-stock issues. Every book is constantly available. No need to cogitate on the size or practicality of a reprint. No need for the inevitability of the last reprint of a book never selling out (by definition). No stock wastage as there is no stock except where held and made available by retailers and wholesalers. Fewer trees need to be cut down.

Printing takes place mainly in the country of purchase: There are no shipments by sea or by air between continents; no unnecessary handling costs.

Most importantly perhaps, there are no unnecessary CO2 emissions. Production quality is superior to traditional litho. This came as a surprise to many of our authors but a pleasant surprise.

As part of this, I’ve signed up to automated advertising for the books in order to drive sales, rather than rely on retail displays.

Daily access to sales performance is a boon. Daily changes to metadata are feasible.

Most important of all to me is that I now have control and transparency, and this allows me to communicate with authors without having to adapt to any other organization’s time frame.

In short, transition is painful and there are still many glitches and problems to sort out. But I have absolutely no doubt that digital print and distribution is the way ahead for the majority of publishers, if not the majority of sales.

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.’


  1. Thanks Richard, very helpful of you to share the birthing pains of this process.

  2. Thanks, Colin. What I didn’t make clear is the oeace of mind – knowing that, by and large, orders from anywhere will be fulfilled without my intervention and then accounted properly.

  3. Thanks Richard for a very informative view of how your model has developed. Yes change is hard emotionally (let alone financially) but, to quote Steve Jobs “Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity – not a threat.”

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