Richard Charkin From Readmagine: ‘Will You Still Read Me?’

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Richard Charkin asks from Madrid’s Readmagine: ‘Will you still read me, will you still need me, when I’m 75?’

Richard Char’s speaking at Readmagine 2024 in Madrid on May 29. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

What’s Cricket, and What’s Not
June sees me celebrating my 75th birthday. In the words of Marilyn Monroe, it makes a boy think.

First, why celebrate? Relief at having become that old? Fear it might be the last celebration? Showing off?

For those who know anything about cricket, it’s customary for a batsman—or batter in modern parlance—to raise a bat in recognition of reaching 50 runs scored and even more celebration on reaching 100, which I only achieved once against a very poor bowling attack. There’s no such acknowledgement at 75.

In any event, here I am and hoping that I’ll reach a few more landmarks before the inevitable dismissal. So what’s happened in publishing in that three-quarters of a century? George Orwell’s best- and still-selling 1984 was published in June 1949. It feels as relevant and important today as back then, although it’s now out of copyright in English.

Secker & Warburg—the book’s original publisher now nestled happily or unhappily within the giant Penguin Random House—will lose some of its perennial income to new editions from other publishers. Apart from the book’s literary merits, it inspired the title of the first strategy document I wrote for Oxford University Press as described in My Back Pages.

I’ll try to list the good, not-so-good, and dreadful bits of publishing seen through my probably dimming eyes. Of course for every good or bad item I mention there’s probably a countervailing view. That in itself is an example of why the book trade is still such fun.

The Good

Amazon. Of course it’s in a hugely dominant position, controlling routes to market in most of our main offerings—print, ebook, digital audio, and self-publishing—but it hasn’t really abused that position. Of course it makes demands for more margin, for greater control, for better service from publishers, but that’s normal commerce. Every now and again these negotiations break out into war, but always for a limited period and then peace and prosperity resume.

Our industry has found ways of living with this giant, Amazon, and the giant repays that with ever-growing innovation to support the widespread distribution of intellectual property.

Academic publishers. There’s a sense among a small but vociferous group of scientists that the whole model of academic publishing is corrupt, driven by the monstrous greed of a few mega-corporations such as RELX (Elsevier); Informa (Taylor & Francis); Wiley; Holtzbrinck (Springer Nature) and, lower down the hate scale but nonetheless perceived to be complicit, university presses; learned societies; and a host of smaller entities.

Academic publishing has certainly been and continues to be a profitable sector. It has also shown itself to be highly adaptable—moving its business model to embrace open access—and highly innovative, as represented by CrossRef, ResearchGate, plagiarism detectors, author submission portals, user-tracking mechanisms and much more.

Far from being an obstacle to academic progress publishers are a catalyst and a force for good in the university and research sectors. If only governments had been as supportive.

Print on Demand (PoD). Lightning Source (Ingram); Canon; and quite a few others have been doing business with PoD for decades but it’s only now that publishers are beginning to realize the opportunities provided to reduce cost, enhance supply channels, eliminate waste, and reduce our carbon footprint.

The production quality today exceeds that of traditional paperback printing. The print costs are higher, but coming down, I hope, but the total landed costs of getting a book to a reader are not much different. The concept of printing books in large quantities in one location, shipping them to several markets on the basis of guessed sales, and then pulping what hasn’t sold is obsolete and, thank goodness, is dying, albeit more slowly than it should.

The Big Five trade publishers. It’s easy enough to list the apparent shortcomings of large general book publishers: anonymity, publishing by numbers, risk aversion, diminution of editorial responsibility, large unfocused meetings, slow decision-making, and the rest. What’s often forgotten is that these businesses are now several times more efficient at production, distribution, marketing, IT, and finance.

The costs of these functions has reduced and the speed has improved. Chapeau to the “suits” who have made this all possible.

Independent Publishing. Worldwide independent publishing is flourishing. As the large groups become ever more efficient at the logistics ends of the business, smaller more fleet-footed competitors can publish while benefiting from coat-tailing on the larger beasts. These independents will either grow, die, or be acquired. They’re the current and future life-blood of the industry.

In the United Kingdom the results of Faber & Faber; Canongate; Nosy Crow; and Bloomsbury are testament to the vitality of this sector.

Cooperative Collaborative Collectives. There has never been a time when the book industry’s trade associations—national, regional, international, and specialist—have been better organized and more focused.

Not only are they working with each other in our increasingly global environment but also working with associated industries—other media such as newspapers, television, trade shows, reproducing rights organizations, booksellers, librarians, anti-censorship groups, authors’ societies, and with governments, albeit very occasionally and with some trepidation.

The threats to copyright, in particular, and to a free flow of books and information have never been greater and never from such powerful adversaries, whether they’re totalitarian governments, technology giants, or more simply zealots for the destruction of copyright. Never have we needed cooperative collaborative collectives more and never have we been so well prepared.

The Not So Good

Working from home. I confess I now work 90 percent of the time from home. What a joy it is not having to
commute, not having to clock in at 9 a.m. or be shamed. And there’s the freedom to pop out to the shops or see a doctor —more common for me since turning seventy—or simply snooze in the garden.

But there are concerns about the impact on the publishing workforce. Attending the office two or three days a week can’t compare to the educational immersion I enjoyed.

Launching imprints. The temptation to launch an imprint when an editor’s ego needs stroking or when no other solution to a sales shortfall comes to mind has never been greater judging by the number being announced every week in the trade press.

Surely there are more important matters to deal with.

Courage. Along with the benefits of modern management has come an over-reliance on the spreadsheet, the net present value calculations and risk measurement. The true publishing visionary never uses these crude tools. Sometimes, but not always, it really pays to be courageous and go with your gut.

Our business structures need to allow for instinct as well as analysis.

The Dreadful

Egos. Leadership in publishing is important but egotism and self-satisfaction are not. The only people who matter are authors and readers. We need to remember that we are midwives not mothers.

Many seem to have forgotten this in their self-esteem.

Libraries. The demise of public libraries in many countries including my own is a disgrace. Society needs universally free libraries with the best librarians and the best stock. What we have, at least in the United Kingdom, is a decaying infrastructure ever more dependent on untrained but well-meaning voluntary labor.

It has never been worse.

Courtesy. Nearly every email I receive begins with a variation of “I hope you’re well,” a phrase I was taught to avoid when I was at primary school. It’s an example of hypocritical courtesy. Much more important is the almost universal disinclination to respond to emails promptly or at all. I estimate I only get response from fewer than 50 percent of the emails I send. Of course, this may just be that my emails are superfluous and deserve no better, but a little courtesy would go a long way. I was taught to respond to every communication promptly and courteously.

Might others do the same by the time I exceed 75?

Editor’s note: Many international publishing professionals were in Madrid today (May 29) for the opening of the 2024 Readmagine conference from the Fundación Germán Sánchez Ruipérez‘s Luis González and FANDE/IPDA’s José Manuel Anta. The hearty round of applause Charkin received along with his co-speakers—Authors Equity CEO Madeline McIntosh and Michael Tamblyn CEO Rakuten Kobo in conversation with Publishing Perspectives—made it clear that world publishing’s answer to Charkin’s ‘will you still read me?’ question is yes.

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

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 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.

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