Richard Charkin in London: An A to Z of Publishing, Again

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin1 Comment

In another index of publishing issues, Richard Charkin casts his critical eye on labels, buzzwords, and book industry trends.

At Hatchards on Piccadilly, a Waterstones-owned bookstore that Richard Charkin recommends. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Alla Tsyganova

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘The Speed of Change’
It’s been only since November 2022 that I wrote my last glossary of publishing terms, but the speed of change makes even a couple of years feel like decades.

Richard Charkin

So, with apologies for a repeat of sorts—and to the professional glossarists and lexicographers who do such a much better job—here’s my fourth edition.

The first was privately published, as many of the best books were.

Artificial intelligence: A technology that will transform our industry if embraced sensibly. Right now publishers and other intellectual property holders are running in circles to avoid making irremediable mistakes. One major publisher has banned the use of AI if it threatens any creative job. Most blacksmiths would call their job creative and thus could have argued against the invention of the automobile. A recent International Publishers Association (IPA) newsletter listed links to 30 separate stories of court cases or similar legal challenges involving AI. The winners, unless we’re braver and more clear-sighted will, as usual, be the lawyers raking in several billion dollars of new revenue.

  • A note: AI used to stand for Advance Information sheets. In a sense, that’s exactly what the new AI means, too.

Beijing: The headquarters of Chinese publishing, which is becoming a major force in our world. Despite the saber-rattling against China among Western politicians, it’s now more important than ever that we engage with Chinese writers, scholars, and scientists through the media of print and digital. Like AI, the more we engage the more we learn and the more we can achieve.

CO2: Until the last decade the gas that’s choking our atmosphere and hastening climate change was an issue for environmental scientists, not publishers. No more. This is a top issue for all of us in the book and journal industry. We must react to the challenge, not with committees and fine words but with action. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s Publishing Perspectives‘ most recent update on the Publishing 2030 Accelerator.

Diversity and inclusion: In our context, these words have come to mean hiring more people from ethnic or sexual-preference minorities, including more people in a company’s decision-making positions; employing the skills of people with physical or mental challenges; producing audits to prove how well we are doing. All that is fine but why do I suspect that much of this is more virtue-signaling than a real attempt to help inequality?

Entrepreneur: Every publisher thinks that he or she is entrepreneurial. How many publishers really are? How many, particularly the larger ones, have built-in bureaucracies the job or unintended impact of which is to slow decision-making and risk-taking? The reaction to the adoption of AI is a good example of non-entrepreneurial behavior.

Fantasy fiction: This which seems to have beaten all comers in the fiction world. I suppose that historical fiction and cozy crime are up there too, but literary fiction as defined by the criteria of the Booker Prize and similar organizations seems to be on the down escalator. We need to face up to this new reality to help novelists’ stories to be discovered and enjoyed.

Google, naturally: It’s hard to imagine a world without the Google search engine but it’s so much more. We can fight Google (and Amazon and Meta and all) as we did over the Google library project or we can work with the company. The latter is clearly the better solution as a war between copyright holders and big tech will be won by those with deepest pockets, and publishers’ pockets—notwithstanding some ill-informed press reports—are not deep.

Hatchards: A bookshop in Piccadilly. Everything a bookshop should be. It has survived wars; being taken over by Waterstones; Waterstones being bought by private equity; and it still offers the best service for readers anywhere in the world.

Interactivity: A reader is supposed to interact with an enhanced digital book to have a better experience. A huge amount of investment has yet to show that readers want this, nor has a sustainable business model been created except in very specialist niches. This is one challenge the traditional book will have little difficulty fending off.

JK Rowling: Not only the provider of the most pleasurable and literacy-important books of recent years but a true hero for standing up for her principles. She has had to suffer unbearable, unwarranted, unintelligent attacks for her stand on gender change among children. She has been proved right by independent scientists, psychotherapists, and pediatricians, and I can only feel ashamed that more people, including me, didn’t stand up for her more publicly.

Knowledge: Once the discriminator between the educated and the masses. AI is changing all that as all accrued knowledge is available at the press of a search or ask button. I’m still shocked that my grandchildren don’t seem to be as obsessed with multiplication tables as I was, but of course the pocket calculator has made mental arithmetic almost, but not entirely. redundant. Far more important now than knowledge is intelligence and curiosity.

Language rights: Traditionally, English-language rights have been granted for territories—North America, he United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, Australia and New Zealand only, etc. This has become an absurd allocation of rights and is being rapidly supplanted by linguistic rights for the world. There’s a huge legacy of divided rights, but the combination of publisher consolidation and commercial practicality is reducing the issue so that global deals with, for instance, licensing to LLMs becoming simpler and more profitable for authors and publishers.

Metadata: Probably the most important aspect of a book after, of course, its actual content. Getting the metadata right is a science not an art and yet nearly all metadata is supplied by arts graduates using words such as extraordinary, charming, groundbreaking, none of which help readers find a book they might be interested in.

Networking: It used to be rather despised as creepy or somehow related to the old school tie but is now seen as an essential part of the publishing world. Attend any conference and there will be networking sessions which I, in my old-fashioned way, find awkward and contrived, like being sent to a children’s party to find friends. Yuk.

Organic growth: Every large and small publisher is hunting for this and largely failing to achieve it. Which in turn leads to the inevitability of inorganic growth—buying up the publishing assets that have matured into low-growth entities and are therefore ripe for sale.

Piety: Traditionally a good quality alongside modesty and generosity, piety is now almost certainly a description of hypocrisy as publishers vie to be more pious than their competitors when it comes to author -, community-, and staff-care, where audits and the concomitant virtue signaling are ever more prevalent. Spare us from piety, please.

Quantitative easing: A euphemism for governments agreeing to print more money, in print and digital, to generate some inflation and thus make populations poorer until such time as the same governments decide they’ve impoverished their citizens enough and take credit for bringing inflation down by reducing money supply. In publishing terms, this is the equivalent of imprint inflation, which is used to cover up more serious defects.

Reversion: An essential clause in most literary agents’ contracts. The clause was once triggered by a book becoming out of print, i.e. not available for sale. Now that books can be kept in print in perpetuity through ebooks and print-on-demand, authors’ agents need to find another definition of what constitutes out of print. Unfortunately every attempt to come up with a better definition is clumsy, complicated, and usually ineffectual.

Sensitivity reading: This might be redefined as insensitivity reading, as in insensitivity to the author; insensitivity to different opinions; and insensitivity to the intelligence of those who can surely make up their own minds what they want to read.

Tik Tok: To judge by trade press coverage, this is the only catalyst for sales. The chemical process seems mainly to work on teen fiction, leaving the rest of the book market wallowing in its wake.

Unprecedented: The most overused and misused word ever since the unprecedented COVID pandemic. Not to mention the unprecedented sales of anything ghosted for Prince Harry.

Virtual Reality: Yet another much-heralded technology that has yet to yield any practical commercial results. Rather like Brazil, in the words of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, it has a great future and always will have.

Working from home: The post-COVID phenomenon which is transforming every industry and every person’s work-life balance. It’s hard to argue against a sensible change well implemented by many publishers, and which allows employees more freedom to plan their lives, look after their children, waste less time on commuting, and at least in theory reduce the cost of expensive city center offices. On the other hand, how do new people in the industry learn from their peers and people in other departments? How does anyone understand the whole business, not just departmental issues? How will friendships at work be forged?

X: This is “Twitter,” and will remain so for me. Years ago a business with which I was involved changed its name from Xrefer to Credo Reference because of the pornographic connotations of X. That doesn’t seem to worry Elon Musk. Or maybe we’ve failed to perceive his true intentions for the platform.

Yes-man, or rather yes-person: Someone who inhabits the upper echelons of publishing houses and whose job is to agree with whatever rubbish his or her boss or corporation spouts. It’s naturally much safer to say yes in the short-term, but how much money would have been saved had the word no been used more frequently?

Gen Z: I have no idea what it means except that it appears to describe a generation of young people who find the oldsters boring and usually wrong. That seems to have been the case for every generation in history, so I don’t know why this lot needs more description than young, innovative, adaptable, forward-thinking, and joyous. We should celebrate and hire Gen Z to take our industry forward.


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. This: “Far more important now than knowledge is intelligence and curiosity.”
    Amen.

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