Richard Charkin: A Selective Year-End Assessment

From Publishing Perspectives:

Each year, The Economist publishes a special edition in which it encapsulates the state of the world as expressed by numbers. These articles are authoritative, accurate, well-researched, and comprehensive. I couldn’t hope to emulate them in a review of the world in publishing. But a few numbers, randomly chosen and sometimes more approximate than precise, may serve to illustrate some elements of our industry in 2022.

After having only one woman—Argentina’s Ana Maria Cabanellas—among the 35 presidents of the International Publishers Association (IPA), we’re enjoying a run of three female presidents in a row. The United Arab Emirates‘ Bodour Al Qasimi‘s two-year term ends with 2022; Brazil’s Karine Pansa opens her term with the new year; and the Republic of Georgia’s Gvantsa Jobava is starting her term as vice-president, traditionally a role that leads to the presidency. It’s taken a long time for women to play significant roles in our industry, and we should celebrate them.

Thinking of diversity, there are any number of audits being issued by major publishers, either to prove their commitment to a good cause or at least to answer potentially difficult questions.

Here are some positive and practical numbers from the IPA, our international trade association. In the last decade, the number of countries represented by the association has risen from 51 to 76, thus increasing the markets represented—per the IPA’s estimates—from 52 to 83 percent of the world’s population. The remaining 17 percent may be hard to land while Russia pursues its war against Ukraine.

. . . .

Here’s a number from the Publishers Association in London for the United Kingdom’s publishers to think about. The British market’s export sales are some £3.8 billion (US$4.6 billion) out of a total £6.7 billion (US$8.8 billion). That’s to say that roughly 57 percent of all sales are not made in the UK.

In addition, a material portion of the sales in the United Kingdom are then exported by UK booksellers, and export discounts are typically higher, in order to take account of freight and double warehousing, likely putting the total level of sales outside the home market in excess of 70 percent of British publishers’ output of books, journals, and databases. To paraphrase Marilyn Monroe, 25 makes a girl think–70 percent should make us think even harder.

. . . .

Inflation and Pricing

And now turning to inflation, one of the scourges of 2022 in many countries, the UK’s inflation stands at above 10 percent, according to some estimates, for example those reflected in Richard Partington’s reporting at The Guardian. That 10 percent is a shock in recent times, but inflation levels even higher than this have plagued my publishing life.

. . . .

What has changed is the pricing. The book, on release, cost £3.25 for a 300-page hardback (US$3.92). The average discount granted was 40 percent—more for WH Smith, less for independent bookshops, of which there were many. To maintain the same income in 2022 for the publisher, and thus the author, the book would have to be priced above £50. Not a chance.

. . . .

Numbers and Numeracy

My next set of numbers also encompasses a perennial and personal grump. When I started in publishing I was astonished by the lofty contempt shown to the concept of numeracy. It was as if literacy and numeracy were mutually incompatible. An accountant could never have a valid opinion about a book and an editor could not be expected to perform simple arithmetic calculations. Statistical analysis is not always simple but it’s extraordinary, to me, at least, how happily some publishers and journalists almost willfully misinterpret numbers.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

“I’m a bigshot publisher and you expect me to analyze numbers? I have people who do that sort of thing for me, but not one of them has ever been able to identify a future best-seller by looking at a manuscript. Publishing is an intuition business – you either have it or you don’t – not a numbers business.”

4 thoughts on “Richard Charkin: A Selective Year-End Assessment”

  1. My primary professional distaste isn’t with Trad Pub’s inability to accurately predict audience tastes and market to them (which ought to be their core competency), or their rapacious treatment of authors (which is a reverse of stable money flow –if you are trying to make your number on the under-payment of your most critical suppliers, it’s an incentive for them to seek elsewhere); it’s with their inability to understand a business model.

    If you can’t be bothered to understand how your business engine makes money, it hardly matters what refinements or crimes you add on top. So it’s a fail up front, and a fail structurally. Now, there’s probably “a lot of ruin in” an old publishing house, but the chickens do eventually come home to roost.

    This is ultimately what comes of people with taste (and money) pretending they only need to understand cocktail party connections, not grubby things like P&L or business responsibilities.

    Coming from the long-term tech world, I look at the techies-who-would-never-work-for-publishers as an indicator, much as I would judge the quantity of rats fleeing down hawser ropes on the launch of the Titanic.

  2. Nonsense. Publishing is always looking for ANOTHER blockbuster from someone who has ‘broken out.’ The numbers for the previous book predict very strongly the numbers for the next one.

    That has led big publishers to offer big traditional contracts to self-publishers who are suddenly in the news. Many of the ones I’ve followed a bit in the media have had very limited runs after that big opportunity.

  3. “Publishing is an intuition business – you either have it or you don’t – not a numbers business.”

    Which very much explains why S&S “must” be sold, because publishing is a subset of the entertainment industry — and H’wood is, if anything, worse (ever seen a film-budget proposal?).

    • Heard about anybody jumping at the chance, now that the feds said no BPH need apply?
      All I hear is crickets…

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