Publishers – the Midwives of Literature

April 2012

What does the digital revolution mean to the publishing trade? Richard Charkin, Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing - the home of Harry Potter books and countless other bestsellers - believes it is the greatest opportunity for a generation to transform the business. Mr. Charkin recently shared with WIPO Magazine his views about the opportunities and challenges confronting the industry today.

Richard Charkin
(Photo: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC)

What is the role of a publisher?

We try to spot talented writers and help them make their books better. We encourage writing and then we tell the world about it. We collect money on the author’s behalf and try to make a profit on the way.  Part of our role is to put readers in touch with authors and vice versa - but it’s more sophisticated than that, particularly in the digital world. We must now facilitate platform creation and navigation. For instance, today, metadata - the information that describes what’s in a book so people can find it - are vital as a service both to readers, booksellers and writers.

What is the real value of a publisher to an author?

Different publishers add different value. Different authors demand different support. Sometimes we help fund the writing of books with advances against future royalties. That’s clearly a value. The editing process itself is also hugely important although it is largely invisible to the outside world. While many authors think their book is absolutely wonderful from day one, most recognize that they do need a bit of help. We also have a role in terms of designing a book and turning it into a desirable object. What I personally find most interesting is how you tell people the book exists. I’ve never worked out what that magic is, but it’s all to do with originality, creativity and brain power, and rarely about marketing money.

What makes a best seller?

"What turns a story about an Afghanistani boy from a
book selling one thousand copies into one selling four
million in the case of The Kite Runner? Who knows?"

It’s easy enough to spot a good author from a bad one, and it’s easy enough to spot something that is potentially saleable from something that clearly is not. But within those parameters, what turns a story about an Afghanistani boy from a book selling one thousand copies into one selling four million in the case of The Kite Runner. Who knows?

How would you characterize the impact of Harry Potter?

It was just a marvelous thing. It has introduced the joy of reading to a huge number of young people, which one hopes they’ll carry through to the rest of their lives. We are enormously grateful to J.K. Rowling for everything she has done for literacy, for publishing, for bookselling and for creativity. People say that a Harry Potter only happens once in a blue moon. Actually I think it has only happened once in the 500 years since the invention of the printing press.

Here’s one statistic which I treasure. We sold over 1 million hardback English language copies of the last volume of Harry Potter in Germany. That means that there are a million households in Germany with a 700-page English-language book on their shelves. In terms of learning a language and sharing a culture, it’s a pretty big deal.

What impact has digital technology had on the publishing trade?

This digital revolution we’re “enjoying” in general book publishing is, I think, the greatest opportunity for a generation to transform our business, for a number of reasons.

  • For the first time, we can reach our potential customers 24/7. They can buy no matter where they are. They could be in Djakarta, Buenos Aires, or Chicago; we can reach them and they can buy the book and be reading it within minutes. That’s fantastic.
  • We don’t have to chop trees down, and we don’t have to buy petrol to drive the books around. So it’s also hugely important from an environmental point of view.
  • A third advantage is to do with speed. It takes about a year from the day a manuscript arrives at a publisher to the day it is published, because we have to inform bookshops and book space in the front of shops and that sort of thing. That’s too slow. Tastes change daily, hourly, so this opportunity to change the speed of the industry is just incredibly challenging and interesting. I don’t think we know how to do it, but we had better learn!

Who are the winners and losers in the age of digital publishing?

Some bricks and mortar retailers are going to have to find new ways of running their businesses. It’s hard to see what their role is, up against the big Internet retailers. That’s a problem for consumers and for emerging economies, as much as for developed economies, because bookshops serve a real purpose. I hope they find a solution.

The second big challenge is for public libraries. University libraries are finding a role as information scientists and navigators, but the public libraries are under threat worldwide. They are really important for social education and cultural reasons, and their demise would be disastrous. The public library can be a focal point for digital delivery in the community.

We run the Public Library Online service where libraries can buy themed bookshelves and anyone in their community can read them - at home or on electronic devices. We pay the authors, and we try to minimize copyright infringement. Acting as a focal point for digital delivery gives public libraries a real role on behalf of the community.

In the 19th century the richest man in the world, Andrew Carnegie, funded the US public library system. Wouldn’t it be great if today the richest people in the world funded and set up an international public library system? It just needs a little catalyst. It’s not hugely expensive because digital distribution doesn’t require bricks and mortar or huge amounts of working capital. It requires that authors write and are paid and that we have a little bit of imagination.

The centrality of the public library in developed markets is clear, in the US and the UK, but it is under severe economic threat. Libraries have to find better and more cost-effective ways of reaching out to the community. Digital delivery gives them that. A digital public library could serve the whole of India, and it would be incredibly cost-effective. It would be just the most marvelous thing if every Indian citizen could have reading material in any language free at the point of access.

In terms of outright winners, I think authors will do well out of this digital revolution, providing we don’t allow copyright to be eroded. That would be devastating. Digital piracy is as much a threat to culture and innovation as the worst efforts of totalitarian governments. Freedom of expression is protected and nurtured by copyright, and pirates are no better than common thieves.

What are the main challenges confronting publishers today?

There are many! For instance, the way people read seems to be changing. There’s still a lot of immersive reading going on, but starting War and Peace may scare off many people. There is a new generation, and we have to adapt what we do to suit that generation. It’s not just a change in reading habits, but changes in leisure habits, the way people behave and how they spend their time.

Is there a future for print books?

Yes, I am sure there will be. We would be over-optimistic to think that there won’t be some reduction in the quantity of print books sold in mature markets, but there will continue to be a market for printed books around the world. And in many cases print is preferable to digital.

What are the main copyright challenges for publishers?

Copyright is being challenged by piracy and some other special interests. Every time someone says, “I think all information should be free”, it is damaging. There’s an aphorism that an old publishing friend of mine coined, “Where information is free, there is little freedom of information.” Someone is paying and if it’s not you, you don’t know what their motives are. But overall, I think the book industry is pretty well placed to underscore the primacy of copyright and to explain why it matters so much.

WIPO has been very successful. The fact that we’ve still got an industry is partly down to WIPO. One of the important things about copyright is its flexibility. In Tokyo, the skyscrapers bend a little bit, and that flexibility allows them to withstand earthquakes. I think a little bit of bending is no bad thing in the copyright context, and I that WIPO has been very good at striking the balance between bending and unwavering defense of the key principles.

Are you optimistic about the future of publishing?

The pessimists can point to all sorts of negatives - sales declining; bookshops going bust; profits not too good; authors getting ripped off by vanity publishers - but there are many reasons to be cheerful. Publishing is in good health because intellectual property has real value, and what we do really matters. Sometimes what we do is undervalued (sometimes by ourselves), but we really do add value and people seem to be willing to pay for it. So I’m optimistic, not least because of our industry’s global reach.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just finished a book, in print, called The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna. It’s set in Sierra Leone and is about doctors, struggles, wars and horrors, but it’s just beautifully written and incredibly moving and will be read for decades to come.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.