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Richard Charkin, Mensch Publishing: Germany is ready to look east more than the Anglo-Saxons

Richard Charkin is one of today’s most renowned managers in the publishing business with more than fifty years of experience and president of the International Publishers Association (2015-2021). Charkin has worked with Oxford University Press, Macmillan Publishing, Bloomsbury Publishing, and others; he teaches courses on book publishing at University College London, City University of London, and University of the Arts London. In 2018, Richard Charkin founded Mensch Publishing, where he runs the business with an eye toward what he would like to change in book publishing. We talked to Richard about how the institution of literary agents has changed from the 1970s to now, and how he works with agents at Mensch.


— What are the dynamics of the work and influence of literary agents in the UK domestic market from the 1970s to today?

— As an English language publisher, I must emphasize that the British domestic market doesn’t really exist. It is a world-wide English-language market. The problem we face is that people in the field have not yet realized this. Even when we say, «Our sales in the UK are such-and-such», you have to take into account that about 30% of those sales are exported to other countries. Actually, we don’t know what the British domestic book market really is. At the same time, it doesn’t matter — we’re talking about the English language.

— What were literary agents like at the beginning of your career?

— Literary agents were typically a one-man-band. They were mostly white, middle-class, university-educated men. They ran their own business: a secretary or an assistant nearby, nothing more. The purpose of the agents was to accompany whatever was completed with the writer’s signature. The agent’s job was to make sure that their author cooperated with a professional publisher and signed a fair contract. Communicates the best terms because the rights under the contract will go to the publisher. After that, it would be the publisher who would be responsible for selling the translation rights, U.S. rights, and so on. That’s how it worked 50 years ago.

— What is the situation today?

— We are now seeing a consolidation of literary agents. You mentioned that you were talking to United Agents as part of the project. It’s a business that brings together employees-agents, but also marketers, financiers. There’s a degree of anonymization of people that follows. That’s a big change.

Modern agencies are more efficient than agents half a century ago, but it’s no longer a story about personalities.

Another change: agents now control of more rights. The publisher now typically gets the rights to the UK and part of the British Commonwealth. It does not get translation rights or distribution rights in Canada and the United States. Often the agent retains the audio rights and the rights to the serial adaptations. Thus, agents become more powerful, but publishers lose their control. The first outpost of the writer is the agent, not the British publisher.

— When we talk about the power that the agent gets, do you mean primarily business issues, not the literary quality of the text?

— Yes, although I must say that business and literature go together. If the author’s main contact is the agent rather than the publisher, we understand that discussion about editing and any literary improvement of the work concern the agent. Given what I said about entitlement, the author would have to work separately with British, Australian, Canadian editors the balance of power has moved, and I’m not sure that all the British and American publishers understand this fully.

— What consequences do you see for today’s book publishing market?

— There is one other effect which agents may not agree with, by the way. If a publisher is only responsible for limited rights, that diminishes the overall responsibility to the author.

If I, as a publisher, don’t own the rights to the German translation of the text, I have no interest in presenting the book at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Instead, I have grown professionally with the idea that the publisher and editor are responsible for everything in the context of the welfare of the author and the reader. I see shift in this context as a negative phenomenon.

— How does this change in the distribution of power affect the literary quality of texts? I recall the movie Genius (2016) about Thomas Wolfe and his editor Max Perkins, who had significant influence on important twentieth-century authors, working with their texts. Or is something like that possible today?

— The original literary assessment is done by the agent, rather than the publisher.

Agencies today often take editors from publishers to handle manuscripts. It’s the same people, just in the different office. 

I see the trouble not so much in this as in the diffusion of rights; I want to explain it to you with a practical example. For twelve years I worked at Bloomsbury with Alexandra Pringle, one of London’s leading literary publishers. She works with first-rate authors-and these authors, no matter what tyyyyhe market situation, will go to Pringle first to get commentary on their text. The positivity and advantage is with Bloomsbury, the publisher who will publish this text at the end. Alexandra edited Donna Tart, but then there was also an American editor — it’s complicated when you have two editors working separately with a text.

— We started our conversation with the idea of depersonalization in the book industry, but we still get to the weight of personalities. I’ll bring you back to a certain schema and ask you: portray what the ideal literary agent today needs to become a brand and a personality that is trusted?

— The most important thing for a literary agent is to understand how an author works. Be aware of authors’ insecurities. A literary agent must act for the author, not for themselves. This is another consequence of the corporatization of literary agencies; they have to think about keeping the company. The agent has to think about credibility and business at the same time to be effective.

We have a field: we all love what we do, but we also have to be able to be tough and clear and make money.

— What do you mean by working for yourself and not for the author?

— I once worked with a very big and famous author whose agent was asking for a $2,000,000 advance. The author was 90 years old at the time. I approached the agent directly and told him that the author might die soon. If he did, the «death issues» tax would have been almost 40% of the amount. If we agreed to a lower upfront fee and a higher royalty, the taxes would be lower, and the heirs would get sales income. To which the agent said to me, «yes, that’s true. But I want my 15% now».

— How do you know that marketers need local (primary) agents?

— If I were a publisher in Ukraine, I would not see the advantage of a literary agent. However, I would see it as my responsibility to make sure that my rights department has as effective and strong a connection to the international market as possible. Apart the English-speaking world, most markets are less dependent on literary agents than the UK. This applies to the Netherlands, Japan, not just Ukraine. Publishers there have not gone down the path of losing control, power, and rights over agents that I described; they have remained a crucial part of the book publishing chain. And that’s right! I would not encourage any change.

The publisher should be responsible for the author and his or her texts–in all languages, in all formats, in all mediums.

— This is a close story to the Ukrainian experience – our publishers are increasingly investing in their international departments, attending book fairs and preparing rights catalogues.

— In my opinion, this is an ideal configuration. Unfortunately, it is difficult for small publishers. I want to say one more thing: breaking into the English-language book market is just unbelievably hard and sometimes even wasteful. The ratio of effort to result is quite inefficient. It is believed that there are one million original English-language manuscripts out there all the time looking for a publisher. An author can send that manuscript for free of charge to a hundred publishers simultaneously.

— I recall that in the U.S. the rate of translated literature has never exceeded 3%, in the U.K. only in 2018 it approached 6%.

— Even that percentage is, roughly speaking, five popular authors that really sell. This has its share of Anglo-Saxon chauvinism: we hesitate, or something worth our attention might come from other languages.

— Ukrainian writers have a presence in the German-language market, which creates a brand of literature there, so it’s easier for new authors translated into German to be pro-associated with their predecessors. However, there is a stereotype that getting into the English-speaking market will give a greater advantage.

— It does. Germany is willing to look east more than the Anglo-Saxons. But also understand: the German-speaking market is smaller. An English-language book can be read in Japan, China, Scandinavian countries. There are still fewer German-speaking readers around the world.

— A little more than a year ago, you started your publishing project. What is your idea of cooperation with authors and the work of a small publishing house in today’s market?

— I started Mensch to see whether there was a slightly different way of doing things. I’ve been in the business almost 50 years, and some things really annoyed me. At Mensch, I want the author to go to the owner — the person who invests the money in the business, not the hired employee of the publishing house. Also, I have no departments: questions about accounting, marketing, sales, and publishing come directly to me. Mensch contracts always for all rights, all languages, and all media. I really didn’t like the payment systems in the English-speaking market: often the publisher pays an advance provisions and then can’t sell enough copies to even cover the advance. This risk is in the nature of business and entrepreneurship, but it is what keeps the publisher from raising the royalty level for everyone. I don’t pay advances to anyone agents don’t like, but authors do. In fact, that’s what makes it possible for me to pay 25% royalties.

Mensch Publishing can pay25% royalty, because it doesn’t pay anyone in advance.

Another difference at Mensch: I pay royalties quarterly, which means the author realizes very quickly how their book is selling and gets an income.

— Do you outsource anything?

— Copy-editing, production, publicity, distribution and design. I try to work with the same people all the time.

— How many years do you get the rights from the author?

— For the life of the copyright (author’s life + 70 years after death — author). That’s terribly important for the English-language book market.

A publishing company’s asset is the rights to the works it owns.

Look at Bloomsbury, the weight of that publisher is measured in part by what they publish J.K. Rowling. That is, a circle of 100 years, Bloomsbury will do it exclusively.

— What is the author-publisher relationship at Mensch?

— The author always has the final say. The cover, the price, the formatting — it’s the author’s book, not mine. I can only try to convince.


With the support of British Council Ukraine

Author: Bohdana Neborak

Translation: Victoria Pushyna