Richard Charkin speaks sense at Publishing Perspectives. His list of don’ts, published in his regular column should be attended to.

His Don’ts for Publishers, 2019 are:

  • don’t enter any auction with more than three bidders
  • don’t take on a new book simply to fill a perceived revenue gap
  • don’t have a strategy meeting or an away day this year
  • don’t restructure the business for a year (at least)
  • don’t print as many copies as you think you can sell, print as many as you know you will sell
  • don’t underprice your books—they’re all great value

The dangers of paying large advances which all too often don’t earn out, is I suspect something that most trade publishers have taken on board. Literary agents love to set up auction sales for the rights to a book: the more bidders there are, the higher the sale price (the advance) is likely to be. Avoiding big auctions should in theory help to limit your risk. Still, with a strong property, e.g. the Obama bundle, the agent is in a strong position. Markus Dohle congratulated PRH staff this week for getting over five million copies of Michelle Obama’s book into print worldwide. That Obama deal may be off to a good start, but in March 2017 I speculated that earning-out would require a first year sale of twice as many as are currently in print. However it is true they’ve priced the book a bit higher than I’d have thought back then, so maybe they’re further along than I think.

All publishers have budget targets, and as we work down the line these targets turn into a number of books each editor is expected to sign up. There comes a point in the year where the realization dawns on the poor editor that the target is going to be missed. That’s the time for you to turn up with your fully formatted electronic text of your study of the construction of the George Washington Bridge. They’ll jump at it: so all you need to do is work out how long it takes the publisher to rush a book through for an October or November pub date, add a couple of weeks, and strike then. Mr Charkin, not unreasonably, suggests that the GWB book might not turn a profit.

By resisting the urge to restructure the business he really means don’t layoff staff in order to shore up your margins: it’ll end up costing you more than it’ll ever save. While we can all think of a few lazy hazy individuals whose replacement would certainly enhance profitability, restructuring layoffs don’t tend to be targeted that way. Groups and percentages rule. And the higher-placed the victims the bigger the effect on the bottom line will be: but, pulling in the opposite direction, so also will be the compensation paid, and perhaps the skill and knowledge lost. I always thought that managers who were good at letting people go were probably managers who were burdened by deep-seated feelings of personal insecurity: “If I can’t be good at most things, let me be good at firing folks.” I once had to lay off the production and manufacturing department of a recently acquired company: it was not fun. Nor of course was my own eventual layoff when the company was absorbed in its turn. Though I do insist that change is always for the best.

The point about not over-printing is surely already or about to become of historical interest only. Publishers have adopted inventory control protocols which are aimed at turning stock one or even two times a year. At a university press such an aim is clearly attainable as more and more books become available only via print on demand with no inventory ever being held in a warehouse anywhere. Trade publishers, who are the real target of Mr Charkin’s comments, will probably find this harder as they are just dealing in bigger numbers with a consequent larger margin for error. The tools are clearly available to them though. On the other hand, recent consolidation in the book manufacturing industry, allied to a tight paper market, does represent a pull against the efficiency of the supply chain we’ve been able to develop over the last few years. The longer it takes to get a reprint done, the larger your inventory cushion needs to be.