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Richard Charkin. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Richard Charkin. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Richard Charkin: Before and after Harry Potter

The Bloomsbury executive director on one-upping the Iron Lady, 'stealing' a laptop from Google, and his 'illegal' entry into Wisden

I think Margaret Thatcher is one of the best marketing directors I have come across," says 67-year-old Richard Charkin, the England-based executive director of Bloomsbury, an international publishing house with offices in the UK, US, Australia and India. The story that follows is one of several which give him the gleeful assurance of having led a somewhat notorious life.

In 1987, says Charkin, he was involved in Heinemann’s publication of former MI5 officer Peter Wright’s book, Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography Of A Senior Intelligence Officer, which made public uncomfortable truths about the intelligence agency. They had planned a desultory print run of 2,000 copies. Until the British government banned the book. Heinemann moved publication to Australia, and “we sold four million copies".

“So I’ve always thought that trying to stop publication is a forlorn hope in the modern world," smiles Charkin, who is also the chairman of the International Publishers Association (IPA), which has two important mandates: freedom of expression and protection of copyright. The IPA will be holding its congress in India in 2018, and one of Charkin’s missions in Delhi last week was to encourage The Federation of Indian Publishers to start preparing for it.

Charkin, whose next port of call is Dhaka, Bangladesh, for a conference on freedom of expression, mulls over the inclusion of the Spycatcher story in his speech. One of the ways in which the IPA tries to influence opinion is through its Freedom to Publish Prize—this year, it went to Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, who has been incarcerated and sentenced to flogging for his writings in the blog Free Saudi Liberals.

The conversation veers towards the flak Charkin received for China’s inclusion in the IPA, after the international press started reporting on the disappearance of five Hong Kong publishers involved in publications critical of China’s top leaders. Pointing out that IPA members are not countries, but publishers’ bodies, Charkin reasons, “If you want to see change you are better off engaging than not engaging." In any case, he says, China has the world’s second-biggest publishing industry, and also publishes “more serious papers in physics than the US".

Academic publishing is of particular interest to Charkin, since it is the prime focus of Bloomsbury’s 2020 strategy, seeking to “capitalize on the £3.4 billion academic libraries market" and “reposition itself from a primarily consumer publisher to a digital B2B publisher".

Over the past decade, Bloomsbury, which owns the Arden Shakespeare imprint, has focused on acquiring other special interest, professional and academic publishing businesses. These include Osprey Publishing Ltd, which publishes military and heritage books; Duckworth, a specialist in archaeology, ancient history and philosophy; Tottel, with a focus on accountancy and tax; and the humanities list of Hodder.

The Bloomsbury team also realized, he says, that there was a need for digital curation of this information. So they launched a few digital products that are sold to university libraries—such as the Churchill Archives; Drama Online, a joint venture with Faber and Faber to create a database of plays; and Bloomsbury Fashion Central, a database that includes an arrangement with the Victoria and Albert Museum to display its collection. As part of their Bloomsbury 2020 strategy, the company is now “putting their foot down on the accelerator", creating at least 15 more databases and involving more publishers.

Bloomsbury, admittedly, is largely known for its good-looking trade list. It publishes, for instance, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Gilbert and Khalid Hosseini. Lest one assumes that the new strategy spells doom for this side of the business, Charkin clarifies that “our trade publishing, clearly, is our DNA", and precisely the reason, going into academic publishing from nothing, that it was able to attract the best writers.

Charkin strikes a cautionary note when speaking of other aspects of the digital medium and the fact that “copyright is under more threat now than it has been for many, many years". This, he says, has come “from the emergence of Internet giants who don’t necessarily respect the importance of copyright. There’s a sort of view that everything should be free. I think there’s a linguistic issue, which is that free has two meanings—one is freely available, and the other is at no cost. The best way to guarantee freedom is that books that are read are the ones people pay for. Copyright is at the heart of that and that it is getting eroded is a terrible thing".

The IPA is constantly fighting this, he says, and it’s the only organization that can do so at the UN. There is, of course, also the case of Google’s digitization of libraries, which had raised the antenna on copyright issues. And that leads Charkin to the time he became a “laptop thief". It was in New York, and he was at a booksellers’ meet which also had a Google stand. “A colleague dared me, so I unplugged a Google laptop, walked to the other side of the stand and waited." About half an hour later, someone came to reclaim the laptop, enquiring what the stunt was about. “I said, ‘Nowhere on your stand does it say, do not steal our laptops. And nowhere on our books does it say, do not steal our books. But you are not entitled to steal our books without permission and whether or not you are willing to give it back to us is not the point. You shouldn’t steal it in the first place. That’s my point.’"

There’s obviously more to him than acquisitions and copyright battles, and it’s evident from how much he packed into his India visit. Charkin, who’s the wicketkeeper of a village cricket team in England, Baldons CC—they were playing a match on the very Sunday he was returning to the country—was also here to attend the board meeting of Wisden India. Charkin joined the Wisden board, he says, when Paul Getty acquired it. “(In) the first board meeting, he raised a question of whether the names of the board members should appear in the book. After all, you only get in if you’ve achieved something in the sport." Everyone agreed that this would be inappropriate. “And then someone said, if it is in very, very small type, at the back which no one ever reads, that would be all right, isn’t it? So I got in illegally," he chuckles.

An avid listener of music, he has a similar tangential claim to fame in this field. When he was 17, he drove to Morocco with a couple of other youngsters. One of them sported long hair and was carrying a guitar. In Marrakech, they found the Rolling Stones, shooting for Paint It, Black. From Marrakech, they decided to drive to Chad. On the way, their car broke down and had to be towed to a garage. Noting the guitar, people started wondering if they were the Rolling Stones. Charkin and his friends, short of money, did nothing to discourage the speculation.

When Charkin went to Cambridge that autumn, he found the same long-haired “guy we’d bummed around with" all summer, who had never mentioned that he was going to Cambridge too. They continued to hang out together and, later, his friend made a few records, before killing himself.

Years later, when Charkin was in New York, he walked into a record store, wondering if there was a CD version of his friend’s records. “Nick Drake," he asked the store manager. “You heard of him?" “Yeah," the manager replied. “Best-seller."

In a letter Drake wrote to his parents from Morocco, he describes his fellow traveller: “Anyway, the other members of the safari were Bob (as Charkin was called), a really great guy, who at first gives the impression of being thick as boots, but who is, in fact, very intelligent and is going to Cambridge next Oct. to read science..."

“That’s my main musical claim to fame," laughs Charkin.

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