Wednesday 17 September 2014

A Day In The Life Of...Pete Spurrier, publisher at Blacksmith Books

A Day In the Life Of...invites people involved in book selling and the publishing industry in Asia to describe a working day.

Based in Hong Kong, but selling into all the major English language markets, Blacksmith Books publishes China-related non-fiction: biography; business; culture; current affairs; photography; travel. Founder Pete Spurrier is the company's publisher.

One of the best things about working for yourself is that you can set your own schedule. I started Blacksmith Books 10 years ago, and two years ago I moved apartments from Sai Ying Pun, an old district in the city centre of Hong Kong, to a rural village in the New Territories. The office remains in Central though, so after getting up, checking messages and dealing with anything urgent, I walk down the hill from the village and catch an express bus into town, avoiding rush hour. The journey takes 40 minutes and ends by taking a raised highway around the edges of Victoria Harbour, a good start to the day.

The Blacksmith office is on the top floor of an old walk-up building on Hollywood Road in Central, which is a great location, very convenient for meeting people. As an older building it has large windows, high ceilings and more natural light than newer ones. We do have decent tea and coffee but if people would rather not walk up the five flights of stairs (it is hot and humid Hong Kong after all) I’ll go and meet them in a nearby coffee shop.

New authors in particular often want to come up and see our office, which is a good idea from their point of view, and our printer will sometimes drop in with blueprints or proofs for checking.

We publish about 12 books a year, at any given time each book is at a different stage of editing, design, production, launch, distribution or promotion, so there is always a lot to do. During the course of the day I’ll be talking to authors, editors, translators and designers on one side of the publishing process, and bookshops, shipping companies, distributors and journalists on the other.

Emails come in at a frightening rate, including manuscripts which I move to a separate folder for reading later and then completely forget about.

If I have time, I’ll write a blog post or put something on the Facebook page, but I still find that traditional media usually works best for promoting books. Sometimes I’ll accompany a writer to a radio interview, or go on air myself, and I’ll come back to the office to find that orders have come in just because of that.

One of our new titles is the Yunnan Cookbook, and this was a particular challenge to bring to completion, as it involved two authors, two sets of photographers, an illustrator, a designer and an editor – and because production went on for so long, everyone involved was living or travelling in a different country by the final stages. Of course email helps, but at the point when we were choosing photos and finalising layout, one of the authors was incommunicado in the mountains of Yunnan, buying cattle in an ethnic minority village. Then, when she came back to the nearest town with internet access, she found that her email provider had been blocked in China. We got it all sorted in the end.

Our niche subject is Asia but it’s been good to find that readers around the world are interested in it. As our distribution has widened – we have just started selling into Australia this year, for instance – I find I’m spending more time co-ordinating shipments of books overseas. Once or twice a week I’ll go to our warehouse, on the western side of Hong Kong Island, to organise boxes of books to be collected by a freight forwarder or sent to the Kwai Chung container port. If the quantities are larger, pallets will be sent to the port directly from the printer.

Our biggest overseas market is the US, and books take five weeks to sail across the Pacific from Hong Kong, through the Panama Canal and up to New York. Our American distributor needs all details of new books eight months before their launch, which is often quite difficult to supply. I have to work backwards, taking shipping and printing time into account, and always keeping this production schedule in mind. I also have to keep track of how quickly books in print are selling, and order reprints at the right time, while watching cash flow to make sure it’s not too early to do so.

Another equation I have to juggle is deciding how many books to print each time: trying to balance the number of pre-orders from bookshops in each market with how many books I can keep in store in the warehouse, while still getting a decent unit price for printing a high enough volume. The printer helps out by keeping some in the factory until they can be shipped elsewhere, but not for too long. I am envious of other cities where space is cheaper to rent.

Before leaving the warehouse I’ll also fill a bag with books to be posted out later to mail-order customers. Because it’s so hard to sell books in mainland China, we don’t charge postage to anyone who lives there, so a steady stream of mail orders come in.

Back in the office, if it’s Friday, I’ll try to devote a couple of hours to getting the accounts up to date. Long ago, before Blacksmith started, I was a partner in a previous publishing business that went bust, and that was an expensive but valuable lesson. Now I try to make sure that I’m always up to speed with which clients are paying on time, which aren’t paying at all, which books are making money and so on. I used to think accounts must be boring, but when it’s your own venture, they become strangely engrossing.

When all the columns add up, I punch the air in victory – everyone else will have gone home by then. And then I lock up the office and go out for drinks.