20 July 2011
Another Side to the Story
Nonfiction stories of old Hong Kong are bestsellers for local publishing firm Blacksmith Book
Hong Kong has always been viewed by the publishing world as a place to print books rather than to have them published. That's changing due to shifting global focus on Asia. At Blacksmith Books, bestsellers are tales of a not-often seen Hong Kong. Triads and opium dens, decrepit squatter villages, deities and mythological gods fill works of non-fiction.
“It's the true stories of Hong Kong people that sell like hotcakes,” says Pete Spurrier, Blacksmith's founder and publisher. And it isn't just Hong Kong people reading his publications. He breaks even selling to the local market. His profit comes from overseas.
A writer and editor by trade, Mr Spurrier set up Blacksmith in 2004, when three friends had ideas for books and no house to publish them. All three sold out their initial print runs, and despite a brief sales blip during the 2008 financial crisis, some 70 per cent of titles at Blacksmith regularly sell out. About half are sold in Hong Kong and half to the rest of the world, including Southeast Asia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, where titles are available in mainstream chain bookstores.
Mr Spurrier believes content is key. Blacksmith's list of Asia-centric materials grows alongside global interest in the region. “We are very lucky that China is always in the news across the world,” he says.
Pete Spurrier, founder
ThingsAsian Press, another Hong Kong-based house, publishes English-content books on Asia predominantly for the North American market. Albert Wen, the publishing company's director, says that market changes is facilitating growth more than ever before.
“Distribution has greatly expanded: the physical book is being sent further and further away from its source, given the improvement in logistics around the world; the digital book is borderless, and the available options for its distribution are increasing quickly.” This could bring relief for publishers based across Asia, where the market is fragmented and each country requires different procedures and authorisations before a book can hit shelves.
Changing reader-habits offer opportunity closer to home. Hong Kong readers have traditionally been fulfilled by blockbuster titles, business and aspirational non-fiction, but publishers feel the scene is maturing. “The Hong Kong readership, as a whole, follows trends, rather than going out and picking a book by themselves. They are led by what's provided,” says Mary Chan of MCCM Creations, a 10-year-old small press with a focus on producing handmade artistic and textural books, including comics and graphic novels and children's books.
Ms Chan names issues of heritage, a new focus on art, which has been validated by Hong Kong's annual art fair, and active political and local policy issues for peaking local interest, which translates into book sales. “If a subject is brought up in headlines, the public will pay attention,” she says.
Her own company has benefited from growing public interest in art and design. Local support for culture has been slow, but due to a recent government push, the subject is gaining consumer interest. “Ten years ago, the general public couldn't pick up that word 'design,' but now they can. I think that's why our sales are more impressive now,” says Ms Chan, who says she started her company out of a personal interest in the topic.
The e-Business Debate
A title from Peter Gordon’s bespoke publishing arm Inkstone Books
Multiple e-reader formats have posed problems. Mr. Spurrier likens the situation to the “VHS/Betamax debate,” which caused concerns for movie and videotape industry decades ago. Publishers are still hedging bets on what devices will be breakout leaders, and until then, will need to cater to all. For Mr Spurrier, that is 16 different formats. “It's a fiddly job,” he says, adding that he had to employ two different conversion companies before achieving a good, readable, result.
While he says he has no real performance expectations for digital books, he thinks publishers should move with the market to stay ahead. And demand for e-content doesn't only come from the public arena. “I have authors asking me all the time,” says Mr Spurrier.
One of local publisher MCCM Creations’ early experimentation with digital formats
Others agree. P3 Publishing has found large success with its sales of Primary Mandarin, a range of materials designed for primary school-aged Mandarin Chinese learners around the world. The programme incorporates many digital elements, including downloadable books and materials, electronic content for in-class use, and electronic homework-assigning and grading. The programme supplies to more than 70 schools, with a mandate to reach a million users by 2013.
Digital format works well for classes of multiple levels where level-appropriate material can be dual-taught, says Jo Allum, company director. But she says they don't work across the board. The company says it has no plans for now to turn its picture-book titles into e-books. “Those books are large and tactile. They are designed to help parents read and interact with their children,” says Ms Allum. So far, the company's print sales have not fallen as the trend for digital picks up speed.
Hong Kong publisher
However, he also has attentions closer to home. His bespoke publishing arm, Inkstone Books, allows individual writers or corporations to publish works in very limited runs at, he’s keen to point out, a professional standard. Allowing greater freedom and access to these groups, he says, can contribute to growing a local literary scene.
“Not all success can or should be measured commercially. There are few publishers in Hong Kong and getting books published here can be hard, so any book that we help see the light of day, and thereby receives a readership, is a success,” Mr Gordon says. “Many thousands of people have read Inkstone books that would otherwise never have existed. I would like to believe that this capability has provided encouragement to local authors and support to the literary scene.”