Hong Kong English books publisher on the secrets to a best-seller, shops closing, and dangers and rewards of the trade
Colourful human tales and non-fiction on local themes among the biggest sellers for Blacksmith Books’ Pete Spurrier, who doesn’t see audience for English-language books shrinking despite Page One and Dymocks shutting
The closure of Singaporean bookstore Page One’s Hong Kong stores and branches of Australian franchise Dymocks over the past two years does not bode well for Hong Kong’s English book market. The corners in Chinese bookstores reserved for English titles are also getting smaller.
This hasn’t deterred Pete Spurrier, though, who continues to publish books in English with Hong Kong themes. From a penniless backpacker who arrived in the city in 1993, to the publisher of Blacksmith Books with a dozen local best-sellers to its name, the Londoner has come a long way. Spurrier has also written a series of popular hiking guides. He talks to SCMP.com about his love of books and Hong Kong.
What kinds of books does Blacksmith publish?
All of them have local themes. I mostly focus on non-fiction. That’s what sells well and keeps the business running. I publish two or three fiction books a year as well, but they are difficult to succeed with in Hong Kong. Local readers don’t give enough respect to Hong Kong fiction writers. They just want to read those books that have been reviewed in The New York Times. In the case of readers overseas, they have rarely heard the names of Hong Kong writers.
For non-fiction, on the other hand, people are attracted by the subject matter, not the authors’ names.
What are some of your bestsellers?
Diamond Hill: Memories of Growing Up in a Hong Kong Squatter Village by Feng Chi-shun is a memoir of growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Kowloon. Eating Smoke: One Man’s Descent into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland by Chris Thrall is another. The former royal marine commando worked as a bouncer in a Wan Chai bar after arriving in the city in 1996. He lost his job, then went on a downward spiral of crystal meth addiction and psychosis. He eventually recovered and wrote this book. People love real-life stories.
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How do you choose which books to publish?
I am very flattered that I get manuscripts sent in from all over the world. I get three or four manuscripts every day. Often I can read the first three pages and know whether it will work or not.
English books written by local authors sell well. People see the Chinese names and think the books are bound to be interesting, as it’s quite rare for local [Chinese] authors to write in English. I have 80 writers now, with some having written several books already. If the first print run of 1,500 books sells out, the cost is covered. You make a profit from the second and third print runs.
Does the closure of English bookstores mean Hongkongers are losing interest in English books?
Not really. My book sales are quite steady. I don’t think English readership in Hong Kong is shrinking, but running a retail operation in Hong Kong is quite daunting now due to the high overheads.
Physical books still appeal, because you can make notes in them and give them to people as gifts. It’s not so easy to read an e-book in the bath. For the books I publish, the e-book version comes out six months after the paperback version. But they just make up 10 per cent of sales, with the bulk of the sales being paper books.
How did you end up in Hong Kong?
I left England to travel around Europe and planned to stay for six months. But after Europe, I went to Africa, then Central Asia and ended up in Hong Kong in 1993. I had no money and initially lived rough on the rooftop of an old building in Kowloon. I spent my 21st birthday in Kowloon Park, having bought myself a beer to celebrate. I met some people in the park and told them I had nowhere to stay, and they suggested I stay with them. They lent me a suit and I went out looking for jobs the next day, and got three offers.
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My first job was as an English conversation teacher to adults. Then I made more friends here, worked in cafes and bars, and as an extra playing villains and fall guys in TVB dramas. Then I set up a monthly magazine with some friends in 1999 and I was the editor. That’s how I cut my teeth in publishing. The magazine went bust in 2003 during the Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome] outbreak, and some of the writers and illustrators suggested I edit books and publish them. The first three books I published were written by them. They were a guide to cheap restaurants, a child-friendly guidebook for families, and a sketchbook on Central and Sheung Wan. They sold very well and so I continued publishing books.
Publishers can get kidnapped and disappear in Hong Kong. Does that worry you?
It’s not only difficult to make money publishing books in Hong Kong, it is dangerous, too. I have done some political books, like Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered , by Jason Ng, which is the first English book to chronicle the “umbrella movement”. People are interested in that kind of thing. I had to print that book in Hong Kong, instead of [in China]. Printing here is more expensive. But I won’t do books that will break any laws.