Online literary review gets physical

Peter Gordon is making his digital publication available in physical form. He explains the move to Kate Whitehead

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 7:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 7:13am

Going against the trend in the publishing world, the Asian Review of Books, the only dedicated pan-Asian review publication, has shifted from online to print.

Does the development - which took place in the same week that the Hong Kong Book Fair finally sailed beyond its target of one million visitors - signal a rosy future for Hong Kong's literary scene?

Review founder and editor Peter Gordon thinks so. "The Asian publishing scene is much more interesting and impressive and explosive than most people realise," he says.

On paper, the American may seem an unlikely character to be embedded in Hong Kong's literary scene. He arrived in the city in 1983 with a degree in mathematics and linguistics, and worked for a US computer firm before switching to investment consulting. Along the way he met and married his wife, Elaine Leung, who has been involved in many of his businesses and projects.

Although Gordon says he has always enjoyed reading, it wasn't until 2000 that he took a serious interest in the literary world. And he moved fast - within a year he and his wife had a bookseller, a publisher and a literary review.

Unusually for someone in the publishing industry, he wasn't coming at these projects from a scholarly perspective but a technical one. "I was a computer guy, so I knew how to do computer stuff, I knew how to program," he says.

Eager to launch a tech business, he settled on online bookselling and set up Paddyfield. The Asian Review of Books, which complemented the online business, soon followed.

"I came from the computer business and in the computer world there was the trade press - things like Computer Weekly. If you had a new product you could go there to get it written about, but there was nothing like that for the trade press, no Asian equivalent of Publishers Weekly," says Gordon.

All of a sudden you wake up one morning and say, ‘You know, I have enough content to make a book out of this’

The Asian Review of Books was never intended to make money. The only commercial justification was the hope that "if Hong Kong became a more booky place we could sell more books". It posted reviews of books about Asia with a broad remit - any book, so long as it was about Asia. It kept a low profile for the first six or seven years, publishing about six reviews a month online.

After several years of talks, the Asian Review of Books website finally got a serious makeover and was relaunched with a certain degree of fanfare at the Asia Society in New York. An app version soon followed and Gordon expanded his stable of reviewers. All this could only be achieved because the reviewers worked for free.

Reading the books, pondering their meaning and context and writing the reviews all takes time, so why do they do it?

"It's a community exercise. And I like to think I'm a good editor. Quite a few of the reviewers are writers and they like having an editor who talks with them about adverbs and things," says Gordon.

From roughly one review a week, the Asian Review of Books now publishes about four. The first volume of the print edition has been available from Paddyfield, Amazon and Barnes & Noble since late July, and carries material from April-June 2014. The quarterly journal is available on print-on-demand, making it financially viable. There are also excerpts, essays and discussion pieces.

The idea of making the content available in hard copy seems to have come as a lightning-strike moment for Gordon. "All of a sudden you wake up one morning and say, 'You know, I have enough content to make a book out of this'," he says.

But it was in the process of collating the material that Gordon realised the book format had something that wasn't possible online. "I think you lose something when the pieces get divorced from the larger content, which is what happens online. Social media, electronic 'sharing' in general, aggregators and the like are irreplaceable ways to spread individual articles, but the result can be a loss of context," he says.

Not that he has anything against the online aggregators, but reading the entire publication has advantages. It's similar to the music industry's argument that albums are best listened to all the way through rather than cherry picking a few hits.

The evolution of the Asian Review of Books is a reflection of the growth of the book market in Asia. There are more Chinese writers than there were 15 years ago - and there's more of a market for them. The number of books in translation from Asian publishers has increased dramatically. While the Review previously only reviewed books published in the US or Britain it now reviews many that are first published in India.

"What's happening now is the boom in Asian literature within Asia. We're trying to focus as much as we can on getting the books from Asian publishers," says Gordon.

During the past 18 months, the breadth of the reviews has expanded as Gordon has grown his list of reviewers with a greater focus on northern Asia, particularly South Korea. "We are now truly covering the Asia region in a way that wasn't true two years ago."

In the future, Gordon expects technology to play a major role, of course - he has begun tweeting lines of poetry in a bid to encourage other people to share his passion for verse. It may sound like a reversal of his online-to-print strategy for the Asian Review of Books, but he insists it's quite possible to hold both views.

"So much of publishing is a result of technology that was developed in 1453 - the first book. And we think of a book and the way we consume prose or the newspaper. We think of these things as units, but units aren't inherent, they are a function of technology."