Foreign Writers Offer a Different Perspective on Hong Kong: Blacksmith Books
Blacksmith Books has been publishing numerous English non-fiction books since 2003, with Hong Kong as a major focus. Pete Spurrier, the publisher, shares how he finds a new perspective to look at Hong Kong’s history and culture.
A: Pete Spurrier, publisher of Blacksmith Books
Q: The books you've published are mostly non-fiction about Hong Kong's history and culture, and they cover some hidden parts of Hong Kong which locals may not be aware of, such as the city's street life, old Hong Kong recipes, etc. How do you find a good topic to work with? Which ones engage readers the most?
A: When I started, I had a short list of subjects I wanted to publish books on, and after that was done, I planned to sit down and start commissioning books. But I never needed to, because manuscripts started flowing in straight away. I’m lucky that writers send me some really good stories, and if they fit into our main subject area (non-fiction with a Hong Kong connection), I will consider them.
As for topics, readers do seem to appreciate books that give them insights into areas of Hong Kong life that they normally wouldn't have access to, because of language barriers or simply different lifestyles.
Q: The books you published are mainly written by non-Chinese (whether or not living in Hong Kong) who know about Hong Kong. How do you evaluate the way they see the city when comparing to local Chinese people?
A: Foreign writers obviously have a different view to Hong Kong people, no matter how long they may have lived in Hong Kong. But sometimes being an outsider gives you a clearer view. That different perspective is true even of your own country if you live overseas and then go back home again.
As I publish in English, it is comparatively harder to find native Hong Kong writers because they would naturally prefer to write first in Chinese. But when I have found and published them, their books have usually sold well. I think foreign readers appreciate the perspective of Hong Kong people who write in English, as it’s something they may not have encountered before.
Q: The books you published are sold in different countries. How do you find their reception, especially among foreigners who may have little knowledge about Hong Kong?
A: It seems that every Western country has some small niche of people who are interested in Hong Kong, or China, or Asia in general. They are the people I try to reach. Every few months, I put boxes of books on container ships to distributors in the US or UK, and people in those countries somehow find, buy and read the books. But it’s hard to find out who they are and what they like or don’t like. Some readers will review the books online, but most won't, so I usually have to guess that I'm doing right!
Q: Book publishing is considered to be a sunset industry in Hong Kong. How do you deal with the problem of Hongkongers losing interest in reading books? What is your future plan?
A: I think this worry is overstated sometimes. Book sales seem quite stable in Hong Kong, at least in English, and some bookshops are even opening more branches: a new one opened in Festival Walk just this month.
My plan is to continue getting as wide a distribution as possible for our books, and to carry on working with their authors to promote them, because if no one sees or knows about a book, they can't buy it.