The BookBrunch Interview - James Spackman

Tim Relf
News - Interviews Friday, 11 January 2019

The Spare Room Project is a groundbreaking initiative helping young people get into publishing. Tim Relf meets its founder, James Spackman, who after more than two decades in senior publishing roles is now embracing a 'portfolio career' that includes coaching, agenting - and lots of cycling

James Spackman had a company car and reserved parking when he worked at John Murray in the mid-2000s. "It's bizarre to think of that now - having your own parking spot seems so old fashioned," he reflects.

"It was a stressful job and I'd drive home in rush-hour, so fighting with the traffic made me even more stressed," he says. "As a psychological self-defence mechanism, I tried cycling to work and found the difference enormous. I immediately loved it."

Soon, Spackman had gone from being a "bike commuter" to enjoying long rides with family and friends. "I was hooked."

Little did he know then that the seeds were being sown for a career opportunity. But about a decade later, working as managing director of Watkins Publishing, he took the chance to "combine work with passion", working four days a week so he could explore cycling-related opportunities.

"The first thing I did was republish a classic kids' book about cycling called The Great Boffo. My dad used to read that to me and I loved it, but it had gone out of print so I got the rights and republished it with the help of Emma Barnes at Snowbooks."

Launching Pursuit
Spackman also started agenting cycling titles. He placed one with Andrew Franklin at Profile, which led to a conversation about launching an imprint. The result was Pursuit - for which Spackman is now a part-time "editor-at-large".

"I just had this sense that there was some really good cycling writing out there," he says. "It's nowhere near as big as football in terms of the market, but it's quite a literate, educated and affluent crowd - so a lot of the people who are into cycling will buy several books on the subject every year. If you publish a good cycling book, it will sell.

"For me, it's about unearthing interesting stories, themes or pieces of history. It's the quality of the writing and the insight that I care about."

Among Pursuit's titles has been Anquetil, Alone: The Legend of the Controversial Tour de France Champion by the celebrated novelist Paul Fournel. "Jacques Anquetil was virtually a superhero in France in the 1960s, but he was also an arrogant and controversial man. He had a relaxed attitude to morals and rules - including those about drugs - and, while his womanising appalled conservative French society, his five Tour de France wins enthralled it."

Help for interns
Another initiative Spackman launched soon after becoming self-employed was the Spare Room Project (SRP), helping publishing interns or work experience people from outside London find a free, friendly, temporary place to stay in the capital. It matches them with London-based people in the book industry who can offer them a bed.

"I'd always been conscious that we didn't see that many people who weren't Home Counties-based coming into the industry. It's important we address the lack of regional diversity in the industry by diversifying the London-centric talent pool. It also makes good business sense for publishers to have people with different backgrounds and perspectives within their ranks.

"I looked around at all these senior, successful people and thought: ‘I bet you could all do something quite practical to help - and so could I.'

"If you take the accommodation cost out of the equation, most people can afford to do an internship, even if it's only minimum wage, whereas if you've got to pay market rent most people will struggle. Even if you go for a hostel or an Airbnb quite a long way out of the centre of town, it's still punishingly expensive.

"I talked to a few people - kind of expecting somebody else to do it - but no one did so I had to do it myself! Part of me was thinking this is bloody stupid because I need to make my time pay now I work for myself, but it felt a really important thing to do. I soon realised the demand was far greater than the supply."

Spackman set about emailing everyone he knew in publishing asking if they could help. With the backing of the Society of Young Publishers and the Publishers Association, the project has got exactly 100 hosts signed up, and has helped more than 70 people. It celebrated its recent second anniversary with a relaunch and the backing of a new sponsor, Penguin Random House.

"About two-thirds of the people who have used SPR say it would have either been impossible or very unlikely that they would have been able to do their internship were it not for the help of their host," Spackman says.

"I'm acutely aware that I had it easy when I started. My dad lives in Hampstead, but I wouldn't have been able to do my first work experience at Bloomsbury had I not had relatives in town."

Pitch Doctor
Another strand of work that keeps him busy is coaching book trade people in their pitching and presentation skills under the brand the Book Pitch Doctor.

"In my various roles, I had learned to present books, but I still found it nerve-wracking. Whether you're an editor, salesperson, author or marketer, you need to be able to engage others in your vision. You have to persuade an audience - whether it's your colleagues, customers or the media - to understand your title, get excited about it and get behind it. Just polishing the text - that's not publishing. Publishing is about selling books!"

Last autumn saw Spackman link up with old pals Jason Bartholomew (formerly of Hodder & Stoughton, now joint MD of Midas PR) and Jessica Killingley (also ex-Hodder, now a writing coach) to launch the agency BKS, specialising in non-fiction. "It's not like a zero sum where there's only so many writers in the world and you've got to fight over them," he says. "There's a lot of writers and potential writers to go round. It's a meritocracy of ideas. If we find someone first who's an expert in a particular field and has got a really interesting story to tell and we work with them to develop the best book project, then we'll sell it.

"A few years ago, when I was working at Hodder [John Murray's parent division at Hachette], I would have found the idea of going freelance really frightening - and I do like having a group of colleagues, because people in publishing are one of the reasons I love the industry so much. But I think I've made the transition to a portfolio career work because I've identified where I can add value and what I care about, and tried to focus on those things. I could have just signed up as a freelance sales and marketing gun-for-hire, but it would have been a bit grim and soulless.

"I've given making a shot at being freelance successful the best chance possible by doing it at the start of the second half of my career. Trying to do it before you have an overall understanding of the trade, confidence and network of contacts would be hard. It's not massively remunerative, but it's incredibly satisfying."

This new life also gives Spackman room to continue his commitment to cycling. "I ride to every meeting I go to in town and try to get out at the weekends, although I don't get out as much then as much as I'd to because my kids' sporting and social agendas tend to overwhelm my own ambitions!

"One of the great benefits of being self-employed is that I can get up early and work really hard, and then don't feel guilty about every Wednesday morning going to the Herne Hill Velodrome and joining the veterans' training sessions. It's about the most fun I have every week. I adore it."

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