Since late 2014, my colleagues and I at Christmas Press have worked with a wonderful book production manager, Karen Small, whose fantastic business, Small but Mighty Productions, has enabled us as a small press operating on a shoestring budget and a tiny if very creative and hardworking staff to produce hard-cover books of very high quality, by taking the worry out of sourcing printers, materials, giving advice on all kinds of technical aspects of production, dealing with shipping, etc. We’ve worked on three picture books with her now, as well as the beautiful limited edition of the launch title for our new imprint Eagle Books, Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff. It’s been a great, very productive relationship and also a very interesting process to be a part of. So today I’m interviewing Karen about what goes on behind the scenes, and the fascinating story behind her business.
How and when did you come up with the idea for smallbutmightyproductions?
Establishing my own business was something I always wanted to achieve – it was just a matter of timing. I discussed the original idea with one of Australia’s best book designers back in 2012 and he was very supportive. At the time, the publishing industry was shrinking dramatically with mergers and acquisitions, job losses, dwindling publishing programs and less emphasis on quality production. It felt like the creative heart was being torn from the Australian publishing industry and that’s when I started the first draft of my business plan. It took roughly 12 months of preparation, research and many more drafts of the business plan before I was ready to exit my day job and leap into my new venture. I launched in 2014 and I’m now in my third, exciting year.
The name itself sprouted when I was troubleshooting a problem many years ago and I achieved a great result for the customer. A colleague was impressed and said to me “you may be small but that was a mighty effort”. It stuck in my mind over the years and it seemed like the best descriptor of what I’m about, as well as being a play on my surname.’
What were the challenges involved in setting up the business? And what are they now?
Setting up a small business is a mammoth undertaking, but the key is breaking the steps down into smaller, more manageable tasks. There were many days early on where I was overwhelmed, but I reminded myself that it was a marathon and not a sprint and the longevity of the business had a great deal to do with me setting things up slowly and accurately. The other factor was being a solo operator. There were so many thing to achieve and no one else to assist, but it also meant I was exposed to all the facets of a business, so the experience I gained outweighed the challenge of doing it all myself.
Three years on, the biggest challenge is keeping up with the level of enquiries, making sure my potential customers receive the best customer service I can offer. I am known as small but mighty, but it is essential for me to be known for my quality, as well as my speed and accuracy.
What kinds of projects have you worked on?
The projects I’ve worked on with my customers are many and varied. I’ve collaborated with self-publishers looking for very limited editions of around 100 copies, right through to custom marketing pieces with print runs of up to 40,000 units. I can basically tailor my services to the individual and the type of book, using the very best, hand-selected suppliers. No book project is too large or too small.
What exactly does a book production manager do? How does a project go from start to finish?
The role of a book production manager is an interesting mix of a number of tasks, including project and files management, customer service and liaison, budgeting, forecasting, trouble-shooting, new vendor research, scheduling, inventory management and quality control. There is no such thing as a typical day and even after many years in the job, there are learnings to take away from each project. In a nutshell, I manage the project from initial costing enquiry, through to supply of print files, right up to final destination delivery in Australia or worldwide.
A typical project starts with a RQF (request for quotation) from which a project costing is created and supplied to the customer. Often a planning schedule is requested at the same time. Until the book specification is confirmed, the quotation stage can continue for several months or weeks. The schedule and project is then booked with the relevant print supplier and a sample book ordered. Customer files will then be prepared and supplied. Any issues with files will then be solved before approval is given by the customer to start printing. The book is then printed and bound with many quality checkpoints before progressing to each stage. Finished copies are checked and approved, with bulk copies then being placed onto the chosen vessel for sailing to the final destination. Freight logistics and delivery to the customer is the final stage in any project.
Your business involves many interlocking connections–how do you go about synchronising it all?
Often it feels like I’m a circus performer juggling 20 different objects at the same time, but the ability to successfully manage many different suppliers, projects and customers at the same time comes from experience. Being able to multi-task is essential and a keen eye for details is also an absolute must. I love my job, am passionate about the projects I work on and thoroughly enjoy seeing my customers bring their books to life. This is motivation enough to ensure everything gets done according to the customer brief.
You worked in other aspects of the book industry before you started smallbutmightyproductions. How has that influenced what you do in your own business?
I see each role to date as a learning experience and a stepping-stone to where I am today. Little did I know that in my first role as a production ‘runner’, pulling printing films from a dark and dusty library would have equipped me with valuable knowledge of traditional 4c offset printing. I used to hand-write all correspondence to suppliers and send via fax machine! I progressed from magazine production to books, entered and learnt about the next generation of CTP, digital printing, switched from the publishing side to a role with a major Japanese printer and also worked in London dealing with large-scale European printers, as well as taking up a position with a leading, global, trade publishing house. This colourful wardrobe of experience gave me the confidence to establish smallbutmightyproductions and offer a bespoke publishing experience where quality and customer service are best in the industry.
What are your plans for the future of smallbutmightyproductions?
From a strictly business point of view, I’d like to see continued growth each year, with an all-important expanding customer base with new and repeat clients. From a personal perspective, I want to continue to enjoy working with highly creative individuals who are as passionate about high-quality books as I am.
5 thoughts on “Small but Mighty book productions: an interview with Karen Small”
My copy has arrived. It is truly gorgeous. Thanks Sophie, Karen and Christmas Press.
Glad you like it, Sharon!
Loved reading this thhank you