Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Acknowledgements: Athmika Punja, Operations

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Acknowledgements: Athmika Punja, Operations

Book publishing, as an industry, is not unlike a Jenga tower held together by sheer force of will. If the industry works at all, it's only because many dedicated and diligent people work or little reward like that horse, Boxer, from Animal Farm. (Though it's not all gloom-and-doom; it can certainly have its moments.) Many publishing workers remain invisible to readers and even authors, toiling away on initiatives and tasks unfamiliar to all but those already deeply enmeshed in the publishing world. 'Acknowledgements' is an interview series that aims to change that in some small way.

The title 'Operations Coordinator' may be one of the most mystifying of all publishing. What are these operations? Isn't everything that happens in publishing an 'operation' of some sort? Athmika Punja, who has been at ECW Press, one of Canada's largest independent publishers, for about a year and a half, is listed on the site under 'general office inquiries,' but as our interview reveals, she's responsible for a lot more than that. If she doesn't show up to work, books don't get to stores, events, and authors on time, bills might not get paid, cheques might not get deposited, and credit card statements might not get reconciled. If you work with ECW – either as an author, bookstore, event organizer, or vendor – you've probably contacted Punja. In the world of printed books, shipping is key. Which makes Punja the keymaster. She jokes that she could be replaced by a 'Linux-based robot,' but she also notes that 'better planning comes from better humans.' The Canadian publishing industry would probably agree that, by that measure, she must be a truly outstanding planner.

Data is her thing.

PUNJA: My day starts with downloading inventory, backorders, and sales reports from distributors and loading them into our database. Hold on to your pants, because next, I do the same with weekly sell-through reports from Amazon, Kindle, Apple, Indigo, Costco, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Overdrive, Nook, Booknet, and Bookscan. That’s probably the only part of my day that’s consistent. The rest depends on what lands on my desk or inbox.

Other things that come to me are direct sales, awards submissions, grant applications, entering new invoices, depositing cheques, updating inventory, ordering office supplies. I’m always doing is making a to-do list and balancing what needs to get done right away and what can wait a day or two.

Once a contract is signed, she goes to work.

PUNJA: A freshly signed contract for a new book lands on my desk. It needs an ISBN, a spot in the production schedule, and other goodies. I enter contract details, author information, and rights splits so authors (or agents) get paid their advances/royalties on time and in the right currency. Our Filemaker-Pro-powered database aggregates data on everything from sales, a title's print runs, and territory rights sales, to publicity hits and royalties earned. I actually love working in that world and everything about my job is made better by bending it to my will.

Punja started her career development (get it?) in photography.(

PUNJA: I was working in the head office of Black's Photography, trying to figure out where I actually wanted to be. After taking Humber's publishing program, I landed a marketing internship at ECW. It was magical. Like a lot of other interns, I thought I'd landed the best gig. At the time, David Caron was taking over as owner and publisher. He wanted to step back from the meaner side of the business and hired me to do it. I was still doing a bit of marketing and publicity work while learning the ropes in accounting and database magic. I think I pretty much vacillated between feeling like a rock star when I figured something out that made an ECW process faster (like Excel Pivot tables), and being overwhelmed when I realized there was something else I didn’t know anything about (like the Ontario Tax Credit).

Operations and the warehouse = BFFs.

PUNJA: I am in contact with the distributor every day. It's always about shipping books to us, an author, an event, or a bookseller, or following up on the status of those books as they travel somewhere. Sometimes they're like, 'We have this order but we don't have those books. Do you have those books and can you send them?' OK, cool.

What happens when a bookseller wants copies of an ECW title?

PUNJA: With a bookseller, I ask them to get in touch with our Canadian distributor, Jaguar Book Group, and place the order with them. If it's a one-time order and we have the books in stock in our office, I'll create the invoice, get a credit card to guarantee the order, and ship the books. It happens all the time. And it's different every time. Where is the stock? When do they need it by? Where should it ship from? Do they have any outstanding invoices? They might, but it's an event, so we can't really leave them high and dry.

Keeping track of warehouse and bookstore stock is an arcane process.

PUNJA: Having those aforementioned daily reports allows us to query whether a title is selling like hotcakes out of one warehouse while sitting stagnant in another. If that's the pattern, then I arrange for books from the latter to go to the other warehouse. [She also provided the highly imaginary formula, at left.]

Shipping to and from the United States can be even more arcane.

PUNJA: The United States is very far away and their shipping times don't make any sense to me. I mean, they do make sense, I just don't like it. Their states are so small. I don't understand why it takes so much longer to ship between them.

But it's not all warehouses and shipping. There's also the thrill of bookkeeping.

PUNJA: When invoices come in, I post them to our payables and update a shared spreadsheet so the publisher can see how payables are aging. That is, what invoices to pay and when to pay them. I deposit cheques at the bank, and also post those to our receivables. Matching receipts up with credit card statements and posting those expenses is the worst, because of all the repetitive things I take care of, it's the most prone to human error. Is that a diplomatic way of saying that? I hope there are some admin assistants reading this that are like, 'Preach it, girl.'

Despite crunching numbers all day, it hasn't sullied her love of words.

PUNJA: I got into book publishing because I read and stuff. I used to be a huge fantasy nerd and, honestly, two years of exposure to literary-minded folks took that out of me a bit. It's not a bad thing. I've devoured more literary fiction (and loved it) in the past six months than I had in the decade before the Humber program happened to me. Being in the industry is great for fostering my inner literary nerd, but I'm glad that my job isn't reading. When I'm working on a title, I usually just see its numbers – how much of the advance has earned out, how quickly stock is moving, whether it's selling at Indigo or not, and weighing a reprint against the possibility of returns. I love data analysis, but would not want it to seep into my reading. I'm not even sure it's true, so this is more like a theory.

There are a few (eleven) months that are busier than others.

PUNJA: Right now, I remember that it isn't busy in February. April, May, September, and October are very busy because that's when big titles launch and it really, really matters that physical books get to all the right shelves. March is busy because it's tax season. October is doubly busy because it's audit season. But inventory and warehousing decisions need to be made on the regular. New contracts come in all the time, awards deadlines are all over the place, and there's always an invoice to enter (and thankfully, a cheque to deposit), so I'm not lying when I say: February is not busy.

If she finds something annoying about her job, she automates it.

PUNJA: Moving boxes can be annoying, but that's usually a nice break from sitting at a desk all day. Awards submissions can be pretty tedious. As soon as I start to get annoyed with doing something, I figure out a way to automate it. Applescript is awesome for that. Also, Google has a mail merge feature which has come in handy for some mass custom emailing. That’s probably not enough money to buy a drone. I believe there's a way to automate everything I do, so how much is a robot? A low-budget, Linux-based robot could probably do my entire job, or at least just the distribution and inventory pieces. I'll have to be the only person who could program her/him/it so that I wouldn't become obsolete. I know I'm wrong, but it's central to my job that I have an unwavering faith in automation.

Better humans = better planning.

PUNJA: The costs associated with distribution and inventory are pretty fixed because they're things like commission, shipping, and storage. The real improvements only come from better planning, which comes from better humans. So if I can't get a robot, I would get some OWL-level training on strategic project management, ninja tech skills specifically around data processing and automation. It would also be nice to trick out the office like we're Google. Happy workers are also better humans.

Despite all the automation, dull moments are few.

PUNJA: The majority of my job is heavily controlled. I've had other jobs where liaising with staff or vendors about processes and contract amendments and shipping is exactly as dull as it sounds. Corresponding with professional writers (and the other zany people who live in their orbits) is often hilarious, nerve-wracking, hair-pullingly frustrating, and wonderful. So even though these particular humans often derail the control centre, I'll take it over dry and mundane any day.

If she were to write a memoir about her life in operations?

PUNJA: Either Let Me Fill That for You … and other orders, or Ctrl-R > Command-R.

You can check out the books that Athmika Punja helps ship and account for at ECW Press.

Stay tuned for more 'Acknowledgements' throughout May.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Evan Munday

Evan Munday is the illustrator of the novel Stripmalling, written by Jon Paul Fiorentino (ECW 2009), and is the cartoonist behind the self-published comic book, Quarter-Life Crisis, set in a post-apocalyptic Toronto. He works as a book publicist for Coach House Books. The Dead Kid Detective Agency was his first novel, and in 2013, he published Dial M for Morna, the second book in the Dead Kids series. He lives in Toronto, ON.

Go to Evan Munday’s Author Page