PQ Blackwell's 12 staff labour inside the most amazing office I've ever seen, a converted 1936 art-deco church, nestled between modern corporate monstrosities and the crumbling graveyard on Auckland's Symonds St, with Blackwell's own office sitting high, where the altar would have been.
It's from here that they cut deals with Mandela, Princess Diana's estate, Tutu, celebrity photographers Andrew Zuckerman and Platon, and then resell their exquisite (his word, but quite apt) illustrated volumes to publishers around the world.
It was a long trail, which takes some unravelling, that led Blackwell to "the Arch", whom he calls a "heroic figure" and who has become, clearly, quite a close friend. And so, rather like a book, we must start at the beginning.
Blackwell's parents were publishers who established their own specialist sports imprint, Moa. Their son was "the dyslexic moron who had to drop out of school in the sixth form, and got a job working for the old man in the warehouse", he says. The British sitcom Open All Hours was still screening, and young Geoff was nicknamed Granville, after David Jason's put-upon errand boy.
While he didn't read a proper book all the way through until he was 14, Blackwell – now 46 – says he simply outgrew his dyslexia, without knowing really why. He became a voracious reader, although of late, he says with embarrassment, he reads mainly non-fiction and magazines.
He saw a 40th anniversary reprint of the catalogue from the 1955 New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Family of Man, by American photographer Edward Steichen, a compilation of more than 500 pictures from 273 photographers worldwide, designed to show the universality of human emotions. Blackwell thought it would be great to modernise the concept, and pitched his boss, British publisher Tim Hely Hutchinson: he'd do all the work, for free, Hely Hutchinson's Headline would stump up the cash, and they would split the profits.
The result, M.I.L.K (Moments of Intimacy, Laughter and Kinship), was the largest photographic competition ever, offering a $US750,000 prize and attracting 17,000 entries from 164 countries, culled to the 300 best images. From that came a series of books and an exhibition at Grand Central Station in New York.
The books sold four million copies, helped by a unique pitch from Blackwell, who created a special booth at the Frankfurt Book Fair (the book world's annual marketplace), where he mocked up a film studio wrapped in reels with MILK images, and served publishers flat whites as they watched a slideshow.
"We view Frankfurt as our annual world champs," he says. "It is death and glory: we've spent a year working on a book and we go there in the hope that publishers in various parts of the world will buy it."
The sales gave Blackwell the impetus to buy out Headline's half of the MILK concept, and set up alone, launching PQ Blackwell (the PQ refers to Photographique, an old Hodder imprint) in 2003 with his brother Paul and long-time editorial foil Ruth Hobday.
You can trace the sequence from there: the MILK exhibition toured to London, where a representative of the Princess Diana fund saw the pictures, and approached Blackwell to produce the "authorised portrait" of the late princess; Diana's people asked Mandela to write the foreword, giving Blackwell an audience with Mandela's London lawyer, and the chance to pitch an idea; his subsequent books with Mandela (including Conversations with Myself, foreword by BObama, sales in 27 countries) inevitably led to Tutu.
Tutu has become a major collaborator: for Zuckerman's book Wisdom, portraits and life lessons from celebrity senior citizens – from Clint Eastwood and Buzz Aldrin to Wole Soyinka and Helen Suzman – they got Tutu to write the begging letter to the prospective participants. Then Tutu and Blackwell did a six-book series on the philosophy of ubuntu, a Xhosa word which translates basically as "no man is an island" – your world reflects your world view.
On sealing the deal, he realised he had to learn quickly about the intricacies of the South African struggle, so he and Hobday went to South Africa and met Ahmed Kathrada, jailed with Mandela at Robben Island, who toured them around the prison. "It was one of the most unforgettable days of my life," he says. And, of course, he's since collaborated on a book with Kathrada (A Simple Freedom) and they've become fast friends.
He asked Kathrada if the inmates had been aware of the faraway movement in New Zealand to halt the 1981 Springbok tour (a defining moment in his life, with the 16-year-old rugby-mad Blackwell persuaded by Moa designer Richard King to join tour protests while the rest of his family went to the games), and Kathrada told him it had been a huge boost and lifted their profile at a time when it had become an unfashionable cause for western liberals.
THE BLACKWELL books you are most likely to recognise would be Platon's Power, a collection of stark profile photographs of world leaders, including Robert Mugabe, Muammar Gaddafi, Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair and indeed John Key; Wisdom; that Diana book with its distinctive looping signature across the jacket, and sundry Mandela tomes. If you own a copy of any, the publisher's logo on the sleeve will not read PQ Blackwell. Inside, somewhere, there will be an "in association with" rider, but flick right to the inside jacket, and in the credits list, will be the names of Geoff Blackwell (publisher) and Ruth Hobday (editor).
How it works is that PQ Blackwell's do everything, right up to shipping the printed volume to local publishers, who brand it with their own logo and do the messy bits of distributing and selling the thing. Thus some years, almost 100% of PQ Blackwell sales come from overseas, although he's working on something now with Kiwi comedian Rhys Darby.
Their list is short, not exceeding 20 books a year, and "we try to do the smallest number possible, and love them to death".
Full story at stuff.co.nz