A guide to publishing companies in Scotland
The innovative companies keeping the Scottish literary scene buzzing
If one press has led the way in Scottish publishing, it’s Canongate. The team may be relatively small, but since Yann Martel won the Booker for Life of Pi in 2002, its global impact has been difficult to ignore. Canongate now publishes Barack Obama’s autobiographies as well as work by Nick Cave, Philip Pullman, Alasdair Gray, Margaret Atwood and David Shrigley.
But where once Canongate was a bold but solitary outpost of indie British publishing success, the Edinburgh-based outfit has gained some vibrant contemporaries. Diversity and innovation are mounting, and with them the hopes of a rosy future for books in Scotland.
Luath Press is just one of the creative organisations bringing variety to the nation’s bookshelves. Director Gavin MacDougall has focused on a mix of genres, meaning that a spine bearing the Luath logo might hold anything from poetry to tourist information. By way of example, in his Edinburgh office MacDougall passes me a cross-section of recent titles: a walking book, a new adaptation of Ivanhoe, a collection of poems by Bashabi Fraser …
Operating from a cluttered eyrie at the top of the Royal Mile, MacDougall is philosophical about the future of publishing, despite a bleak outlook for high street bookshops and a glut of pulp-worthy books saturating the market. ‘There are already too many books published every year,’ he says, ‘partly because anybody can publish a book incredibly easily and incredibly cheaply.’
But what sets small companies such as Luath apart from the masses is a ready and genuine friendship with authors, combined with a sideways look at the market to find new seams to explore. One of Luath’s most successful recent books was a Japanese-language guide to Scotland, aimed at bewildered visitors.
Adrian Searle of Glasgow’s Freight Books (publisher of Gutter magazine, Toni Davidson and 101 Uses of a Dead Kindle) is adamant that small Scottish presses have their advantages in a recession, and that perhaps, finally, their time has come to shine. ‘It’s a far more level playing field,’ he says, as the office dog wanders in to shove a wet nose against my ankle. Because bigger houses have scaled back in the wake of economic uncertainty, ‘it’s far more affordable to pick up talented fiction writers than it was two or three years ago.’
Small companies have inherent benefits. ‘Independents tend to be far more energetic in terms of their marketing, and more imaginative,’ he says. ‘They have a much closer relationship to their authors.’ Searle’s first love is Scottish literary fiction – he has an MA in creative writing – and he draws on this love daily in looking after his growing stable of writers.
Having operated previously as a design company, Freight started printing novels only in 2011. It joins another new Glasgow company, Cargo, founded just three years ago by director Mark Buckland. Then a gardener with £800 and zero publishing knowledge to his name, Buckland’s passion for books has led to a rapid six-figure turnover, the launch of an eBook label and responsibility for work by over 100 international authors.
Building such a portfolio wasn’t easy. ‘I think we’ve got through it by just showing people that we’re passionate about books, and that’s very simple,’ Buckland tells me over drinks in Stereo café as Cargo doesn’t run an office. ‘If there’s no money in it, the people involved are still going to do it because they can’t help themselves; they love it so much.’
This attitude may well prove a blessing for new writing in Scotland. Canongate’s success, the dynamic landscape of Scottish publishing, is passion-driven rather than profit-obsessed. For Buckland and Cargo, the future is bright as long as they keep that in mind. ‘It’s a really tough time to sell books, to be a writer or to be involved in publishing. So as far as we’re concerned, we’re going to keep doing what we love, and we’re going to keep doing it bigger and better. Simple as that.’