A year in the life of Canongate

Turning over a new leaf

Doug Johnstone reflects on a year of highs and lows for Scotland’s most successful independent publisher, Canongate, and looks to the future with Managing Director, Jamie Byng.

2006 has proven to be a tumultuous year for Scotland’s leading independent publisher Canongate. On the plus side, the company became the first Scottish publisher ever to have two novels on the Booker shortlist, Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Carry Me Down by MJ Hyland.

On the other hand, a period of restructuring took place after the company’s long-time Managing Director David Graham left to take over the helm at Granta, and they recently announced a significant drop in profits, due to a tailing off in sales of their incredibly successful 2002 Booker winner, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

‘With any change you get a mixture of gains and losses,’ admits publisher Jamie Byng. ‘There’s no question David’s departure was a loss both personally and professionally. But he made the right decision to move on and take on a new challenge, and it’s proved to be the best thing for Canongate too, because change often makes you rethink what you’re doing.’

The company have made a number of key changes in the wake of Graham’s departure, the most significant of which is the recent appointment of rising publishing star Anya Serota from rivals John Murray as Editorial Director, while Byng takes over the Managing Director role. With a number of other staff arrivals, Byng is confident that the company is now in its most robust shape ever.

‘I think we’ve got the strongest and most talented group of people working at Canongate that we’ve ever had by some way, which has happened naturally as the business has matured,’ he says. ‘Come the end of 2006 we’re in a much stronger position than we were at the beginning of the year.’

While that may be true, the fact is that projected profits have dropped from the years immediately following the extraordinary success of Yann Martel’s Booker winner. Turnover remains high, though, and the company seems on a more solid footing these days, having used their previous success to buy an Australian publishing house, as well as going into partnership with Grove Atlantic in America.

‘At the time, Life of Pi doubled our turnover in one year, but we were very aware of our reliance on it, how much the business was determined by that one title,’ says Byng. ‘So in the last few years we’ve invested a lot of money in new writers. Of course, writers are our lifeblood, we can’t survive without them and their books, and I think we made a lot of really smart investments in authors, as well as in key members of staff.’

After such a turbulent year for the company, Byng is looking forward to getting back to doing what they do best.

‘We’ve got no radical changes planned for 2007,’ he says. ‘The plan is very much to just publish our writers as carefully, skilfully and successfully as possible. We’ve got the strongest list of books we’ve ever published - I know publishers say that every year, like bands saying the new album’s the best they’ve ever made - but, hand on heart, I can say that about our list this year.’

The list is indeed strong, with the stand-out book, The Raw Shark Texts by debut writer Steven Hall, set to be published in 25 countries, and already toting a film deal under its belt. Whether Canongate can replicate their recent Booker successes remains to be seen, but either way 2007 promises to be another exciting year for the vibrant publisher.


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