Birlinn buys Mercat to become biggest publisher of Scottish interest books

BIRLINN, the publisher behind Alexander McCall Smith's successful No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, has become the biggest creator of Scottish interest books by snapping up Edinburgh rival Mercat Press.

The deal, signed on Friday evening for an undisclosed sum, gives Birlinn more than a 1,000 Scottish titles in print, making it the largest publisher of Scottish interest material. Birlinn's managing director Hugh Andrew said it was a major step towards creating a very strong force in Scotland representing local interests.

He said: "It was something I thought was an obvious match for a long time. It is a very similar list to Birlinn's in many ways and the author list is very compatible with ours.

"So there is a lot of synergy between the two companies and my absolute passionate belief is that if Scotland is to compete in the world of publishing it needs to create a critical mass and it's not actually had that critical mass. It is only by doing this can we survive.

"We have already seen this week the closure of Fopp, so it's not easy and we have taken plenty of knocks but we are still here."

Mercat Press was founded in 1970 as part of the former bookselling chain James Thin. It became an independent company in April 2002. Its relatively small team has successfully published in the areas of fiction, architecture, heritage and guides, including the publication of the crime writer Gillian Galbraith.

Birlinn is now part of a coterie of Edinburgh-based publishers including Canongate, Mainstream and Black and White that are building an international reputation for Scottish publishing.

The company bought the Polygon imprint in 2002, acquiring the publisher of the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series just as it exploded into a huge international success. In the 1980s, Polygon, then owned by the Edinburgh University Student Association, published first or early novels by major Scottish writers, including Ian Rankin, James Kelman and Janice Galloway.

The phenomenal global popularity of Alexander McCall Smith has been compared to the success of Yann Martel's Booker prize-winner Life Of Pi, which helped fellow Scottish publisher Canongate turn the corner.

With sales topping five million in English, detective Precious Ramotswe is fast becoming to McCall Smith what Harry Potter is to JK Rowling and Inspector Rebus is to Ian Rankin. McCall Smith's sales have also helped push Birlinn's annual turnover to the 2m mark.

In 2004 the publisher hit the headlines when it announced it was ordering an initial run of 101,000 for McCall Smith's In The Company Of Cheerful Ladies, said to be a Scottish record.

But there have been other successes for the publishing house. Last year it published Calum's Road, the story of a Raasay crofter who built his own road when no one else would. It has sold more than 12,000 copies. Written by Roger Hutchinson, it has sold largely through word of mouth, and Andrew claims it will become a minor classic.

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