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In a digital age, the bookshop is still a land of discovery

Jamie Byng, founder of Canongate, has risen to the challenge of the giant e-publishers. Picture: Jane Barlow

Jamie Byng, founder of Canongate, has risen to the challenge of the giant e-publishers. Picture: Jane Barlow

THERE are books everywhere – piled on shelves to the ceiling - arranged on top of the filing cabinets – there’s even a glass-topped desk supported on a towering pile of worn-out paperbacks.

Inside the offices of Canongate in a mediaeval close off the Royal Mile, curly-haired publishing dynamo Jamie Byng flies around the shelves with a tendency to throw books into your arms and say: “read this, this is great. You’ll love this”.

But with e-readers likely to be one of the most popular presents this Christmas and Waterstones selling Kindle devices in its stores, no-one – not even this Prince of Publishing can predict the future for what he now calls: “physical books”.

“We are in a period of enormous flux. Not just in publishing but in many other ways,” says the publisher and Canongate MD. No-one knows how far the appetite for digital books is going to go.”

The facts and figures about how e-books are revolutionising the publishing industry are at his fingertips – and they are eye-popping.

“The speed at which the digital market for books is growing in the country is very fast. By the end of this year at least 20 per cent of our turnover will be digital – it might be closer to 25 per cent. Compare that to ten per cent in 2011 and two and a half per cent in 2010.

“On certain new titles we are seeing one for one – 50 per cent ebooks and 50 per cent physical books.”

Last month Waterstones bookstores began selling Kindle devices and will soon be offering downloads, via Amazon, through its website.

Kindle owners can only download books through Amazon, but before long the bookshops are expected to enter the digital download business, offering portals where readers can choose to download and even print books in store.

The rise of the monolithic e publishers, as well as the growth of giants such as Hachette and Harper Collins, are a challenge to a small publisher like Canongate – which has just 25 employees at its tardis-like Edinburgh HQ and another ten in London.

But in a world where a reader could potentially download a million books at the touch of a button, Byng predicts personal recommendation – whether from a book seller, from social media or from a trusted publisher – will become more important than ever before.

In a smoke-fuelled 90-mile-an-hour chat in a newly-created garden at the back of his Edinburgh office, the publisher rolls off his reasons to be cheerful – in a freewheeling stream of consciousness which takes in e-readers, New York, rock and roll, comedy and a whistle stop ride through the Canongate canon.

“I love reading more than I love books. That is the most important thing for me – the words and what they have to say – whether a book is printed or published as an audio book or an ebook. On one level I don’t really care. That is what is exciting and great about right now. What I like is that words are reaching people in more different ways than ever before. That is something one has to celebrate and be excited about.”

Byng believes the ability to take a risk – and to find the books readers want – is the key.

“One of the things bookshops do is encourage discovery,” he says. “I would like to think that if something carries the Canongate imprint it is something that the reader feels confident in. We are very selective about what we publish but how we present books is more important than ever. How a book feels, is marketed, how we talk about it are all things that engage the reader.”

In his office, the publisher shows me some of Canongate’s latest releases – How Music Works, by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne – a socio philosophical analysis of the music business which comes with a space age vinyl cover. Then there is iF - a beautifully presented and illustrated anthology of poetry which began life as an app.

“I think things like poetry people will like to have as physical books and books have a strong gift audience. At the moment people don’t tend to give e books as gifts.”

Canongate has long punched above its weight – from scoring a worldwide hit in 2001 with the unknown Canadian writer Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi to making the decision in 2007 to acquire Lessons from My Father by a certain rising Senator named Barack Obama.

There have also been disasters – such as the much publicised spat with Julian Assange – who signed up for an autobiography then reneged on the deal. That, says Byng was: “a complete waste of time.

“The worst publishing mistake we have made. But when we signed him it seemed we were talking to someone with an interesting story to tell, someone who changed the way the media works and changed the way we understood what a whistle blower was.”

He shrugs off the debacle – although the mention of Assange inspires an exasperated sigh and a slightly furious drag on his cigarette.

“You have to be opportunistic as a publisher. You have to take a risk on something you believe in – something you believe deserves a wider audience.”

The way Wikileaks changed the world is a prime example of the way things are changing. And the need to make sense of change is the reason Byng believes the human need for narrative and stories is greater than ever.

“My first loyalty is to the word rather than the physical object. I am agnostic about it – although I love physical books for many reasons. There are so many extraordinary books being written and published. The choice for readers has never been greater.

“There are more readers than there have ever been before and they have a huge appetite for stories. We need stories. We are stories. We are always going to need stories. That is where so much empathy comes from.

“As Fellini said: ‘Basically I am an optimist because the great myth of the person who tells another person a story won’t disappear that quickly. There will always be someone who feels the need to tell a friend one of his ideas or one of his dreams’.”

And here’s some to try…

1 Life of Pi - Yann Martell

A great novel and an extremely important one for Canongate because of its success – which opened a lot of doors for us.. £8.99/£8.99

2 Under the Skin - Michel Faber

About a woman who picks up men on the A9 – but only if they are well built. Currently being made into a film, with Scarlett Johannsen. £10.00/£7.99

3 A girl and her pig – April Bloomfield

Described as someone who “cooks like a ninja” – by Jamie Oliver – Bloomfield is an English chef. Her first restaurant was The Spotted Pig in New York’s East Village – where people like Jay Z and Michael Stipe became regular customers. £25.00/£14.99

4 If – a Treasury of poems for almost every possibility

This anthology started life as a poetry app created by Ali Esiri and Rachel Kelly – which had people like Helena Bonham Carter and Harry Hill reading poems.. £20.00/£4.99

5 The Gift - Lewis Hyde

Recommended to me by Margaret Atwood, it is about what happens when you give things away and was one of the things which inspired me to set up World Book Night when thousands of volunteers give books to people who don’t normally read. £10.00/£9.99

6 The further adventures of an idiot abroad - Karl Pilkington

I love the idea of an adventurer and a traveller who has to be dragged into it. It will be one of our best sellers this Christmas. £18.99/£14.99

7 The Heart broke In - James Meek

A moral fable for our times about a Simon Cowell like figure who is a TV music mogul. James Meek really has his finger on the pulse. £17.99/£12.99

8 Lace - Shirley Conran

First published 30 years ago and the original bonk buster but Shirley Conran can really write. £7.99/£7.99

9 Every short story - Alisdair Gray

Alisdair Gray is not only the most significant writer on our list but one of the most significant writers in the UK. £30.00/£20.00

10 Dreams from my father - Barack Obama

We have published three books written by Barack Obama but this was the first and is the best written. When we published in 2007 it we had no idea this person was going to be the President of the United States. £9.99/£9.99

YOU’LL never get him to pick a top ten or to say these are his favourite books. But here Canongate managing director Jamie Byng lists ten books published by his company which he recommends. They range from Barack Obama’s autobiography to a re-released 1970s bonkbuster. “Anyone who reads books for pleasure will find something on this list which will please them,” he says.

Canongate managing director Jamie Byng lists ten books published by his company

YOU’LL never get him to pick a top ten or to say these are his favourite books. But here Canongate managing director Jamie Byng lists ten books published by his company which he recommends.

They range from Barack Obama’s autobiography to a re-released 1970s bonkbuster. “Anyone who reads books for pleasure will find something on this list which will please them,” he says.

1 Life of Pi - Yann Martell

A great novel and an extremely important one for Canongate because of its success – which opened a lot of doors for us.. £8.99/£8.99

2 Under the Skin - Michel Faber

About a woman who picks up men on the A9 – but only if they are well built. Currently being made into a film, with Scarlett Johannsen. £10.00/£7.99

3 A girl and her pig – April Bloomfield

Described as someone who “cooks like a ninja” – by Jamie Oliver – Bloomfield is an English chef. Her first restaurant was The Spotted Pig in New York’s East Village – where people like Jay Z and Michael Stipe became regular customers. £25.00/£14.99

4 If – a Treasury of poems for almost every possibility

This anthology started life as a poetry app created by Ali Esiri and Rachel Kelly – which had people like Helena Bonham Carter and Harry Hill reading poems.. £20.00/£4.99

5 The Gift - Lewis Hyde

Recommended to me by Margaret Atwood, it is about what happens when you give things away and was one of the things which inspired me to set up World Book Night when thousands of volunteers give books to people who don’t normally read. £10.00/£9.99

6 The further adventures of an idiot abroad - Karl Pilkington

I love the idea of an adventurer and a traveller who has to be dragged into it. It will be one of our best sellers this Christmas. £18.99/£14.99

7 The Heart broke In - James Meek

A moral fable for our times about a Simon Cowell like figure who is a TV music mogul. James Meek really has his finger on the pulse. £17.99/£12.99

8 Lace - Shirley Conran

First published 30 years ago and the original bonk buster but Shirley Conran can really write. £7.99/£7.99

9 Every short story - Alisdair Gray

Alisdair Gray is not only the most significant writer on our list but one of the most significant writers in the UK. £30.00/£20.00

10 Dreams from my father - Barack Obama

We have published three books written by Barack Obama but this was the first and is the best written. When we published in 2007 it we had no idea this person was going to be the President of the United States. £9.99/£9.99

 

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