Scotland casts its net wider for sales but there is a catch
THERE are few things more irritating than hearing any of our national figures referred to as "English", and for decades, Scots have been tirelessly campaigning to remind the world just how many artists, scientists, inventors and heroes came from north of the Border. All that good work appears to be paying off - but now it is in danger of flying back in our faces. Things have gone too far.
The problem was highlighted by a campaign launched at the start of this year by magazine The List to find the greatest Scottish book of all time. There are certainly plenty of great Scottish books to choose from, but the organisers decided to help things along by producing their own initial list of one hundred titles. Eyebrows were raised by the inclusion of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, George Orwell's 1984, and even the Bible. The excuses were that Woolf's book was set in Scotland, Conrad's was published by a Scot, Orwell's was written in Scotland, and the Bible was translated by order of James VI.
With definitions as broad as that, just think what a list of great "English" books would be like. Burns, Scott and Stevenson would all merit inclusion, if they could make it past Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Austen. The reaction in Scotland would be outrage at such presumptuousness - so what makes us think we can get away with exactly the sort of thing we've complained about for years?
The eventual winner of the "best Scottish books" poll was Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song, but 1984 came a strong sixth, just behind JK Rowling, Alasdair Gray, Irvine Welsh and Dorothy Dunnett. Is 1984 really a "Scottish" book? Well, if Orwell were alive today and still living on Jura, he would presumably be considered just as Scottish as JK Rowling or Michel Faber. And if people south of the Border now want to call Ali Smith an "English" writer, we'd better not carp. She lives there, after all.
That is the price of national aggrandisement: other countries might follow suit. There is another price too. This month, the website BooksfromScotland.com was launched. Set up by the Scottish Publishers Association, it aims to become self-financing within its first year of operation, but received start-up funding from the public purse by way of the Scottish Arts Council. BooksfromScotland reckons it will need to shift 15,000 books in the next 12 months to break even, and that might not sound much. But in the crowded market where it hopes to carve out its own new niche, it's an ambitious target.
Who is the site aimed at? Evidently, people who are looking for Scottish books - a category not specifically searchable at online book giant Amazon. But go to the BooksfromScotland home page, and one of the bestselling titles being promoted there is Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad. Atwood is Canadian, but the book's publisher, Canongate, is Scottish. Whether such subtleties will figure prominently in the mind of the average net surfer remains to be seen. Would you think of going to BooksfromEngland.com if you wanted to buy the London-published Trainspotting?
BooksfromScotland describes itself as "a guide to the maze of books coming from, and about, Scotland", and aims to include everything that is of Scottish interest, or by a Scottish author, or has been published in Scotland; but the only way they can satisfy the first two criteria is by manually sifting through every new book and its author biography to see if it fits. That's why you can't search for "Scottish" books on Amazon, any more than you can "good" ones: it all comes down to someone's judgment. The problem was highlighted on the day the new website was launched, when someone tried looking up Kate Atkinson. Born and published in England but long resident in Scotland, she had won the Saltire Society's Scottish Book Of The Year award the previous week for Case Histories, but it was not on the site (a mistake that had to be quickly rectified).
The website's organisers exist to promote the interests of Scotland's 80-or-so indigenous publishers, so the true and laudable aim of BooksfromScotland is to boost sales from them. But not every book published in Scotland has an obvious Scottish interest. How many people, for example, will go to BooksfromScotland in search of Essential Chemistry For Safe Aromatherapy?
We'll have to wait to see how the site progresses, but if we really want to set ourselves up in the book world as a nation apart, we should presumably take as our model the distinction between the British and US markets. Go to the States and you will find many of the same books you can buy here, but they are in US editions, from US publishers. That is why there is an Amazon.com and an Amazon.co.uk If Scotland were an independent publishing territory there could be an Amazon.scot.
For an author such as myself it would be good news. At present I sell my novels first to a UK publisher, then to foreign territories such as America, with every rights sale bringing in extra cash, as well as the fun of seeing the same book reprinted in differing editions. If Scotland were a separate book territory, I could re-sell rights here too. Walk into a Scottish bookshop and everything on sale would be a genuinely home-produced book.
The downside? Well, Scottish authors already complain about how hard it is to market their books in England, if they happen to be published by a Scottish house. If they actually had to re-sell their works to English publishers, many Scots would never make it into print at all south of the Border. Equally, the range of titles on offer in Scottish bookstores would dwindle alarmingly, with shoppers having to rely on "imported" English titles. Proclaiming the distinctive identity of Scottish books is all very well as a way of boosting our national ego, but as an economic strategy it is distinctly perilous.
The high street book retail market is dominated by the big chains - HMV's proposal to add Ottakar's to a roster that already includes Waterstone's and Dillon's has drawn protest from AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway and dozens of other Scottish writers. Independent publishers feel themselves being squeezed out in the same way that independent booksellers have been - and in Scotland, every publisher is an independent.
The real value of BooksfromScotland is that it gives them a platform - but English independents like Dedalus, Bloodaxe, Tindall Street and many other fine but struggling houses could do with similar help. We can shout all we like about the fantastic state of Scottish books - the real war of independence is being waged elsewhere.
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