ONCE upon a time there was a student called Jamie. Fed up with university life, he took a job in a small Edinburgh publishing house. Ten years on, he is now the toast of the book business.
Not that you would know it. Tucked away in a close off the High Street, the warren of offices could belong to any struggling small company. But with a million-seller on the shelves and turnover this year heading for 7 million, Canongate Books is one of Edinburgh’s best business success stories.
Standing in the ancient doorway is the secret of the firm’s success. He doesn’t often give interviews but he let me inside the slightly crazy world of Jamie Byng. ‘The fear of the Lord preserveth thy life’, says the 16th century stone inscription just inside the Canongate front door. "That’s stood me in good stead a couple of times," says Byng, ushering me inside.
The first thing you notice are the books. Hundreds and hundreds of them covering every available surface. "It is quite chaotic," admits Byng. "But that’s the nature of Canongate."
I remember someone calling Canongate anarchic. It’s a label the man in charge is happy to have. "One of our authors said anarchy is not being out of control. It’s being out of THEIR control. Anarchy can be quite a creative thing." As if proof was needed of such a philosophy, on Byng’s cluttered desk is a copy of Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi. When Canongate secured the UK rights to the book two years ago, Byng vowed: "We’re going to make this win the Booker prize." A year later he delivered on his promise - making Canongate the first Scottish publisher to capture the prestigious award.
This summer the book sold its millionth copy, Canongate’s annual turnover is up 40 per cent as a result and in February the company scooped the prestigious Publisher of the Year title at the British Book Awards.
"Life Of Pi has taken on this huge life of its own," he says. "We’re in a position now where more people want to be published by us than ever before because they can see we can publish as well as anyone in the country."
That’s the big breakthrough. For too long the publishing world has revolved around London - now it seems a small Edinburgh publisher can scoop the big prizes.
With his two-day-old stubble and wild, unkempt hair, Jamie Byng may look like a just-rescued castaway - but don’t be fooled by appearances. Remember David and Goliath? Next to the desk are piles of unsolicited manuscripts. "My job is to make highly subjective choices as to which books are worth reading and then to take them to as wide an audience as I can. We get maybe 20 or 30 manuscripts a week. The vast majority get knocked back but then there are times when you just get drawn into a book."
Legend has it that Byng works an 18-hour day. In fact, no-one at Canongate watches the clock. This is the kind of company where the most junior staff can end up running the New York office. The joint managing director even took a 50 per cent salary cut just to be involved from the start. And Byng seems a more than reasonable boss. "I’m a pretty laid-back boss but I don’t need to lose my temper or come down on people like a ton of bricks to get things done. That’s not the way I work."
It seems more like a way of life than a job. As a result, before too long, Byng suggests we adjourn to the pub.
"I like staying up late and staying out. I’m a natural hedonist I suppose," he shrugs. In the bar Byng orders a pint of Guinness, lights the first of many cigarettes and tells me his life story.
The son of the Earl of Stafford, it’s not exactly a tale of rags to riches. "There’s no question I came from a privileged background but its what you do with it that counts. When I first came up to Edinburgh, a lot of people from similar backgrounds to me deserved to be treated with disdain. They were complete t*****s."
He came to Edinburgh University to study English, but Byng escaped the world of New Town student dinner parties by starting a nightclub called Chocolate City. "On a good night we’d get a grand cash in hand. I liked that," he laughs. Then came Canongate.
"I called a friend and told her I really wasn’t enjoying my post-graduate degree and she said why don’t you try publishing. As soon as I walked into Canongate, it felt like home."
But it was a home in trouble. Founded in 1973, Canongate specialised in Scottish writing and had built up an outstanding backlist of Scots authors like Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Alasdair Gray. But by the early 1990s it was faltering and was on the verge of bankruptcy. When the receivers were called in in 1994 Jamie decided to launch his own rescue package, backed by the financial clout of his stepfather, BBC chairman Sir Christopher Bland.
Suddenly, he was in charge of the company he first joined as an unpaid volunteer. Then the hard work really started, carving a niche and establishing a hot reputation among readers and authors. Looking back, he says the perception within the company was relief that its independence and, of course, jobs would be secured when he took over. But he admits he was irked by the suggestion of outsiders that his multi-millionaire stepdad had bought the company for him as a rich kid’s toy. "I suppose I was an easy target because I came from England and if someone wants to dwell on where I’ve come from as a person or who my relations are then that’s up to them. But my stepdad’s involvement was limited and there’s no way you can live off your connections alone."
Byng insists the company’s transformation is a team effort. But watching the Guinness flow and Byng work the crowd at the bar, there’s no doubt his style and personality have driven Canongate’s success.
But will the story have a happy ending? Every week brings fresh speculation the company will be sold. Editorial director Judy Moir has just stepped down after admitting she doesn’t see "eye to eye" with Byng and that she was exhausted. And Byng’s separation from his wife Whitney, a talented figurative painter with whom he has a daughter Marley, six, and five-year-old son Leo, only fuelled rumours of a permanent move to London. So is last week’s announcement of the opening of a London office, the beginning of the end of Canongate in Edinburgh?
"Over my dead body," says Byng. "In the last 25 years most of the independents have been swallowed up by the conglomerates. But there’s no reason why that has to happen.
"To sacrifice my independence, sell up and move down south goes against everything I’ve ever believed in. And I love the fact that publishers down in London don’t have a clue what we’re going to come out with next," he grins.
Canongate’s London office, which it aims to open by January, won’t involve a single transfer within the company’s 17-strong workforce, and in fact the office is not even expected to have full-time staff. Instead he says, it’s an "efficiency measure" as both he and Canongate managing director, David Graham, already spend much of their time in London and need a base from which to liaise with the rest of the staff when meeting authors and industry contacts there.
Of course everyone loves a success. What would he say, I wonder, if Rupert Murdoch offered him a million pounds a year to head up part of his worldwide publishing empire? Byng drains the last of his pint, licks his lips and smiles. "I’d tell him to go **** himself," he says.
And I really think he would.
•Catch Stephen Jardine’s interview with Jamie Byng in The Talent, on ITV this Friday at 11pm.