Stephen McGinty: Canongate celebrates 40 years

Jamie Byng arrived at Canongate in the 1990s, bringing with him public relations nous that was to turn the publisher's fortunes around and an avid reader's eye for a good tale. Picture: Jane Barlow
Jamie Byng arrived at Canongate in the 1990s, bringing with him public relations nous that was to turn the publisher's fortunes around and an avid reader's eye for a good tale. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Canongate’s 40th anniversary is not just a chance to celebrate Scottish literature, it’s about shining light on our national character, writes Stephen McGinty

WHEN Canongate finally published Lanark by Alasdair Gray in 1981, the book launch took place at lunch time at the Third Eye Centre in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow, the city that suffused each page of what is still considered by many to be the greatest Scots novel of the 20th century.

At the time the publishing house, founded by Stephanie Wolf Murray and her husband Angus in 1973, was eight years old and had already set the mould for its future incarnation by courting controversy with the publication in 1976 of A Sense of Freedom, the impassioned, eloquent memoir of Jimmy Boyle, one of Scotland’s most notorious criminals. Canongate also published the New Testament in Scots, illustrating that the finest publishing houses can have, among their stable of authors, both Christ and the Devil.

On Thursday evening, Canongate will throw another party, this time in Edinburgh at the Jam House, where Alasdair Gray will once again read from Lanark, but in the company of musicians and movies as the Edinburgh publisher celebrates its 40th anniversary with an literary extravaganza, open to the public, that marks an illustrious past and bright future. Among the highlights there will be a screening of a short clip from Under The Skin, the film adaptation of Michel Faber’s first novel, published by Canongate in 2000 and starring Scarlett Johansson as a man-devouring alien loose in the Highlands.

When Stephanie Wolf Murray set up Canongate with £5,000 it was with a view “to be good publishers in Scotland rather than good Scottish publishers”. There is a difference and it is one to which Canongate has successfully clung. For the first 20 years under Wolf Murray, the publisher steadily grew with the occasional helping hand from the Scottish Arts Council, which helped to fund the elaborate costs of Lanark. Among the books that proved particularly successful in the 1980s was The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, an academic at Glasgow University who had toiled for years on a vast Dickensian mystery.

By the time it was taken over by Musterlin in 1987, the company’s turnover had risen to £250,000 and by 1990 when its parent company ran aground financially it was at £750,000. Today, annual turnover is around £10 million, the success of which is largely down to one man: Jamie Byng.

The second son of the 8th Earl of Strafford started doing work experience at Canongate in 1992. A graduate in English literature at Edinburgh University, he also worked at the time on his dissertation: “A development of the black oral tradition in hip hop lyrics”. Put in charge of PR, he discovered how dismissive the southern press could be of Scottish authors, a point he never forgot. Although born into the aristocracy, he has always insisted it was genteel poverty with the sprawling house, Abbots Worthy in Hampshire, in a “dilapidated” state and his father working as a gardener at the local nursery.

As a child he had been intimidated by books, until he discovered To Kill A Mockingbird and then the key clicked and turned and a world opened out.

Two years after joining Canongate, at the age of 24, he bought the company from the receivers, partly assisted by a loan of £80,000 from his stepfather, Sir Christopher Bland. He was told at the time of his elevation to management: “cut your hair”. It is a piece of advice he has studiously refused to heed.

He began by rebranding the company and launching hip spin-off labels such as Payback and Rebel Inc, then discovered that God’s grip on the copyright of the Bible wasn’t as secure as he had previously thought and that Byng was legally free to cut it up into its individual books, repackage them with introductions by eye-catching authors such as Bono, the Dalai Lama and Bob Dylan and enjoy considerable financial success.

If Sir Richard Branson reflects the values of Virgin, then Jamie Byng has, since 1994, been the public face of Canongate, earning a reputation as the “bad boy of books” with his partying life-style. He simply treated books like they were records and recognised that authors, like bands, wanted to relate to a managing director whose favourite reading wasn’t restricted to financial records and recognised a good party or, indeed, how to start one.

It was this personal touch that secured Canongate’s financial security and reputation when he sat down in 2001 to write a long, handwritten letter to Yann Martel, whose new book, The Life of Pi, Byng loved but whose advance of £15,000 could only match the author’s current publisher, Faber & Faber not top it. The letter worked, Martel moved to Canongate and the next year the book secured the first Booker prize for a Scottish publisher and, to date, has poured around £5 million into the company’s coffers.

In 2006, Byng was tipped off by an Australian friend, Michael Heyward about a memoir by a US senator called Dreams From My Father. Byng read the book, loved it, and bought the unsold British rights along with the politician’s manifesto, The Audacity of Hope and watched, delighted, when the author, Barack Obama, successfully ran for president of the United States and his books flew off the shelves.

Five years later, when Byng bought the rights to the memoir of Julian Assange, the founder of Wiki-leaks, eyebrows were raised at the paradox of a Scottish publishing house handling both the president of the United States and the man considered by many to be a grave threat to said country’s national security. But in doing so Byng was merely carrying on a proud Scottish tradition began by the late, great Giles Gordon, who was literary agent for both Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, and Peter Wright, the retired and renegade MI5 spy who wrote Spycatcher.

Gordon was once accosted by a spook in the toilets of a London club – think creaking leather Chesterfields, not “psst wanna buy an E?” – and told to drop Wright if he wanted to keep Charles. Instead he refused and managed to keep both. Interesting that Gordon, who died in 2003, refused to let his authors near Canongate at the time on account of their poor advances. Yet what Byng then lacked in money, he made up for in love of books and authors and fizzing enthusiasm.

There are those who sit on the sidelines and mutter that, well, Canongate isn’t really a Scottish publisher anymore as if an annual turnover of £10m and a full-time staff of 37, three quarters of whom are still based in Edinburgh should be a source of shame rather than one of tremendous pride. Yet it is an argument that can certainly be made, flawed and dysfunctional though it is, of the 40 original titles the company publishes each year less than 5 per cent may be by Scottish authors, some years perhaps none.

And didn’t Canongate walk away from publishing Sir Sean Connery’s long-awaited memoirs when the actor insisted the majority of the words be about Scotland and not himself? In retrospect, it was a wise move as the public also walked off in the other direction when presented with the finished product which promptly flopped.

Yet which publisher has resurrected the literary career of William McIlvanney, who for many years had felt himself on the ropes and ignored, until Canongate sat down for lunch with his literary agent, Jenny Brown, and struck a deal which will see his entire back catalogue back in print by the end of next year and a new generation of readers in Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Holland now sampling the street philosophy of Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw.

There is even the prospect of a new seventies set TV series on McIlvanney’s Glasgow detective, an antidote to what he viewed as the poison of Taggart. Is Canongate a Scottish publisher still, both in spirit as in physical location? Alan Spence, Alastair Gray and Anne Donavan would all argue a resounding yes.

So what do you give a publisher for its birthday, especially one as important as a 40th? Words – and these have been mine – but perhaps the last should go to Byng who remains resolutely positive in the face of a future that will see books either transformed into beautiful objects of art or disappearing into bytes on a computer screen.

As he told The Scotsman last year: “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.”