Stephen McGinty: Mainstream’s final chapter

Bill Campbell, left, and Peter MacKenzie with some of the many books they published. Picture: Julie Bull
Bill Campbell, left, and Peter MacKenzie with some of the many books they published. Picture: Julie Bull
Share this article
Have your say

Stephen McGinty mourns loss of the publisher that played a major role in reinvigorating the Scottish literary scene over the past 35 years

Timing, as they say in publishing, is everything. On Thursday afternoon the literati of Scotland received an e-mail from the Saltire Society announcing a new award for publishers to celebrate excellence and innovation. An hour later, Mainstream Publishing, which over the past 35 years has helped to reinvigorate Scottish publishing, announced a most regrettable and novel innovation – namely, its demise.

By 31 December, the company that – along with Canongate –helped to breath life back into the moribund indigenous Scottish publishing will end its long relationship with the written word. There is a sad irony in the fact that a company born in the optimistic year prior to the first referendum on devolution should die in the year prior to the first referendum on independence.

The genesis of Mainstream is to be found at the University of Edinburgh, where Bill Campbell, a student of history, was first introduced at an editorial meeting of the student magazine to Peter MacKenzie, who was then studying economics and accountancy.

Their art of publishing, which began by a dabble in student papers, moved to a larger canvas when the pair joined the Student Publications Board and widened its remit from newspapers and magazines to books. Among their debut titles was Alternative Edinburgh co-authored by Gordon Brown, who even then preached the importance of prudence and advised his fellow students to avoid the pay toilets at Waverley Station and instead ride the service elevator up to the Balmoral Hotel and so spend a penny among more luxurious surroundings.

In 1978, the year Ally MacLeod announced that Scotland would win the World Cup, Campbell and MacKenzie were gripped by the same can-do confidence, though with slightly better results, and so decided to launch into the world of publishing.

Five years previously, Canongate had been set up and there was a new feeling of confidence in the country driven by the rise of the SNP, the discovery of North Sea oil and the prospect of the forthcoming referendum on devolution. Rather ironically for a company devoted to factual books, Mainstream Publishing was founded on a fib as both Campbell and MacKenzie each secured a £1,000 bank loan by insisting the funds were for “home improvements”. But in truth it was really only Campbell’s flat that was refurbished – as a temporary office, with books soon piled high. In the early days, books would keep him awake at night, quite literally, with unsold volumes so tightly-packed under his bed that they pushed up the mattress into painful ridges, leaving him tossing and turning, like a hairier version of the princess troubled by the pea.

In the beginning, each book was packed off by Campbell and MacKenzie, or crammed into their car boot and back seat and then driven around Britain’s independent book stores in the hope that they might find a welcome home.

Invoices were typed up and dispatched by MacKenzie, who then had to phone up and harass people for payment.

In the beginning, the funds for one book would allow them to invest in a second. Mainstream’s first break came when Canongate suggested it might like to take a look at a title it had, surprisingly, rejected. It was an unpublished diary by Robert Louis Stevenson of his travels in France and The Cevennes Journal became an international hit.

Despite the failure of the devolution referendum and Campbell and MacKenzie’s bitter disappointment, the company began to steadily grow and moved out of Campbell’s flat into an office on East Thistle Street and, later, the town house on Albany Street. At first they published Scottish books for Scottish people. The international appeal of Gordon Brown’s biography of James Maxton, father of the Labour Party, was always going to be rather slim, but when they struck a rich seam, boy, did they dig deep.

The modern football book was largely invented by Mainstream, with previous publishers perhaps snobbishly unsure of the average fan’s facility with words – this, of course, being the 1980s prior to Fever Pitch. Still, when Campbell and co published Alex Ferguson’s first volume of autobiography, Light In The Night, in 1986 following Aberdeen’s European Cup Winners’ Cup victory (secured by the simple act of picking up the phone and asking the Aberdeen manager if he fancied writing a book), it did result in mounted police having to provide crowd control – a first for a literary signing. As Campbell once said: “I call it guerrilla publishing. We see an area, move in and fill it as quickly as possible.”

The literary trend for sport books was then followed by true crime and the misery memoir, including the memorably titled Ma, He Sold Me For A Few Cigarettes. But over the years, they did on occasion come a cropper. The publisher’s best-selling title Jihad!, the memoir of as SAS officer’s adventures in Northern Ireland, Oman and Afghanistan, was ruined slightly by the discovery by the BBC that the author had not served with the Special Air Service in those locations.

Their best-selling misery memoir Don’t Ever Tell was denounced as, largely, a fabrication by seven brothers and sisters of the author, while James Mackay, one of Mainstream’s most prolific authors, was accused of “a spectacular and sustained act of plagiarism” over his biography of John Paul Jones, the Scots founder of the US navy.

Yet, the late Dr Mackay was also the author of one of Mainstream’s best-selling titles, William Wallace: Braveheart, commissioned for £2,000 after Campbell spotted a small clipping about Mel Gibson’s plans to make a movie about the Scots hero.

It may be fair to say that no Mainstream author got rich on their advance, but then again the company opened the doorway into print for authors who might not have enjoyed the experience otherwise. And when Campbell and Mackenzie believed in a book, they invested in it. One of the more lasting legacies from the 2,000 books they published was Duncan Macmillan’s Scottish Art: 1460-1990, which cost £100,000 to produce but continues to sell 20 years later. However, among the titles offered but rejected as not quite for Mainstream’s market was Ian Rankin’s first novel featuring Inspector Rebus. At the time, it was a fair call, as the publisher rarely published novels, preferring instead the more secure and lucrative market for non-fiction. But it must still, on occasion, keep the founders awake at night.

Over the past 35 years, Mainstream has moved from a publisher of Scottish books for Scottish readers to a more international publishing house with only 25 per cent of sales in Scotland, so there will be those who may imagine its demise is less of a blow, but I would disagree.

We still don’t know exactly the reason the shutters will come down on Mainstream in December. In an interview on the 30th anniversary, Campbell said: “I suppose, ultimately, the hope is that long after Peter and I are gone, there will still be a Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh-based and still a forward-thinking company.” Sadly, it would appear not.

A few years ago, Random House bought half the company, with the understanding that it would eventually purchase the remainder. Will this still go ahead?

What is curious is that Mainstream has remained a profitable company – no mean feat in the current economic climate, especially with the transition among readers from print to Kindles and iPads. According to the latest accounts, filed on 31 December, 2011, the company made a profit of £847,526, up from £796,722 the previous year.

Over the years, Bill and Peter have been described as the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid of publishing, a description with which one of their authors would concur: “They are cowboys, but at least they are the ones wearing the white hats, you can see them coming.”

In the absence of the massed guns of the Bolivian army, we don’t know why they are bursting out the door, ready to dissolve from colour into fateful black and white, but it is still Scotland’s loss.