Feature: Kate MacLeary, editor of Scottish biannual journal Gutter, reflects on ten years in print

Last month I attended the Edinburgh Book Festival and, representing Gutter, chatted to a room full of publishers, agents and authors from around the world about the magazine I co-edit and its important place within Scottish publishing. However, just two short years ago, the situation could not have been more different as Gutter faced total collapse. Here I reflect on the origins of the magazine, talk about our plans for the future and, crucially, explain how the magazine was saved from the brink.

Kate MacLeary
Kate MacLeary

Gutter started life in Glasgow in 2009, headed up by editor and paediatric consultant, Colin Begg who, joined by former publisher, Adrian Searle, saw an opening in the Scottish writing scene for a literary magazine that was inclusive, but one that pushed the envelope, championing the best new voices in Scottish literature.

Gutter’s main advantage lay in its professional standard of publication via Searle’s then-emerging publishing company, Freight Books. With in-house graphic designers producing slick cover designs (courtesy of former parent company, Freight Design), the magazine was eye-catching, sleek and high quality. At 160 pages, it was a journal rather than a ‘zine; a book chock-full of poetry and prose, produced twice yearly.

In 2014 the magazine was re-branded for the first time, the block-colour cover design replaced with geometric pattern. But Gutter was never reliant on design alone, its clout lay firmly in the big names gracing its pages. Established literary figureheads such as Liz Lochhead, Louise Welsh and Janice Galloway rubbed shoulders with emerging new writers. This crucial support from the heroes of Scottish literature set Gutter apart as an important journal, one that writers strive to include on their literary CV.

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At the time of this rebrand I started work with Freight Books and was introduced to Gutter. It was a publication that immediately captured my imagination and quickly became something of a passion project as I brainstormed with colleague Robbie Guillory ways to improve the reach of the mag. Later, Laura Waddell brought her PR and marketing expertise on board and, with the support of existing editors Henry Bell and Colin Begg, a core team was formed.

The magazine gathered momentum and, over the next two years, new Reviews Editors were introduced, with Ryan Vance, Katy Hastie and Calum Rodger taking on the roles. Gutter continued to stamp its dynamic presence on Scottish publishing, acting as a platform for new writing, featuring fresh reviews and hosting events. It was a vibrant time for the magazine and indeed for new writing in Scotland.

However, all was not well at Freight Books. In 2017, the company formally went into administration, its directors having parted ways acrimoniously. As the liquidators seized assets, books were pulped and authors left without payment. The scandal rocked the literary community and, overnight, a well-established Scottish publishing house was no more. The outlook for Gutter seemed bleak. With no funding and without the resources of our former publisher, the team faced a choice – sink or swim.

This period represented a new era for Gutter – a rebirth – as we decided to form a co-operative, combining specialisms of the staff who had worked so hard on the magazine over the years to form an eight-strong team and new Gutter board. We took the bold decision to self-publish Issue 17, painfully aware that lack of continuity significantly increased the risk of the magazine folding. As lead editors, myself, Henry and Colin joined forces in a bid to save Gutter and scraped together the money needed to produce the issue. It was a difficult time: every aspect of production from in-house design to existing print contracts were no longer accessible to us and it was a steep learning curve to realise how much we’d taken for granted producing the magazine under the wing of an established publisher. Nevertheless, we persevered and delivered the issue we felt our loyal readership deserved. It wasn’t perfect, but it was out there, an achievement against the odds.

Our tenacity paid off and in 2018 we were awarded Creative Scotland funding, securing the future of the magazine for a further four issues. This demonstration of faith in Gutter and its importance within Scottish literature gave us much needed resources and renewed vigour to continue to act as a platform for new writers, showcasing the high quality writing our readers have come to expect, whilst giving us realistic scope to think about future development. More importantly, for the first time ever, it allowed us to pay contributors for their work, something we feel is vitally important.

Our success continued apace, and last summer we had the opportunity to collaborate with the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF), who commissioned us to produce a supplement to Issue 18 titled The Freedom Papers. With the festival themed around ‘Freedom’, the publication featured essays from international writers such as Michel Faber and Afua Hirsch and represents our most ambitious project to date. In addition to being featured as Radio 4’s Book of the Week, The Freedom Papers was the best-selling publication at EIBF 2018. No mean feat for a magazine that just a year earlier could easily have ceased trading.

Now, with four issues behind us as a co-operative, I feel we have found our stride and last month we rebranded the magazine, introducing a bold new cover design and taking on feedback from our readership in an effort to improve the layout and overall reading experience. It’s critical to us that Gutter continues to evolve and improve, something the editors have strived to achieve since day one, but which feels especially important since forming as an independent co-operative. We are never complacent, having already overcome so much.

Looking towards 2020, the future of Gutter looks bright. As we work on our upcoming issue with The Scottish BAME Writers Network, we look forward to forming new collaborations and undertaking projects representing the diverse and the traditional as well as international identities. The magazine is constantly evolving and, though the publication has its roots firmly in Scotland, we hope to work on a number of international projects over the coming years. Fundamentally however, the magazine exists to showcase new voices and it’s always a buzz to discover a piece of poetry or prose that makes the reader feel excited. It makes my job as an editor a real pleasure and I feel honoured to be involved in giving new writers a platform to publish their work.

Despite the challenges of previous years, Gutter is thriving, with the latest issue featuring new work from William Boyd and Leila Aboulela and an interview with literary legend Alasdair Gray. We recognise the importance of small press publishing in Scotland and, thanks to the commitment of our strong and determined team, Gutter prevails. However, this would not be possible without the unwavering support of contributors, subscribers, friends and patrons who are the lifeblood of the magazine. With continued backing from our supporters old and new, I am confident that this publication is heading in a new and exciting direction.

Gutter is available to purchase as a single issue or by yearly subscription via the website, www.guttermag.co.uk/subscribe