Against all odds: The rebirth of Scottish publishing

Robert Davidson, founder of Sandstone Press, the Scottish publisher of the Man Booker International Prize-winning Celestial Bodies – is in Gatwick Airport, trying to get his head round the events of the previous 24 hours.
Jokha Alharthi at a photocall after winning the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. Picture: Peter Summers/GettyJokha Alharthi at a photocall after winning the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. Picture: Peter Summers/Getty
Jokha Alharthi at a photocall after winning the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. Picture: Peter Summers/Getty

Historian Bettany Hughes’ announcement that Jokha Alharthi’s novel on Oman’s history of slavery had scooped this year’s award unleashed a frenzy of interest in the Dingwall-based publisher responsible for delivering it to an English-speaking audience.

“When I last looked an hour ago, it was No 1 in Amazon’s contemporary fiction and No 4 on Amazon overall,” says Davidson.

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It’s an astonishing achievement. The first print run for Celestial Bodies was a mere 1,000. Two thousand more were printed when it was long-listed and a further 2,000 when it was short-listed.

The Sandstone team, including Robert Davidson and his partner, Moira Forsyth (right), and Kay Farrell (centre)The Sandstone team, including Robert Davidson and his partner, Moira Forsyth (right), and Kay Farrell (centre)
The Sandstone team, including Robert Davidson and his partner, Moira Forsyth (right), and Kay Farrell (centre)

“Although we were not complacent, we were prepared for a win,” says Davidson. “We knew what we would do in terms of marketing. The cover with the winner badge on it was already with the printer.

“When the announcement came, we [Bob, his partner and editorial director, Moira Forsyth, and assistant publisher Kay Farrell] pressed the button on our biggest-ever print run. The next morning, Kay knocked on our door to tell us what had been happening on her Twitter feed overnight, so we upped it by a third. And we anticipate yet another print run next week.”

Sandstone – which is in the process of moving to premises in Inverness – had already agreed a deal with a publisher in India, and contracts with publishers in Australia and the US could well be signed within a fortnight.

For a small outfit, a prize like this one can be transformative. “International publishers and agents have now got the company on their radar,” says Marion Sinclair, chief executive of Publishing Scotland. “It’s like a calling card, so, when they go to book fairs and they are trying to sell foreign rights, they can say: ‘Of course, we have Celestial Bodies and it won the Man Booker International Prize.’ It’s a vindication of their editorial judgment.”

The company’s most recent success comes at a time when there seems to be a renewed buzz around books.

Twenty years ago, doomsayers were predicting the internet and social media would sound a death knell for the printed word. Yet last week, the announcement of a publication date for the final book in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy was met with the kind of hype associated with the reforming of an 80s rock band, while the death of Judith Kerr – author of The Tiger Who Came To Tea – prompted a mass outpouring of grief.

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Though the number of platforms on which to write about new books is diminishing – particularly with the recent suspension of the printed version of the Scottish Review of Books – 16.3 million were sold in Scotland last year, with a 2.5 per cent increase in spending. There has also been an explosion in the number of book festivals. In Scotland, Aye Write, Wigtown, Ullapool, Islay, Bloody Scotland and other festivals are growing, while Cymera, the first ever festival for fantasy, sci- fi and horror is launching next month.

Independent books shops are on the rise too, particularly in Edinburgh. Topping has opened a branch in Blenheim Place, the Portobello Book Shop is due to open in the summer and, earlier this month, Golden Hare Books won best independent book shop at the British Book Awards.

Given the symbiotic nature of these things, Scottish publishing is also experiencing an upturn. Established companies such as Sandstone, Birlinn and Canongate are continuing to find and promote fresh voices in fiction and non-fiction. Floris, which publishes children’s books, is also thriving, along with Barrington Stoke, which specialises in books for reluctant readers

The collapse of Freight Books in 2017 has been offset by the arrival of new niche publishers including 404 Ink, which specialises in edgy works, such as Nasty Women and Chris McQueer’s short short story collection, Hings. Charco (Latin American books in translation); Knight Errant (Queer literature) and Little Door (children’s books) are also adding vibrancy to the scene.

The past few years have brought accolades aplenty. Jane Rogers’ The Testament Of Jessie Lamb, published by Sandstone, was long-listed for the Booker proper in 2011, while Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, published by Saraband, was shortlisted for the same award in 2016. Last year, Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari, published by Luath, won the Orwell, while Stuart Cosgrove’s Memphis 68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul, published by Birlinn, picked up the Penderyn Music Book Prize.

Still, life in publishing is not all milk and Gail Honeyman. Independent publishers operate on small margins and high risk; they find it difficult to get access to chain stores and supermarkets and have smaller marketing budgets to promote their wares.

At the same time, authors continue to struggle to make a living; advances have shrunk over the past decade and recent figures suggest the average wage is £10,500 (even lower in Scotland). Cuts to libraries are affecting readership and sales, and that all-devouring monster, Amazon, is eating into profits.

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“The atmosphere is buoyant at the moment,” says Sinclair. “There is evidence print sales are up, so we seem, finally, to be coming to some sort of accommodation between Ebooks and print. Changes in Waterstone’s business model have stabilised the company and there has been a growth in the number of independent book shops.

“Still, there’s a recognition that, in all our content industries, things can be difficult – and it’s important not to be complacent. Sandstone’s prize is a great bonus; it encourages others to be ambitious in their commissioning, but everyone still has to put in a lot of work behind the scenes.”

A thriving publishing trade is both economically and culturally significant. In the UK as a whole, the industry has a Gross Added Value of more than £11bn and provides 192,000 jobs.

Disaggregated figures for Scotland are hard to come by, a result, says Sinclair, of the blurring of lines over what ought to be counted, but an estimated 250 books a month are published north of the border, including school books and Bibles, and the country appears to punch above its weight.

“We used to say we were on a comparable scale to cashmere and salmon – so roughly around £300m – although salmon has outstripped us now,” she says.

Just as important as its economic contribution is the way a nation’s book industry helps shape its identity. “The post-war period was such a doldrums for Scottish publishing,” says Sinclair. “Ever since the 1970s, we have been trying to catch up, rescuing neglected classics and neglected areas. It’s so important to have that written record.”

One of the publishers playing a key role in recording the country’s story is Edinburgh-based Birlinn which produces a wealth of Scottish interest books. Last year, its Polygon imprint marked the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth by reprinting all 22 of her novels in hardback editions – a move which proved popular, but was not a huge earner.

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Like Sandstone, Birlinn began life in a back bedroom when Hugh Andrew – then a sales rep, who kept being asked for Para Handy – decided to publish it himself. “Today, we publish 160 books a year and have more than 1,000 titles in print at any one time,” says director Jan Rutherford. “In 25 years that’s pretty rapid growth, but it’s not easy. Every year you just don’t know how it is going to go.”

Rutherford, who is also managing director of Publicity and the Printed Word, says a particular challenge is that Historic Environment Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland properties don’t support heritage books in the way they used to. “A country that prides itself on its history and culture seems to value sales of unicorns and rubber ducks more than books by its finest writers with global following; in short, the type of books that would sell in equivalent sites anywhere else in Europe,” she says.

If HES and the NTS don’t recognise the importance of publishing, then Nicola Sturgeon certainly does. She is an evangelist for books in general, regularly tweeting her recommendations and starting up the First Minister’s Reading Challenge. She also gave a keynote address at last year’s Society of Young Publishers conference and this year’s Scottish Book Trade Conference.

“I think her support has given an enormous boost to the industry,” says agent Jenny Brown, of Jenny Brown Associates. “I don’t think there was anyone at the Book Trade Conference who didn’t ask for a selfie with her afterwards. They were thrilled to have her there.”

Unfortunately, it requires more than enthusiasm to ensure small independents can compete with their London rivals. Even a win like Sandstone’s can be a double-edged sword. “What usually happens when a book is successful is that a reprint is licensed to a larger publisher,” says Marc Lambert, CEO of the Scottish Book Trust.

“Take Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari. It was a huge success for Luath Press, but Darren’s next book is with Penguin. Why does this happen? Because the bigger publishers have the economies of scale and the reach that allows them to supply all the bookshops in Britain and to negotiate foreign rights and so forth.”

As Rutherford points out, some successful authors have been loyal to their Scottish publishers. Alexander McCall Smith’s first novels were published by Polygon (before it was taken over by Birlinn). Today, his most successful series, the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is published by Abacus, but Polygon publishes the Scotland Street series and a number of stand-alone books.

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Other authors who continue to have their work published north of the border include Macrae Burnet, Cosgrove and Alistair Moffat, but Lambert says these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

“In terms of Celestial Bodies, it may well be [Alharthi] chooses to remain with the small publisher she knows and trusts, but I would suspect her next book will become part of a bidding war which will take it way beyond Sandstone’s capabilities and she will probably end up with another house.

“That’s the reality of the situation. It’s a highly competitive market and in the past ten to 15 years we have seen huge consolidation. Penguin Random House is already enormous, but when you realise the parent company is Bertelsmann, which is a German multi-media giant, well, you are talking about a worldwide publishing operation which can sell rights across the board in multiple countries and negotiate rights for film, TV and any other kind of spin-off.”

Rutherford says small Scottish publishers are at a disadvantage when it comes to large retailers. “A lot of the bigger authors, especially crime or genre writers, expect their books to be in supermarkets, but Scottish publishers have very little access to supermarkets because they only buy from the big five,” she says.

According to Lambert, the failure to rise to this challenge was one of the factors behind Freight’s demise. “They were publishing a huge number of books per year, but they weren’t bothering to market them and weren’t penetrating the market sufficiently down south,” he says.

“Dealing with Waterstones, you have to give away 60 per cent of the margin and it’s an unfavourable trading condition. On the other hand, if your book isn’t in Waterstones then it is going to suffer. It’s the same with Amazon.”

The pressure to give discounts hurts authors too; those like Honeyman who find themselves at the centre of a bidding war and end up with six-figure advances, are few and far between.

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More representative (in terms of earnings, at least) is the experience of Ever Dundas, whose debut novel Goblin was highly acclaimed and went on to win the Saltire First Book of the Year in 2017.

Goblin was taken on by Freight, but, by the time of the book’s launch, the company had collapsed, leaving Dundas and other authors in the lurch and bereft of royalties. Relatively speaking, she was one of the lucky ones. Her book had already gone to print, all the press releases had gone out, and within a few months she had secured a deal with Saraband.

Yet, despite many positive reviews, Goblin was not enough to put Dundas on a stable financial footing. She has only been able to write her second novel – HellSans – thanks to a Creative Scotland grant.

“I have found members of the public have a really skewed idea of what authors earn,” she says. “When I told people I had a publishing contract many of them said: ‘Wow, is it enough to live on?’ I said: ‘Enough to live on? Are you kidding me?’”

Dundas says most of the authors she knows work full or part-time while they write to survive. Her situation is different because she has a chronic illness and was on benefits by the time she finished writing Goblin. The Creative Scotland grant saved her from benefits this time round, but that money will soon run out.

“I don’t think the publishing industry is very good when it comes to people with disabilities or chronic illnesses or single parents in terms of travel and writers’ retreats and fellowships,” she says. “There’s a lot of lip service about diversity, but I don’t think anything is really happening.”

Of course, publishers would argue their position was equally precarious. “Scotland’s publishing scene is mostly comprised of small indies. Like any small business, there is a vulnerability to risk and squeezed margins,” says Laura Waddell, UK publishing director for Tramp Press.

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“I think looking at the tax breaks Amazon gets would be a massive help. Book shops are not doing badly, but it is a concern they are facing quite high rates so their online competitors are able to undercut them. An even playing field in the retail space would be really helpful.”

I t is a testament to the dedication and tenacity of all involved that, despite the odds, so many independent Scottish companies continue to nurture fresh talent.

“I think it’s fair to say we have some really brave publishing in Scotland,” says Sinclair, “and I mean brave both in terms of what they are publishing and in terms of keeping going year after year. Even though the returns are not always fabulous, they keep plugging away at this area of culture.”

In Gatwick Airport, man-of-the-moment Davidson shares everyone else’s concerns about issues such as distribution. But, still on a high, he seems confident about Sandstone’s future.

Among other things, he is looking forward to the forthcoming publication of The Burning Glass, a biography of Naomi Mitchison by Jenni Calder, and the start of a major new Norwegian TV series based on two books by Sandstone author Jorn Lier Horst.

Davidson plans to invest whatever dividends are reaped from the success of Celestial Bodies in new works. “I hope the Man Booker International Prize will bring financial stability… which we will then risk again,” he says, in a manner that leaves you wondering if the gamble isn’t half the attraction.