A Unionist did something momentous for me the other day. He made me think for the first time about what it means to be a publisher.
It’s not that it’s the first time that’s occurred to me, but it is the first time I’ve keenly felt the burden of responsibility of such a job. The day job of a publisher is to help authors to impart a version of the world, to the world. To help them find the words, or at least find the people who can help them find the words. To simultaneously be an author’s psychiatrist, consigliere and punching bag. To then repeat those roles for everyone else in the process, from sales teams, to booksellers, to the process’ most important role, the reader.
But through this small, incremental process, we are taking on a much greater role; we are judge and jury of the written word of an entire culture. We have to make economic choices about which stories we allow the world to hear, which are ‘worthy’ too; the body of work published by a country’s publishers comes to represent the country itself – attitudes, mythology, history. A publisher is, for better or worse, the gatekeeper of which tales, tall or true, are to be read by the world and inadvertently, a guardian of the impression the world has of us.
One of these gatekeepers is Hugh Andrew, MD of Birlinn, who asserts that Scottish writers will be “foreign” to England in an independent Scotland in his blog for Think Scotland. That an “artificial wall” will be erected, presumably around the M25 to prevent even the slightest hint of an ‘aye’ or ‘widnae’ entering publications made by the “London-dominated” publishing industry. He also describes the way in which “the Scottish market in books is largely homogeneous with England – for every 19 books sold, only 1 can be classified as distinctive.”
First of all, I’m glad to see one of Scotland’s leading publishers is a handy creative writer himself; his comparison of an independent Scotland’s book trade to Ireland’s book market marks another spine-tingling tale from the literary canon of doom that is independence. I hope soon to see drawn together into a collection, “Project Fear”, with Unionist contributors telling us of the horrors that befall all who control their own affairs.
Ireland’s book market has evolved into its current form over a hundred years and is a highly individual case in culture and economics. We could just as easily point to Norway’s ‘foreign to England’ policy, where authors are paid £19,000 per annum by the government and the publishing body controls the whole book trade for the benefit of all authors, or the Catalan publishing trade, which in the face of the Spanish market’s total and utter collapse, is thriving and in its own language too. Sadly, Mr. Andrew’s campfire scare stories are more tittle-tattle than Telltale Heart; this is the recycling of a tired Unionist narrative, where England‘s trade will suddenly spite logic and shut up shop to Scottish business. The problem with horror stories is that they have to have an air of believability to them to be truly scary.
Mr. Andrew also seems to be arguing that independence will bring a parochial, insular quality to Scottish publishing; in which case, it would be far more in keeping with the London attitude. London, by no fault of its own, is the most parochial place I can think of. Mr. Andrew hails its success, when culturally its sheer gravitational pull on all resources surrounding means the whole institution is barely tethered to earth and in danger floating away in a balloon of self-important hot-air. Putting London at the heart of all political decisions has left us with a woefully imbalanced economic policy and cultural centralisation; contrast this to the balance and parity in resources and culture in evolved nations like Germany or the US. The city is its own state that now bears little resemblance to England, never mind Scotland. Its media decides what is important to London and publishes accordingly. Its publishers follow that tact, and inevitably, the artists there dance to the tune played by those with the pursestrings. It has little to no interest in Scottish writing, outwith a few, rightly celebrated authors – but there should be far more beyond that. Should Scottish authors be changing their work and deracifiying themselves so that they can fit into the London literary parties? I would hope not. I’ve been to those parties; they’re not a marker of success, they’re just the dullest £10 Martini you’ll ever buy.
Anecdotally, I can tell you I’ve been dismissed for being a Glaswegian and having gone to a not-very- posh-at-all school; I was told this year by a major bookstore buyer before publication that our eventual bestselling Road To Referendum was about “a parochial, trivial matter.” (That’d be a book about the potential breakup of the UK, by the way. He then read it, and changed his opinion quite dramatically, placing a large order.)
Beyond anecdotal evidence of this bias? How many winners of the Booker Prize from Scotland? (One.) How many Scottish authors do the British Council regularly champion? (A handful at best.) How often each year do the heads of major book chains or prominent book editors visit Scotland? (Generally, once, for the world’s biggest book festival in August, in Edinburgh.) In short, if the best Scottish publishers can hope for is to cling desperately to the fringes of a circus that doesn’t particularly care for them, then we are in desperate straights. In many ways, we find ourselves already foreign to our nearest neighbour, a gap I believe can be bridged by entering into a new relationship of equality and mutual respect for each other’s culture.
And what is that “distinctively” Scottish; so clearly repugnant a culture that only 1 in every 19 books sold can be called it? Are Ian Rankin’s brilliant crime thrillers Scottish enough, or is there a quota of Special Brew that must be drank per 300 pages to qualify? Is AL Kennedy’s wild and wonderful prose distinctively Scottish, or do the characters just have too much joie de vivre to be true Presbyterian miserablists? Are there extra points for tartan covers – should I call Julia Donaldson and suggest she ditch her magnificent illustrator in favour of this more patriotic view? Joking aside, do none of these writers count as Scottish writers for this absurd statistic?
One of the tactics of Britishness is to absorb all success stories as “British” and to denigrate all those who refuse to join their project of presumed cultural superiority. This way, Rockstar Games and The Beatles get to be from the same culture, despite the fact they share only the fact they’ve sold rather a lot of products in the same area and are from the same, diverse island. Those who don’t sell? Well, they’ll have to ‘settle’ for being Scottish – too many Scots words! Too much Jock humour too! This will never sell!
Britishness conquers culturally by diluting individuality of the respective culture, diffusing its own image of ‘worthy’ culture and trying to create homgenity where there is none. The joy of Scottish literature is that it is highly inclusive but also a celebration of difference; I would say that Rodge Glass, Chiew Siah-Tei and Kapka Kassabova are examples of ‘distinctively’ Scottish authors, in that they are internationalist and have syncreticised their own experiences from respective homelands into the fabric of Scotland. The thing that is truly unique about Scottish art over the last few decades has been its power to attract artists internationally to live and work here.
There are a number of distinctive things about Scottish readers, too. For one, we read far more than most other nations in Europe; as the much-loved book chain Borders was going to the wall in 2009, every Scottish store was still profitable, often phenomenally so. We borrow more library books than most other nations. They might not all be Scottish books, but it shows Scots’ uncontainable thirst for books.
I always thought the duty of a publisher was to be daring, bold and brave; if we must settle for making our writing more “homogenous” with the English literary scene, I despair at the factory of fluffy genericism that will follow. And that’s the thing about Scottish publishers; traditionally, they’re pretty good at ripping up the rule book. Jamie Byng did it with Canongate, picking up the maverick mantle from Stephanie Wolfe-Murray; not long after, Kevin Williamson gave a true voice to Scottish counter-culture with the legendary Rebel Inc. Scots language books? That’ll never work. Oh, wait, James Robertson and his team proved it does, with aplomb. Hugh Andrew’s been pretty damn innovative over his illustrious publishing career too; now, there’s a new generation of Scottish publishers like Freight, Backpage and Saraband burning down the ‘conventions’ we’re all supposed to adhere to. Let’s not abandon our rebellious nature in publishing. And how are these new publishers doing this?
Clue – I’m writing this while flying over China, headed toward the Korean peninsula. Thus far this year I’ve been to Canada and France on business. (It’s a tough life us publishers have.) I’ll be taking in Japan and Hong Kong before the year is out; the Frankfurt Book Fair is on right now and our foreign rights team, run by top indie Faber & Faber, will be selling our books to hundreds of thousands of publishing professionals who descend on the German city once a year. We’ve imported too – we’ve published over 200 authors, including Will Self, Roddy Doyle, Amy Bloom, Yiyun Li – and by looking beyond our shores, we’ve not only made money selling our books, but we’ve made some beautiful books come into being.
And this is what all new publishers in Scotland are doing – looking out to the world outside. According to Publishing Scotland, Scottish publishing is worth about £343 million a year in the UK. The US book market is worth roughly $27.9 billion. Why are we liquidating our language, our internationalist outlook, our principles, into a homogenous pulp to please London’s media barons when there are these vast markets out there – Canada, Australia, India? These countries read English language books. They have an appetite for Scottish culture. And they spend, spend, spend. If your business model for Scottish publishing relies on the whims of one city, I’d suggest it’s not a very good model to start with. Digital books have opened up our world like never before to these markets – the fact that Cargo have sold around the same amount of ebooks in Germany as in the UK tells you all you need to know. Why homologize all our writing for the UK, when there are a billion English speakers who will take us as we are?
If Scottish publishers turn their heads away from London and look beyond these shores, what could hold us back? I’m in agreement with Hugh Andrew on one thing; Creative Scotland has been a policy disaster, with no interest, opinion on or policy for publishing, no financial support to publishers and a stack of horror stories that would make a nice companion to my proposed Project Fear book, for bedtime reading that will leave anybody who cares about Scottish entrepreneurship sleeping with the lights on.
But policies and quangos come and go. Confidence lasts much longer. The kind of confidence that comes with self-determination, that resonates for an age. As publishers, we spend much of our time helping our artists imagine new worlds – is it not time that we imagined one better for ourselves as publishers? What irritates me about most of the Better Together posturing such as “best of both worlds” is that Britain is the absolute best settlement that can be achieved in Scotland. Having visited many countries and seen their publishing industries at work, I can tell you that this is not the case in the slightest when it comes to publishing in Scotland; this year we’ve lost several wonderful publishers in Scotland, mostly due to this total reliance on London. We can do better, we must do better. We must look the world outside and celebrate what makes our culture special – diversity, difference and a willingness to do things differently.
Alasdair Gray’s immortal words “Work as if you live in the days of a better nation” adorn most public buildings around Scotland in some form. Ask Alasdair about it. He’ll give a chuckle and note that he has always been clear that he borrowed these from the Canadian poet Dennis Lee. Alasdair looked out internationally and as he spoke the same language as someone across a sea, translation was not the issue. The meaning was everything and in this case, the meaning was more pertinent to this country than the words’ native land; words do funny things when they travel. As soon as it was chiselled into rock all over Scotland, those words became Alasdair’s and became part of our own heritage. The words our writers write will say much about us as a people, but the stories we print, the one’s we chisel to rock will define us. I want the next story of Scotland to be one where we take a melting pot of views of Scotland is, and could be, to the whole world – as a publisher, I know it’s a story that’s been crying out to be told for a long time.