While the recession causes a frenzy of redundancies for London-based publishers. their Scottish counterparts remain optimistic. Alan Morrison reads the latest chapter on the publishing world.
If it was ever brought out as a book. the story of the contemporary London publishing scene would be one of ambition and greed. with a melodramatic and tearful climax. Crone are the days of rash takeovers and the type of ludicrous advances that gave Jeffrey Archer £1 l million for a three-book deal. In one week alone in mid-March. around 250 people working for London-based publishers lost their jobs.
In Scotland. however. the situation is not so drastic. Everyone has felt a draught from the wind of recession blowing in the south. but it seems that. having already struggled through difficult times in the 70s and 80s. Scottish firms find themselves better prepared fora recession.
Some credit for the current strength of Scottish publishing should go to the Scottish Arts Council. which for many years has had a policy ofsupporting not individual publishers. but their product. as the SAC“s literary director Walter Cairns explains. ‘A lot of publishers couldn‘t publish as much as they do now ifwe hadn‘t supported them over the years.‘ he says. ‘We believe that a healthy literary scene in Scotland is supported by having a healthy publishing scene in Scotland.‘
Scotland‘s publishing scene does include subsidiaries of the same big names who are suffering down south. Their continued success here can be explained in part by the specialist lists that distinguish each of the Scottish publishing houses.
Bartholomews. previously under the control of News International. may now be up for sale. but its hold on the maps market should provide a path out ofthe crisis.
Another ofthe larger houses. W. & R. Chambers. has a healthy Scottish list and a specialisation in dictionaries and reference books. an area that is less hit by a recession than others. In July 1989. Chambers was taken over by the French
82 The List 1‘) April — 2 May 1991
combine Group de la Cite. the group that publishes the Larousse dictionaries. thereby strengthening its specialist market. Regarding itself . as an international publisher. ‘ Chambers has been able to buck the trend of its southern rivals and expand in recent months. Its amicable takeover of Glasgow‘s Richard Drew Publishing in September 1990 has given it access to t a line that includes. amongst others. the popular heritage book Scotland in Trust— a title that will surely be a leader in the tourist market.
It is probably true to say that the reputation of the Scottish publishing industry far outweighs its position as an employer. This is mainly due to the national and international respect shown to Scotland‘s smaller. independently run houses. One of these. Canongate — set up in 1973 by husband and wife team Angus and Stephanie Wolfe Murray— was for three years part of the Musterlin group. In July 1990. the directors of
..,.. .. at} M a
Canongate began the process of a management buy-out. anticipating the event of Musterlin going into receivership. as it did in September. The directors. enjoying great support from the authors on their lists. succeeded with their buy-out in October and are now raising capital through a Business Expansion Scheme share issue.
‘We prefer being independent. because we know what is going on financially and in the book sales.’ says managing director Stephanie Wolfe Murray. "The idea ofbeing independent for Scottish reasons is lost on most people. but I think independence is important for its own sake. Book sales down south ground to almost a complete halt during the Gulf War. In Scotland we have a tourist season coming up. so the wholesalers who supply the small shops are still buying well.
‘When we do publish literary books. we know how to make it work without having to publish massive
amounts ofeopies. and we‘ve had reasonable success at selling the paperback rights ofsuch things. I’m very grateful to Scottish booksellers for their loyalty — ifwe were an English publisher. perhaps we would not get that same loyalty— although I feel that they‘re not doing it out of charity. that they get something out ofit too.‘
Mainstream. another Scottish independent. is in the unique position of having a publicity. editorial and rights office in London while keeping its head office in Edinburgh. As its name suggests. Mainstream has more of a commercial eye than its Scottish peers. Due to its wide and varied list. it would perhaps be less affected by a second threat that hangs over the recession shaken industry — the loss ofthe Net Book Agreement. which stops books being sold at discounted prices — as co-direetor Bill Campbell explains.
‘The loss ofthe NBA will necessitate every publisher to become more aggressive in a marketing sense.‘ he says. ‘and more careful in their research as to which title they actually publish. It will mean the publishers and booksellers will put all their energy and money into the lead titles and the more specialist. academic or minority areas will probably be cut back and become more expensive and less accessible.‘
One publisher who openly admits that the loss of the NBA would be a
j disaster is Polygon. which has
carried out a policy ofpublishing
: ‘risky' books from little known
writers. Polygon is perhaps more under threat than any ofits
g competitors due to the fact that it
shares its production with Edinburgh ' University Press and that the
University. with a deficit ofover £5 million. has targeted its non-teaching elements for cutbacks. The situation is unclear at the moment. because interviews are still underway for a new Secretary to the Press. who would be able to put his or her stamp on EUP and Polygon.
‘I think the Press should be all right.‘ says managing editor Marion Sinclair. ‘but Polygon is a luxury to the University as a general fiction publisher. so they may well think they can do without us.‘ Its closure would be ironic considering that earlier this year all three books shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year were Polygon titles.
Economists are predicting that the recession will turn around by the end of summer. and so the Scottish end ofthe market should remain in a relatively strong position while elsewhere publishers try to pick up the pieces of a devasting year. So even if the Edinburgh Book Festival suffers from the capital‘s infamous summer downpours. the party atmosphere in the tents in Charlotte Square should be genuine enough.