Canongate boss Jamie Byng tells Director how the fleet-footed Edinburgh publisher has achieved growth by making shrewd acquisitions and staying true to its conviction that quality can defeat mighty multinational rivals…
The adventure started with some chocolate – a pack of Mini Munchies wrapped in a flyer from a club called Chocolate City.
The sweets, attached to a letter from an Edinburgh University graduate seeking work experience in publishing, plopped onto the desk of Stephanie Wolfe Murray in November 1992.
She had founded publisher Canongate in 1973 and almost didn’t respond because the firm was struggling with its team of seven. That she did was the best business decision she ever made.
Jamie Byng, that tousle-haired student, would become the saviour of Canongate. He took it from the brink and turned it into one of Britain’s most dynamic independent publishers with 40 employees and, by 2013, a £10.4m turnover.
Though tiny compared to the ‘Big Five’, including Penguin Random House with its sales of just over £2bn, Canongate has become a serious force in literary fiction – a fact hammered home by its UK publishing of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning bestseller Life of Pi.
“I remember this incredible sense of excitement,” says Byng. “Having studied literature, to suddenly be in a place where books were being edited, designed and created… it was like lifting the veil.”
He worked for free for six months, but had money rolling in from Chocolate City, which he launched as a student and ran with his girlfriend.
The subsequent tale of Jamie Byng – the unpaid intern who went on to buy the company with help from his wealthy stepfather, Sir Christopher Bland – has lost something in the retelling.
In truth, he was on the payroll for over a year first and was close to Wolfe Murray. “I remember asking what would happen if the company did go into receivership, and she said ‘who knows, it might disappear’.”
Canongate had just been bought by a Glasgow book wholesaler, Albany, which told him to get his hair cut. Instead Byng began dreaming of an MBO with the firm’s head of Scottish sales, Hugh Andrew.
This was put to his stepfather who he describes as “a brilliant business brain, as well as being passionate about books. He recognised this was something I was committed to, and was convinced by me and Hugh there was a business here.”
Bland, who has chaired BT, publisher Century Hutchinson and the BBC’s board of governors, is still chairman of Canongate, and recently wrote his first novel, aged 76.
Byng admits to being inexperienced at the time, but in 1994, with Wolfe Murray “a guiding force”, and having raised £250,000, Canongate was bought from the receiver for £94,000.
His advice to anyone contemplating a buyout is: “Don’t overpay and make sure you have enough cash to run the business. You always need more than you think and cash is king.”
A smart early move was to split the King James Bible into its component books and publish them as the Pocket Canons series in the late 1990s with introductions by writers like Will Self, Doris Lessing and AS Byatt.
This raised the firm’s profile within the London-centric book world, and brought famous names into the fold. Byatt chose Canongate to publish her novel Ragnarok in 2011.
Byng soon became a regular in the culture pages of weekend papers. A laid-back dude, from his curly mane to the tips of his boots, he’d be asked about his wildchild lifestyle and distinguished lineage. It provoked the odd jibe about trustafarians playing at publishing – but not for long.
In 2001, a New York editor friend gave Byng a copy of Life of Pi. He wrote Martell a letter of such enthusiasm and warmth that the Canadian writer was seduced. Byng was told the UK rights were his, if he could match Faber & Faber’s £15,000 offer.
Sales grew steadily until the night it won the 2002 Booker Prize. “The impact was huge,” says Byng. “It was important for so many different reasons. We were a publishing house that ended up winning the most significant prize you can win in terms of profile and audience.”
Canongate sold 900,000 copies in 2003 and doubled its annual turnover to £6m. It injected confidence and credibility into the company, and allowed its other authors to surf the Martel wave.
“Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White sold over 250,000 copies, and Louise Welsh’s debut, The Cutting Room, did 75,000. These were unheard-of numbers at Canongate,” says Byng.
Now, helped by Ang Lee’s 2012 Oscar-winning adaptation of Life of Pi, he says he’s sold “well over four million copies” of the book.
The good news didn’t end there. He expanded his editorial team, and was able to buy a 70 per cent stake in Australia’s Text Publishing, whose publisher pointed him towards Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father.
Written in the 1990s when Obama was just a Chicago lawyer, it was out of print in the UK. Canongate decided to bid for it along with his more recent The Audacity of Hope (2006). Negotiations dragged on, says Byng: “By the time the paperwork was done I think he might have just declared he was running for president.” The rest is history.
Scottish success story
Back in Edinburgh, once dubbed ‘the city of beers and bibles’, where 40 breweries jostled with over 30 publishing houses, there were mixed feelings – pride in Canongate’s success, but fear it might slip south to London.
Byng set up an office there in 2004 to have a footprint in the capital. Andrew, who left the firm six years earlier to focus on his own Edinburgh publishing business, Birlinn, calls London “a buzzing ferment of ideas which are monetised”, and says he would move there if he really wanted to expand.
His erstwhile colleague disagrees, to the relief of the three-quarters of the staff who are based in Scotland. “To me, it’s one of our distinctive features. We’ve got our headquarters in Edinburgh and I feel that’s exactly where it needs to remain and will always remain,” says Byng.
With Byng based down in London and up north once a month, great reliance is placed on key members of the team, not least its Edinburgh-based associate publisher, Jenny Todd.
“It’s so important you do everything you can to retain your staff, though sometimes recruiting new people can bring great things to a business,” says Byng.
Meanwhile, equal care has to be lavished on authors to keep them happily productive, and unlikely to stray – in contrast to 2011 when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange extracted an advance rumoured to exceed £500,000 for a memoir that morphed into a flop unauthorised autobiography, causing a £370,000 loss for the company that year.
“The fact that Julian sabotaged his own book and reneged on a deal was unfortunate, but it’s in the past,” says Byng, sounding weary at the memory. “You have to move on, and luckily it wasn’t life threatening.”
He has trimmed Canongate’s list to keep quality high. “We do 40 originals a year and I wouldn’t be surprised if by 2016 that was closer to 30 than 40. For us, it’s all about quality rather than quantity. I believe that’s good business sense and more satisfying in being able to pour even more time into the books that you do.”
With the UK pumping out more books per head than anywhere else, Byng is swimming against the tide. Today if you have a book inside you, Amazon will happily play midwife and ensure a safe delivery free from painful rejection letters.
Self-publishing has plenty of advocates and Byng accepts “there’s something beautifully democratic about it”, but feels, “it doesn’t do the championing of reading much good. Whatever genre – romance, crime, literature, pop science – it should be brilliantly edited, beautifully designed in a way that really engages the reader.”
Amazon was born in Jeff Bezos’s garage in Bellevue, Washington, the same year as Canongate’s buy-out. Choosing his words carefully, Byng says: “They’ve been a positive force in certain respects, but like all powerful forces it’s double-edged.”
He is less equivocal about attempts to muscle in on his territory. “Despite their best efforts with Amazon Publishing, and having poured quite a lot of money into it, they’ve proved by their lack of success how much skill, expertise, commitment and focus needs to go into successful publishing.”
As for encouraging self-publishing, he says: “The idea that all one needs is the person who writes the text and a reader the other end, with the only intermediary being, in their ideal world, Amazon, is patently nonsense.”
That said, Canongate has embraced new formats with ebooks, audiobooks and so-called enhanced books, and happily supplies that other new force in bookselling – the supermarkets.
“They help you reach a totally different demographic to Waterstones, Amazon or the independent bookshops,” says Byng. There are reports of supermarkets dictating not just the price and print-run, but title, cover and even contents, although that happens more in the mass-market, which independent publishers tend to avoid.
“What’s great about publishing right now,” he continues, “is that size is less important than it was 30 years ago. The digital space is a very level playing field, and when it comes to more literary, quirky stuff, you can compete with the biggest houses even if you don’t have a global turnover of billions.
“We’re a £10m company, but can publish a book like Guantánamo Diary [the diary of a still-imprisoned detainee, Mohamedou Ould Slahi] I think as well as anyone.
“In many respects we’re in rude health. The list has never been stronger, and I feel very fortunate to be working with great writers, publishers and colleagues.”
To watch, hear or read more about Canongate’s roster visit canongate.tv