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The SRB Interview: Jamie Byng – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Jamie Byng

March 2, 2012 | by SRB

For someone who has made their living in literary journalism over the past decade, entering the Edinburgh headquarters of the publisher Canongate can be a poignant experience. The walls are covered in shelves housing old and new editions  of books Canongate has published; as you gaze at their covers, many of them sporting memorable designs, your mind moves back to the times and places you read them for review, the people you knew then, some of them then employees of the company. Reminiscing can be a melancholic business, but the energy you feel in the office seems to repel easy nostalgia. In the meeting room I’m ushered into, a sheet of A3 is pinned to the wall, words associated with Canongate felt-tipped onto it, possibly as part of an exercise: ‘provocative’, ‘dynamic’, ‘marketing’. The look of the place has certainly changed, with the room redesigned to take in a lower floor connected to the ground floor through a spiralling staircase, a legacy from the money Canongate made in the wake of Yann Martell’s Life of Pi’s global success. Pi’s Booker victory marked the conclusion of the first phase of the Canongate story. Central to that tale is Jamie Byng, who took over the venerable but failing publishing house in 1994, when he was still in his mid-20s. Through a series of smart acquisitions, controversy, and a keen sense of publicity, Byng built up the business. Authors included Michel Faber, Louise Welsh, and Alasdair Gray. After Pi, Canongate expanded, and its luck continued to hold with the publication of the memoirs of soon-to-be-President Barack Obama. Canongate returned to the news at the close of 2011 when it published Julian Assange’s Unauthorised Autobiography against his wishes. As the issues surrounding digital publishing grow larger and the future is thrown into greater doubt, and as some question whether Canongate has the edge it once had, Colin Waters met Jamie Byng to talk about the past of and future of Canongate. They began by discussing Canongate’s most recent publication, The Last Holiday, a memoir by the recently departed musician and author Gil Scott-Heron. It was a difficult book to put together, not merely because it was a posthumous publication. Byng was a friend of Scott-Heron’s, and, even for as hands-on a publisher as he is, he was more involved than he normally is with its journey towards the book shops.

Scottish Review of Books: How did you first encounter Gil Scott-Heron?

Jamie Byng: In Edinburgh, the Queen’s Hall, backstage, early 90s. Actually, I first encountered him really through his music.
I vividly remember hearing Gil’s voice for the first time. It was a track of his called ‘H2O Gate Blues’. That was during my first year at university in Edinburgh. Over the years I saw him perform dozens of times.
At the first one, I talked my way backstage and got him to sign an album, a rare bootleg he’d never seen, which was a talking point he thought was pretty funny. He was warm towards me the next few times we met. I wasn’t in publishing then, I was simply a student who was very into books and music. After I took over Canongate in 1994, and launched our imprint Payback Press, the thought occurred to me that the two novels Gil wrote when he was a very young man – he’d written two novels by the time he was 23 [The Vulture and The Nigger Factory] – would make great titles for us to reissue. So began a professional relationship.

Did that change the dynamics of your friendship?

Not at all. It always felt like our friendship came first. He also liked what we were doing with Payback Press. He was a fan of the many writers we were republishing, particularly Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim, Langton Hughes and Clarence Cooper Jnr. He was delighted to be on a list with some of his literary heroes.

You personally edited The Last Holiday? Do you often edit?

Tim Mohr, who is based in Brooklyn, played a key role in editing the book, but the conversations Gil and I had about The Last Holiday had been going on for
many years. He first gave me chapters to read back in ’97, ’98. At that point it was written as a third person narrative. When we signed the contract, paid the advance, said let’s definitely do this book together, that was 2001. After signing, he agreed with me that it should be written as a first person account, and that was the single most important editorial conversation we had. After Gil died, I talked with Tim about how to put the book together and what Gil’s vision for the book had been. Gil had a very clear structure for the book, and he and I had often spoken about it. It’s unfinished, but it’s pretty much the way he wanted it. As for editing other Canongate writers, I leave that to my excellent colleagues, but I am often reading with a pen in my hand. Our editors are involved in the crucial, sleeves-rolled-up, immersive editing, but it can sometimes be useful for me to give objective feedback. I certainly don’t have the time to line edit, but I read carefully and slowly.

Are there disadvantages to having a friendship with writers you publish? Do you sometimes back off from asking them to put into their books difficult material other publishers would insist on? For example, The Last Holiday doesn’t entirely deal with Scott-Heron’s drug problems or spell in prison.

It can complicate things if you have a strong, personal relationship with a writer, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t push for a change if I felt it would benefit the book. Gil and I talked about whether his book should go beyond its immediate focus of the campaign to get Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday and the tour he did with Stevie Wonder [to promote that cause]. We did talk about whether he should write about his time in jail or doing drugs. But The Last Holiday was not meant to be a conventional cradle-to-grave memoir and I respected and understood this. To have insisted he make it a conventional memoir would have been wrong

How typical was your relationship with Gil Scott-Heron compared to Canongate’s other authors? How often do you speak to them?

It was a different sort of thing with Gil; I began as a fan of his music. I’m close to a lot of the authors we publish but the friendship tends to follow on from the professional relationship. I had no sense, for example, of who Yann Martel was until I was given pages of Life of Pi by Ann Patty, the great editor who had just bought the US rights. My relationship with Yann began when I fell in love with the book, and this is how most author/publisher relationships develop. Yann and the people who worked at Canongate enjoyed an intense experience, a bonding experience, through Life of Pi’s success. On the other hand, there’s my relationship with Nick Cave, which is closer in character to mine with Gil.
Nick called me out of the blue because of the Canongate Pocket Canon series; he wanted to introduce The Gospel According to Mark (which he did brilliantly). We kept in touch, would have occasional lunches, he invited me to gigs and I would often send him books as Nick’s an avid reader and he was always interested in what we were publishing (Albert Sanchez Pinol’s Cold Skin and John Haskell’s American Purgatorio are particular favourites). At one point he mentioned a screenplay he had written that seemed to be going nowhere film-wise but which he felt might have the makings of a novel. I read the script, which went on to become The Death of Bunny Munro, which we ended up publishing with great success and all over the world. The film is still in development but I heard recently from Nick that Gary Oldman wants to direct it which would be pretty cool.
I’ve been running Canongate for 18 years now and inevitably the relationships with writers are getting longer too. For example, I’ve known and published Michel Faber for coming up to 15 years and think of him and his wife Eva Youren as dear friends. Alasdair Gray’s relationship with Canongate precedes my involvement and spans four decades. These are long periods of time.

Interesting you should mention Gray. There are certain authors who seem to embody characteristics that have become associated with Canongate.

Alasdair Gray’s Lanark is the foundation stone of Canongate and I cannot think of a finer novel or writer on which to build an independent, Scottish, international literary publishing house. Another writer whose spirit seems to imbue Canongate is Richard Holloway. Canongate’s relationship with him also goes back to the Pocket Canons (he introduced The Gospel According to Luke) and then the publication of Godless Morality which came out in 1999. Keeping Religion out of Ethics is the book’s subtitle, which seems a sound philosophical standpoint for anyone who recognises that religion cannot be the foundation of the moral. The fact that Richard was (and still is) regarded as outspoken and controversial didn’t bother him and nor has it ever bothered us. So Richard is another example of a writer who chimes closely with what Canongate is in terms of its outlook and personality; he has also been intimately involved in Canongate and the lives of the people working here. In the ideal sense, he became part of what we’re doing, and that’s what I think a publishing house should be.

Godless Morality was, I imagine, another part of building the Canongate legend, in that it was somewhat controversial.

Richard was still Bishop of Edinburgh at the time, so for him to come out with this book was a very bold move. But necessary too. His latest book, his memoir, Leaving Alexandria, is a beautiful account of his lifelong wrestling with doubt, a very human condition, an essential condition and one I think pretty much every author who writes for Canongate accepts as the norm for a state of being. Richard introduced me to Keats’ concept of ‘negative capability’. ‘One must have negative capability, that is the ability to exist within mystery, uncertainty and doubt without ceaseless reaching after fact and reason.’

You’ve done very well with religious books. Is faith something you dwell on?

I’m not scratching my soul as to whether there is a God. I’m not thinking of organised religion as something I want to be involved with but the very idea of faith I find fascinating. And you can’t be interested in history or humanity without a curiosity as to what religion has done down the centuries  and in the myth-making and story-telling that lies at the heart of all religion. I liked Richard’s line in his introduction to Luke about reading the Bible as good poetry rather than bad science.

Thinking of the Philip Pullman book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, that you published, Canongate seems to be involved in two or three controversies a year. It certainly gives the books a push. What’s your attitude to controversy? Is it a marketing tool?

We don’t court controversy. It just so happens that many of the books we publish tackle controversial subjects. When Philip Pullman told me he wanted to retell the story of Jesus in our myths series and that he wanted to call it The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, I knew the title alone would anger and upset certain people, but that’s no reason not to publish a book. Books are meant to challenge you. They’re meant to disrupt your sense of comfort, your sense of certainty. Books are meant
to cause controversy even if it’s only an internal mental controversy about who you are and what you think is important and how you make sense of the world.

I wanted to ask about the future of Canongate in our brave new digital world. You’ve recently been talking about your web site, which has been re-titled Canongate TV. You’ve said, ‘We should be thinking of ourselves as broadcasters rather than simply book publishers.’ What does that actually mean?

The opportunities for publishers have never been greater, so while I’m certain we’ll always publish books in traditional ways, my point about being broadcasters is that we have access to and are collaborating with people who don’t simply think in terms of the written word. It’s more possible now to open up different stories in different ways  in different mediums than ever before and audiences increasingly expect and want this. As a publishing house there are many things that you can do from that position. You can choose to publish books as you always have done or you can think, Hold on, we’re quite good at bringing people together, why don’t we examine this at a more serious level than we have before. Digital is the most liberating medium in that sense. It’s fairly simple these days, as you can see on Canongate.TV, to have a multi-channel web site where you can allow people to listen, read, and watch great content. If we want to engage the writers and creative people we are working with, we need to be much more imaginative in the way we think about opening up subjects and stories, whilst creating entertainments that remain in line with the things we care about. We’ve been working on these ideas with some of the people I’ve already talked about. There’s multi-media footage of the likes of Gil and Nick Cave and Richard Holloway appearing on Canongate TV as well as with people like Noel Fielding, Tilda Swinton, Miranda July and David Byrne, who are equally happy working in different mediums and cannot be pigeonholed creatively. Our position now is as much as a curator and catalyst in supporting this work. And digital is an important way in which we see ourselves growing – and learning.

All these ideas that take advantage of digital, the films, the audio books – they’re Canongate’s ideas? The writers aren’t yet approaching you saying they want to try something to coincide with a book’s release and they need x, y and z from you to do it, right?
Sometimes they do come to us with ideas. When David Byrne approached us with How Music Works, an overview of music, he was adamant that as part of the publication of the physical book there needed to be some sort of advanced e-book or app before he signed any contract. We were thrilled that he was thinking this way and insisting that we did too.

Are you an e-book reader yourself?
I am. I tend to use my iPad for reading books digitally. I have a Kindle too but I haven’t read anything on it for a while.
I find it incredibly easy to read on my iPad. It’s got so many things on it, from email to watching stuff online to reading manuscripts on it.

You don’t fall into the trap then, when reading your iPad, of popping out of the book to check your email or apps, rather than staying with the text as you’d have to with a traditional book?

If I do, there’s a problem with the book rather than a problem with the iPad. If I’m immersed in a book, I’m immersed in it absolutely. I can be distracted while reading a traditional book as much as I can a digital one.

You’re not afraid you’re going to end up a cog in a machine serving Google, Amazon and Apple then?

You’re a cog whether you like it or not. What matters is the degree to which you remain independent to put out the things you want to put out. That’s what I and my colleagues care about. I like to think our editorial independence would always be maintained, because if it wasn’t, there’d be a real problem. That’s what defines a publishing house, its editorial independence. All of those companies that you mentioned are very important parts of our present and our future, but so are independent booksellers, so are the chains, so are the supermarkets, so are the international publishers who  we work with very closely. Our books have found audiences around the world in a variety of different languages and through a variety of different channels, of which Google, Amazon and Apple are three of the biggest new ones to emerge in recent years. They’ve never been in a stronger position than they are right now, so they’re having a greater impact on our business than ever before, and that’s just something you have to deal with.

To what degree is Canongate a genuinely Scottish publisher? How much energy do you put into that end of the operation?

Depends how you define Scottish publisher. We’re sitting here in Canongate’s office in Edinburgh, which is our head office. We have an office in London too but 30 out  of the 40 people who work at Canongate are based in Scotland. Purely on a physical level, Canongate is a Scottish publishing house. There are more people working in Scotland for Canongate than ever before.
Its roots are here and its connection to Scotland is strong, stronger than ever. The list itself is not as dominated by Scottish writers as it was when I joined in the early 1990s. There are still great Scottish writers on the list and there will continue to be, but that’s not how we come to buy books. We don’t buy books on the basis of the country they come from. We haven’t tried to build a Scottish non-fiction list as we could have and have discussed and perhaps will over time. We’ve built a very different kind of non-fiction list over the past five years, with pop science books like Incognito by David Eagleman or Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine. That’s an area we’ve gone into that we haven’t touched before. Our non-fiction publishing director Nick Davies also brought in things like The Mighty Book of Boosh, Simon’s Cat and Karl Pilkington’s An Idiot Abroad, titles that historically we didn’t publish back in the 1990s, all of which have been major bestsellers. Big pop culture, humour books which are very much part of a Christmas publishing programme. We just needed to get that balance and we didn’t have that balance before. We were much more literary and cult and alternative. Going back to your question, I describe Canongate as an international publishing house based in Scotland.

I admit I have been surprised by some of your recent publishing choices. The Only Fools and Horses book by Graeme McCann – The Untold Story of Britain’s Favourite Comedy.

The Only Fools and Horses book is a good, well-written and researched, straight, down-the-line account of the TV show.

But people felt they knew who you were. You were edgy, off-beat, different, with striking marketing campaigns and cover design. It felt less like a publisher than a record company like Factory or Creation. You’ve disturbed that image by putting out books like the Only Fools and Horses title.

Well, if we have, perhaps that’s no bad thing although I think there remains an anarchic spirit to Canongate that pervades all our publishing. And you should always want to surprise people. The company’s also grown up as well as grown.

A critic would counter that the books that helped to make Canongate’s name, and which seem so characteristic of Canongate, like Jim Dodge’s Stone Junction, could only have been published by Canongate. Some of the books put out now, anyone could have published them.

First off, so many of the books that I think  of as defining Canongate (including Stone Junction) and which made our reputation could have been published by a number of the other excellent publishers in the UK. The thing is, we have always liked to think at Canongate that we can publish an extremely diverse range of books while always adding a Canongate stamp to them. And most importantly the quality and range and originality of the books we’re publishing this year is greater than ever.
As for being more mainstream….Take Kate Grenville or Barack Obama. Are they typical Canongate authors? I hope so as they are both outstanding writers who manage to  be literary and bestselling. Kate has won the Orange Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker with the first novel we published by her (The Secret River). The fact is Canongate used to be more male and cult; thankfully we’re more female now. And more eclectic. I don’t think that makes Canongate any less Canongate and there are commercial imperatives that didn’t previously exist that have to be recognised. And with growth comes greater responsibility, both to your staff and your authors.

And that dictates a certain direction the company has to take?

No, I don’t think it has to dictate a specific direction. And it doesn’t mean you have to publish rubbish, but it does mean you have to have your shit together to be generating enough turnover to keep the business humming. Like I say we’ve grown up a lot as a publishing house and as a result we have changed as a publishing house, while retaining the same sense of joy in what we’re doing.

Was everything that came with Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-win positive? Have there been downsides?

It brought different pressures and expectations but in the main it was amazing for Canongate. It allowed us to grow in new ways, hiring great staff and investing in superb books and authors Without Life of Pi, God knows where we’d be today. We certainly would not have bought a majority stake in a great Australian publishing house, Text, in 2004. And that in turn led to other important events like publishing Kate Grenville and Barack Obama. Everything’s connected. Life of Pi was also a game-changer in that it showed to the outside world – and to ourselves – that we could publish a best-selling book. In its first year in paperback, Life of Pi sold 900,000 copies. That was almost more books than we’d sold in total during the five years previous to Life of Pi’s publication. It was an extreme experience that gave us the luxury of money, which is something that’s great to have when you’re a small, creative publishing house.

Going back to what we were saying about Gil Scott-Heron and Alasdair Gray seeming like what we would call Canongate-type authors… Julian Assange seems like a Canongate author. It was such an obvious match – in retrospect, do you think that blinded you to his character flaws and the risks associated with those?

When we acquired that book, we acquired it because we thought Wikileaks was an important organisation doing work of real value. And that Assange was a fascinating character who we felt had a great story to tell. In that sense, it still feels like it was a great fit for Canongate. When we brought on board Andrew O’Hagan to ghost the memoir, it felt like we had everything set up perfectly. It’s still perplexing and frustrating to us that it worked out the way it did. A wonderful opportunity was wasted because Julian ended up not wanting to publish the memoir he had agreed to publish. We always knew it would be a risk. We knew it was never going to be straightforward.
It could have and should have been an important book for us, and if it didn’t happen like that, it wasn’t for want of trying.

Yes, but there were serious questions raised about Assange at the time of signing.

You say it was a risk, but that’s risk with a capital R. It was a serious risk and the stakes were very high, but we sold this book to 38 publishers around the world, so on paper we had eliminated the riskiest element of the deal – the large advance. We’d more than covered the advance through rights deals abroad, which is something we do very well at Canongate and this was part of our calculation when we made our offer to Julian.

The advance didn’t damage Canongate’s coffers then?

Sure it did! We ended up taking a massive bath on his book. Thankfully there were other books last year that made us money. In publishing, as in life, you just have to  be philosophical. The Assange memoir, if it had came out when we wanted it to come out and in the way we wanted it to come out, would probably have been an international bestseller and it would certainly have covered its costs through the rights sales made around the world. If that had happened we would have looked back and thought it was one of the smartest things we had ever done. We were very close to having a very successful book. On paper, we had a very successful book even before we published it. The whole thing unravelled because we couldn’t fulfil our side of the bargain with the agreements abroad
and deliver the book when we originally said we were going to, and the book was never completed. Publishing is a very unpredictable business, and the difference between the Assange book being the smartest thing we ever did and the costliest thing we ever did was not that great.

Reminds me of the classic Spinal Tap line: ‘There’s a thin line between clever and stupid.’ I suppose at the end of it all, with the Unauthorized Autobiography, you ended up with a classic Canongate publication and marketing campaign.

We felt we did the right thing by publishing and without his blessing. In fact we felt we had very little choice as we tried to mitigate our losses and make the best of a totally fucked up situation. Turns out there was even less interest in the book by this point (September 2011) than we feared there would be, and that most people were sick of the sight and sound of him. The book also wasn’t helped by Julian doing everything he could to undermine its credibility which was a real pity because the book is very well-written, superbly researched and fascinating. Not least because Julian is a fascinating, albeit deeply flawed, human being. It still blows my mind how stupid he was to screw us over because the person he ended up damaging the most was himself and not least financially.

I suspect people now might want to read a book about Julian Assange, but not by him.

I’m not so sure. I certainly don’t! There’s also been a real change in perception. At the time we bought his memoir, which was December 2010, Time magazine was discussing making him their Man of the Year. That’s how high his star was at the time. A year on and he had burnt pretty much every bridge he had ever walked on and many that haven’t even been built.

Finally, there are several small, youthful publishers starting up around Scotland. What would you say to someone starting, what should they keep in mind?

The most important thing is that when you publish a book you should be able to, with your hand on your heart, convince anyone that this is a book worth their attention. You can’t fake it. The integrity with which you put a book out and the care, I don’t think the importance of those two points can be over-estimated. You’ve always got to be willing to go to the wall for your writers. It’s not simply a job.

Is it a calling?

It’s a privilege.

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