Publishing is a precarious business, not least because significant capital must first be spent before any of it starts to trickle back. Every book is a gamble and few are the ones that turn into gold. Yet publishers are often portrayed not as philanthropists or bulwarks against philistinism but as chancers and cheats. Barabbas, the thief who died on Calvary with Christ, it was famously said, must have been a publisher.
Stephanie Wolfe Murray, however, who died recently aged 76, was the kind of publisher about whom only warm words were uttered. Canongate, the company whose reputation she personified, was launched in 1973. Its founders were her husband, Angus, and an American writer called Bob Shure. Its first two titles were The Comic Tales of Edgar Allan Poe – who would have thought there were enough to make a book? – and Shure’s debut novel, Monk, ‘the comic-horror story of a young man whose aim is to win the Greater Altsburg Open Table-Tennis Championship’. An ambitious five thousand copies were printed of each. Eventually, the former sold out, the latter, alas, did not.
Wolfe Murray, who was then the mother of four boys, became involved in the business a couple of years later. It was a time when publishing in Scotland was emerging from decades of doldrum. Canongate was one of several companies – Mainstream, Paul Harris, Macdonald, Polygon and Richard Drew were others – that recognised that with a shift in the political wind there might be a readership for books about Scotland by indigenous authors. This is not to say that Wolfe Murray regarded Canongate as a nationalist press. ‘We try to be good publishers in Scotland,’ she once said, ‘not good Scottish publishers.’ Nor did she feel that she had any need to make excuses about parochialism. ‘You can be parochial in London.’
In person, Wolfe Murray was blessed with an inexhaustible supply of charm. Her office in Edinburgh’s Jeffrey Street was like a landfill site for lost and rejected manuscripts. When she informed aspiring authors that a manuscript was being ‘dealt with’ she meant she was still trying to locate it in the deluge to which the post added daily. Visiting her was potentially injurious to one’s wellbeing. There were tottering piles of books everywhere and one weaved between them at one’s peril.
Wolfe Murray said that like most things in her life becoming a publisher ‘just happened’. She began by reading manuscripts, proofing and copy-editing. When she found herself in charge, she said, she was terrified. ‘It was then I realised you can never do too much for a book…until you remainder it.’ Her first successful title was Antonia Fraser’s anthology, Scottish Love Poems, published in 1975.
The job was all-consuming and invigorating. While she may have appeared to some on the outside as eccentric and disorganised – time, for example, was for her an elastic concept – she was not to be under-estimated and could drive a hard bargain. Once, at an international book fair, she persuaded a publisher in Yerevan of the necessity of publishing Traditional Scottish Recipes in Armenian, despite the difficulty in obtaining many of the ingredients. She was also a formative influence on the Edinburgh Book Festival, and in 1985 was responsible for the attendance of a number of writers and publishers from China.
But it is for the books that Wolfe Murray published that she will best be remembered. There was, of course, Alasdair Gray’s landmark novel, Lanark, which appeared in 1981 and which changed the face of modern Scottish literature. She also saw into print the poems of Sorley MacLean and Jimmy Boyle’s blistering autobiography, A Sense of Freedom, the manuscript of which Wolfe Murray smuggled out of the Special Unit at Barlinnie where its author was then incarcerated. The adjective Boyle, then regarded as one of the most dangerous men in the country, used to describe her was ‘courageous’. Among her other triumphs was Robin Lorimer’s acclaimed translation of the New Testament in Scots, the Kelpies, which revived interest in Scottish children’s books, and Canongate Classics, a library of Scottish books which had fallen out of print or were available in mean editions. What is clear, on reading many of these books today, is the care with which they were published. Not only are they a joy to read, they are of themselves desirable objects. No doubt diverse hands were involved in their production but it was Stephanie Wolfe Murray’s impeccable taste which defined their quality.
In hymning one publisher we cannot ignore another. Birlinn, whose imprints include Polygon and John Donald, celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. That alone is a remarkable achievement, given the high fatality rate in the trade. Birlinn is arguably our biggest publisher with a clear mission to publish books of quality about Scotland that are of interest to Scots and others. Its annual output is in excess of 150 titles. This is no small feat in the current economic climate. When the Scottish Review of Books started in 2004 Birlinn was one of the first publishers to offer its support. We are grateful to it and wish its owner, Hugh Andrew, and his dedicated staff – not entirely unselfishly – a long and prosperous future.