What a publisher is, and does, is up for grabs as long as they are bold. Publishing MA student Marie Claire Grima on Canongate’s Jamie Byng, and the publisher as storytelling animal…
You could immediately tell that Jamie Byng is a performer at heart. He strode into the Kingston Publishing Masterclass on October 27 like a curly-haired industry Colossus and started to put down a dazzling array of books – his ‘props’, he said – until they looked like a sort of sentient book army, defending the audience against the fatigue that inevitably arises from being warned over and over that bookshops are in Mortal Danger and that publishing is a Tough Business.
Byng didn’t need any props to dazzle us. His enthusiasm for what he does was infectious. He rattled off chunks of literary texts like he was talking about last night’s supper. He made Philip Pullman sound like a great guy to have a beer with, and talked about chatting to ‘Peggy’ Atwood backstage at a literary festival. He raved about all the Canongate books he’d carried with him in a deeply genuine way. He wowed us with the sheer volume of ‘life-changing’ books he’s given to people. All in all, he served as a timely reminder to many of us as to why we are on the Kingston MA Publishing course in the first place.
Jamie talked a great deal about sharing ideas with others, because ‘the ping of recognition that you get from reading a great author, who can express and articulate your feelings in a way you never could is what publishing is all about.’ But having brilliant and innovative ideas is far from being solely the realm of the author – it is also very much the responsibility of the publisher, who has to find new ways to – sometimes physically – press a book into a reader’s hand. In 1992 when he started out at Canongate, which is now Scotland’s most successful and famous publishing house, it was a tiny firm – ‘it’s still small, but it was even tinier back then’ – with not a lot of money. One of its earliest successes was the Pocket Canon series, which involved taking single books from the Bible and getting a famous, secular author to write a foreword for each one. Besides being rather entertaining thinking of Nick Cave writing an introduction to the Gospel of Luke, the Pocket Canon story was also a concrete example of one of the most satisfying parts of publishing – finding new and different ways to take stories to people and making them relevant to their lives. It’s the same concept that fuelled Canongate’s Myth Series, which saw contemporary literary heavyweights (including the aforementioned Peggy Atwood) taking on ancient myths and bringing them up to date, in novel-form, for a new generation of readers.
Altering and improving the relationship that people have with books is one of the toughest challenges that both publishers and booksellers face nowadays. Many people still have a sour taste in their mouths from being forced to grapple with books that didn’t speak to them while they were still at school. Others struggle with finding a book that they can really engage with. With the ever increasing demand on our attention made by modern life, and the growing variety of personalised options for how we spend our time, why would we choose to invest in something like a book? But it’s clear that there’s still a hunger for the written word, and the publishers who can create or curate bespoke material will find an enthusiastic and willing audience for their products. This passion and willingness to take on the responsibility and challenge of connecting people to books, acting as a guide and guardian of narratives, is what helped bring Canongate back from the brink, and established it as a very particular ‘brand’. It’s an ethos that’s well worth keeping in mind as publishers operating in the hyperactive, super-saturated digital age.
Jamie lived up to his reputation as a gift-giver and gave us all one of the books he brought with him. But we also took away with us a sense of inspiration, and a renewed faith in the role that the publisher has to play as a ‘storytelling animal’. Jamie left us a call to action, a quote often attributed to Goethe but actually from Scottish adventurer W. H. Murray – “Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Now. ”
For further Byng morsels, and to taste Canongate http://www.canongate.tv/:
Images copyright of Marie Claire Grima