Hugh Andrew, who has spent 20 years building Edinburgh's great publishing survivor, finds it odd that Birlinn is responsible for the only two heavyweight books on Scotland's financial crisis.
Shredded, Ian Fraser's definitive expose of RBS, which followed Ray Perman's chronicle of HBOS, sold its first print run in a fortnight and Mr Andrew says: "It should be a profitable book, but it is important to do these things. The Irish bookshops are full of books laying bare what happened in Ireland, but in Scotland it has taken myself as a publisher and my colleagues to be the recorders of history." He suggests one reason may be "a pretty vocal political class in Scotland at the moment which if it was too self-analytical might recognise its own culpability."
Mr Andrew is on a platform at the Edinburgh International Book festival next Thursday debating "What will a Yes or a No vote mean to writers living and working in Scotland?"
The son of a Paisley vet who took a history degree at Oxford before starting a career in bookselling, the LibDem supporter has never been shy of crossing swords with the arts establishment. He left the Scottish Publishers Association in a row over its funding, has attacked Amazon's £10 million no-strings grant from the Scottish Government ("that's 3 to 4 per cent of every book sold in Scotland"), and has been an eloquent voice in defence of Scotland's beleaguered book world. "Literature has always been the Cinderella of the Creative Scotland basket - it
has never been particularly
well-funded and also in the wrong way - a series of micro-projects on a short-term basis.
If you want to do a really major book, you really need years,
and if grants come on a whim you can't plan."
Mr Andrew says Scotland needs "joined-up thinking to support culture," which ought to include the showcasing of Scottish books in key locations such as the Parliament, and a review of school and library book procurement to give the same weighting to national cultural factors as other countries achieve.
He set up Birlinn in 1992 with a list of four books, has commissioned some 2,000 titles, and currently has 1,000 in print and a turnover of £2.5m. Along the way came the absorption of imprints such as John Donald, Mercat and notably Polygon, born in Edinburgh University with a roster of budding stars such as James Kelman and maturing in Birlinn just as another, Alexander McCall Smith, was about to catch the commercial wave.
The founder runs Birlinn from his own elegant Georgian townhouse on the main road at Newington, with offices in the basement, once owned by the Nelson publishing family. "As I never tire of saying, 100 years ago Edinburgh was the publishing capital of the world. Nelson's and Bartholomew's had in excess of 30 buildings on the south side of Edinburgh." Steeped in a love of bookshops and academic bookselling at James Thin, the publisher says: "It is still a business where you are exchanging ideas all the time, and when somebody asks me what I do in my time off I say 'I read books, it's a privilege.'"
He learned about the wider publishing world in four years at Canongate which he bought out of receivership in 1994 with Jamie Byng, who still runs the slightly larger independent group, though now largely from London.
Mr Andrew laments: "We have lost Mainstream (last year), Chambers, St Andrew's Press is now published from Norwich, Churchill Livingston has effectively gone, Wiley Blackwell has lost 50 journals jobs."
Although a critic of Amazon's public largesse ("its profits equate to all the subsidies it gets from governments") Mr Andrew says: "I don't deny Amazon provides a very valuable and slick service." He even admits to using it when faced with no alternative, but says the shopping revolution has led to "a loss of Scottish control of bookshops, a very centralised buying process that is very unhelpful to Scottish publishers, and virtual monopolies" in Waterstone's, WH Smith, and the supermarkets. " It's incredibly important for any publisher to get impulse purchases of their books, if you do not have a high street presence you have problems. We are almost running out of road as to where to sell things, supermarkets are notoriously unhelpful as regards regional product, and we are still very reliant on the book trade culture."
Scotland may have lost all its bookselling chains, but not all its bookshops, the publisher says. "There are 30 in Argyll - you would be amazed at the number of places that have a few shelves of books." Mr Andrew is helping to shore up that beleaguered sector with two bookshops of his own in the north-east of Scotland, which had " a difficult birth because we opened as the recession bit" but which are now making progress. "We have found there has been
a distinct turning of the tide
and people want the personal feeling. Price is important but
so is value."
On setbacks to growth, Mr Andrew says: "Every time a book fails it is a setback, there is no legislating for the market. You can produce something you think is the most wonderful book and it bombs."
But there are welcome surprises too, like The Tobermory Cat, one of Birlinn's biggest successes though with the unwelcome surprise of a lawsuit alleging creative ownership of the "concept" of the island's real-live cat. Mr Andrew notes how the inspiring Calum's Road based on Raasay made a significant contribution to island tourism, and says the cat's tale has promoted Tobermory round the world. He says: "We brought out the defence case for Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi and received no legal injunction or comment but the cat has caused me more legal difficulties than anything I have ever published."
Birlinn, the founder says, has critical mass in that it can run a full suite of departments - production, editorial, rights, publicity, sales - without any need to outsource. "I am very lucky in my team, they have been with me a long time... but if people want a job in publishing they have to go to London." The business, he says, "turns a small profit, slightly better than washing our face," without over-extending. "I have seen publishers destroyed by ambitious expansion."
Mr Andrew reflects: "What
we had in bookshops was a repository of experience
"We are one of the very few publishers to keep calling everywhere, and that is one of the reasons - I have lost count of the number of times a shop has suggested an idea. If you get a local book that takes off - Tobermory is a great example, that book has gone round the world - it is a classic thing where you can make a real difference."