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Books don't just happen, someone has to take a risk

LONG before desktop publishing, Bill Campbell and Peter Mackenzie mastered kitchen-table publishing.

Before there was electronic stock control, they perfected boxes-under-the-bed warehousing.

Instead of venture capital, they made do with a disingenuous home-improvement loan.

That was better than 35 years ago. The loan did improve their homes, in a roundabout way, but it also allowed Mainstream Publishing to exist. In October 1978, Bill and Peter published their first book, Robert Louis Stevenson's Cevennes Journal, a volume of the materials RLS put into Travels With a Donkey. A few years later they gave me a copy - and didn't even send an invoice.

Cevennes Journal will be out again next March, its reappearance an apt commemoration of the fact that Mainstream Publishing is no more. After 35 years liable to be described as eventful, Peter and Bill are shutting up shop at a moment of their choosing, on their terms. The explanation mixes regret with satisfaction: It's time, they say.

Their lives have gone into the imprint, good times and bad. Now and then the triumph was just to survive in a Scotland with a glorious publishing past and, it seemed, precious little of a future. As Marion Sinclair, chief executive of Publishing Scotland, put it, Peter and Bill have been "stalwarts of the Scottish publishing scene", often enough seen internationally as "the face of Scottish publishing". While others came and went, Mainstream endured.

A book of mine will accompany Cevennes Journal back out into the world for the last bow. I'm slightly shocked to realise that Dreams of Exile, a Stevenson biography, first escaped in 1992. Campbell and Mackenzie took a punt then on an untried author whose reliability - luckily for the author - had not been tested.

In the end, we won a couple of prizes, sold the book to London and the Americans, and failed to retire on the winnings. Almost as a point of honour, I gave Mainstream nightmares along the way, but without them the book would never have been finished. In an age of eager self-publishers, the reappearance of my volume reminds me why would-be authors still stand in need of professional publishing houses.

The industry is going through multiple upheavals. Peter and Bill can describe a few of those, from the brutal demands of on-line retailers named after South American rivers to the consequent disappearance of independent bookshops. It's tough, tougher in Scotland. Yet writers still want to write, readers still want to read, and madcaps still want to publish. The trick - more a series of tricks - is to join the dots.

I first came across Campbell and Mackenzie when an Edinburgh newspaper threw sense to the winds and called me a literary editor. Lesson one in dealing with Mainstream came quickly. What you got was what supermarkets these days call a "twofer", two for the price of one. In business, they operated always as a perfectly balanced 50-50 partnership.

That this relationship has endured for 35 years is testimony to a deep friendship. The two are not telepathic, exactly, but come close. On the other hand, it has always been advisable in any negotiation to sit with your back to the wall, for form's sake.

Mainstream's fortunes have depended often enough on the partners' mental agility, then on the lack of agility among those they have dealt with. Drink might also have played a strategic role.

Mainstream formed an "association" with the Random House Group in 2005, but continued to function like an independent house. Writers who lust after a deal with one of the conglomerates - Random House have since merged with Penguin - should remind themselves why this matters.

The big houses chase big sellers. Their attention spans are not vast. Unless he or she happens to be among the happy few million-sellers, the writer cannot expect to have a call returned by someone who actually makes decisiona.

That was never the Mainstream way. Set aside the contracts I failed to fulfil. Reproaches were few, if justifiably pointed. When I did decide I wanted to write something again, in this case about Bob Dylan, the difference between a semi-independent Edinburgh house and a big London conglomerate could not have been more obvious. I've been around books long enough to know the drill.

London would have gone straight to the point. As Dylan himself has said, there are "a gazillion" Bob Dylan books out there. What possible excuse was there for another? Mainstream didn't do that. They took a punt on the possibility that I had something worth saying that might be worth printing.

Then there came the moment for pushing luck. These days, persuading a non-academic publisher to go along with a two-volume study are, let's say, slim. Reviewers also lack patience with piles of pages: such works are always "too big".

Yet when I told Bill Campbell that Dylan's 50-odd year career would need two books - in total, after I restrained myself, that meant 1166 pages - he didn't hesitate.

So now Mainstream closes the book. The traditional complaint that Scottish publishing is in a precarious state can be heard again. Across the western world, the digital prophets proclaim "the traditional model" finished. Some adventurers in the world of on-line piracy will tell you that "knowledge", meaning books, should always be "free".

In 2012, sales of physical books fell by 1%; digital, 12% of the total, increased by 66%. The number of ebooks published rose from 28,963 in 2010 to 57,999 in 2012. Huge numbers of those titles were self-produced by people who say there is no longer a need for traditional houses. They can do it all themselves.

That's far from obvious. The idea that "everyone has a book in them" is, for one thing, a cruel hoax. Someone has to say so. Someone has to edit a book, design it, market it, deal with retailers and persuade reviewers that the title is worth attention. The self-published authors who have managed all of this are vastly outnumbered by legions of the disappointed.

Yet discounting, driven first by the big chains, these days by on-line retailers, continues to slaughter incomes for writers, publishers and book shops.

If you are not named after a South American river, competition is cruel and unfair. In 2006, there were 1483 independent booksellers in the UK; in 2011, the figure was 1094 and falling. Of 2115 publishers registered for VAT in 2012, 1580 had four or fewer employees.

Creative Scotland has thus far lived down to the standards of the old Arts Council. There is support for a few publishers, but books are not a priority in this literary nation.

Given that Publishing Scotland reckons the Scottish industry to be worth £343 million in the UK alone, you could call that short-sighted. Thanks to Mainstream, I'm also published in New York. The American market ought to be bigger than anything London can offer, but the fact is barely discussed.

As ever, books are somehow supposed just to happen. Mainstream, its list altered out of all recognition in changing times, has helped to make that unlikely claim a reality. As though to mark the farewell party on Thursday, Scotland kicked up a bit of a storm. Someone should do the same for Scottish publishing.

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