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Monday, 27 June 2011

The early bird...

I’m on the early train from Edinburgh to London this morning, grateful that is it midsummer so that getting up at 4.30 was not quite so horrific as it might have been – at least the sky was bright and the birds were singing. I’m off for a meeting with Stephen Jones and Nick Cain, who I have commissioned to write an English rugby book for autumn 2012, for a meeting with our digital distribution team at Faber & Faber, for a lunch meeting with our Sales Director, Laura Poynton, and an afternoon coffee with a potential new author (making time in-between all of these to mooch around some of London’s finest bookshops).
I’m going to keep details of the project that Stephen and Nick are working on under wraps just now, but I look forward to blogging on it in the months to come.
The meeting with Faber & Faber is an interesting one to discuss now, though. Late last year, Faber created a new digital division known as the Faber Factory, which heads up their eBook and app programme, but which is also designed as something of a digital conversion and distribution hub for a number of smaller independent publishing houses – of which Birlinn is one.
Now, before I go into how this relationship with Faber works, I should tell you more about Birlinn, its various imprints and its structure.
Birlinn was started by Managing Director Hugh Andrew around 18 years ago after he and Jamie Byng had rescued Canongate Books from oblivion. Jamie is now something of a global publishing phenomenon, just as Canongate is, and their story is a fabulous one. Hugh’s part in Canongate’s survival is sadly largely forgotten, but after they parted ways Hugh has forged a new hugely successful path for himself with Birlinn.
One of the most astute things that Hugh did in Birlinn’s early days was the acquisition of Polygon from Edinburgh University Press, who had decided to sell off their fiction imprint to concentrate solely on academic publications. It seemed like a smart buy at the time, but one which soon proved to be an incredible piece of business for Birlinn; shortly after the buy-out, the popularity of Alexander McCall Smith, one of Polygon’s authors, erupted around the world. The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series became a world-wide hit and McCall Smith a household name. On the back of this success, Hugh was able to really start developing some depth to the Birlinn and Polygon lists. Little, Brown eventually secured a deal with Birlinn for the paperback editions of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and then acquired all rights to the series from 2006 onwards. But despite the shift of that series to Little, Brown, the McCall Smith relationship with Polygon continued. They published the The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom trilogy and as well as publishing several stand-alone novels, they publish the hardback editions of his 44 Scotland Street and Corduroy Mansions series, which featured as daily instalments in The Scotsman and The Telegraph newspapers respectively.
While McCall Smith is no doubt the company’s standard-bearer, his success has allowed Hugh to invest in the Birlinn list, making it the leading publisher of Scottish cultural books, in Polygon’s fabulous fiction list, in the John Donald (our academic imprint) list and, in 2007, facilitated the acquisition of another Edinburgh publishing house, Mercat Press, with Mercat’s backlist gradually incorporated across Birlinn's imprints.
So there we are, and now we can come back to Faber. In the autumn of 2010, we signed a deal with the Faber Factory for them to become our digital distributor. As a result of combining our eBook lists with that of Faber’s and those of a number of other independent publishing houses, the Factory has been able to take a strong united stance when negotiating terms with the major e-retailing sites, such as Amazon, Apple, Gardeners and Waterstone’s. Without this collective muscle, we would have had little choice but to accept the most severe discount terms with these e-retailers to distribute and sell our eBooks. Because of our alliance, we have been able to establish much fairer terms – for the good of our all our companies and to the benefit of our authors.
The argument about whether traditional publishing houses have a future in the eBook environment when authors and agents can now negotiate directly with Amazon and Apple is one that I will get into another time (although if you are in Edinburgh on the 17th August, I will be discussing the matter on a panel at the Book Festival - http://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/the-rise-of-ebooks).
But we’ll have to have a pause just now – the train has just pulled into King’s Cross. I’ll report back on my day’s meetings later.
Speak soon.

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