Porter Anderson meets Jamie Byng

Porter Anderson meets Jamie Byng

When the Honourable James Edmund “Jamie” Byng led the 1994 buyout of Canongate Books, “I think there were seven of us” in the firm, he tells me. “Depending on how you count.”

Today, as he says in our #PorterMeets interview, the company will produce 41 originals this year. And two decades later, he’s still counting staff:
 



Make that 41 award-winning Canongaters. The company has brought home to its eponymous neighborhood in Edinburgh The Bookseller’s Independent Publisher of the Year award, one of the publishing year’s most coveted prizes. And the Publisher and MD with the delightful Twitter handle @BaddaByng is quick to point out that his book-to-staffer ratio is a formula for quality:
 



Significantly, that “talented and dynamic mob” is running against the tide. In the Big Ideas session of The Bookseller’s FutureBook Conference last November, Byng issued a dramatic call for less, not more:  “My Big Idea,” he told the conference at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, “is we’d be well-advised to publish fewer, better books.”

Maybe in Canongate’s capture of the Independent Publisher crown, he’s demonstrating what he said last fall: “The benefits of significantly reducing the number of books we publish are self-evident…We should have fewer orgasms as long as we make them longer and better.”

Byng has said that at one point, Canongate’s output was some 55 books per year. And “we want to trim further.”

He’s credited with chairing and leading the formation of World Book Night in 2011. And a beautiful line from a Hebrew proverb used in conjunction with that campaign comes back now in a tweet:
 



Remember that number 41? The staff and number of original titles this year? It’s also the age of the company:
 



And while the publisher’s major success with Yann Martel’s 2002 Man Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi might lead you to think Canongate is focused on literary work, Byng would like to persuade you otherwise:
 







Needless to say, the Ang Lee film treatment of Life of Pi has turned it into a powerhouse more than 10 years after its publication. “It’s as if it won the Man Booker Prize twice,” Byng says, “or even three times, in sales terms. The movie was a great gift.” Byng says, the book now is “in crude numbers…over the 4-million mark now” in unit sales. “But Pi opened other doors that money can’t always buy.”

Seizing on the opening he gives me there – the need to get boys and men to read more – I point out that Martel’s book is a good one for guys. Byng agrees:
 



Still, the controversial “unauthorised autobiography” of Julian Assange, the 2006 The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, and others have helped take Canongate in what Byng agrees is a political direction:
 





When former #PorterMeets interviewee Katie Clapham of Industry Award-shortlisted bookshop Storytellers Inc. drops in to visit during our interview, Byng picks up on a term I use for her clever engagement with the St. Annes community:
 



And having started our conversation at a loss to put his finger on a distinguishing characteristic about Canongate, Byng closes us out with a deft touch:
 



Jamie Byng’s sense of humour is pretty organic, too: