Zeitgeist non-fiction, Scots-language kids’ titles and YA the bedrock at B&W

Zeitgeist non-fiction, Scots-language kids’ titles and YA the bedrock at B&W

It was a goosebumps moment that gave Black & White Publishing its top-earning title in its 20-year history. In 2017, former Scotland rugby player Doddie Weir presented the game ball before a match between Scotland and the All Blacks, just after he revealed he was battling motor neurone disease. The crowd was rapturous, and even now it is hard to watch it on video and not get teary. B&W publishing director Alison McBride (pictured below right) says: "It was so emotional—the 67,000 supporters, [the fact] that he presented it with his sons. We saw that and thought, ‘This story has to be told.’"

Weir’s My Name’5 Doddie, published in October last year, shifted nearly 30,000 units for £411,000 through Nielsen BookScan’s Total Consumer Market (almost half of those sales came from outside Scotland). The book helped propel B&W to its near-record TCM haul of £980,000.

Sales aside, B&W’s m.d. Campbell Brown (pictured below left) is proud of how Weir’s book resonated with readers and critics alike. He says: "What really caught the imagination, I think, was not just the story itself but Doddie’s courage and sheer optimism. People have found it inspiring."

Weir’s success was certainly welcome, but it is worth noting that even with sales of My Name’5 Doddie stripped out, B&W would have had a very nice 2018, with its TCM revenue growth almost three times that of the overall market. This is in part down to the careful, considered expansion into new subjects and niches which has been a hallmark of B&W since McBride and Brown co-founded the company in 1999.

Past masters
The two had known each other from working in various roles in the Scottish trade—including McBride in publicity and marketing at Mainstream, Brown in a company that reprinted Scottish fiction classics. Their first list together was mainly non-fiction and B&W hit the ground running with a couple of hits, notably a memoir from the comedian Rikki Fulton.

"I think it might have been easier to launch a publisher then than now," says Brown. "Now, it really helps if you have prior experience, some good distribution and you really need some capital. We were all self-funded, there was so very little in the kitty, but we had enough to start with a small list and we got lucky that the very first things worked well."

Things have developed since those early days. The firm now has nine staffers, including rights director Janne Moller, who has been with the company for 14 years, and editorial manager Emma Hargrave, who recently came over from Barrington Stoke. It now produces 50 to 55 titles a year, which in a typical year might include 50% non-fiction, 25% fiction, and the rest children’s.

The kids’ list includes Itchy Coo, the Scots-language imprint B&W launched with editors and authors Matthew Fitt and James Robertson 15 years ago. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s The Gruffalo is its bestseller in the UK—37,000 units and counting through the TCM. Brown says: "It’s a really fun but important list, as it can allow kids to more easily come to Robert Burns and other Scots writers. The sales are interesting, too, as there is a collector’s audience; the Itchy Coo Harry Potter [editions] have done extremely well in the US, for example."

An expanding part of the overall list is Ink Road, the Young Adult imprint launched in 2017. Estelle Maskame is one of its brightest stars, not just in terms of UK till sales but in rights; the 21-year-old former Wattpad author’s titles have now been sold in 19 territories. The up-and- comer is Akemi Dawn Bowman, who originally hails from Las Vegas but made the somewhat unconventional move from Sin City to Elgin, Moray. Bowman’s 2018 début Starfish was lavishly praised, while follow-up Summer Bird Blue comes out in April. The big début of the spring is The Year After You by Nina de Pass, who in her spare time works at the LAW literary agency.

Fiction is burgeoning, too. Crime is a strength, with former copper Peter Ritchie’s Grace Macallan series and M P Wright’s 1960s Bristol-set J T Ellington trilogy on its list. In non-fiction, the Broons tie-ins remain a pillar, while another new strand is its Ireland-focused titles: the publisher had a particular hit with Gaelic footballer Seán Cavanagh’s The Obsession.

Great Scot
The two believe the Scottish trade is in good shape. Brown says: "It’s great to see other publishers having successes, and seeing some young pups coming through. It’s absolutely essential to have that next generation of publishers coming along; at the very least it shows to other [young creatives] that books are a viable thing to do."

The plan for the near future is to "do roughly the same number of books, but do more with each", McBride says. She explains: "We’re thinking a lot about author care: the time and energy we put into projects, how we can involve the authors. It is a great time for book marketers—with social media and digital there is a start, but never really a finish, to our book campaigns. We are constantly working with our authors, on their front and backlist."