Against the odds: Scottish publishers on overcoming the challenges of a pandemic

Against the odds: Scottish publishers on overcoming the challenges of a pandemic

Though the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in some of Scotland’s publishers and literary organisations delaying, reducing or stopping their output altogether, others have successfully pivoted their work practices to thrive during the past year.

Edinburgh-based indie Charco Press scooped the title of Scotland’s Small Press of the Year at this year’s British Book Awards after a successful 2020, in which it doubled its turnover, largely due to its entrance to the North American market in late 2019. Further highlights included one of its titles, The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, being shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2020, and its first simultaneous UK/North America title launch. 

Charco saw a marked increase in direct sales through its website and it pursued new opportunities and partnerships, moving events online and creating a YouTube channel to extend the reach of its authors. It was a co-founder of the Borderless Book Club, a virtual book club for publishers and readers of translated fiction, and teamed up with independent bookshops, a local wine bar and book subscription service Books That Matter on book launches and promotions that helped the indie reach new audiences. Recently, the publisher announced plans to release a limited number of its titles in both English and Spanish language editions exclusively in the US, Canada and the UK later this year. Co-founder Samuel McDowell says that in spite of the uncertainty facing smaller publishers, Charco was able to adapt quickly due to its size.

The Gaelic Books Council (GBC) also embraced digital technology over the past year. The initial loss in book sales from the closure of its Gaelic bookshop in Glasgow was mitigated by online sales through its website, which rose 115% in 2020 year on year. GBC engaged readers and offered Gaelic writers paid work opportunities during the lockdown through digital events, commissioning a series of poetry videos and hosting a live poetry event as part of the virtual Royal National Mòd (a Scottish Gaelic song, arts and culture festival). GBC also streamed the Gaelic Literature Awards 2020 via YouTube, and did the same for the weekly Leugh is Seinn le Linda (Read and Sing with Linda) sessions usually held in its book- shop. Up to 400 households tuned in to the sessions and when schools reopened, GBC partnered with online learning platform e-Sgoil to broadcast them to nearly 700 pupils across Scotland.

GBC has continued its writer development programmes and writing competitions, and awarded commission grants to 16 writers and 20 publishers in 2020 to produce new Gaelic books. In the second half of this year, there will be a series of events celebrating the centenary of poet and scholar Ruaraidh MacThòmais (Derick Thomson), the first chair of the GBC (then known as An Comann Leabhraichean). GBC director Alison Lang feels the organisation has been “very lucky” as its “specialist product and loyal customer base” meant it was not as affected by the uncertainty caused by Covid-19 as the general book trade. The GBC has “learned a lot from moving online” and Lang predicts there will be a digital element to all its work going forward, with a new website set to launch in May.

Coming to the boil
For Dundee-based specialist cookbook publisher Kitchen Press, business has been “surprisingly robust” over the past year, reports founder Emily Dewhurst. Though it only published one title in 2020—The Seafood Shack by Kirsty Scobie and Fenella Renwick—the book scooped the Jane Grigson Trust Award and has had “a tremendous reception”.

While the micropublisher’s main sales usually come through bookshops and restaurants, smart partnerships led to increased direct sales, and Dewhurst notes that “there has been public support, with people making the effort through lockdown to buy direct rather than going straight to Amazon. That’s been really nice to see.”

When the pandemic hit, Dewhurst worried that “no restaurants would want to commit to a book again”, but in fact “we’ve got a busier schedule than ever for the next couple of years”. She also feels that “the break from the norm has given us the chance to consider projects we may not have taken on otherwise”. The press is publishing three books this year: Eat, Bite, Cook by Kitty Pemberton-Platt and Fi Buchanan (26th July, £10), a collection of recipes created to meet the energy demands of cyclists, with tips and food diaries from women cyclists; the UK edition of Macedonia: The Cookbook by Katerina Nitsou (17th August, £20), featuring recipes from the Balkan peninsula; and Bad Girl Bakery by Jeni Iannetta, which includes more than 100 recipes from the co-founder of the Muir of Ord’s award-winning bakery. Dewhurst says this is “more variety than we would normally have... we are spread- ing our wings a bit”, and more generally she feels members of Scotland’s book trade are “more confident than I might have expected”.

Over the course of 2020, The Wee Book Company in Midlothian pivoted from being a B2B publisher to sell direct to consumers. It focused on promoting the business in various ways, including building its audience on social media, with its Facebook following growing from around 200 to nearly 8,500, and expanding its range to sell greetings cards and artwork prints. It also started to expand into audiobooks, as well as releasing its first poetry title. The company’s efforts paid off, with profits increasing during 2020. It was also named Scots Business of the Year at the Scots Language Awards 2020, and was highly commended in the Scotland category of The British Book Awards’ Small Press of the Year.

At the start of March 2020, Little Door Books founders Alan and Susan Windram moved into a static caravan in the Highlands. From there, they built on their publishing programme to issue five titles, including the sequel to Alan Windram’s award-winning picture book One Button Benny, and two picture books through its Little Door Débuts list, one of which—The Girl Who Stole the Stars by Corrina Campbell—has been one of its best-performing titles to date. A successful fund- ing award from Creative Scotland enabled the publisher to upgrade its computer system and buy music and video software, which came in handy during lockdown, as Alan Windram recorded videos of himself reading every title in the indie’s catalogue and shared them as a free resource for parents and schools, helping to generate online sales.

Little Door is expanding its horizons in 2021 with its first title for six to nine-year-olds, Uncle Pete and the Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep, written by début children’s author David C Flanagan and illustrated by Will Hughes. It is also partnering with CBeebies creator Sacha Kyle to publish the first in a series of board books that tie in with her animated show “Hushabye Lullabye”. The book will publish in tandem with the launch of the show’s second series in June.

Defying the odds
Fellow children’s indie Cranachan Publishing also had a strong year despite the pandemic. It published one more title than originally planned in 2020—a free illustrated anthology of poems and stories for children from writ- ers across Scotland about lock- down, which has been shared and downloaded thousands of times. The list exceeded 2019’s turnover by focusing on direct sales to readers and schools through its website. It added new key sales accounts and increased turnover through licensing deals with digital platforms aimed at schools. It also struck its first official rights deal last year, selling translation rights in Gaelic to Fir for Luck to education body Storlann.

Through lockdown the indie increased its social media pres- ence and engaged more with readers. It also worked with a freelance children’s publicity specialist and 2020 was its best year yet, by some distance, for press and media coverage. The highlight of the micropublisher’s year was a CILIP Carnegie Medal nomination for Joan Haig’s début children’s book Tiger Skin Rug, while the list was highly commended in the Nibbies’ Small Press of the Year category.

Founder and director Anne Glennie says there were times when she felt like the press was “in survival mode”, but “looking back on 2020, it has been our best year ever”.