Bonnie Clyde: publishers hail Glasgow’s buzzy literary scene

Bonnie Clyde: publishers hail Glasgow’s buzzy literary scene

Glasgow is not just the top spot for culture and creatives in Scotland, but UK-wide. Don’t take my word for it: this is from a 2019 European Commission report on the cultural economy of major urban areas, which ranked the city on the Clyde ahead of London and Manchester, and placed Edinburgh in sixth place. The study used a number of ways to measure cultural impact, but broadly its tests were in “cultural vibrancy” and ability to attract creative talent. Notably, Glasgow was top of 190 European cities surveyed in “openness, tolerance and trust”, and fêted for its media presence, vibrant performing arts scene and visual culture. 

What was not really taken into account was Glasgow’s strong literature and publishing scene. Sure, Glasgow might be behind Edinburgh with the capital’s embarrassment of Rebus, Harry Potter and Unesco City of Literature status riches. But Glasgow is no slouch, boasting some late, great titans (Alasdair Gray, William McIlvanney), the only two Scottish Booker winners (James Kelman and Douglas Stuart) a host of contemporary literature’s big names (Louise Welch, Denise Mina, Liz Lochhead, A L Kennedy) and emerging stars (Chris McQueer and Graeme Armstrong).

It is true that most of the bigger, more established firms are Edinburgh-based—if we discount HarperCollins’ Bishopbriggs, east Glasgow distribution centre, which is by far Scotland’s biggest publishing employer. But there is a wealth of vibrant companies in Glasgow, including the micropress and literary magazine Thi Wurd; translation and emerging Scottish writing specialist Vagabond Voices; the longstanding (est 1850) nautical publisher Brown, Son & Ferguson; and Quality Chess, one of the world’s most well-respected chess publishers. 

“A lot of us [Glasgow publishers] are in niches,” acknowledges Sha Nazir, publisher of BHP Comics. “So we are minority interests in a minority market. As a comics publisher, though, we tend to be the weirdos anyway, so it’s just adding on another layer.”
We should be clear that there is no real friction between Edinburgh and Glasgow publishers, no East Coast/West Coast, Biggie-vs-Tupac beef. Nazir, for example, says the capital’s dominance is “probably simply because Scotland is a relatively small scene overall and Edinburgh has a historical publishing infrastructure that pulls people in”. 

Nazir adds: “We’ve met a lot of great people in the ’Burgh and we sometimes work with other publishers there on knowledge share. But I think because we are outside Edinburgh, we have a slightly different perspective. If there is a difference, I would say Glasgow publishers can often be a bit more radical, doing stuff that’s more outside the box. But to be fair, because we’re mostly indies, probably 90% of all Scottish publishers are doing our own thing anyway.”

BHP was founded by comics creators Nazir and editor-in-chief Jack Lothian in 2011 as a co-operative self-publisher called Black Hearted Press. In 2016, it rebranded as BHP and greatly ramped up its production, signed with comics distributor Diamond to get its titles stocked into comic shops, and with Turnaround to establish a high-street bookshop presence with its graphic novels. In 2019, it expanded into the US and Canada for the first time. 

All was ticking over nicely, but the pandemic threw a spanner in the works. Last spring, Barnes & Noble returned almost 80% of its stock to BHP’s US distributor, while UK sales plunged by around 50%, partially because (like a lot of non-Marvel or DC comics publishers) a good chunk of BHP’s sales normally come at comic-cons and other events. But lemons to lemonade: 2020 prompted a rethink of the business, as BHP moved to a digital-first model with a greater emphasis on developing its intellectual property for gaming, film and TV. There was a major coup last month on the IP front, with Luke Speed at Curtis Brown (which reps BHP’s properties) inking an animation deal with gaming studio Volkatu for BHP’s “‘Blade Runner’ meets ‘Battle Royale’ for the Fortnight generation” series, Killtopia. 

Nazir says digitisation and IP development were already in train, but the pandemic “made me really speed up. I mean, last year at the time I was worrying about all the stock we had just sitting in our Los Angeles warehouse. We will publish some print, but digital-first will enable us to experiment”. 

Tramping a path
Publisher and writer Laura Waddell has spent all of her career with Glasgow-based companies, first at Freight, then with HC in the children’s reference department, before in 2018 being named the UK publishing director for Tramp Press, tasked with opening a British outpost for the Dublin-based indie. 

Waddell has expanded Tramp’s UK profile greatly, though it has been hard graft and “it does take a lot of work to convince some arts editors that we aren’t ‘just’ an Irish press”. The big success last year was Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s hugely praised genre-busting memoir-cum-history title A Ghost in the Throat, which was Foyles’ 2020 Non-Fiction Book of the Year. Waddell’s current focus is the Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy’s feminist manifesto Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, out this week (22nd April). 

In her spare time, Waddell is part of the seven-strong collective that owns Gutter, the biannual Glasgow literary magazine, which she uses to illustrate some Edinburgh/Glasgow differences: “I think Edinburgh is more established, Glasgow has more of an edge. That might just fit with Glasgow’s character, being a grittier, post-industrial city. But with things like the emerging writers we publish in Gutter, I think you can see more of a grassroots feel, a bit more of a counterculture.” 

A new player in Glasgow’s literary counterculture is The Common Breath (TCB), launched in 2019 by the writer Brian Hamill, who previously co-founded the Thi Wurd literary magazine in 2012 and later became the submissions editor for Thi Wurd’s books arm. 

TCB’s list includes reissues of lost classics, such as Tom Kromer’s 1935 novel Waiting for Nothing, A L Kennedy’s long-form prose poem Look at Me How, and perhaps its biggest project to date, passing through, the upcoming collection of unpublished prose and poems by the late Glaswegian poet Tom Leonard. 

Hamill was inspired to found TCB by micro-indies of the 1980s and ’90s such as Dunclean McLean’s Clocktower Press and Kevin Williamson’s Rebel, Inc, the latter of which famously first published Irvine Welsh. He says: “I love the ethos of doing it yourself because nobody else is doing it in quite the way you want it, or quite the way you think it should be done. Don’t bother conforming to the literary ideals of others, no kowtowing or complaining, just do it all yourself instead, and folk will get on board.” 

Hamill does not believe there is much differentiation between Edinburgh and Glasgow, or it’s not as pronounced as the dominance of another British capital city. He says: “The issue of ‘London-centrism’ in publishing exists because London is big enough and rich enough to have an unwitting myopia all of its own. Edinburgh isn’t a huge financial and cultural powerhouse in quite the same way; I’ve always found it a very welcoming and stimulating literary place. But the advantage to being a Glasgow publisher is that there are many, many great writers scribbling away, and this city seems to have that same DIY mindset as lies behind The Common Breath. There are always things happening here, folk getting stuff done. It’s quite a place.”

Five questions for...Alan Parks Author

Paisley-born, Glasgow resident Alan Parks spent more than 20 years in the music industry, working with a range of artists including The Streets, New Order and CeeLo Green. His 2017 début Bloody January was the first in a planned 12-book 1970s-set series featuring Glaswegian detective Harry McCoy. The recently released The April Dead sees McCoy investigate the detonation of a homemade bomb, which may be linked to the disappearance of a sailor at a nearby US naval base. 

What about Glasgow in the 1970s, in particular, made it a great setting for a crime series?
I think Glasgow in the seventies was in a state of change. The heavy industries had collapsed, housing was being demolished, drugs were starting to make an impact. It seemed like then would be a good time to write about. It seemed things were up for grabs then, anything could happen, from political change to a kind of cultural rebirth.
Are you nostalgic for Harry McCoy’s Glasgow compared to the city of today? 
Let’s put it this way: I’d like to visit but I wouldn’t want to stay!
Are there any stereotypes about Glasgow that you have been trying to smash with the McCoy books?
Sadly, no. I quite like reinforcing them! I like the idea of Glasgow hardmen and corrupt cops. I like people drinking too much and smoking, all the things that are bad for you. The only other thing I tried to do was show that that wasn’t all the city consisted of; that its inhabitants have always been more diverse than the stereotypes would have you believe.
Glasgow doesn’t seem to celebrate its great writers in the way Edinburgh does—or use them as a tourist magnet. Why do you think that is? 
I think Edinburgh presents itself as a cultured, artistic city to visit, so venerating writers fits in with that. Glasgow seems to be a place more interested in presenting itself as a destination for people who like to go out, meet other people. It also has a visual art scene that punches way above its weight, so maybe we should just celebrate that.
What would you recommend as the definitive Glasgow novel? 
That’s a difficult one. Maybe Swing Hammer Swing! by Jeff Torrington, a kind of lost novel of Glasgow. It was acclaimed when it came out in 1992, then fell off the radar. Set in the Sixties during the demolition of the Gorbals’ slums, it’s a portrait of a strange and slightly surreal kind of Glasgow, but one that has a ring of truth about it.