A colourful life: Johnston siblings look to build on legacy of parents’ bold publishing

A colourful life: Johnston siblings look to build on legacy of parents’ bold publishing

Malcolm and Wesley Johnston were not exactly born into the Colourpoint business, but it has been a big part of their lives since their school days. The brothers’ parents, Norman and Sheila, set up what would eventually become Northern Ireland’s biggest publisher in 1993 to fill an obvious, and in retrospect somewhat shocking, gap in the market: no one was publishing books specifically for Northern Ireland’s secondary schools. Yes, Northern Irish education policy overlapped with the rest of the UK and Ireland, so students were not completely bereft of materials. But with no textbooks geared directly at the curriculum, in practice this meant that schools in the six counties had to use a range of content to cover their needs.

Enter the elder Johnstons, launching with a handful of secondary-level politics and history titles. Those initial forays were an immediate hit and schools clamoured for more, so the Johnstons began growing the business organically. It helped the bottom line in those early days that Norman and Sheila, writers and educators, authored several of those titles themselves. In fact, both continued to write books for almost all the company’s history and four titles Sheila wrote or contributed to over the years still feature on Colourpoint’s Key Stage 3 list.

Malcolm Johnston, who is now Colourpoint’s publisher and runs the trade arm of the family firm, says: “We weren’t necessarily expected to go into the business and there was no pressure to do so, but it seemed natural— Colourpoint has been with us since we were teenagers and a lot of memories of my school holidays seem to be of packing up boxes of books.”

Even the name over the door and the company logo (a feline sporting a mortarboard and tassel) came from a family member of a sort. Just after they decided to launch the business, the Johnstons were in their sitting room brainstorming about what to call themselves, and in walked the cat: it was a colourpoint shorthair.

Changing lanes

Colourpoint switched into another gear in the late 1990s with its first trade non-fiction list of transport and rail titles (a particular passion of Norman’s), and soon moved into other genres, including history, politics and religion. The second generation’s turn heading up the family firm began in earnest during the early 2010s, when Malcolm and Wesley—who is the financial director and heads the education side—began running the day-to-day operations as their parents stepped back. The brothers repositioned the business in 2012 as Colourpoint Creative, the new name better reflecting a growing portfolio of the schools publishing, burgeoning trade side and the publishing services arm—which is primarily geared towards helping self-published authors and micro-publishers get to market. Norman Johnston, sadly, passed away in 2014 aged 65 after a short battle with cancer, just days after completing Parting Shot, a book of his railway photography.

Currently, around 50% of the group’s revenue is generated by education; 40% comes from trade and 10% from publishing services. It remains one of the only players in the secondary sector, with Hodder Education the only firm joining Colourpoint in producing Northern Ireland-specific materials. Malcolm Johnston says: “We’re doing really well on the education side, but that’s not to say it’s easy. There is a lot of pressure on the system itself, as schools’ budgets are being constantly squeezed. And it certainly doesn’t help education policy in general that we have this situation that Stormont [the devolved Northern Ireland assembly] hasn’t met in more than two years.”

The biggest shift on the trade side has been the 2017 acquisition of Belfast-based The Blackstaff Press. Founded in 1971, Blackstaff is Northern Ireland’s, arguably all of Ireland’s, best-known trade list, having published literary heavyweights such as John Hewitt, Bernard MacLaverty and Glenn Patterson. It also has a strong history and politics list, and has done particularly well of late with sport, memoir and humour.

Malcolm Johnston says: “Blackstaff is one of the most iconic brands in Irish publishing and it was a really great opportunity for us with its reputation, its fantastic backlist. In many ways we have been approaching it like a merger, not an acquisition, because we have invested in and expanded the list, and unified Blackstaff with some of the Colourpoint trade titles.”

One of the upcoming Blackstaff books Johnston is particularly keen on is Shooting the Darkness, a pictorial title about photojournalists who covered the Troubles, based on an RTÉ documentary shown earlier this year. Johnston says: “There has been a lot of publishing around the Troubles, of course, but I think this might be a first. There are these often iconic images, which we all know, but more than that the book goes behind the scenes about what were these truly ethical dilemmas—for example, to get that ‘perfect shot’ the photographers often had to do deals with paramilitaries.”

Punk fiction

On the fiction side, one of the most intriguing new voices is Cork-based Kevin Doyle, a literary short story writer, essayist and anarchist whose gritty noir-ish début, To Keep a Bird Singing, was a hit last year. The first in the series introduced one of crime fiction’s most unique leads in Noelie Sullivan, a “disaffected punk” and grassroots activist who stumbles upon a clue for an unsolved murder in a record he finds in a charity shop, then plunges headlong into a fight against rampant corruption. The follow-up, A River of Bodies, launched earlier this month.

Like most on both sides of the Irish border, Colourpoint is looking warily towards the end of October, when the UK is scheduled to finally leave the European Union. Johnston says drily: “It’s an interesting one, isn’t it? Up to now, we have actually benefited from the currency exchange for the titles we publish in the South. We’re prepared as we can be: we publish in the UK and the Republic, and have stock warehoused on both sides of the border. There are one or two titles for which we may have to change where we print. But the biggest challenge is that so much is unknown.”

The lack of clarity on Brexit aside, Johnston is bullish for the future: “Blackstaff is integrating well, the education side is growing, the publishing services is getting stronger. We take each year as it comes, but I think we have set ourselves up so that there is a lot potential for growth.”

Three to watch

Firefighters During the Troubles
John Wilson 
9781780732343, £12.99 (€14.99), PB 

A dangerous job normally, firefighting became even more fraught during the Troubles. In this title, men and women who served in the services recall how they dealt with the aftermath of atrocities.

A River of Bodies
Kevin Doyle
9781780732336, £8.99 (€9.99), PB 

Doyle’s second Cork-set thriller has reluctant sleuth Noelie Sullivan battling the sinister Donnelly family and the Catholic church.


Shooting the Darkness 
9781780732398, £19.99 (€22.99), HB 

A look behind the scenes at the photographers who shot some of the most iconic images of the Troubles.

This was written as part of The Bookseller's focus on publishing in Ireland; for more content from this focus, head here.