Sandstone Press on living the Highlands life

Sandstone Press on living the Highlands life

Sandstone Press’ first big avalanche of media attention was in 2011 when it scored a Man Booker Prize longlisting for Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb. It was a compelling story: an independent publisher based in Dingwall in the Scottish Highlands, one that had just launched its first fiction list, was in contention for the world’s biggest English-language literary prize. Yet there was a bit of condescension in some coverage, too—as if the reporters (particularly those from London) found it impossible that a firm in the far-flung provinces could conjure a Booker contender.

Bob Davidson (pictured), who founded Sandstone in 2002, was and remains unperturbed by that angle from the media. He suggests such prejudice is par for the course for British publishers outside London, and he thinks that Sandstone, and other publishers not in the metropolitan bubble, should use geography to their advantage. He explains: “For us, to be a publisher in a famously beautiful locale, but not a ‘local’ publisher, is to be supremely advantaged in brand recognition after you have conquered the practicalities. I have noted this at every step of the way: over- come the difficulties, and our aura gets a little brighter. But the practicality of being in touch with the only media that count—the buyers and sellers—is a real challenge. The answer is to go directly to the readers via personal appearances, hand-selling and the internet. Remember that the most important person in selling a book is the author.”

A “beautiful locale, but not local” is something of a mantra, though the firm does not shy away from its roots. The non-fiction side’s strength is in natural history and outdoor pursuits, many with a Scottish theme, such as 2018 hits There’s Always the Hills by the adventurer Cameron McNeish; Johnny Muir’s William Hill-longlisted history of hill-running, The Mountains are Calling; and Andy Howard’s The Secret Life of the Mountain Hare, which won the public vote for the Favourite Scottish Nature Photography Book 2018.

Going global

Yet the fiction list—of which Davidson says editorial director Moira Forsyth is the “principal architect and driving force”—in particular shows that Sandstone is not looking inward. Its biggest seller of the past two years has been German crime author Volker Kutscher’s Weimar Republic-set Gereon Rath books, which have been turned into the “Babylon Berlin” TV series.

And the hot titles Sandstone is keen on selling rights to at this London Book Fair have more of a Russian flavour than a Scottish one. First up is an “uncomfortable family history”- cum-travelogue, along the St Petersburg to Venice Amber Trail, by the historian and journalist C J Schüler. Then there is The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt, the first title in Sarah Armstrong’s new 1970s-set spy series. “[Armstrong] is an author and a series that we really believe in,” Davidson says. “In the not too distant future [her books] will be read across the world.”

Sandstone is changing its beautiful locale, however, upping sticks from Dingwall to go to the other side of the Moray Firth to new offices in Inverness. The move is partially due to an expanding team and an influx of recent hires, including assistant publisher Kay Farrell, marketing and publicity officer Ceris Jones and sales support officer Alice Laing. But it also reflects a raft of deeper changes: “From the outside and the look of what we are publishing, you probably wouldn’t notice a difference. It’s like an iceberg: the eighth that is above the surface is going to remain the same; what we are focusing on is the seven-eighths below the surface.”

He is referring to streamlining back office functions and improving efficiencies in things like its IT and royalties systems. Plus, there is help at the board level: former Canongate publisher Jenny Todd joined as a non- executive director in May 2018. Davidson says: “We’ve done pretty well for 17 years but are looking to grow and improve profitability. It has been great to have [Todd], who has the experience, and can look at our business with fresh eyes.”

Yet indie publishing remains challenging: “It’s never a good time to be an indie, especially if you start from scratch. You have to make it work, as mainstream publishing has long since evolved into giantism. It is necessary to be idealistic but to leaven your idealism with pragmatism, play to your strengths, find money, and pray for luck... Yet, it is the small independents who take risks on authors they believe in. It is the small independents who reach out most intimately to the public. It is small independents who go against the grain. Independent publishers are the soul of publishing.”

Sandstone Press' core team