Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Interview with Canongate – Publisher of the Year. Lisa Glass talks to Jamie Byng.


Vulpes Libris is relaunching its popular Publisher Interview features. To start us off with a bang and some spectacular virtual fireworks, we’re thrilled to bring you an interview with Canongate’s Jamie Byng. Canongate have just been named Publisher of the Year at the British Book Awards.

So, setting myself up on a dressing table – the only thing resembling a desk in this entire shoebox-sized house – with a notepad and eight pens at the ready, (seven emergency back-ups seem prudent) I dial the number. Finding Jamie on a train, I decline his kind offer to conduct the interview the following day and send up a quick prayer that the tannoy announcer will be struck mute and the tunnels will be scarce.

LISA GLASS: “So first question, what do you think of the future of small independent publishers in this current climate? For instance, we know that Salt Publishing is experiencing trouble – is that a bad sign for the rest of the industry?”

JAMIE BYNG: “These are challenging times for all publishers, but it is still possible for publishers to publish successfully. It’s never easy and the business models are changing. But there are still opportunities. In fact it feels like it’s a good time to be small.”

LG: “A question from Vulpes Libris’s newest member, the author Anne Brooke: ‘Do you think publishing and the needs of readers would be better served if the few “big boy” publishers lost their stranglehold on the business? Would the way then be open for a wider variety of books, less commercial blandness and more reading excitement?’”

JB: (*Slight gasp and chuckle*). “Maybe there is a stranglehold. It’s certainly true that the five largest publishers cover a big chunk of the market. But, yes, while there are some things being published that don’t set pulses racing, there is also a lot of really great publishing going on within those big houses.”

LG: “Quite a few writers follow Vulpes Libris, so tell us, what do you want to see in your submissions in-tray?”

JB: “Our editors have different likes and interests, but generally speaking we’re excited by ‘voices’, for fiction and non-fiction. Voices written with care and an awareness of what they’re doing. A control. A book that understands how to hold a reader and keep them turning the pages. A clarity of prose. Originality. A compelling narrative. It is so depressing when people write books solely with their eye on the market. We’re interested in compelling prose and originality. We want writing that permeates the brain.”

LG: “‘Writing that permeates the brain’ is a great way of putting it. As a reader and writer that’s exactly what I’m hoping for in a book.”

JB: “Geoff Dyer’s D.H. Lawrence biography, Out of Sheer Rage, is a good example of the non-fiction that excites me. We didn’t publish it, but I wish we had. You might expect a biography to be a little dry, but this book is the funniest and most captivating piece of writing. We’re looking for books that have poise. Authenticity. Books that can be serious and playful.”

[Update: Geoff Dyer has just won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction for his jeff in venicelatest novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which is published by Canongate.]

LG: “A question from another author, Rosy Barnes: ‘Are there too many books published?’”

JB: “…Yes. Publishers are putting out too many books. I don’t think we are selective enough as an industry. I think it would be great if there was a law that forced publishers to publish twenty percent fewer books. Really concentrate on and push the books that do come out.”

“Canongate publish 40 original titles a year. We intend to keep small. The company is growing in terms of revenue – Barack Obama’s books (Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope) and The Mighty Book of Boosh have helped enormously in the past nine months – but we don’t intend to increase the number of books we release. We want to keep focussed and never come to see books as ‘product.’”

LG: “Is there a certain sales target you’re striving for? Is there a sales number after which you’d consider the book to be a success? For instance, I’ve heard some publishers say that a title has to sell more than 5000 copies or the book is a flop.”

JB: “There’s no crude number. It’s all relative. We’d hope to sell over 5000 copies of most new titles we publish but welemn-sissay don’t need to. It’s also related to the size of the advance. If we’ve paid a large advance, we’d like to see that book sell well. Lemn Sissays’s latest collection of poetry, Listener, is a superb book which sold 1700 copies which is a lot for poetry, and I regard that publication as a great success. So it would be an oversimplification to name a certain number. We’re not fly by night publishers who expect (or need) things to happen straight away. We realise that sometimes debuts don’t sell many copies, or even second, third and fourth books. It’s about building a writer and being patient.”

HomicideSimon“Books with a large platform like Homicide written by David Simon, the creator of The Wire – we naturally expect to sell more. Already we have 125,000 copies in print and we expect that one to keep on selling in sizeable quantities as it’s a book that has now established itself as a modern classic and there’s a growing appetite for David’s writing”

“But we’re also aware that often the books that went on to become classics weren’t massively popular at the time in which the author was writing, with the exception of Dickens and a few others. I’m thinking of Jane Austen for instance. Jane Austen wasn’t particularly widely read in her day; it was only after her death when a sanitised portrait of Jane Austen was published [by her niece, J.E. Austen-Leigh, who published A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870. Ed.] that she started to become better known. Likewise, Dostoyevsky wasn’t exactly famous when he was writing, and Melville’s Moby Dick was out of print for much of his lifetime and was only fully appreciated after his death.”

I point out that Jodi Picoult was on The Wright Stuff recently, saying almost the complete opposite of this in relation to The Telegraph’s list of the best children’s books as picked by past and present Children’s Laureates, i.e, that the classics we read now were almost always the popular fiction of their day. To quote Jodi exactly:

“Where do you think classics come from? They were in their day the widely read commercial fiction.”

Jamie disagrees that this is always the case.  Dickens yes.  Austen no.

thecrossroadsLG: “As an online book reviewer I see a fair amount of samey blandness in the novels put out by some of the biggest publishers, whereas the weird, edgy books from Canongate have had me raving to all and sundry. Is there ever a pressure to publish so-called ‘lowest common denominator’ books?”

JB: “That pressure is not felt by us.”

Jamie talks effusively about M.J. Hyland’s new novel, This is How.thisishow

“Maria’s previous two books were critically successful – her second novel, Carry Me Down was short-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize – but the critical success did not translate into huge sales. The new book, This is How, is her best yet. It’s narrated by a 21-year-old man and the book really takes the reader into his head. You never question the veracity of the voice. You come to know Patrick intimately and this is why the book is so upsetting and powerful and affecting. The book stays with you; it is an intense reading experience that you will never forget.  It reminded me of Camus’ The Outsider but Patrick also has something of Raskolnikov about him.”

LG: “Vulpes Libris co-admin, Moira Briggs, asks: ‘What’s your view on book blogs versus newspaper reviews? Are blog reviews important to Canongate?’”

Six Months in SudanJB: “Absolutely, and not just because I’m talking to you. The primacy of newspapers as the forum for critical judgement is disappearing. As great as a review is, it is still one person’s view, whether that person writes in a newspaper or on a blog. If a paper of record like The New York Times or The Guardian gives a book a glowing review that can really help raise the profile of a book. However, in ten years who knows where we’ll be?”

I interject to say that one element I enjoy about book blogs is the sense of community. Vulpes Libris,The Earth Hums in B Flat Dove Grey Reader, Stuck in a Book, Tales from the Reading Room, John Self, Booklit, Lizzy Siddal, Mark Thwaite and others each have loyal readers who regularly contribute to literary debate and discussions. Jamie agrees that the community aspect is important and adds:

JB: “Publishing thrives on conversation, word of mouth. In the future it might even be the case the biggest blogs are very powerful, with maybe ¾ million readers, and a good review could have the effect of books shooting up the sales rankings. I think that is entirely possible. And an exciting thought.”

We’re both interested in the effect that Twitter book clubs might have on sales figures. We talk a little bit about Jonathan Ross starting a book club on Twitter, which resulted in the first title, Jon Ronson’s The Men who Stare at Goats, jumping into the top 100 Amazon bestsellers.

LG: “Can traditional bookshops survive when they’re up against the might of Amazon and the supermarkets?”

JB: “Amazon is very attractive to customers. It’s a good deal. You can buy a book at a cheap price and have it delivered to your door the next day. They also have a massive range of books on offer that far surpasses what any bookshop can stock. So I’m not surprised that the online retailers have been so successful. But the chains, Waterstone’s/Borders/W. H. Smiths, are still very significant and should continue to be. They sell a lot of books for us.  And they and the independents can play up the feeling of community in a way that I think will always be appealing to a sizeable number of bookbuyers.  ”

SumI mention that my local bookshops sadly seem to be very quiet during weekdays and that it’s quite daunting to be confronted by thousands of books and relatively few customers.

JB: “These are challenging times for booksellers, the indies and the chains. The booksellers that thrive will be the ones that get creative in the way they sell books.

I ask about the Waterstone’s 3for2s, which I have read about on the Snowbooks’ blog as a promotion that is vitally important for sales, but one that has to be paid for.

JB: “Those promotions are certainly important. The titles included in the 3for2s are ultimately selected by TheEndOfMrYWaterstone’s, and the publisher offers a higher discount in return. We work very closely with Waterstone’s. They really championed Scarlett Thomas The End of Mr Y and the book went on to sell 150,000 copies. That success was kick-started by Waterstone’s. They did a lot of hand-selling, offered a promotion to their loyalty cardholders and really whipped up excitement about the book. We’ll always be grateful to them for that. It helped that they loved the package that we’d made for the book, which went on to win a Nibbie for Best Cover.”

LG: “What are your views on ebooks?”

JB: “Digital publishing represents a wonderful new opportunity for readers, publishers and writers . . . if it’s done imaginatively. Ebooks don’t spell the end of the printed book, and I don’t think many people really believe that they will. At Canongate we’re looking at enhanced ebooks and Dan Franklin, our digital editor, is spending a lot of time working on TheDeathOfBunnyMunrothis. Nick Cave’s new novel, The Death of Bunny Munro is going to be done as an ebook, and it will be a multimedia experience. Nick has made a seven-hour audio track of himself reading the entire novel. Warren Ellis, the violinist in Nick’s band, has collaborated with Nick to create an original soundtrack for the ebook and there are to be eleven short films in which Nick read from the novel in various surroundings. This content will be designed primarily for the Iphone. There is, of course, a market for straight ebooks too.”

Impressed with these plans, I suggest that as a consumer if I’m going to pay £7.99 for an ebook, I’d definitely want extra content, stuff that you can’t get in a paper book. Not that I can really see myself buying an ebook, since I already spend far too much of my life reading from a screen.

JB: “Great writing is great writing, wherever you read it, in a book or onscreen. My kids are very comfortable reading onscreen and would see no problem in reading a novel that way.”

I add that I was offered a Sony Reader for free, but declined – somewhat ridiculously feeling that I love paper books too much to cheat on them with an e-reader. . . A tunnel cuts us off.

JB: “I realise that for some people just the idea of looking at a digital screen makes the experience feel like work, compared to the joys of a printed book. Many readers are immersed in the habit of printed books.”

I interrupt here to vehemently agree about being in the habit of the printed book, whilst secretly The Spare Roomthinking that as a writer it’s bad enough having a screen parked permanently on your knees, without having to carry one into the bath with you.

JB: “I’m more excited than fearful of what ebooks could represent but it’s such early days that it’s hard to know the extent of the impact that ebooks will have.”

LG: “What are Canongate’s plans for the future? Where do you see the business in five years’ time?”

JB: “We plan to keep on doing what we’ve always been doing. Publishing books we care passionately about. Being incredibly selective. We’ll continue to be fearless and innovative when it comes to ebooks and respond quickly to the changes in the industry and to the way books are published.”

LG: “Which Canongate titles should we go out and buy this summer?”

Sum, Ghosts and Lightning, The Corner, Pandora in the Congo, The Gargoyle, No Angel, The Siege, Popco, The Earth Hums in B Flat, The Spare Room and The Crossroads are just some of the ones we haven’t mentioned in the course of this conversation but that I think are very good and which I would thoroughly recommend.

GhostsandlightningThe CornerPandora in the CongoTheGargoyleNo Angelthe siegePopco

Vulpes Libris reviews of Canongate titles:

David Eagleman’s Sum.

James Maskalyk’s Six Months in Sudan.

Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father.

John Fante’s Ask The Dust.

Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You.

For further Vulpes Libris Publisher Interviews, click here.

LisaGlassPicLISA GLASS is the author of several novels and short stories, including SNAKE BEACH, a summer beach read just released in e-book form for the Kindle (and other e-readers via Smashwords), priced at a princely 98p.

26 comments on “Interview with Canongate – Publisher of the Year. Lisa Glass talks to Jamie Byng.

  1. Simon T
    June 9, 2009

    What an interesting interview, thanks. Canongate are always aligned with Canongate Classics in my mind, so I enjoyed finding out about all their new books.

    I was offered a Sony Reader too! I took it, used it, gave it to my brother…

  2. Lisa
    June 9, 2009

    Simon – in a terrible oversight, I forgot to add your lovely blog to my list of book bloggers. Have rectified.

    I bet your brother was happy! My techie-geek husband was absolutely mortified that I didn’t jump at the chance of a free Sony Reader…(luckily Eve took up the offer and wrote us an excellent overview of the device: )

  3. Sharon
    June 9, 2009

    Lovely to see success being STILL made out of proper literary fiction. Gives the little guys like us something to aspire to!

  4. marygm
    June 9, 2009

    Great interview. I like the idea of what Canongate look for in their books. Sounds good to me as a reader. Keep up the good work.

    By the way, we reviewed Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama last year here:

  5. Anne Brooke
    June 9, 2009

    Fabulous interview, thanks, Lisa! He certainly got out of my killer question nicely – the politicians would be impressed!…

    Fascinated about the enhanced ebooks too – sounds like something I’d love to have.



  6. Lisa
    June 9, 2009

    Sharon, yes, great to see litfic thriving.

    That was an excellent review, Mary. I linked to it right at the bottom of this piece, but it’s worth flagging up again 🙂

    If any other publishers would like to be interviewed, please contact us on either the Vulpes Libris email address: bookfoxes AT googlemail DOT com or contact me directly on: lpglass AT googlemail DOT com. Bluemoose Books are next, but we’re going to try to run several of these publisher interviews before the year is through.

    Twas a great question, Anne! 😀

  7. lizzysiddal
    June 9, 2009

    Glad I wasn’t alone in not taking up the e-reader offer … more an oversight than a conscious decision. I thought the email was spam …

    Anyway great interview and thanks for the plug. I have a few recent of Canongate reviews to add to your list:

    The Earth Hums In B-Flat

    Pandora In the Congo

    The Crossroads

    All terrific reads in entirely different ways!

  8. Lisa
    June 9, 2009

    Thanks for adding those very interesting reviews, Lizzy. The books sound excellent. I think “The Earth Hums in B-Flat” is possibly my favourite book title ever.

  9. Jackie
    June 10, 2009

    Excellent interview! Mr. Byng is a quite gracious & enthusiastic personality. His detailed answers were interesting & I’m glad to see his company is looking for quality, not just quantity. I was heartened that he didn’t considers books as “product”, that’s refreshing.
    I must say that Canongate does artistically striking covers and eye catching as well. Wishes for continued success for Mr. Byng & Canongate!

  10. litlove
    June 10, 2009

    This is a really good interview – probing and engaging. I thought that Canongate were becoming really interesting when they took on Obama’s books. They did so long before he was even a sure candidate for the presidency, which indicated an amazing degree of foresight. And then, the books are written extremely well. But it takes a brave and different publisher to do that kind of thing, and I saluted them.

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  12. Kate Lace
    June 10, 2009

    Fab interview. Thanks

  13. rosyb
    June 10, 2009

    Really interesting interview and a lot of work’s obviously gone into this too.

    What it really pointed up for me is how quickly things are changing. We are now in a time where our mainstream media is largely having to move away from print and onto the screen – I wonder how this will ultimately change the way publishing works – not to mention what “critical success” will mean in the future – will the mainstream printed media all move seamlessly online and retain the same dominance?

    And perhaps, as Jamie Byng says, the next generation’s total ease with the screen world will made reading printed books a minority interest. More than it is already. I wonder whether the form of “the book” in terms of size and narrative form will start to change if ebooks become the norm. Will multimedia forms take off and become new and interesting formats, or will they just provide a distraction for a while? Will books become more interactive?

    The last question is quite an interesting one because – it has always seemed to me that the power of reading was the private worlds and experience that it brings…but are books becoming more public experiences? Will performance and reading aloud become big again?

    And will publishers continue to exist in their present form? Can they? Or will they need to shift and change also to keep in the game. Where should the balance be between newness and keeping things fresh and being at the forefront, and their more traditional roles?

    I would love to see more pieces on this sort of thing on Vulpes, looking at and exploring these and more questions.

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  15. dovegreyreader
    June 11, 2009

    Great interview Lisa, Canongate’s books always challenging me to head into new reading territory.

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  18. Lisa
    June 15, 2009

    Thanks for all the comments. And lovely to see DoveGreyReader here too! 😀

    July 1, 2009

    Thanks for the interesting interview. It was awesome to read!

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  26. Carol
    March 25, 2014

    What an inspiration Jamie is.

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