Publish and be blessed

Very long and definitely uncool, The Holy Bible had a serious image problem until a young publisher chopped it all up.

In the beginning was the Word. Then Gutenberg invented printing, and the Word became a bestseller, not to say the bestseller. Some four billion copies of The Holy Bible were produced between 1800 and 1975 alone, which puts the print run for the sacred texts of Christendom comfortably ahead of their nearest rival, the sacred text of a rather different faith - the Little Red Book of quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong; Mao's mini- anthology shifted a trifling 900 million units.

To be sure, "bestseller" is not an altogether accurate term for books which were generally given away, and a pedant might point out that the most widely distributed title of all time is the Sears Roebuck Catalogue (circa 7 billion copies). When it comes to publishing, Mammon has thrashed both God and Mao.

Still, The Bible clearly has legs as a chart-topper, so it is quite surprising that it has taken so long for a publisher to wonder whether there might not be some innovative way of presenting it to the book-buying public, Christian or otherwise. Some way, that is, which by-passes the two most obvious obstacles that stand between the average late-20th-century reader and The Bible: (a) it is dauntingly long, and (b) if you read it on the bus, people will assume you are a fundamentalist or a nutter.

Solution to (a): chop it into its constituent books, most of which can be browsed in an hour or two. Solution to (b): strip away every last lingering intimation of happy-clappy, socks-and-sandals, acoustic-guitar-and-tambourine gaucheness; make it cool (but serious), sober (but chic).

You'd think one of the big publishing houses would have done it years ago. But they didn't, which left an enticing void in the market for an enterprising small publisher. That publisher is Canongate, an independent house based on Edinburgh's Royal Mile and run, for the past four years, by the eminently enterprising Jamie Byng. Next week sees the publication of the first 12 Pocket Canons: neat, portable, suave slices from the King James version.

"It started in December 1996," Byng explains, "with a phone call from a friend who has nothing to do with publishing, and had been looking around bookshops for one of the books of the Bible, and noticed that no general trade publisher seemed ever to have done them as individual books, and he was curious. Was there any reason why not? Was it too expensive? What did I think of it as an idea? And I said: `I think it's a great idea ....' And I immediately thought, what we have to do is commission introductions, get interesting writers of all kinds to offer ways into those particular books."

Byng duly contacted a dozen appropriate writers - mostly non-believers - and brought in a hot young designer, Angus Hyland. From next week, you will be able to walk into a bookshop, hand over a quid and receive an elegant, black-jacketed 144x108mm edition of Genesis (introduced by the biologist Steven Rose), or Revelations (Will Self), or Matthew (AN Wilson), Mark (Nick Cave), Luke (Richard Holloway, Bishop of Edinburgh), John (Blake Morrison), Job (Louis de Bernieres), Ecclesiastes (Doris Lessing)....

The response has already been far greater than even Byng anticipated. The Sunday Times in Scotland has bought 100,000 copies of Job to give away; the Spanish newspaper El Pais ran two full pages about the venture, and printed a translation of Nick Cave's essay on its review front; WH Smith and other chains are gearing up for a major pre-Christmas sales campaign, and Byng has sold the rights to the series to Germany, Spain, Greece, Italy, Australia and the United States, though some of the introductions in those countries will be written by local authors.

It's by far the biggest enterprise Canongate have ever taken on, and only a few years ago it would have been unthinkable. Founded in 1973, the company had specialised mainly in books on Scottish themes. It was well-respected, and achieved a couple of coups - Alasdair Gray's Lanark, Charles Palliser's The Quincunx - but had a rough time of it financially, and went into receivership in 1994. A management buy-out led to Byng's appointment as director. This was exceptionally rapid promotion: two years earlier, a graduate in English from Edinburgh University, Byng had been an unpaid dogsbody, helping with photocopying and mail-shots.

But he'd already shown a flair for marketing; it was a publicity stunt which won him a job at Canongate in the first place. "My wife and I were running a club called Chocolate City, and we'd advertise it by buying hundreds of mini-munchies from the Cash and Carry, then sit in the pub unwrapping them and re-wrapping them with our flier. I sent one of these off to Stephanie Scott Murray, who was running Canongate at the time, and she was particularly hungry that morning, so she called me in and we hit it off."

Before long, Byng had proved that he knew about books as well as advertising. He could talk persuasively to literary editors, and began to bring titles into the company. Put in charge of the ailing concern, he turned it around. Since October 1994, when Byng took over, the company has quadrupled its turnover, which this year is forecast at around pounds 2 million. More dramatically, Byng has transformed it into a house with an international profile, courted at the Frankfurt Book Fair, recognised from New York to Tokyo. For one of the forthcoming titles on the Autumn list, Dreamer, by the noted black novelist and academic Charles Johnson, Byng out-bid the likes of Faber and Picador.

Financial incentives aside, one of the reasons Johnson opted to be published by Canongate is that he looked at the company's back list and saw that it had reprinted books by the likes of Langston Hughes, Chester Himes, Gil Scott-Heron, Iceberg Slim and other black American authors - all published under one of the two subsidiary imprints Byng introduced. Payback. Byng had originally been inspired by these writers at university - "I did my dissertation on `The Development of the Black Oral Tradition and the Hip Hop Lyric'."

Byng's second innovation came in 1996, when he recruited Kevin Williamson, the co-editor of the underground magazine Rebel Inc (which had published early work by Irvine Welsh) to set up a Rebel Inc. imprint, to encourage new fiction and reprint "counter-cultural classics" - Richard Brautigan, Nelson Algren, Alexander Trocchi, Knut Hamsun et al. Byng's other great publishing coup of 1998 - a limited edition of Snowblind, Robert Sabbag's Rebel Inc classic about the cocaine trade, designed by Damien Hirst.

Copies aren't ready yet, but Byng gleefully shows me some of the component parts: a cover made of reinforced glass mirror; stainless steel mock-American Express cards, which will be fixed to a ribbon and used as a bookmark; the rolled hundred dollar bills that will be inserted into a die-cut hole in each text. They haven't even advertised it yet, but the orders are rolling in. If you fancy one, it will set you back the price of 1,000 Pocket Canons.

Projects like the Hirst Snowblind, Byng says, are the reason he loves Canongate and can never imagine leaving it for one of the big publishing houses, no matter the inducements. "I think editors at bigger publishing houses would have a really hard time making something like that happen, they just couldn't push it through because it's too off-the-wall and potentially too controversial, but that's not a problem for us. It's a real privilege to have that much freedom."

Byng's now busy commissioning the second set of Pocket Canons, due out for Easter 1999: "introducers" include Ruth Rendell on Romans, Alasdair Gray on Jonah, Marina Warner on Tobit ... and possibly A.N. Other rock star ("please don't publish his name") on Psalms. The series has called down the ire of one fundamentalist, who has tried, unsuccessfully, to have Canongate prosecuted for blasphemy, but Byng suspects that, unlike some of the Rebel Inc projects, there will be little condemnation or commination. "I imagine most Christians will welcome the series."

To which sentiments, amen.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition