Into the groove at Canongate

From nightclubs to a successful career as a publisher - one small step.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The independent Edinburgh publisher Canongate Books is noteworthy for a range of titles that sees tales of American prison life by little- known black authors sitting alongside biographies of such Scottish heroes as William Wallace and children's stories. But perhaps more remarkably, the company is run by a 26-year-old whose only business experience was of running a nightclub.

Eighteen months ago Jamie Byng, then an unpaid publicist with the company, saved Canongate from going into liquidation by buying it for "about half of what it was worth". It could easily have been just another chapter in the sorry story of Canongate, which has been on the verge of collapse for two decades.

But Mr Byng, who raised the money from his well-connected family, says that buying the company on the cheap has enabled him to set aside cash to help the company through any future cash-flow difficulties. And so far, he and his colleagues seem to be making a good fist of it. Turnover is expected to be about pounds 1.2m for the last financial year, compared with pounds 850,000 last time. And sales in the first months of this year are running ahead of budgets.

Much of this can be attributed to the performance of the enormous music reference book The Great Rock Discography, which is getting a 35,000 print run for its third edition, and other consciously mainstream fare. But Mr Byng's real enthusiasm appears to be the Payback Press imprint he launched a year ago with the publication of such obscure titles as Ben Sidran's Black Talk and Leroi Jones's Blues People. From later this month, Payback - named after a song by the Godfather of Soul, James Brown - will have a complementary fiction list featuring the likes of the black thriller writer Chester Himes and Clarence Cooper.

This fanatical interest is born of a love of black music that began while he was studying English literature at Edinburgh University. Sharing a flat with the brother of the woman who is now his wife, he was introduced to an enormous record collection, and he founded his first venture on what he refers to as a "huge education".

Initially motivated by the desire to have somewhere to dance to music they liked, he and then girlfriend Whitney started the Chocolate City club. Operating every Thursday, it quickly built up a loyal following of 300 people, says Mr Byng. When not studying for his degree, he threw himself into the venture for four years - DJing, selecting records and selling compilation tapes.

His belief that black music and writing are closely intertwined continues: he has forged links with independent record labels producing the material that has inspired him and talks of introducing CD-book combinations as well as multimedia ventures.

He is also coming to terms with the idea that getting his enthusiasm across requires breaking down a few barriers. He has had to contend with a lack of confidence among the sales representatives in the more unusual books. But now the representatives have been shaken up, sales have grown hugely in Britain and abroad, where Canongate is already negotiating tie-ups with similarly minded companies.

Much of the management comes from the old Canongate, but Mr Byng attributes a lot of the operation's progress to the experience of Hugh Andrew, his partner. Mr Andrew, who has run his own publishing house for some time as well as acting as a sales representative for Canongate, is one of the biggest of the eight shareholders that own the company.

Then there is the assistance that Mr Byng, with some understatement, says he is "reasonably lucky" to obtain through his stepfather, Sir Christopher Bland, the former LWT director who at one time ran the Century Hutchinson publishing house. "I'm really young, but lucky enough to have extremely good advice," he says.

But even with plenty of financial assistance and expert advice there is still room for a lot of hard work in a venture of this kind. While he insists that the past year and a half have been "fantastic" and that it is "so rewarding if you are working really hard at something", there is clearly some relief that some of the changes introduced appear to be paying off.

"We're moving from thinking and reacting short-term," he says, pointing out that the autumn list is already settled and that work has begun on commissioning next year's titles. "It's not the frantic hand-to-mouth existence that was true of Canongate in the early days. Things are really calming down."

But though he now feels able to do more of the manuscript reading that is a key part of his job, Mr Byng is aware that any feeling of stability is relative. "Publishing is one of the more precarious businesses."

And though things may not be so hectic, he is still working 15 hours a day, often beginning at 6am, "when the phones are quiet and you can get a lot of stuff done". This might sound an odd work ethic for somebody who used to run a club and spend much of his day reading and listening to music, but Mr Byng is adamant that he gets "the most enormous kick" out of it. "I've got a chance, and to throw the opportunity away by not working at it seems lunacy," he says.

Comments