- Alistair Braidwood
Publish And Be Damned: In Conversation With Mark Buckland…
In the week of the Aye Write! Book Festival (see Wrapped Up in Books: The Best of Aye Write…) it is perhaps only right to consider the state of Scotland’s literary landscape. There are plenty of articles written about the current crop of Scottish writers, and also about the expectations of readers and critics, but we often overlook those ‘in-betweeners’, namely the publishers. I recently caught up with Mark Buckland, the head of Cargo Publishing and chief organiser of the recent Margins Book and Music Festival over a couple of £5 pints (!!!) to talk about his views on the state of publishing in Scotland today, but the conversation ended up covering so much more. I was originally going to edit the following within an inch of its life but after listening back to the whole thing I thought Mark’s thoughts deserved to be read in full. I hope you agree that it makes for interesting reading:
SWH: Why decide to get into publishing at this perilous time? MB: Madness? Admittedly it’s not a great time to get into publishing as it is a period of change. I was running a club night for several years which put on bands and writers, and it became quite successful with people coming from as far away as Europe to perform. Through it I met people who had been writing in Glasgow but had never been published. It struck me that there was a whole generation of Scottish writers who had been left out in the cold for various reasons. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could give them a platform. Like everyone I got into publishing being idealistic, then discovering the realities later on. SWH: So,when you published last year’s short story collection The Year of Open Doors (see the-year-of-open-doors) was this the ethos you had in mind? MB: The Year of Open Doors was a happy coincidence. Cargo had just published our first publication Cancer Party by Andrew Raymond Drennan and I approached Rodge Glass (see Edinburgh Exchange: An Interview with Rodge Glass) and asked if I could publish his next novel, my being young and naive, and he was gracious, even when saying no. Then he said what about this idea? He proposed a collection of short stories and I was surprised when he said he wanted to include some unpublished writers allowing the collection to cross different generations, and that’s what we were able to do. In a way it helped break Cargo because we became allied with writers who were already well established but we could include some of the writers who I had seen who were on the way up. We got to showcase a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have had that opportunity. The key to it was this crossover. It was so exciting to have Kevin McNeil sitting alongside Allan Wilson and alongside Collette Paul. Different generations coming together. It achieved everything we set out to do. There are a lot of writers who have not been recognised, not through any question of quality of work, but because they don’t ‘fit in’ with a generic idea of what a Scottish writer is. Whether it’s a question of their style, or name, or attitude; what ever the reason they are not an easy fit. The publishing industry were, and are, afraid of taking a risk. I want Cargo to be a place where people can publish their début fiction, because the places where that can happen are decreasing. Apart from Gutter, New Scottish Writing, a couple of other journals, there are no contemporary literary journals that will publish unknowns, therefore there needs to be another platform. SWH: Was there similar thinking behind the staging of the Margins Book and Music Festival? (see No Error For Margin: The Margins Book and Music Fe…) MB: Margins was born because I looked at Aye Write! and I thought that this year’s programme was okay, but Glasgow is too big a city to just have one literary festival. But again it was the same ethos; to try and have Liz Lochhead on the same bill as Alan Bissett and Anneliese Mackintosh, again bringing together the generations. With Liz you had what is loosely referred to as the Hobsbaum generation, with Alan the post Trainspotting generation and a new generation represented by Anneliese. But this wasn’t so much by design, more the desire to give a platform for good writers. SWH: It’s interesting that you talk about ‘generations’, because that is the way he have been programmed to think of writers. That they come together in groups. From the post war-renaissance, to the West End collective of the 1970s, the ‘Chemical Generation’ etc. The problem I have with such an idea is that, as you suggested earlier, some very good writers don’t ‘fit’ easily into these groups and can be overlooked. Do you think that it needs to be this way? MB: Such groupings are usually the creations of journalists, it makes it easier for them to write about general movements in fiction rather than look at individual writers. Taking many of those involved with Cargo and Margins as an example. Do we know each other well enough to hang out for a pint? Yes. Does that make us a literary generation? No. Going back to the Rebel Inc group of writers; Kevin Williamson, Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner etc. These were all people who would hang out together, but a lot of their writing is very different, it’s very varied. It’s too easy to draw them together under a convenient label. SWH: That’s very true. When I went back and read the Children of Albion Rovers short story collection recently I was struck how different the stories were. I had it in my head from reading it when it was first published that it was almost written with the one voice. MB: It’s the same as those attached to the ‘Hobsbaum Group’. Well you couldn’t get two more different styles than those of James Kelman and Alasdair Gray, the only real comparison is that they’re two great writers who happen to write in and about the same city at the same time. SWH: As publishing changes, perhaps moving away from paper to electronic publishing, how do you think that will effect the future of the novel. Will it change the form of fiction that is popular? MB: Publishing is in a similar place to where the music industry was around 10 years ago. It’s only once you work out how to monetise the new format that the industry will accept it. The big record companies still make lots of money, despite what they say, but what this new technology has done is to give the artist more freedom to do it for themselves. You can record something at home, and very quickly have it on-line or pressed as a CD. It’s going to be a few years before we discover how that will apply to publishing, or how writers, and smaller publishers, can make money from this change, but that’s not important. Look what has happened in music, there is more great new music out there than ever, it’s just a case of knowing where to find it. That’s what will happen with writing. People will self publish and get it out there. That’s what needs to happen. But the book has been the best way of exchanging ideas for such a long time that I really don’t see it dying out. SWH: The comparison with music is interesting because it suggests an element of performance. You’ve been involved with a lot of live shows, whether Margins, the recent Let’s Get Lyrical and at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival. Do you feel this is increasingly important, and if so does this not risk excluding those writers who are uncomfortable with live events? MB: There’s no doubt some people like the personal touch. They go and see a band live, perhaps get the t-shirt and badge, or perhaps go to a book reading and get a copy of the book signed. They want something tangible and special and I don’t see that changing. But there are a lot of great writers who can’t perform their work, they would be no good, and that is the one thing that worries me. A writer such as Suyhal Saadi who is one of the great Scottish writers around right now, and possibly the most overlooked, doesn’t perform live. Doesn’t have the time to perform live. Does that mean he is going to be sidelined as a writer? The live event will be important, but it can’t be the be all and end all. SWH: This applies to Scottish poetry as well. There are lots of Scottish poets out there who are perhaps overlooked because they don’t have the live skills of Leonard, Lochhead, Patterson or Kay, and it is a terrible thought that they would be increasingly ignored because of this. MB: Hopefully there will always be space for every kind of writer. Publishers should use all available means to alert potential readers to new writers, but you can’t neglect writers just because they aren’t performing. But what we really need in Scotland are more publishers, then you are more likely to find a home for everyone who deserves attention. At the moment there are just a handful. We need more outlets to give writers more chances, and perhaps digital will offer that. SWH: The close relationship that you mentioned between writer and reader appears increasingly important. Do you think the same applies to the relationship between writer and publisher?
MB: At Cargo we try to take the writer’s wishes into account as much as possible. For instance, we’ll ask them how they see the final book looking, and if we can we will fulfil that vision. That’s something that almost never happens with a larger publishing company. The artist has become more and more important and as things move along digitally you have to treat the relationship as a close one as companies like Amazon start to think ‘Why do we need to deal with the publisher?’ So the writer, the band, the artist have never been more important because they are the ones who drive everything.
SWH: So if the relationship between writer and publisher becomes closer it is better for all? MB: Absolutely. Publishers are scared of change, they want the definite. They’ve had the same business model for 50 years so they don’t want to change. What excites me, approaching it from an outsider’s perspective, is to say: couldn’t we do something different? Couldn’t we do more live shows, more collaborations between music and writers? How do we use the new technology? A lot of the major companies are just not interested. They see such moves as too risky. The difference between the majors and the independents is that money is the bottom line, and they’ll play it safe. Independents are more likely to play the long game and invest in a writer that they can see developing. But it is a really difficult to time to sell books, whether that applies to book shops or publishers. Cargo have had to try all these different ways of getting the word out there just to get along. Scots Whay Hae! and Mark Buckland 10/3/2011
After this point we had a rambling, but never the less fascinating, discussion about the state of Scottish culture and the prevalence of certain stereotypes, but that’s for the directors cut. Here’s a clip of the aforementioned Suhayl Saddi reading ‘The Malt Kiln’, his contribution to The Year of Open Doors, followed by an audio clip of poet Ryan Van Winkle reading at the Let’s Get Lyrical event which saw Cargo vs. Chemical Underground:
Aye Write! is largely admirable, but, like Buckland, I wish it was more diverse and admirably larger. Just over a week of events is not enough, and the lack of Scottish writers involved is noticeable (unlike Margins, Aye Write! doesn’t feature an appearance from Scotland’s new poet laureate Liz Lochhead, who lives about 20 minutes away. Surely an unforgivable oversight, and hers is not the only big name missing). Maybe I’m mistaken and there is not the thirst for such a festival in Glasgow, but the success, and size, of the Edinburgh Book Festival would suggest otherwise. However, it is better to have one than none. Maybe Mark Buckland is showing others the way. If you find yourself excluded from your area of interest; be it publishing, organising an event for a festival, or being part of a writing group, then you can do it yourself. But the motivation has to be right. As Buckland attests, you don’t, or shouldn’t, enter the arts thinking that there’s gold in the hills. Someone recently asked me how much money I make from writing this blog. I laughed so hard there was almost an accident. And nobody wants that.