As dead as August is on the rest of the world’s cultural calendar, there might well be no more important month in Scotland. In addition to the Fringe Theater Festival, every August brings the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF), this year running August 11-27. With over 800 authors and around a quarter of a million visitors annually, the EIBF claims to be “the largest public celebration of the written word in the world.” One of only three book festivals in the UK at its founding in 1983, it now shares the calendar with 300 such events every year.
Such a cosmopolitan event could easily gloss over anything distinctly “Scottish”, in much the same way that the worldwide fame of Alexander McCall Smith, Val McDermid, or JK Rowling tends to overshadow their Scottish identity. But EIBF PR Manager Frances Sutton says that the event planners “place Scottish writing at the heart of the Festival,” inviting“over 200 authors, poets, politicians and journalists who live and work in Scotland” every year.The Festival also gives special attention to Scottish writers just starting their careers: events called Story Shops provide a (literal) platform for “unsigned new Edinburgh authors to present their work on stage” to prospective agents and publishers. Scottish publishers themselves are, of course, integrally part of UK publishing as a whole, and dependent upon that wider market. Nevertheless, “Back in 1974 a group of publishers saw that there was room for a smaller organization closer to home [than the UK Publishers Association],” says Marian Sinclair, Chief Executive of Publishing Scotland. She also points out that that because “the legal and educational systems differ in Scotland from the rest of the UK,” several Scottish textbook and professional publishers need support competing in “distinctive markets” that exist nowhere but “north of the border.” Publishing Scotland also maintains BooksFromScotland.com as a retail website for its members’ titles. While not all books sold are explicitly Scottish in subject, the site emphasizes all the books’ relationship to the country with interactive maps to places mentioned and authors’hometowns, and collections of titles related to different periods in Scottish history. Through its associated Amazon portal, the site has become an important direct-to-consumer export option, witha majority of customers in the US and Germany.
Various individual publishers are finding their own ways to combine Scottish “branding” and digital reach much in the way that Publishing Scotland has done with BooksFromScotland.com. Two such publishers doing this are Saraband and Blasted Heath. Saraband’s model is more the example of established traditional non-fiction publisher embracing change and ably integrating that into a new whole. Saraband has been in Glasgow for twelve years (after starting in Connecticut!), but Publisher Sara Hunt says that it’s only been in the past five years or so that the company has started to “gradually find a distinctly Scottish voice.” “Scottish titles are a growing part of our list,” because international customers seem more interested in subjects that are explicitly Scottish than domestic readers. Another way Saraband is using digital to strengthen its Scottish branding is with apps: The most successful example of this is the free “Burns Night” app, which helps users plan their own Burns Night party and learn more about Robert Burns‘ life and poetry. The app was a hit and garnered nationwide attention in The Guardian and iTunes UK “New & Noteworthy” when it was released in January 2012.
Blasted Heath is also putting emphasis on digital, but in a far more extreme way than Saraband. It is a digital-only crime and mystery publisher founded in late 2011 by literary agent Allan Guthrie and journalist/digital start-up entrepreneur Kyle MacRae. Though Scotland has a strong tradition of crime writing in Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and many others, Blasted Heath’s Scottish identity is found most explicitly in its name, which refers to that most iconic of Scottish crime stories, Macbeth: (“Upon this blasted heath you stop our way / With such prophetic greeting?”). Where Saraband is gradually building digital community by adding apps and enhanced books on to its traditional list, Blasted Heath looks more like a digital start-up: they have been DRM-free from the get-go. As for publishing community, Kyle MacRae emphasizes that in a digital-only operation, “building relationships with readers is much more important to us, and more interesting, than being part of the publishing scene.”Nevertheless, Blasted Heath is a Publishing Scotland member, and Kyle MacRae is passionate about the mutual growth that collaborations between big/traditional and small/innovative encourages. He reminisces about one of his start-ups several years back, “where big media companies were falling over themselves to find ways of working together. It hasn’t happened so far with Blasted Heath…maybe we need to make more of a noise!”
Small though its publishing industry may be, Scotland’s creative resources are considerable, and thrive even beyond the walls of publishing houses. One such haven for creative ideas is a group of young book and media professionals calling themselves The Electric Bookshop.They hold regular lectures and debates around Scotland meant to “test the boundaries” of publishing. They also help bring attention to new projects. One of The Electric Bookshop’s most recent guests was the team behind “Palimpsest: Literary Edinburgh,” a free app commissioned by the University of Edinburgh to celebrate the 250th anniversary of its Department of English Literature—the oldest in the world. Coproducedby the English and Digital Design departments, “Palimpsest” is geographically tied to the city of Edinburgh, and allows users to discover site-specific moments from different books as their mobile devices geo-locate around the city.
All literature currently built into the app was contributed by the Department of English Literature, but the hope is to turn the app into a platform not only forbook discovery, but for sharing, one that evolves as “users upload further texts to the database themselves,” says Palimpsest’s Conceptual Director, Miranda Anderson. The project is launching via posters around Edinburg on August 25th to take advantage of Book Festival foot-traffic—the app’s ideal audience. “The posters have QR codes that will link users instantly to the app,” says Anderson, and allow them to start discovering geolocated texts as they walk around the city. Given Scotland’s venerable literary history and innovative publishing present, this mix of literary and digital seems a fitting way to wrap up the 2012 Edinburgh International Book Festival, and a fitting tribute to the country’s energetic book industry that continues its work year-round, long after the festivities have died down.
Literary Scotland from Visit Scotland
Independence for Scottish literature from The Guardian