The View From Here Interview:
Gavin MacDougall is the Director of Luath Press, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. I talked to him at The Frankfurt Book Fair, about Luath Press, Distribution, E-books and Digitisation. In Part Two you can read about being a Publisher, the submissions and selection process, and advice for new writers.
About Luath Press
Luath Press was established by Tom and Rene Atkinson in Barr, Ayrshire in 1981. Luath Press takes its name from Robert Burns, whose little collie Luath (Gael., swift or nimble) tripped up Jean Armour at a wedding and gave him the chance to speak to the woman who was to be his wife and the abiding love of his life. Burns called one of The Twa Dogs Luath after Cuchullin's hunting dog in Ossian's Fingal. Luath Press was established in 1981 in the heart of Burns country, and is now based a few steps up the road from Burns' first lodgings on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. According to their website, Luath offers you ‘distinctive writing with a hint of unexpected pleasures’. Tom decided to retire from Luath in 1997, at which time Gavin and Audrey MacDougall took over the running of the company and moved it from Barr (near Girvan in Ayrshire) to Edinburgh. Since 1997, Luath has built on the sound core of well established books first published by Tom and Rene, and created various new series (On The Trail of, The Quest for, Wild Lives, Let's Explore, Luath Storyteller, Viewpoints) and launched various new writers (including John MacKay, Lin Anderson, Ann Kelley) and poets (including Alistair Findlay, Kokumo Rocks).
How did Luath come about? I read that Tom Atkinson effectively self-published his own travel guides?
I’m not sure whether he attempted to get interest from other publishers but I think probably not. He’d had a pretty interesting background himself. (The Guardian called him the Alastair Campbell of Indonesia). He died in 2007 and we published a couple of his books in the ten years subsequent to his retirement. At 16 or 17 he went off to fight the Spanish Civil War, got there and found he was too young and ended up in Indonesia at the end of WW11 and got involved in helping Indonesia gain Independence. And he became a right-hand man to the newly incoming President, Sukarno. Shortly before the dictator Suharto came to power in the mid-sixties, Tom left and came back to the UK. He lived self-sufficiently in Wales, then ended up in Scotland. Finding there were no good descriptive guides to the popular parts of Scotland, he set about writing and publishing the Luath Guides Series. Other books by other writers followed including a number of popular titles that have remained in print for many years.
What does Luath publish today?
We publish fiction and non-fiction. In recent years we’ve grown the fiction side, poetry, short stories. Our policy is that we are committed to publishing well written books worth reading. We publish fiction; history; guide books; walking; poetry; art; humour; biography; natural history; current issues and more.
Do you publish only Scottish authors or books with a Scottish connection?
We are in Scotland and several of our writers are in Scotland. We’re better known in Scotland. Books by Scottish or Scotland-based authors or with a Scottish connection are a significant part of what we publish. There are a certain number that have a UK wide readership, some will be of interest in the US, Canada, the rest of the English speaking world. There will be some which will be suitable for translation into other languages. Fiction potentially travels whether set in Scotland or not.
Do your authors stay with you because you are a Scottish publisher?
We have writers who are first published in Scotland and then get taken on by a London publisher, and so on. But you can also have writers who are based in Scotland, even if they are not Scottish, and have got to the stage that for whatever reason their London publishers have lost interest, and moved on to other things. So, the books by those authors may still have a reasonable enough readership and the writers write other books, that can and does happen. We’re in Scotland, and if the writer is in Scotland, the books can do as well as if not better than London based houses.
Your UK Trade distribution is through HarperCollins. How does that work?
Publishers have the option of doing their own distribution, using a distributor or working solely through a wholesaler. In the book trade we have a ridiculous supply chain situation where we have writer, reader and in between a myriad of routes. Most books available in the UK and US are via distributors. Distributors will handle just a few publishers, wholesalers will handle everything (Gardners and Betrams are the two main UK wholesalers). HarperCollins is probably the biggest in the UK, and their UK distribution centre is in Scotland. They distribute their own (HarperCollins’) books, and those of about fifteen other publishers. They store our books in their warehouse and handle the order processing, invoicing and dispatch. But it’s up to us to make the sales, to find shops and readers who’ll buy the books. Their sales people sell their own (HarperCollins) books, but it’s up to us to sell ours.
But you could do your own distribution?
If we had our own warehouse and were self-distributing, we could choose just to approach one or more of the wholesalers, and make books available through them. That does happen for some smaller publishers. If you’re doing just a few books a year, that can work.
What difference does the choice of process make to writers?
From a writer’s point of view, we’ll sometimes get writers who were first published elsewhere, and they’ll say of their past experience, their former publisher’s distribution was not very good, but what they mean is, “they didn’t sell enough of my books.”
The actual physical logistics of storing books and sticking them in envelopes – one would hope that most distributors are pretty good at that. It’s the making of the sale and building word of mouth and all the things that go in to selling ten thousand books, rather than ten, that’s the very difficult part. To some extent, you can engineer it, but …writer, publisher, retailer, reader, and in the middle the wholesaler and distributor. You’ll do your best doing all the things you need to do to get them into people’s hands, but if people are not actually going into the bookshop and picking it up or asking about it, having read about it in a newspaper, or a website heard about it on the radio or whatever, then the books can end up going back to the wholesaler and/or the distributor, and ultimately being pulped. The whole supply chain is definitely mad and there are industry wide groups looking at how to deal with a lot of these things and seeing what can be done for the future.
Do you think that model is changing, due to the likes of Amazon, and online distribution?
Certainly, Amazon and their business model, which has taken however many years to get established, are now absolutely there. We now have a strange asymmetric model, with differential pricing between online and high street retailers.
What about E-books and digitisation?
The e-book is now here in various electronic formats. From a writer and publishers point of view, whether it is on a hand-held device or traditional physical format doesn’t really matter, although I and most readers still prefer the printed book.
We’re very much in a transitional stage at the moment. Everyone’s trying to get their heads round the different options right now. The Sony Reader was just launched through Waterstones in the UK, the e-ink, non-backlit, big screen it’s great, but already version two is coming out and the Amazon Kindle is due out soon in Europe.
There’s the question of control still open. Digitisation, copyright, piracy and distribution they’re all considerations for e-books. It does affect us, of course. We’ve been signed up for Amazon’s Search Inside and Google Books for two or three years but haven’t uploaded many books yet. If it helps sell a few more books then that’s fine.
Google books suggested that their Search function, might be good for smaller presses, who don’t have a large marketing capacity, or for those books, which are quickly out of print or backlisted. Do you think that is true?
It may well be so. They say that more books are sold that are in their scheme. If it helps sell a few more books then great.
Do you think perhaps it is printing that is changing, more than publishing?
Business models are changing. What are record companies for any more? What are publishing companies for? Is it the economies of scale, quality control? Websites such as The View From Here may become the filtering process. The physical technology of books is all changing. On screen books, e-books whatever you want to call them, it’s changing. Changing very rapidly. Within the industry, people have been doing scenario planning and in the current economic climate people wonder what will that mean for retail, reading habits and book sales. Who knows?
If a prospective author said to you that they wanted to keep their digital rights, because the publisher wasn’t yet 100% sure what he/she would make use of them, would it put you off?
I don’t think we would publish a book in those circumstances. It’s hard enough to publish books successfully, there’s a huge risk and low return often. If authors want to self-publish there’s Lulu, there’s all the other ways of doing that. I think that’s better in those circumstances; we’d leave them to it. If an author wants to be published, they need to consider that option carefully. There’s more and more books published every year, the pressures on high street retailers, on book placement and so on are higher and higher. In a future world, will there be traditional bookshops on Britain’s high streets? Maybe not in the same form as they are now. Record shops are disappearing from the high street and booksellers are obviously seeing what’s happening on the music side of things, so who knows what the future holds?
In Part Two you can read about being a Publisher, the submissions and selection process, and advice for new writers.
And don't forget to enter The Luath books competition, open until November 30th. Prize includes a signed copy of The Burying Beetle, and copies of Inchworm, Cowboys for Christ, Bad Catholics, My Epileptic Lurcher and Right to Die all from Luath Press, plus a $30 voucher from The View From Here.
Click here for part two.