Publisher of the Month: Birlinn

The Company

Birlinn Limited – a company producing local, national and international publications – is now one of the largest independent publishers in Scotland with an output of over 170 titles a year and more than 1,000 titles in print. With a keen eye on both tradition and innovation, management and staff at the company continue to be inspired by the country in which it is based – its rich literary heritage and its three hundred-year history of original and progressive publishing.

Key Strengths

Cover of Hand Heart and Soul by Elizabeth Cumming

Attention to detail underpins all aspects of the company's publishing process, from commissioning to finished copies and beyond. Hand, Heart and Soul by Elizabeth Cumming epitomises this approach. Strong writing and editorial input, high production values, sumptuous endpapers, and full colour photography throughout made this hardback a stunning and unique publication that, with successful publicity and promotion and a tie-in exhibition, has sold extremely well since first publication. The introduction of special limited edition titles to the Birlinn list further enhances our reputation for high-quality publications. The first two volumes, The Blaeu Atlas of Scotland and Daniell's Scotland, were published at the end of 2006, casebound in real cloth in a slipcase. Two new titles are due for release late in 2007 – The Great Map and John Kay's Original Portraits.

The Scottish market is undeniably Birlinn's strength and core market, and consolidation of that area is a high priority. In Scotland, Birlinn is represented by 3.5 'house' representatives provided by sister company Seol Limited, including Birlinn's Managing Director and driving force, Hugh Andrew. This commitment has proved a great strength in terms of supporting authors, communities and local, often independent, booksellers. The depth and range of publishing at local level is unparalleled; many remote, tiny islands and enclaves have their histories and stories, music and art, traditions and heritage recorded and brought to a wider public by Birlinn.

Moving Beyond Scotland

High-quality local publishing has not been limited to the Scottish market; 2006 saw the launch of four Birlinn books on England's West Country. Despite the new territory and specialist nature of this venture, local publishing expertise and strong publicity made the most of sales and press coverage in that region and well beyond. Notably, Michael Raffael's West Country Cheesemakers became the prestigious Gold Media Prize Winner at the British Cheese Awards in September 2006. This strand of publishing underpins our commitment to quality local publishing.

One Name Stands Out

Alexander McCall Smith

However, Birlinn's success is not confined to these specialist markets. With a solid military history list, world-class biographies, sporting greats and international fiction, Birlinn's list is becoming increasingly rich and diverse, and our reach is extending far beyond Scotland's border to the rest of the UK, and to a rapidly growing customer base overseas. Polygon has enjoyed tremendous success throughout the world with the writing of Edinburgh-based Alexander McCall Smith. More than 15 million copies of his popular series, The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, have now sold in the English language alone and translation into 38 languages is ongoing. The screenplay for his bestselling No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series was written by Richard Curtis and filmed in Botswana earlier this summer by director Anthony Minghella of The English Patient fame. And radio dramatisations of the series are an annual highlight of the BBC Radio broadcasting schedule.

Film Interest and Award Winners

Film interest has been prominent across Birlinn lists in 2007, as Graeme Obree's moving autobiography, The Flying Scotsman, made it to the big screen starring Jonny Lee Miller and Brian Cox, and strong interest has been expressed in Calum's Road and in the forthcoming publication, Imprimatur.

The addition of Booker Prize winner James Kelman to the Polygon list has been an exciting development this year. The striking new editions of Kelman classics, designed by award-winning London agency Pentagram – including James Kelman's first collection of short stories previously unpublished in the UK, An Old Pub Near the Angel – drew attention from as far afield as the New York Times. Polygon plans to publish more of his backlist in 2008. Sri Lankan-born Nury Vittachi's feng shui detective series has introduced wonderful diversity to the assortment of international fiction offered by Polygon. Vittachi's quirky and unpredictable detective fiction has previously been published in Europe, Australia and the United States. Polygon is proud to finally present it to UK readers. And closer to home, Edinburgh-based crime writer Allan Guthrie lifted the coveted title of Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year for his debut book, Two Way Split.

One Very Special Project

Cover scan of One City One Book

In 2006 Polygon enlisted the talents of some of Scotland's premier writers in the production of One City, all proceeds of which went to the OneCity Trust who campaign for social justice. Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh contributed stories to the collection, and J. K. Rowling provided the introduction. Plans are now well advanced for a One City children's book, a crime book and a One City London book.

Reaching Our Readers

Birlinn's impressive programme of author events and launches is a great way of connecting directly with readers and communities, as well as promoting titles. With a diary of almost 100 events a year, from established forums such as the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Cheltenham and Hay, and the new Hebridean Book Festival, to large-scale urban theatres and small local events in bookshops and village halls, events are raising profile, increasing sales and providing entertaining, informative evenings for readers and authors alike.

Regular direct mail campaigns cater for a huge database of loyal returning customers and provide a significant income. Strong catalogues, innovative advertising (including web, screen, local radio and outdoor as well as press advertising) and great press coverage combine with the direct mail service to offer tailored campaigns that work (… most of the time).

Birlinn in a Nutshell

Cover scan of Calum's Road

Calum's Road by Roger Hutchinson is arguably the best example of Birlinn's overall strategy. Published in August 2006 as a B-format hardback at £9.99, the package and price proved exactly right. But we are nothing without good writing, and Roger Hutchinson captured the compelling true account of one man on a remote island who took up his pick and shovel and undertook to build a road that the local council refused to construct. The dogged determination, unerring belief, passion and commitment, if not obsession, of Calum Macleod serves as a true inspiration – particularly in independent publishing.

What's Next?

Key titles for autumn 2007 include a special limited edition of Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, due for release before Christmas this year to coincide with the broadcast of the pilot TV movie. The definitive biography of John Martyn, Some People are Crazy, was published in October, exposing the highs and lows of the last real maverick of the Scottish music scene, in a compelling account of his life and career by John Neil Munro. The story of Willie Miller, one of the greatest footballers to come out of Scotland, is told for the first time in eighteen years in The Don. Told by Willie himself with the aid of Rob Robertson, this book includes previously untold stories about his relationship with manager Sir Alex Ferguson and his struggle to bounce back from a disappointing performance as Aberdeen manager in 1992 and remain a celebrated legend of Scottish football.

Birlinn has increased its online presence with the development of a new website, which now offers much more to customers than the opportunity to purchase Birlinn books. It has monthly special offers, news items and articles, extracts from new and forthcoming titles, and an events diary inviting readers to attend all public book launches and events. In addition, customers have been offered the chance to subscribe to a monthly e-newsletter, alerting them to new developments in the company, new and forthcoming titles, and key news stories. Birlinn hopes to establish closer customer relations through these endeavours and increase the presence of the brand in the public eye and within the publishing industry itself.

  • Cover scan of Flying Scotsman
    Flying Scotsman: Graeme Obree - Graeme Obree - Paperback
    This is the story of a cyclist who took on the world and rewrote the record books. Graeme's story starts with his tough upbringing in Ayrshire, where he found his escape by taking to the roads. He tells the story of how he became a world record breaker, and of his battle with depression.
  • Cover scan of An Old Pub Near The Angel
    An Old Pub Near The Angel - James Kelman - Paperback
    James Kelman's first collection of short stories is set among the tenements and bedsits of Glasgow, shining a light on the exploits of young and old. This new edition contains an essay by Kelman about his early life and writing.
  • Cover scan of One City
    One Book, One City - Paperback
    Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh have joined forces for the first time to offer three radically different takes on Edinburgh life.
  • Cover scan of The Shanghai Union Of Industrial Mystics
    The Shanghai Union Of Industrial Mystics - Nury Vittachi - Paperback
    All hell's breaking loose in Shanghai. A group of hyper-vegan terrorists are threatening to blow up the city. There's a potentially explosive white elephant on the loose and the world's two most important presidents are due to visit.
  • Cover scan of West Country Cheesemakers
    West Country Cheesemakers: From Cheddar To Mozzarella - Michael Raffael - Hardback
    Charting the development of cheese making in the West Country, from the 17th century Cheddar tradition to the diverse modern cheese industry, this book outlines the manufacturing process of each cheese, and investigates the differences between a hand-crafted cheese and an industrially manufactured one.

December 2007

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