It all started online, of course. I was intrigued by a book by Stuart Campbell, entitled Boswell’s Bus Pass (review and author interview to come!). Published by Sandstone Press, Boswell’s Bus Pass tells the journey of Campbell as he follows the “bus routes that Dr Johnson and Boswell would have used had they delayed their journey to the Western isles of Scotland by 238 years.” In the book, Campbell notes, “The discovery of the letters sent me back to both Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, published in 1775 and James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides published in 1785. Re-reading the accounts only added to my determination to see for myself how Scotland had changed in the intervening 237 years and if possible to insinuate myself into the minds of the original travellers. Recreating Johnson and Boswell’s journey to the Western Isles is a well-established literary indulgence, but no one has done it with a bus pass.”
Completely captivated, I tracked down Sandstone Press, conversed with publisher Robert Davidson, and dove into their catalog. What I found was pure delight – award-winning fiction, and intriguing non-fiction, including many titles about Scotland. I asked Robert about the backstory of Sandstone Press, and got pure poetic history in return. Read on – you’ll soon see why Sandstone Press is a new favorite of mine, both as an author and as an avid reader.
Can you please tell us about Sandstone Press?
Imagine a serious, independent, publishing house, specialising in fiction and non-fiction but with a strong element of education, located in Highland Scotland. This publisher has automatic outreach not only across Britain and Ireland but also into the wider world. It publishes authors from the UK and authors from overseas, some in translation. It has no ideology. If it is committed to anything it is to freedom of expression but, also, it is committed to its locale. That first commitment is to the invisible city of ideas, the thoughts and feelings by which we live. That second commitment is to its local economy, the investment and employment, frankly money, with which we live.
What was the genesis of Sandstone Press?
Sandstone Press is about readers and authors meeting through the media of language and design, whether on paper or through the internet. It isn’t just about me. To attempt an answer though: born in working class Glasgow. Between the ages of seventeen and fifty one I worked in civil engineering, mostly the water industry, with contractors, consultants and, latterly in the public sector.
At the same time I was reading constantly and, after a while, writing. I am a published poet, reviews editor and editor. I have written many books and recently published Site Works which is a novel based on my experiences in civil engineering. When I left civil engineering I decided that I would not look for another job. Instead, I would take the risk of setting out on a more uncertain route.
I founded Sandstone Press in October 2002. At that time my verse sequence Columba was being produced as a dramatic tableau for the Cromarty Book Festival, after being produced on radio, with plainchant composed by the harpist Bill Taylor. My song sequence Centring on a Woman’s Voice had been performed at Highland Festival ’01, scored by no fewer than nine different composers; and Dunbeath Water: an Oratorio was in preparation. I had been appointed Managing Editor of Northwords Magazine and was moving it away from being an entirely new writing magazine to becoming a general arts magazine. They were exciting times: around sixty people were working creatively with me on all these projects.
When Coracle, the magazine of the Iona Community, took a series of six poems to print on the back cover of the magazine over the period of a year I decided to make a pamphlet of them, Butterfly on a Chestnut Leaf, to give to all my collaborators. It was then that I decided to create a publishing company that might free me even more and be a wonderful creative tool, and wondered about a name.
When on my daily walk down by the Cromarty Firth I could see both the Old Distillery flats, where I live and Ben Wyvis beyond and in my imagination I moved to the Torridon hills in the west. The flats reminded me of the tenement flats in Glasgow so many years before, which are made of sandstone blocks. The Torridon hills are also made of sandstone, but let me tell you something about them.
Torridonian sandstone is one of the oldest rock formations in the world, and many people consider Torridon to be the one of the world’s most beautiful places. To create that environment though, tremendous geological forces had to come into play. Long periods of time were required as well as great pressure. To complete the process the whole thing had to be, literally, turned upside down. I thought about that history of the material’s creation, such revolutionary force leading to such incredible beauty, and, of course, that it is also a building material. Sandstone appeared to be the perfect elemental symbol for what I was trying to achieve and Butterfly on a Chestnut Leaf became the first publication with the words ‘Sandstone Press’ on the cover.
A few weeks later the company was formally founded and began its creative life. We have travelled quite a way since then.
What are some of the historical landmarks of Sandstone Press?
Sandstone began with poetry pamphlets, publishing six in the Northwords Folio series. These covered their costs and a little more. Yes, we turned over a small profit from poetry. Punch the air!
Later, and much thanks to Moira, we entered adult literacy in partnership with the Highland Council’s Adult Basic Education Service and Highland Adult Literacies, publishing twelve titles in the Sandstone Vista series. Again we increased our knowledge and skills levels, but we also made a lasting contribution to the design and editing of such books. I am proud that we made a difference to adult literacy.
We joined the Scottish Publishers Association (now Publishing Scotland) and took on BookSource as our Distributor. With a commitment to always ‘make the money work’ (in every sense), we decided not to publish fiction at that time. I had asked a number of people, including myself, what they were reading and why. None were reading first time novelists, the only kind we were likely to get – and we had knowledge of quite a few very talented ones. Nor would we publish poetry.
We turned instead to non-fiction on the basis that we may not be able to sell an unknown name but might manage to sell an interesting subject. Could we sell books on, for example, the River Findhorn, or Shetland? White River by Jamie Whittle and Between Weathers by Ron McMillan became steady sellers for the company, as did the title between those two, The Kerracher Man by Eric Macleod. We pursued this route with some success and Shadow Behind the Sun by Remzije Sherifi was short-listed for both the Saltire Society and SAC/Royal Mail First Book Awards. Remzije’s book was also discussed and commended in the Scottish Parliament. Later, Cairngorm John by John Allen was short-listed for the Boardman Tasker Award. With Jane Rogers’s success in the Man Booker with Testament of Jessie Lamb, this is a very satisfying level of attainment for such a young company.
Within this time frame another small but significant change was made. The strap line on our logo was altered from ‘Scottish Literary Publishing House’ to ‘Contemporary Quality Reading’. This might not have been notice by many people, but it signalled an important change in approach. The company’s shape was altering: half organically, half by design.
In 2009 we decided to go into fiction on the back of our non-fiction success. The following year we published four novels. Two authors located on the Pacific Rim, one in London, and Moira herself (with her third novel) in Highland, further emphasised our international outlook. Before the year was through, we were exporting books to Hong Kong and other Pacific locations, and to the United States. By the end of 2010 we had engaged Eilidh Smith to develop marketing and publicity for us and in 2011 Jane Rogers was long-listed for the Man Booker. Most of the elements of our company were now in place and working with each other, but for us this was only the next significant step in a continuing journey.
A month or so short of Sandstone’s ninth anniversary the company passed a significant milestone when our fifth novel, The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. As a company we kept our eyes firmly on competition requirements and the need to have the books available UK-wide in a short space of time. While keeping our commitment to readers, author and novel always at the forefront of our minds we met the problems of speedy response and adaptability which a sudden increase in logistical, marketing and publicity challenges presented. Now it is apparent that we met those challenges successfully.
What is it like to be a small publisher in Scotland?
We do most of our printing in Poland at the present time but have printed in both England and Scotland. No fewer than three of our excellent British printers went down in 2010. I have lamented this on the internet before, knowing it might be said that we do not help by printing overseas, but the economics of publishing are cruel. Cruel? More like vicious.
A virtue of publishers like Sandstone, not often discussed, is the work, economic value, and development opportunities we bring to small businesses scattered across Britain and beyond. I am actually quite proud of that.
Faber Factory Plus is taking our books into the shops, wholesalers, and chain headquarters now. It’s a job I can’t do myself, as experience has painfully shown, so a special round of applause for Ian West and his team. They have brought a new level of organisation to our selling, and a longer view, than even I dared before.
Our Distributer, BookSource, has served us well over the years and all of us at Sandstone are appreciative. We will be moving to MDL soon and hope to develop the same good working relationship we have enjoyed in Glasgow.
We are in regular contact with many independent bookshops and want to be in contact with more. If you read this and have one, especially if you consider yourself to actually be one, please get in touch.
Creative Scotland has given us generous support over the past three years in particular, and I hope they will continue to do so. Over the years I have learned that a lot of hard work goes on even further into the background than the skilled professionals already mentioned. Much that eventually appears before the public would not exist without this kind of support. If Sandstone serves readers outside Scotland, which we most certainly do, they deserve appreciation from the same people.
Much is spoken and written about what is wrong with publishing these days. One of the things that is very much right is the riseof the book bloggers who bring a new range of dedicated, unique, frequently eccentric but always interesting voices to the scene. Here is a faith statement: the answers to publishing’s difficulties will not be found in technology, although Sandstone embraces technology, nor ever more swish marketing, they will come from people, especially people talking and working together. See the above list; include the readers.
What might surprise readers about Sandstone Press?
We’ve had many expressions of support, including this one: ‘A note from nearby to congratulate you on everything. When I first came home to live here and learned of Sandstone Press, it was tiny (you know what I mean, not tiny small-and-insignificant, but tiny local-and-off-the-literary-radar along with the rest of rural Scotland. And now everyone who’s anyone has heard of you and is reviewing your books, and you’ve got a Man Booker winner… it’s wonderful!’
That is tremendously gratifying but, you know, it is also a responsibility. Other people have put their hopes in us. Another thing that is becoming clear is that our recent authors are especially glad to be with us, to have ‘joined us’ as one put it just today. They see a future. I have said from the outset that our location would at first be a disadvantage from both a logistical point of view and from the point of view of credibility, but that with increasing success it would become an advantage because the Highland aura makes us not simply different but unique.
As a publisher, what makes a book become a “bestseller”?
That is easy to answer: I don’t know more than anyone else. Story is king and the telling of it is his queen. We can analyse a text and guide the author. We can have it beautifully laid out on the page. We take endless trouble to create striking, usually beautiful, always memorable covers. We get better at pre-marketing all the time. Knocking on the door of the trade as often as we do we grow increasingly aware of its needs. After all that art, design and preparation, success comes down to the Abracadabra Factor.
Writer Robert Davidson at the book signing of his novel "Site Works" at Waterstones Inverness. Pic by: Gary Anthony SPP Staff Photographer New Century House Longman Road Inverness