Birlinn Books - Edinburgh Literary Spotlight

by Rebecca Raeburn
Communications, Edinburgh
City of Literature Trust

18 June 2020

Hugh Andrew, Managing Director of Birlinn Books in Edinburgh, wrote a piece as part of our Edinburgh Literary Spotlight Series, giving us an insight into life during lockdown as an independent publisher.

[Edinburgh Literary Spotlight is part of our Literary Loop, a programme of work to keep you connected to Edinburgh’s literary life during Covid-19, and whilst Scotland is in lockdown.]

'Sitting at my desk looking out at a largely empty Newington Road, the first thing that strikes me each morning is the silence. Not simply from what is usually a bustling thoroughfare but from an empty office beneath me. For an industry built on words and communication the isolation is strangely disorienting. During the day faces pop up and disappear on Zoom or Teams, the phone rings, a ping alerts me to incoming emails.

Normally at this time of year we would be heading into peak season. I would be in the West Highlands visiting small shops and tourist accounts discussing stock predictions for high season. Everywhere there would be bustle and noise. But for them too there is silence – boarded cafes, empty shelves, empty roads. For somebody accustomed to constant movement there is an extraordinary slowing of time and feeling of stasis. And yet we continue to publish books – we have e launches, twitter launches, press coverage continues as it did.

Nevertheless it all feels a little like the New Horizons probe beaming back messages from distant Pluto. For part of the excitement of the word is not simply the printed word on the page but communicating its meaning, talking to friends over a glass of wine or a beer, hotly disputing with an author from the floor of an event, seeing an old friend unexpectedly.

I was once asked what I did for my work and I replied ‘I read’. They then said what do you do in your spare time. I said ‘I read’. Publishing is not a job, it is a way of life, that informs everything around one, ones friends, what one does, who one meets, where one goes. So a world so constricted in space and connection is a strange and aetiolated thing indeed. I can only speak for myself but I sense those who have worked with us feel the same. Is a book, can a book be the same without the nexus of associations that we were able to build around it or does it just become another commodity?

Perhaps this is a wake up call. We have taken for granted for many a year that others feel about the written word as we do. Yet of course many do not – a book is an incidental comfort, an occasional purchase, a present, a thing ephemeral. The electronic static and hum in which we must perforce live, the dying away of the frantic noise and bustle which normally surround us should make us all reflect on what is truly important in what we do. We have found many things that we simply took for granted as part of the ritual of life disappear – the commute, the meeting, the sales presentation, the book fair, the book festival – in the falling away of all noise into silence we can look at these familiar things in new and disconcerting ways and ask questions hitherto suppressed.

There is power in the silence. Let us use it to make a better world.'

Birlinn Books

Birlinn Limited is an independent publishing house based in Edinburgh, Scotland. The company is built on a tradition of the written and spoken word and is constantly looking to the future. Established in 1992, Birlinn Limited publishes books under a number of imprints: Birlinn; Polygon; BC Books; Arena Sport; and John Donald.