Canongate, an Edinburgh-based publisher, has tried a number of approaches to establish a meaningful presence in the U.S. Perhaps its most ambitious effort was in 2006, when Canongate publisher Jamie Byng teamed with Grove Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin to form the Canongate U.S. joint venture. Canongate still publishes backlist titles, including its Myths series, through the joint venture, but it stopped releasing frontlist titles through the operation a number of years ago.
IPG’s Trafalgar Square division had been handling the distribution of Canongate’s frontlist in the U.S. until last summer, when Canongate moved its distribution to PGW and hired Cursor Marketing Services to do marketing and publicity in the U.S. “We had a terrific final few months” last year in the U.S., Byng said, noting that moving to PGW—which had distributed Canongate until 10 years ago—was like reconnecting with old friends and gives Canongate “a clear path to the market.”
The initial results from the move to PGW convinced Byng that now is Canongate’s time in the U.S. “We have been publishing very well in the U.K.,” he said. “Our list is as strong as its ever been. We think we can bring that success to the U.S.”
The move to bring more of its titles to the U.S. dovetails with Canongate’s surprise purchase last September of Severn House. Founded in 1974 by Edwin Buckhalter and based in the U.K., Severn specializes in commercial fiction primarily for the U.K. and U.S. library markets. About the purchase, Byng said Severn is a nice counterbalance to Canongate, offering less risk than Canongate’s much more literary trade lists, but he added that it also has less of an upside. Byng said Severn House is continuing to operate largely the way it always has, with the one big change being Byng’s plans to return Severn’s annual title output to about 120 per year—it had scaled back to around 100 in the past few years.
As for Canongate, it will release 19 titles in the U.S. this year, choosing on a “book by book basis which titles we want to publish here,” Byng said. Among the titles he is most excited about is The Way of the Flesh by Ambrose Parry (the pseudonym of a husband-and-wife team), which Canongate acquired in a heated auction. Canongate’s promotional materials describe the book, scheduled for an October release, as a “gripping historical novel set in 19th century Edinburgh.”
Set for July is A Long Island Story by Rick Gekoski, an American expat living in London, where, among other things, he is a rare book dealer. Byng called Long Island—set in 1953 America—Gekoski’s “coming home novel.”
Matt Haig has been a solid seller for Canongate in the U.K.—it has sold over 1.1 million copies of Haig’s books there—and his books have steadily become more popular in America. (His newest book, How to Stop Time, was released here in February by Viking.) To take advantage of Haig’s momentum, Canongate will publish his children’s book, Father Christmas and Me, in the U.S. in November.
On the nonfiction side, Canongate had a modest U.S. hit (about 5,000 copies sold) with The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump, which was created by Rob Sears. Byng believes the publication of the book, last August, reflects Canongate’s ability to react quickly to what is trending.
Newer nonfiction titles include Waiting for the Bus: Reflections on Life and Death by Richard Holloway, the former bishop of Edinburgh. Out this week, the book (which received a starred PW review) is Holloway’s reflection on what he has learned comforting countless people in their dying days.
At present, Byng has no plans to acquire books exclusively for the American market, and he stressed that Canongate will still buy books from American agents for publication in the U.K. And Canongate will continue to license some books to American publishers.
One rights deal done several years ago was with Chronicle Books for Letters of Note and Letters of Note, Vol. 2, which feature letters from a range of people compiled by Shaun Usher. Both books were bestsellers in the U.K., and Chronicle has sold more than 75,000 copies in the U.S.
In 2013, Byng began staging events based on the books that feature celebrities reading the letters on stage. By 2015, Byng and SunnyMarch, a production company whose founders include actor (and letter reader) Benedict Cumberbatch, partnered to turn Letters Live into its own business. To date, Letters Live has done about 40 shows in the U.K. The first U.S. event was in Los Angeles in February, where James Corden, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Hamill, and Angelica Huston were among the readers. New York shows are planned for Town Hall on May 18–19.
One benefit of the Letters Live series to Canongate has been the relationships the publisher has cultivated with celebrities, a number of whom narrate Canongate’s growing audiobook list. Canongate now has about 250 audiobooks, and beginning this July, PGW will be handling all of the publisher’s audiobooks in North America.
Though the letter-reading business has been a pleasant surprise, Byng said his focus remains on publishing and cementing Canongate’s presence in the U.S., the world’s biggest book market. He noted that with the Severn purchase and Cannongate’s recent agreements with PGW and Cursor, he has “a clear sense the U.S. will become a more important market for us.”