How To Be A Scottish Writer


A poet’s job is to serve their country and the world with words.

A writer’s right is to be paid a proper wage.

It is frequently observed that Scottish writers do not earn a living wage because their books are not sold at the level of the international English-speaking market.

Writing can only provide a good income to established authors who provide what readers will buy.

Writing is a ludicrous career choice.

Scottish culture is subservient to English culture in the London publishing model.

Has anyone noticed that London publishing is breaking down? It is not about literature at all, it is about wealth. It is ALL books by rich people presenting a culture of ownership and greed. All of it. Top poets and top novelists are subsumed by this literary culture, which in commercial terms is led by non books by and about celebrities, politicians and the aristocracy. Literature is treated as a mere decoration on this publishing ethos.

This is the great literary world we are floating about in.

Too many writers in Scotland as in England think they are owed a living by the world out there. The truth is they owe the world their best effort, and they’d be as well earning money in some other related way while attempting their best. This is how the great books and the great poems have always been written until very recently, when writer education, state subsidy for state approved writers, early selection of “promising” and “emerging” writers began to hold sway — barely a generation ago.

It is right and proper for a publisher to seek to gain income for his writers, but this is increasingly done at the expense of our true view of the world. We all know Scotland is not the same country as England. Are we really prepared to ignore that, in the interest of homogeneity of literature which might lead to higher incomes for writers?

The figure of 5 percent Scottish books of which a majority are tourism based is a shocking one. We should be able to look at 20 percent Scottish books. We are neighbours of the centre of international English but that is no excuse to doff our culture in the interests of financially successful publishing.

The publishing of books includes publicity, and it is in this area that the media and television with their constant selections, reviews and analysis let us down. We do not have unbiased Scottish media. All the major news and views channels, newspapers and publications are firmly pro UK and therefore against Scottish culture, with the exception of the new internet media. It is the old, established media that stand in our way as Scots.

There is a revolution ongoing in Scottish publishing but the result does not show on the scale of Hugh Andrews’ and the big publishers’ measurement. The major bookshops stock books from the UK listings and the UK publishers and the UK newspapers with their advertising and review. The UK daytime television programmes advertise all these establishment books, at massive underlying expense. In those circumstances it is pretty good going to get 5 percent Scottish books on the official slate. Then there is the Edinburgh Festival where London culture decamps to the city for a month, and the related Book Festival where it is ditto for books. Scottish schoolchildren queue round the block to see UK culture at its finest. Oh yes we do have x number of Scottish authors again this year but look closely at the way it works and you will see this is window dressing.

What we need in this country is for the publishers who will give Scottish culture a chance to be given a chance themselves. A chance to operate without being flooded by UK books, most of them rubbish books, UK bookchains, |UK newspapers reviewing UK books (and occasionally tossing a crumb or two in the form of Scottish writing specials), Scottish arts quangos staffed by arts administrators from England. You know the sort of thing.

There are publishers in Scotland, producing respectable numbers of books, providing a way forward for writers, and the ones I am thinking of are completely unsubsidised. They like being unsubsidised because that means there is no outside control or censorship of their work.

If our Scottish media were not so taken up with pushing the rubbish that comes from the London industry, and I’m here talking about the greed books rather than the literary ones, these publishers could get their good new writers into a little bit of Scottish limelight, which would very much help. We’d much appreciate being out from under the cloud that is the UK publicity circus. We’d like it if unionist journalists did not nobble us at parties and say “You’ll never get anywhere” as though it was not them that was seeing to that. We’re selling books at events and by post and through the internet that do not get into the Bookseller’s national figures, and these books are Scottish books.

Meanwhile people who really want to see Scottish culture survive are finding ways to survive as writers. They are filling venues with their performances and commanding a good ticket price. They are publishing e-books and pamphlets and distributing them in numbers that rival the close-guarded figures of establishment poetry sales. They are leading discussion and debate on facebook and other internet sites. They just don’t show up on the official book sales figures which are fast becoming obsolete.

It’s an exciting and fast moving time for books and for writers. The young city population is alert to readings both of poetry and prose. Writer-reader relations are better than ever before, with safe communication for authors in twitter accounts and a pattern of public meetings and book signings. All universities, and that includes those in Scotland, have writer education programmes which give opportunities to all and secure teaching jobs for quite a few writers. No writer need be isolated, they can join internet groups and lists and local writers workshops and publish pamphlets or e-books when they are inclined, and this activity doesn’t hurt the more high profile level of writing in the least, in fact it probably brings more and better readers. All writers in Scotland can do very well these days. They won’t get rich unless they are among the few who will ever really have what it takes, but every one of them can follow their own intellectual journeys and have fun.

I know that Hugh Andrew and Jamie Byng and such publishers want to see rich and important publishing houses based in Scotland. In order to compete, however, it is very difficult not to abandon Scotland other than as simply a home base – the great tradition of the Edinburgh publisher – so they pay attention to American culture and they are expected to hang out at Hay-on-Wye Festival – recently described as a London bookmen on holiday jaunt – but these kinds of efforts are increasingly out of date. Even the once beautiful Hay-on-Wye is becoming out of date, I can report (I was there this summer).

We’ve all heard the phrase dead tree books. Those who love books, which includes most writers, realise there is room for both paper and virtual books and that the way forward for real books is beauty – they must now become beautiful objects. But outward beauty needs inward beauty and if your book is not true to its own country, Scotland, what use is a book?

But to return to the question of the higher selling, higher profile Scottish writers, what will happen to them and their incomes after independence?

To take some examples – Irvine Welsh has made it and lives abroad. Ian Rankin, still a resident of Scotland, and undoubtedly our best current literary export, will be unaffected unless by possible changes in income tax rates between Scotland and England (in which case he would presumably have the option of changing domicile like other high earning Scots). Brookmire, purveyor of a Scotland beloved of expatriates, will undoubtedly remain high selling. High literary contenders such as Kelman will continue to be appreciated by serious readers and eligible for international prizes.

The Booker is now to be opened to American writers, which means no one in England or Scotland will stand such a good chance of winning it (also it will be weakened by all the contenders not being read by all the judges, since there will be too many books in the race). By Andrews’ account, which assumed we will be more ghettoised, Scottish media should give such outstanding literary stylists more space. And so should our poets get more coverage.

Writers who have been published by Penguin or Viking such as Janet Paisley and James Robertson have already reached the international market and having built up a readership they will be able to continue there.

At home we can expect more attention to the good writers who are already in the lists for Scottish awards such as the Saltire. for we will certainly expect less hostility to Scottish culture, less anglo-emulational snobbery and assumed court manners, among the Scottish readerships and the bodies that distribute such awards. Some of these younger writers, helped by more Scottish publicity, will grow into international readership and international publishing just as before.

All in all the suggestion that any kind of writers will suffer from independence is akin to the suggestion that the sky is falling in.

And while it HAS been suggested that the sky may be falling in for traditional publishing, there’s very little need to worry. Publishing will never go out of fashion.

Sally Evans


About Sally Evans

Sally Evans is a poet, and publisher, editor and blogger of and about poetry. She has three collections of poetry, including The Bees (diehard, 2008). She is the editor of Poetry Scotland broadsheet, and lives in Callander, where she hosts the annual Callander Poetry Weekend.