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SLLG Edinburgh Book Festival outing


Bill Bell, David Finkelstein & Alistair McCleery: "Books and Society"

Tue 19/08/2008

12:00 PM - 1:00 PM

As Scotland celebrates 500 years of printing, editors David Finkelstein, Bill Bell and Alistair McCleery reveal the remarkable contribution to publishing and literary culture made by Scotland over the last 120 years - a period covering momentous change in writing, publishing technology, bookselling, readership and, of course, book festivals."


As mentioned previously here, I went on a Scottish Law Librarians Group organised trip to an Event at the Book Festival. Despite it being all about books, it was actually reasonably difficult for the Committee to find an event at a time that would hopefully allow people to attend, and on a topic that was relevant to our jobs! The closest we could come was one on a Scottish-specific topic, in this case, the history of the Scottish publishing industry over the last few hundred years.


This turned out to be a really interesting talk (which thankfully I double checked the time of, as I thought it started at 1pm, not 12pm!). As usual for Edinburgh in August, it had rained heavily recently, and the venue was a quagmire, but at least the rubber ducks floating about in the puddles were amusing!

We also appeared to have taken seats in the Fly Death Zone – directly under the lighting gantry for the stage, so kept finding fried fly bodies on us, in our drinks, or dazed flies staggering over us…

The main points covered, in no particular order (I promise, the speakers were far more coherent than this summary makes it appear, I just don't have any notes to refer to, so it's just what stuck in my mind the most! If you read this and were there too, feel free to sort me out!) about the last two hundred years of Scottish publishing were:



  • Incredible advances in speed due to printing presses – 2 men would take an hour to produce approx 200 pages, printed on one side. The Scotsman newspaper installed a machine that could print double sided, folded papers at the rate of 12,000 an hour!
  • Scottish high literacy levels of the time a myth.
  • Gaelic press neglected – until 1800, only 50 books in print in Gaelic. First Gaelic Bible in 1801, contemporary with translations of Bible into Native American languages.
  • Majority of well known publishing names (Chambers etc) Scottish, or Scottish linked, before expandind into London. Family businesses like this did well while first or second generation of family were involved and had belief in doing good for society by making books available to masses. Later family members too profit driven.
  • The strength of Scottish identity in that period.
  • Lack of skilled typesetters / staff after WWII.
  • Lack of investment by large publishing houses at time when it was needed most, importing of cheaper papers from Norway etc, all combined to make times difficult for publishers.
  • Loss of net book agreement meaning books could be discounted better by larger suppliers.
Interesting slide show, lots of fascinating images that had been selected from those used in the book: historical newspapers, pamphlets, the presses themselves, typesetters at work, etching  illustrations onto printing plates, people reading in photos, etchings and paintings, a child reading the Broons, old Edinburgh...and all of us left wanting to know how the elephant got into the library, as shown in one slide!
Q & A, at the end of the session – 

  • History of Edinburgh University Press (current incarnation launched in 1947 in post-war optimism) and its original focus on academic texts, reflecting research interests of the University Depts at the time. Historically, most universities had their own printing press, but now only Edinburgh, and recently re-launched (I think) Dundee University press’s exist
  • What constitutes a Scottish book – Scottish author? Author living in Scotland? Content about Scotland? Book printed / bound in Scotland? Does separating out 'Scottish' books into a section help or harm them?
  • The phenomenon of self publishing, as is being encouraged by Amazon. Discussed problems of ability to act effectively and professionally as own editor, dealing with attractive page layout, and selling finished product.
  • BooksfromScotland.com : Bookselling gateway, but mainly being used as an information resource, sales are small. People browse for information, then go to Amazon to buy cheaper.
  • The success of D.C Thomson and their majority ownership of Parragon, giving Parragon financial support and allowing it to retain control over what material it publishes
  • How would devolution / independence affect Scottish publishing -size within Europe, market size etc.

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