Last updated: April 21, 2012 12:32 am

The Diary: Jamie Byng

The managing director of Canongate Books talks about the tectonic power shifts going on in the publishing industry

“A diary is an assassin’s cloak that we wear when we stab a comrade in the back with a pen.” I always recall this dark, memorable line whenever the word diary is mentioned. It comes from William Soutar’s Diaries of a Dying Man (1954) and it inspired the title of an anthology of the world’s greatest diarists put out by the publishing house I run, Canongate, more than a decade ago (The Assassin’s Cloak, edited by Alan and Irene Taylor). Where did those 10 years go? Maybe if I had kept a diary, I’d have a better idea.

I have rarely kept anything remotely resembling a diary. I think I lack the discipline. I certainly lack the desire and I would claim to lack the time but we all know that is the worst excuse there is. You make, find or steal the time to do the things you really want to do. Or you try to. And if you don’t get something done, well, get over it.

If life was like a piece of music, I think mine would be reaching some sort of climax right now. As I type, it is dark outside and London is quiet but in an hour or so I expect to hear my two-month-old daughter Ivy stirring, followed by her two-year-old brother Nathaniel. In a few hours I will be at the London Book Fair in Earl’s Court, starting the first of a series of back to back meetings and, later, hosting a dinner for 60 to honour some of our authors.

On Sunday, I will be running the London Marathon. The day after is World Book Night, an event I have been closely involved with since it launched last year. It’s all pretty full-on but, amid everything, I feel calm and mellow. Reading helps me to stay that way and I read every day. It feels like a form of prayer and escapism and meditation.

. . .

Book fairs themselves are full-on experiences, exhausting and stimulating in equal measure. Frankfurt, held in October, is the big one, bringing together publishers, booksellers, agents, authors and literary scouts from all over the world. But the London Book Fair, held in April, has evolved over the past 20 years into another essential date in the international publishing calendar. And it’s not just the three days of the fair itself that matter, but all the meetings, lunches, dinners and drinks that happen in the city before and after. London is now fuller than ever with people who live for books, for whom books are one of the essential connective threads that link us to one another.

The Italian film director Federico Fellini once wrote: “Basically I am an optimist because the great myth of the person who tells another person a story won’t disappear that quickly. There will always be someone who feels the need to tell a friend one of his ideas or one of his dreams.” That thought is wired into my brain like a mantra because it expresses a deep truth that I never want to forget.

I first heard it courtesy of Daniel Keel, the legendary publisher, who died last year. Fellini was among many great authors he published during his decades running Diogenes in Zurich

As well as talking to publishers about individual books, fairs provide the opportunity to share experiences, swap notes, discuss trends and hatch plans. The madness of the times, the uncertainties surrounding our industry, the speed of change, the bizarre rulings of so-called departments of justice (whose ignorance is only matched by their short-sighted stupidity), the shock of the new, the exciting opportunities being thrown up daily ... publishing has never been in a greater state of flux. And this feeling is palpable at this year’s London Book Fair.

For fear of possible extradition to the US, I had better keep to myself my views on attorney-general Eric Holder. But the US Department of Justice’s decision to sue Apple and five of the biggest publishers, alleging collusion on the pricing of ebooks in response to Amazon’s pricing policy, has provoked a huge amount of debate and consternation within the publishing industry. Three publishers settled immediately. Amazon, which was not named as a defendant, has described the result as a “big win for Kindle owners”, by which it really means that this is a big win for Amazon.

It will be fascinating to see how this all plays out, but it is clear that the remaining named publishers in the case, Penguin, Macmillan and Apple, are going to fight it hard and dispute Holder’s claims.

. . .

These tectonic power shifts going on in my industry seem to be at a different end of the scale from the intimate connection that a reader has with a book. I founded World Book Night as a charity that celebrates this personal connection by encouraging readers to share their love of a particular book with others. It started last year in the UK and saw 1m books being given to 1m people by an army of 20,000 passionate volunteers. The concept has since been embraced by the German and American book industries and, on Monday, almost 80,000 givers will hand out more than 2m books in these three countries. This mass act of generosity, driven by individuals and their evangelical love of literature, is unprecedented. And I think it is beautiful and important, not least because of the way it places bookshops, libraries, readers, the physical book – and sharing – at the heart of the initiative.

One of my missions at the book fair, beyond selling the Canongate list and being on the lookout for interesting things for us to acquire, is to talk to key publishers around the world about setting up World Book Night in their countries in 2013. The conversations I have had with publishers from Brazil, France, Italy, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Spain made me think there is a very good chance World Book Night will be even bigger next year. Anything that gets more people reading, talking and sharing is a good thing.

. . .

Reading and running tend not to go hand in hand but in my life they have been entwined of late because I am running the London Marathon to raise money for World Book Night. I’ve never run a marathon before but was talked into it by Julia Kingsford, World Book Night’s chief executive. I have genuinely enjoyed the training, and World Book Night needs the money, but I might feel differently come Sunday afternoon. I plan to carry one of the 25 World Book Night titles for each of the miles I will run. For the last mile I will be clutching Chinua Achebe’s magnificent Things Fall Apart (1958). I’m just hoping I don’t fall apart before I cross the finishing line.

Jamie Byng is managing director of Canongate Books and the founder of World Book Night

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