For our final panel, Camilla Elworthy, Picador’s Publicity Director, and Ravi Mirchandani, Editor-in-Chief, joined SYP Scotland’s Euan Tait to discuss Douglas Stuart’s 2020 Booker Prize Winner Shuggie Bain. Holding up a list of the book’s accolades, reeling off words like ‘finalist’ and ‘winner’, Euan explained that this year’s planning committee knew that the immersive and poetic Scottish novel ‘had to be a part of the conference’.
The panel talked us through the publishing story chronologically, from first acquisition to where it is now. On first encounter with the manuscript, Ravi explained that while he ‘took a while’ to start reading it, not realising he had been offered it exclusively, he knew to pay attention due to agent Anna Stein’s reputation, who was described later by Camilla as an ‘extraordinary agent’. Initially finding the manuscript to be ‘remarkable and wonderful’, Ravi also foresaw ‘a few challenges’ both in publishing, and in support for acquisition in-house. And so, he approached Camilla. Camilla, overwhelmed by the ‘quality, beauty and power’, found that it was unlike anything she’d read before and provided that support immediately.
Ravi explained that they approached the internal discussions of acquisition gently at first. Picador, he explained, is not a small publisher, and despite a huge output, they only have about 30 slots a year for debut authors, so competition was fierce. He was conscious that Graeme Armstrong’s The Young Team was also being published soon, which, despite being different upon reading, would pitch similarly as a semi-autobiographical, working-class Scottish novel. Hesitant to publish the books too close to each other, they acquired the rights to Shuggie Bain in October but didn't publish until August two years later.
On that initial feeling of reading something special, Euan asked the panelists how often, in careers as long and esteemed as theirs, they would experience that. It’s hard to put a figure on, Camilla explained, but you feel privileged when you do. She described how she reads a manuscript with ‘trifocal lenses’. First, as a publicist; thinking about the market, the media, festivals, whether there is an author story that can be used as part of a future campaign. The second lens considers where the potential book would sit on your existing list. And, most importantly, the third lens is as a reader. You can’t lose the sense of being a reader, Camilla stressed, that is your connection to readers – and if you’re not a reader anymore, then why are you doing this? She explained that in reading the manuscript, she encountered characters that you carry with you, and she knew readers would fall in love with the book if only she could convince people to pick it up. Remarking to Euan that ‘the greats can wait’, she explained that the book was ‘of a time, but also all-time’. While she might not be able to quantify how often that happens in a career like hers, it was ‘thrilling’ that it happened with Shuggie Bain.
Ravi had a similar experience, explaining that he knows a manuscript is special if he’s thinking about how to publish it before he’s finished reading. It doesn’t happen often, but Shuggie Bain passed a number of tests; first and foremost, that he knew he was going to finish reading it in full, a hard thing to do with as many manuscripts as he receives. When that decision is made, Ravi likened the reading experience to having backed a horse in a race, reading on and hoping ‘don’t fall, don’t fall’. He commented that each of the individuals in the publishing process were thinking about their roles and future action before even finishing the manuscript: a good sign.
Discussing the impact of Covid on the publishing schedule, Ravi detailed the initial launch in the US: Shuggie Bain receiving fantastic reviews and a huge launch when the virus was present in the world but not significant in that part of the world yet. However, New York was then hit hard, and as the UK followed, Camilla found it difficult to get the book physically into people’s hands; not receiving proofs until after lockdown, and recipients having returned home or away from their offices. However, while an author in the US might have previously proved a challenge, with interviewers and studios traditionally requiring his physical presence, the switch to digital and remote access made certain areas of publicity easier, and so certain parts of the process were more accessible as a result.
Of course, with a book as successful and a campaign as far-reaching as Shuggie Bain’s, there was still much to be left undiscovered and much that couldn’t be said. When Euan asked about the panel’s dream chairperson to speak with Douglas Stuart, Camilla explained that she couldn’t comment, as there were future events coming up that were close to this imagined hypothetical, and Ravi teased the TV adaptation, commenting that the actor playing Agnes Bain is the ‘perfect person’. It was confirmed, then, that Shuggie Bain’s reign is far from over, further insight into how the publishing process lasts far beyond holding that physical copy in your hand – or even a Booker Prize win.