Over the years, Freight Books has become known as a stalwart purveyor of contemporary fiction and publishing, and has given a voice to some of today’s freshest literary voices.
Similarly, Freight Design has went from strength to strength, with its innovative and creative output scooping the Grand Prix Award at the Scottish Design Awards earlier this year.
We chat to Adrian Searle about his career so far and Freight’s development over the years, and Adrian offers his own insights on what makes the Scottish publishing industry so unique, and provides tips on how to forge a career in it.
Did you always want to work in the creative industries?
My career can be summarised as opportunistic. I had a rough plan but seized unexpected opportunities when they arose.
After an abortive and short-lived career in the army I joined McCann Erickson, the advertising agency. I knew I wanted to work in what’s now called the creative industries but advertising was the only branch I was aware of.
After a year, an opportunity arose to join a design consultancy, the largest in Scotland at the time, and I found a discipline I really loved. After 5 years I made the leap into economic development as one of the very first creative industries executives in Scottish Enterprise where I stayed for two years. I then received an offer from a client to become marketing controller of a 600 shop retail chain, which I grabbed with both hands. It was a company expanded rapidly and I had a great time for four years.
In 2001 I was given the opportunity to found a design company of my own, Freight, with my business partner, Davinder Samrai, as a wholly owned subsidiary of the third largest ad agency in Scotland.
In 2006 I ran away to join the theatre, becoming the National Theatre of Scotland’s first Communications Director. I stayed for a year but returned to Freight and we completed a management buy-out in 2009.
Give us a potted history of Freight Books. What inspired you to set it up?
Freight Books resulted from Gutter, a magazine of new Scottish writing we founded in 2009 after I completed a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.
After the first issue, a queue of writers with manuscripts formed. It was at the worst point of the economic crash and London publishers had been shedding mid-list authors while not taking on any debuts at all.
We knew some very talented writers who were struggling to get published. We decided to take the plunge in 2011 and two out of the first three books we published were nominated for multiple literary awards, so we knew our taste was okay.
What types of books does Freight Books publish?
Since then we have published a wide range of fiction and non-fiction as we’ve learned what we’re good at. About half our list now is a mix of literary and genre fiction, with the rest being illustrated and narrative non-fiction, humour and some poetry.
Tell us more about Freight Design. What projects has it been involved in?
Freight Design has been working for 15 years now and we have a range of blue-chip clients spanning big multi-nationals and public institutions to small arts organisations.
We specialise in branding and design for print, but also operate across the other usual disciplines, including advertising, packaging, exhibitions and web. We’re good at what we do and passionate about good design and communication.
We try and strip out the smoke and mirrors that the industry is famed for and provide straight-forward, plain-speaking advice and high levels of creativity. This year we won the Grand Prix at the Scottish Design Awards, the top award for creativity in Scotland.
Can you give us the rundown of an average working day at Freight?
It’s impossible to outline an average day. For me it can involve meeting with an author to discuss the plans for their book, presenting creative work to a design or marketing client, talking to designers about book design, writing a press release to accompany review copies going out to the media, editing a manuscript, talking to printers, promoting our titles to international publishers with a view to selling rights, meeting with booksellers, editing online copy, compiling sales data – the list is endless.
What are your favourite aspects of working at Freight?
Variety is definitely one of the best things. I have a short attention span so I like working across a wide range of projects simultaneously. But I think the best thing is working with creative people, whether they be designers or authors. Giving these individuals a platform is probably the thing that gives me most pleasure and satisfaction.
Why do you feel it’s so important that Freight Books offers a platform for Scottish fiction – especially with Gutter magazine.
Literature, to my mind, is one of the highest artforms, partly because of its sophistication and partly because it can continue to influence for hundreds of years.
I believe that Scotland has a unique and distinctive culture and that it’s vitally important that Scottish voices be given a platform, to engage with the people of this country and beyond.
Good literature holds up a mirror to society and makes us question our values and decisions, both at a personal and national level.
What distinguishes Scotland’s literary voice from the rest of Britain?
I think the biggest difference is that Scotland is a more egalitarian society than England. Ultimately England despises its working class. Just watch TV for a week and you’ll see its working class mocked and denigrated.
In Scotland, we still have elites but their proximity to those without privilege is much closer. In Scotland, we don’t hold truck with arrogance or exclusivity nearly as much as elsewhere, partly because historically our aristocracy was absent in London. That’s created a more horizontal culture. One of the down-sides of this is that Scotland can be somewhat anti-intellectual.
Do you think the Scottish publishing industry is in a strong position today?
I think the opportunities for Scottish publishing are many. We have strengths and weaknesses.
On the one hand, we publish in English which means we have access to markets across the world. Freight has sold rights in the USA, Germany, France, Italy, Czech Republic, Australia and many other countries. We sell books both direct and through distributors across the world.
On the other hand, the focus of British culture is London, which means Scottish voices are marginalised. Just see how Graeme Macrae Burnett’s His Bloody Project was completely ignored until it was shortlisted for the Booker and the embarrassing stampede to praise it in national media when the shortlist was finally announced. The gatekeepers see Scotland as ‘other’ and very much on the periphery.
What have you been the highlights of your time at Freight?
Winning Scottish Publisher of the Year was definitely a highlight and a real vindication of the risks we’d taken since 2011. Winning the Guardian Not the Booker Prize last year with Kirstin Innes’s debut novel, Fishnet, was also a red letter day.
But small successes, like Andy Scott’s book on the making of his Kelpie sculptures, and our humour book, In Rude Health, which has sold around 80,000 copies, are also great victories.
Design-wise, there have been too many successes to list, and fundamentally every project that delivers for a client makes the job worthwhile.
What advice would you give to people wanting to establish a career in the publishing and design industries?
Publishing in Scotland is a tough gig. There aren’t too many employers. The best route in is via a postgraduate degree in publishing studies. There are two excellent courses, one at Stirling and the other at Napier.
Beyond that, gaining experience through the dreaded interning is often also necessary. But the key thing is reading, building both a literary and cultural awareness.
In terms of design, there are two main routes. One is as a designer, the other as a consultant or ‘suit’. I took the latter route.
Generally design is a graduate-driven industry, so a degree is mandatory. As a designer, it’s about developing creativity, particularly in the area of typography, as well as communication and organisational skills. It’s about consuming popular culture and art history, and knowing your sources.
As a suit it’s about learning the fundamentals of marketing and corporate communications while building communications and project management skills.