At a party to celebrate the award of this year's Man Booker Prize to Yann Martel for his novel The Life of Pi, the talk among the champagne-fuelled literati wasn't of near-winners, worthy losers or contentious judges. The chatter accompanying the toasts, the hugs and the kisses in the Union, a members-only club in London, was of the unprecedented success of Canongate Books, the small Edinburgh-based house that published Pi. For the first time, the prestigious annual fiction award for Commonwealth writers went to a book published outside the mainstream houses and outside London. So the man behind Canongate, Jamie Byng, got almost as many accolades as Martel himself.
In 1994 Byng, then 26, paid less than $150,000 for the 26-year-old imprint, which had fallen on hard times. Byng's well-to-do family helped him come up with the cash including step-father Christopher Bland, chairman of British Telecom. Byng, who began his career in 1992 as an unpaid intern at Canongate, was making $12,000 a year doing publicity for the company when he became managing director. The predictable hand wringing about a fun-loving rich kid taking over an august firm ensued.
Byng's response: to set about making a name for himself and Canongate. Pocket Canons individual books of the Bible packaged as hip lit with snazzy cover art and introductions by the likes of the Dalai Lama and edgy writer Will Self generated more than publicity. The series was translated into 12 languages. If Byng's innovative projects weren't raising eyebrows, his looks (more Liam Neeson than Stephen King) and behavior (late nights and drugs) certainly did. "He probably elicits more extreme responses than any other person in publishing," says an executive from a rival house. Byng is used to it. "I am the same person if people say I'm a hedonistic madman or an innovative publisher."
Besides, a wild streak can be an advantage in Byng's line of work. At least five major London houses turned Pi down, and although Faber and Faber had made an offer equal to Canongate's, Martel says that it was Byng's personality that made him sign with the Edinburgh outfit. "He's a nonstop genius, with this unbelievable level of energy," Martel says. "I would have gone with him even if they had offered less. They did really well by me."
Doing really well by authors is Byng's strategy for the future. He says, despite persistent rumors that he'll head for London, that his 15-person office described by Martel as "an anarchist commune" will remain in Edinburgh. He also aims to publish fewer books. "I want to make the list tighter, to make the quality higher, to publish every book on the list as well as I can." And "well" means something different for Canongate than it does for any other house. Byng reedited the early chapters of Pi with Martel, and for Snowblind, a book by Robert Sabbag about drug smuggling, he produced a limited edition, complete with a Damien Hirst drug kit mirror, razor blade and $100 bill. Invited to Buckingham Palace for a literary evening, Byng talked his way into an introduction to the Queen and presented her with a volume, drug kit and all. "I asked her if it could be included in the Royal Collection," Byng recalls. "She takes out the $100 bill and I know she's clocked on. She gives me a knowing smile and says, 'I'll have a good look and see if it is suitable.' Two days later I got a letter saying it was."
Q&A 'I am the same person if people say I'm a hedonistic madman or an innovative publisher.'
TIME: Another of the big autumn books, Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, is one of yours. Why didn't you publish it in time to be nominated for a Booker?
Byng: The deadline for the Booker is Sept. 30. We published it on Oct. 3. That was a very deliberate decision. Although Michel has been living in Commonwealth countries since he was seven, he's actually Dutch. His wife and I are trying to get him dual citizenship so he'll be eligible next year. It's the biggest book in terms of length that we've ever published.
TIME: Why did a guy like you go into an industry like publishing?
Byng: Books had done things for me taking me places that other things hadn't. Now I can't imagine doing anything else. I think I'm in it for life.
TIME: Why do you think the Pocket Canons were such a big hit?
Byng: They elicited that 'Why hasn't someone thought of this before?' response. But it was the caliber of the writers and of the design that really helped put us on the map internationally.
TIME: Did you set out to be the enfant terrible of publishing?
Byng: No ... The way you publish is such an instinctive thing. A lot of it is chance strange encounters with people, often in the early hours of the morning, who give you ideas. There's never been any method to the madness here.
TIME: So, how is the company doing?
Byng: Well, we were predicting a turnover of $5.25 to $6 million. But Waterstone's in London sold 1,100 copies of Pi the day following the Booker announcement. More than Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang sold the day after his Booker. So the next couple of months ...
TIME: Your wife's family helped you buy out the company. Now you two have recently separated. Will this affect the business?
Byng: She's still a shareholder. She's not formally involved in the company, but she is emotionally involved. We were together for a long time. She's still a soulmate.