Written by Victoria Best
If you haven’t heard of Cargo before now, the chances are good you’ll be coming across them very soon. This spring they published the new novel by Mark Z. Danielewski, famous for his cult classic, House of Leaves, and the extraordinarily beautiful box set autobiography of Alasdair Gray, one of Scotland’s greatest writers. Glasgow-based, this is a publisher with a brave heart and a broad vision. If you haven’t seen either book, even if you have no intention of reading them, try to get hold of a copy in your hands; they are wondrous things of beauty.
The story of Cargo’s founding in 2009 is one of guts and bravura by then 22-year-old graduate student, Mark Buckland, who was working at the time as a landscape gardener. He scraped together a few hundred pounds, money from his own pocket supplemented by The Princes’ Trust and decided to ‘put a firework up the arse of Scottish literature,’ as he described it in interview, claiming the golden rule of the company was, ‘Thou shalt not bore.’ Clearly, they did not, as the company went from strength to strength. In 2014, Buckland decided to take a back seat and hand over management to Gill Tasker, who had worked alongside him from the start, and Helen Sedgwick, also a long-standing part of the Cargo team. I got to speak exclusively to them via skype, and if the future of publishing lies in the indies, then it’s fair to say it’s in good hands.
I wonder what the vision was initially for the company. Gill says that ‘when I first met Mark and inquired he told me he passionately wanted to publish what he thought was great writing, whether it was nonfiction or fiction.That was essentially how Cargo started, and we’ve always sought out those particular projects we really felt behind.’ And what of their Scottish roots? ‘I’m from London,’ Helen laughs, ‘but I can give an answer. It’s really important to be aware of the community that you’re in, and as such, we have a Scottish identity. At the same time I don’t want to be limited as a publisher. We want to be a good publisher not just a Scottish publisher.’
When I ask how they would define their list, Helen says intelligent, unexpected and always with something very interesting to say. ‘Diversity is part of what appeals to us.’ Their list certainly bears that out. This year, they are publishing about a dozen books, including The Last Tiger by Tony Black, a novel of loss and alienation set in 1909 in Tasmania, a ‘ferociously witty’ story of internet dating, Head for the Edge and Keep Walking by Kate Tough, an illustrated children’s book by Aidan Moffat and an updated version of The Road to Referendum, an important Scottish political title. ‘There is a thread that links all the books we publish,’ Gill says. ‘It’s looking at something differently, telling the tale in a different way. There’s always something quirky.’
I get the impression that Cargo is also fearlessly attracted to what is new and cutting edge. Cargo Crate, one of their imprints, was the first exclusive ebook publisher in Scotland, and they were also the first to offer print on demand. When I ask them about the digital revolution, they are both eager to embrace it while maintaining an unsullied love of print books. Ebooks are useful, Gill suggests, for encouraging readers outside the comfort zone. ‘Rather than spend £10 you can pay £2, £3 or £4 for something to take a risk on.’ Helen agrees. ‘It’s exciting how much you can do now in terms of embedding content and making books interactive. Also, the way people read is quite different on a device so it opens up a whole market for flash fiction, short ficition, novellas. And it’s not just ebooks, but apps as well move into interactive storytelling, which has a lot of potential.’
But the book as art object is also very much part of Cargo’s publishing profile. One of their earlier projects was a three-way collaboration between Cargo, the Edinburgh Book Festival and innovative American publisher McSweeneys (whose editor and founder is Dave Eggers). The result was the gorgeous and unusual box set, Elsewhere. Helen explains, ‘It was originally a collection of writing brought together from the book festival that was going to be published online. But when they got all the work in it was so good that they decided to make four printed books in a box set. A lot of different publishers went in to bid. We managed to get McSweeneys to come in with us jointly as the designers, and fortunately for us we won. It really is a fantastic set of beautifully designed books. McSweeney’s produce such amazing books, such amazing objects.’
This seems to be what contemporary publishing is all about; an open-minded engagement with all the new ideas and possibilities springing up in the intersection between art and technology. Cargo has exactly the location for such an attitude, based in Trongate 103, an arts resource for the city of Glasgow that is housed over six stories of a former Edwardian warehouse. The venue is home to a range of creative organisations. Gill says, ‘We have a fantastic office in a great complex. Film people work on our floor, whilst there’s more socially engaged stuff on other floors, and a Russian café… it’s a real eclectic mix and has a nice creative vibe. Our office is always busy. Always lots going on and people coming in. We have a central location so our writers often pop in to see us.’ The more I learn about Cargo and the longer I talk to Helen and Gill, the more I wish I could work there. ‘We’re very friendly and laid back,’ Helen says. ‘We get on really well, and always have time for a cup to tea and to throw ideas around. But we do all work very hard. We’re passionate about what we’re doing.’ ‘Yes,’ says Gill. ‘We’re a strange mixture of laid-back and productive. Though I don’t know if that’s what we always achieve!’ Being such a small organisation (their publishing assistant, Simon, appears as a disembodied voice saying hello), every day is different and everyone mucks in with a vast range of tasks. ‘But because of the open plan office and the vibe that we’ve always had, we’re very collaborative,’ Gill adds.
Collaborations are the name of the game. Along with their links to the Edinburgh literary festival, founder Mark Buckland also created the Margins festival, a combination of literature and music. I ask whether the festivals remain important to them and Helen says, ‘definitely we’ll keep it up. I think live performance is an important part of what writers are doing. I used to a monthly performance event in Glasgow and it was a great event for people to come to and enjoy the literature, but also to enjoy being part of a community.’ Have books become less a solitary pleasure, I wonder, more communal? ‘I hope so,’ Helen replies. ‘That’s how I see it. We do a lot of events, and not just when we’re launching a book. We’re collaborating with other publishers in Scotland to run a series of events in the summer which is exciting. I think it’s important to share what we produce.’
Gill adds, ‘Live events are so nice as you actually get to meet the readers and they can be so excited. I recently chaired Mark Z. Danielewski’s Fifty Year Sword launch in Manchester. It was truly amazing; people queued for over an hour to get their book signed. It was so exciting to get that tangible reaction from people. When you have that you can see just how much actual happiness you can bring people with a great book and it’s a lovely feeling.’ When I ask about Danielewski, she tells me he was fantastic. ‘I knew he had supported Depeche Mode on tour once, so while I had a bit of a rock star in mind, he’s really a very amiable man who’s happy to sit and chat.’
We seem to have come so far in our discussion and are standing on the brink of an exciting new publishing future. When I ask them what they’ve learned, what’s been the defining experience of their time with Cargo they both sit back and laugh as if that’s an impossible question, but they are actually quick with their responses. ‘It’s hard to get it down to one thing,’ Helen admits. ‘When I started I was originally an editor. I knew how to make the words work on the page. I didn’t know how to produce a book, I didn’t know how to design a cover. The collaboration with McSweeney’s was actually the first project I worked on for Cargo. To see that go from just being a collection of stories that weren’t even in order… I was there at the bookshop at the Edinburgh festival, with people from McSweeney’s who came over to join us and that was not something I ever imagined I’d see. Happy months.’
‘It’s all ongoing,’ Gill agrees. ‘I’m also from a word background. I was a postgrad student, used to working with words. Then coming on board as managing director and thinking strategically has been a long learning curve. There’s literally stuff to learn all the time.’
‘The whole process of cargo has been extraordinary. I became involved after seeing a very early article on Mark Buckland in The Herald with a title like ‘Rock and Roll Publisher out to Change Scottish Publishing’. And I thought: this guy looks like he has an interesting business going on, I wonder if he needs some help? I just sent him an email saying this is what I’m doing, this is my work experience, this is what I want to do, and that’s how it started. I think going from meeting this random guy in a coffee shop when there was one book he’d just brought out, to sitting in an office with all my colleagues and books on the shelves that have come from authors all over the world… for me that’s quite extraordinary. If I hadn’t have gone for that coffee, I would never have known where Cargo would go. It’s been quite a journey. If there’s one thing I would say, its just get in touch with people, cause you just never know where things will go.’
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Max Dunbar’s review of The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski can be found here.