1 February 2019
The Bookseller

Edinburgh-based indie Luath has achieved vast success with its Orwell Prize-winning title Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey. Sales of the book increased by 528% the week of its Orwell Prize win, and a new edition (published in August 2018 in partnership with Picador) has sold 24,770 copies to date; the November 2017-published edition has sold 20,800 copies through the TCM.

Now, Luath is going back to the beginning: it will be publishing Ellie Harrison’s The Glasgow Effect, which, after a social media storm erupted decrying her project entitled The Glasgow Effect, directly inspired McGarvey’s own Poverty Safari. The Bookseller spoke to publisher Gavin MacDougall about the story behind publication.

How did you come to work with Darren McGarvey?

Darren got in touch in 2016 to pitch a book he had in mind. The clarity and passion of that outline, and the way Darren talked about finding new ways to talk about poverty, convinced me that this was a book he could write and that we had to publish.

Also known as “Loki”, a popular rapper with a high profile on social media, the retelling of his impoverished upbringing had lifted him out of poverty. Yet although he was often “wheeled out to testify” about his experience growing up in Pollok (Glasgow), whenever he attempted to dig deeper and scrutinise the structures of power, these “uncomfortable lines of enquiry” were hushed. The book would be the long-form investigation he wanted to present. He decided to go for crowdfunding rather than be beholden to any funding body, and some time during this period his work came to the attention of J K Rowling, who has been a staunch supporter of his project.

You partnered with Picador to republish the title to take it “to a broader audience”. How did the partnership come about?

We were approached by Picador after one of its senior editors, Kris Doyle, picked up a copy of Poverty Safari and read it on the way home after a visit to Scotland. He had seen it well stocked in Waterstones branches here in Scotland, and the enthusiasm of a bookseller at Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh convinced him this book was something special.

Why did you choose Picador over other publishers to partner with? How is the partnership going?

With the benefit of the worldwide reach of Pan Macmillan, what Picador offered made complete sense for the book, which is now being translated into at least seven languages, including German and Japanese. While Poverty Safari was the first book to enter the Sunday Times top 10 in Luath’s 37 years of book publishing, very few copies had been sold outwith Scotland, and we had failed to persuade W H Smith to take any copies of our original edition.

The Picador/Luath edition was selected for a UK-wide WH Smith promotion, and it has been one of its bestselling books.

In what way was The Glasgow Project the catalyst for Poverty Safari?

The title “Poverty Safari” derives from events in 2016: artist Ellie Harrison was awarded £15,000 by Creative Scotland to spend a year living solely within Glasgow’s city limits. It caused a storm of protest. Darren initially joined in, dubbing her project a “Poverty Safari” that trivialised the so-called “Glasgow Effect”: Glasgow’s mortality rate exceeded that of Calcutta, a circumstance that exposes the failure of government and third-sector agencies to address poverty at home.

But, in a defining passage in his book (extract below), Darren recounts that he eventually came to see Ellie as “someone with deep principles about social equality, political participation and the environment. These were not simply pretensions she harboured or platitudes she spoke in, but principles she had chosen to live by in every aspect of her life.”

Yes, her approach was misguided, clumsy and poorly conceived. Yes, her assumptions about life in workingclass communities deserved to be challenged. Yes, there were important questions that had to be answered about why so many people felt politically excluded and culturally misrepresented and sometimes anger and rage was justified—even necessary. But as she wiped her eyes, and I pretended not to notice, it suddenly became apparent how destructive my class politics had really become. I was so consumed by my own anger and moral certainty, it had blinded me to the fact that Ellie Harrison, in all her middle class glory, was not an enemy, but an ally in the war I’d been fighting all my life.

What will Ellie’s book (The Glasgow Effect) be about?

Ellie will tell her own story and set out a manifesto for a fair and sustainable city of the future. Enlightened environmental activism is no longer a side issue, and is coming to be seen as vital for our future. Ellie is part of that movement. She is one of many Luath authors who stand for common decency and the power of community. As a publishing house, we intend to continue to shine a light on the issues that matter and provide platforms for fresh thinking—for example, in June 2019 we will publish Mollycoddling the Feckless by Alistair Findlay, who draws on first-hand experience as a social worker to explore the issues facing those on the frontline of our “broken society”.

How will the controversy affect your publishing plans for the title?

Her book is scheduled for publication in August. Having seen the initial media storm around the project that the book has emerged from, we are aware that the issues covered in the book are hugely relevant to people in Glasgow, and towns and cities throughout the UK.

Whether “just about managing”, “working poor”, “left behind”, middle-class or classless, whoever you are and however you (or others) define yourself, how we live and interact with our fellow dwellers on this planet matters to us all. If this book causes controversy, it must be saying something that matters.

The Picador-published edition of Poverty Safari is out now (9781529006346), priced £8.99. Ellie Harrison’s The Glasgow Effect will be published by Luath Press in August 2019.

Natasha Onwuemezi