THE BOOKER Prize can cause the more pompous sort of corporate publisher to suffer a total sense-of-humour shutdown. It's a tough business, after all: massaging the egos of novelists, choosing which titles to submit out of your packed catalogue, telling little porkies to the authors overlooked, planning for the multi-million sales that the award might bring to the next Arundhati Roy (see left). No surprise, then, that a few big editorial cheeses begin to stink of avarice and intrigue at every Booker season.
There are a host of reasons to rejoice at Yann Martel's victory last week with Life of Pi; not least, because it made Canongate of Edinburgh the first independent publisher to gain the prize since the takeover mania of two decades ago. Yet Jamie Byng's supremely cool company refused to greet the triumph with any vulgar bluster. Instead, its website carried this item: "A Canongate author has scooped the 2002 Booker Prize. In his new book, Wife of Pie, Dan Martel brilliantly reworks the Wife of Bath's story from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, reinventing the bawdy heroine as a modern-day pastry chef. It's a thrilling and sumptuous read, as the heroine's destiny in irreversibly changed by her discovery in a Bath river of a rare species of fish previously thought to have been wiped out. `A tale', as the back jacket says, `that will make you believe in cod'."
Call me a romantic, but I can't quite see any of our cross-media monoliths acting so skittishly in the wake of a Booker win. For that matter, would any of them have dared to publish Life of Pi? At least five major houses turned it down, but - even if accepted - it might have drowned in the usual torrent. Canongate, in contrast, promotes its books with fervour and enthusiasm. I once ran across Jamie Byng after midnight in the restaurant of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre. Straightaway, he launched into the hard sell for one of Canongate's future titles. No danger of that sort of harassment from the conglomerate apparatchiki.
Yet independent publishers still count as an endangered species. A while ago, in fact, it looked as if Canongate was on the edge of a merger. Somehow, it never happened; and so Martel's success will help to protect the distinctiveness of a truly autonomous outfit. In addition to its English list, Canongate runs a classy stable of translated authors. Most recently, I've been enjoying Karel van Loon's A Father's Affair (translated by Sam Garrett; pounds 9. …