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Publisher spotlight: Swan & Horn

Across 2022, the Year of Stories, we are spotlighting Publishing Scotland members who will share their own story in their own words. Get to know Swan & Horn, who focus on educating and publishing on health-related topics, with recent expansions into publishing for children.

What’s your story?

Behind a modest wooden door of an old weavers’ cottage in a sleepy Ayrshire town, Maria Carter can be found seven days a week beavering away at her publishing business. There’s no sign over the door, no carpark filled with staff cars, no payroll software on the computer. Swan & Horn is too small for all that. Small though it is, it’s perfectly formed. This international healthcare publishing business is run solely by Maria, with occasional support from a team of reliable Scottish freelancers. Husband Hugh provides endless cups of tea, makes trips to the post office to fulfil orders and organises couriers and gives priceless support at events. It used to be much more of a family business, involving their two daughters too before they launched off into their own careers.

Maria is an unusual publisher because she loves creating the books herself, from cover to cover – a lover of words, ideas and learning, who never wanted to lose touch with ‘content’. She only outsources proofreading and the odd bit of typesetting when she’s completely overwhelmed. Her route to publishing was also different, starting of as a medical scientist in the 1980s, with a masters in eye disease research, until Taylor and Francis offered her a job she couldn’t refuse, and set her off on a lifelong career in STM publishing. That was back in the days of hot metal, when authors were still wined and dined by lifelong Editors, who were their only contact through the publishing process. Maria decided to take her editorial and writing skills home in the early 1990s, to the best office in the world – in a high tower on the shore of Loch Long. Work flowed in to this first company, Shoreline BioMedical, from the major academic publishers and increasing numbers of academics, researchers and health professionals across the world. Over time, she was invited to write chapters for multicontributor books, and her clients asked for more production and design services. So when one highly satisfied client asked her to publish their coursebooks on patient safety (the NHS, in this case) she jumped in with both feet and Swan & Horn was born.

Tell us about some of your key stories.

Today you will find Maria commissioning just a couple of really useful books each year – her schedule doesn’t allow for more. She is also writing and co-writing several health-related books, and has long-term contracts with the World Health Organization and the Economist Health Intelligence Unit. Occasionally she takes on new client projects, but only if the topics are irresistible, such as Benjamin Black’s Belly Woman and Mair Crouch’s Law & Genetics (note that Maria did not design the cover of the latter). The last couple of years have been madder than ever as the covid pandemic brought in a deluge of extremely important work relating to vaccinations, and also required Maria to manage the set-up of a publishing wing for a clinical-training provider in Turkey.

She still harbours a romantic vision of the publisher/editor–author relationship, so she has always engaged totally with her authors, discussing initial content and ongoing strategies over meals; staying close by their sides through the whole process ­– because she is also the editor, indexer, typesetter, designer, blurb writer, illustrator, metadata originator, marketing strategist and more. Authors flourish with this rich collaboration, of course, and they love that just one person works with them and every word they write, knowing them and their content inside out. For her part, Maria finds nothing more satisfying than taking the nugget of an idea or the rough draft of a book, polishing it, wrapping it up, sorting out its future, sending it out into the world, and taking it to the readers who need the information. It perhaps isn’t the best business model, but that isn’t the company’s aim or ethos.

Swan & Horn’s authors also love the fact that Maria tore up the publishing rule book long ago, allowing room for complete flexibility and creativity, not just in editorial terms (“If it’s needed, we can do it”), but also in terms of inventive promotion – pop-up shops and educational events, presence at international medical conferences, designing courses, getting books onto university curricula and exploring documentary televisation; then there’s the poetry readings by Irvine Welsh, live surgical demonstrations, performing dogs (after learning to walk again), storytelling videos and woodland treasure hunts for children’s books.

What draws you to a story? What makes a good story? 

Swan & Horn champions voices that have to be heard, and attempts to fill niche needs and gaping holes: not least the need for medics to try acupuncture for lost (patient) causes; the need to prevent millions of child deaths from malnutrition each year; the need to address institutional racism and mental health in schools; the need to help victims of war; the need to improve child mental health (and teacher mental health) through appropriate schooling, lifestyle and parenting(!); the need to prevent chronic back pain from extended sitting; the need to prevent errors in doctoring and operating; the need to address bullying in all its forms; the need to fight against prejudice and stigmatism and improve inclusivity!

Maria also tries to keep things local, not just the freelancers and printers she uses, but also her authorship. Most of her authors are Scots – such a learned bunch, comprising international opinion leaders, globally acclaimed academics and clinicians, professors, surgeons, educationalists and psychologists; several with OBEs for their services to healthcare. The talented authors and illustrators of her new range of children’s wellbeing books are homegrown too, inspired by Scottish landscapes and the need for children to engage with nature and develop resilience.

What stories should we look forward to or check out this year?

Shortly coming out is a book by a Dundee-based professor on the global nightmare that is infant-feeding policy and the inappropriateness of current breastfeeding advice, both of which contribute to the ridiculously high infant-mortality rate (millions a year), wasting, stunting and cognitive problems. Also based in Dundee is one of the authors of their forthcoming humanitarian surgery book, to be distributed by the David Nott Foundation. The other author is David Nott himself, author of bestselling memoir War Doctor. This is not mainstream content, but a how-to manual in stain-resistant loose-leaf binder format for surgeons to use in the field (literally) in active, resource-poor war zones, to make life-saving decisions that are simply not taught in medical schools. Other publishers turned down it down; “If it’s needed, we can do it.” There is no firm deadline for completion because of the unpredictability of the authors’ lives, having to shoot off at short notice to deliver training to surgeons in the furthest flung corners of the world, and notably Ukraine in the past year where they have already upskilled nearly three-hundred surgeons.

Maria is proud of her harder-hitting books (both published and planned) for the difference they can make to the world. Her ambitions simply relate to saving lives, and making life better for people whose lives aren’t so obviously threatened. One of her ambitions is for one of her titles to win the BMA Book Awards, like some of the other books she has worked on over the years. Her only regret is that she didn’t begin publishing a decade earlier.

Learn more about Swan & Horn at