THIS year I’m a judge for the Saltire Society First Book of the Year and shortlists were announced last night, recognising the best Scottish fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and research books to emerge in the last twelve months.

An enjoyable honour, to be sure, but a responsibility our quartet judging panel didn’t take lightly. From the moment weighty boxes of submissions landed on our doorsteps we had our work cut out for us, not least the volume of reading.

READ MORE: The Saltire Literary Awards shortlist revealed

When we talk about excellent books, we talk about artistry of the written word, but also their way of understanding the world around us. At a time of vast quantities of information streaming rapidly like ticker tape down our social newsfeeds, books, to the contrary, have more space between their covers to breathe and reflect, and to play around with ideas and distil them before releasing them – after an editor’s careful eye has been over them – into the world.

Readers spend more time with a book than an article that will become tomorrow’s chip paper. We can struggle to find that time sometimes, but books can be equally as entertaining or as maddening as they are rewarding. Books have the freedom to dip in and out of time periods, places, and peoples, cut adrift from the constraints of alert, up-to-the-minute topicality.

Whether documenting reality or presenting an imaginary alternative, or just being a bloody good read, books and storytelling can reflect part of our culture.

Books have shaped my own life. Before I could read, I’d sneak books into the crawl tunnel at nursery, just to look at them. In the years since, they’ve been a divining rod straight to my greatest passions and a career in publishing. Like a monstrous fly-trap I eat up every book in reach to keep myself nimble as an editor and critic and consider myself lucky to have a vocation marked out in paper.

My stepping stones have been made out of towering stacks. But because books are a barometer of a society’s freedom of expression, and who has their voice heard and story recorded influences our democracy, it’s as important to invest in literacy and libraries and to break down barriers as it is to encourage new talent.

Looking back over the 30 years of the Saltire Society’s First Book Award shows a prescient knack of picking out Scotland’s literary stars early in their careers. A special anniversary award this year asks the public to choose an inspiring past winner from among AL Kennedy, Ali Smith, Louise Welsh, Michel Faber, Jackie Kay and Kate Clanchy.

What things this starry lot have gone on to do, as well as becoming book club and library favourites championed by readers.

It’s only fitting, then, that the four writers to be shortlisted for 2018’s First Book Award shortlist show similar early promise: Christina Neuwirth, Alex Boyd, Mick Kitson and Calum L MacLeoid. All have impressed and delighted the judges. Alongside our aim to shine a light on the best and most exciting new writing each year is the hope that the prize will lift up and encourage new Scottish talent, and that in 30 years time these names will be beloved on bookshelves too. The Saltire Society awards can boast that you heard them here first.

Some book awards are notoriously forbidding, skewed from the offset by a hefty financial cost to enter, with invite-only, black tie ceremonies. That kind of glittering prestigiousness has its place.

Others, like the Saltire, are more welcoming to the community they celebrate. Entry is free, which makes sense for Scotland’s largely indie publishing houses without Booker budgets. The public can buy tickets for around a fiver, and mingling with the literary luminaries are students, bloggers, and curious readers. It’s only right that books shouldn’t be cloistered away, only to become dusty and unreachable – they are nothing, after all, without their readers.

The only ingredient notoriously missing is television coverage, which would make it more open still – not necessarily a ceremony live feed, which suits the rather glitzy, paparazzi snapping Bord Gais award in Ireland – but a documentary featuring shortlisted writers being interviewed about their books would surely go down a treat. One for the new BBC Scotland channel?

Let’s get publishing and broadcasting together and make it happen once and for all this time. We can pop the 2019 awards in the diary now. I’ll even throw my hat in the ring should it need a presenter. There’s a lot to celebrate. Scotland is studded throughout the year, top to bottom with vibrant, well attended book festivals and events. Books aren’t only about navel-gazing – they contribute to the economy and tourism. The Saltire Literary Awards are the celebratory fireworks at the end of each busy bookish year, taking place on St Andrew’s Day. Grab a sparkler and join in.