Irish Publishing in the 21st Century

It’s that time of hear when, on entering any bookshop, I’m struck by the shimmering height of packed shelves of new titles, and what looks like acres and acres of vertical ‘fields’ of written word, and then my eye falls to the colourful stacks on broad tables (the ones we’re really meant to see). It is very sobering to know that somewhere in there one’s own ‘literary/aspirational’ title (isn’t all writing aspirational?) is vying for attention amidst the Jolly Hockeysticks writers and the Angular Jawed Funny Bloke writers, all of whom are dancing their very own special high-kick at the tills. Ka-ching, ka-ching! goes the sound of the till as publishers and writers alike benefit from the merry spirit of the gifting season.

It’s a long way from the polite whisper of the debit card as book purchases are made in time to ‘Jingle Bells’, to the grimy realities that pursue and often puzzle the beginning ambitious writer. I am often asked by beginning writers, or by people who have just completed a manuscript, where they should send it. There is an understanding that there is definitely a home for every script that is completed, and a waiting world of eager readers who will enjoy it when, inevitably, it dances onto the front eye-level shelves in the best bookshops.

We who write for a living know it’s not quite like though, don’t we? Yet on a few occasions over the years, I formed the impression from participants in workshops that I – as the writer – surely had a list of some kind, like a magic key which, if presented to them, would unlock all the secrets of the hidden world of getting published.

There’s nothing very hidden about it at all. Most of us got along the hard way, without lucky encounters by wizard editors or agents. This means we did things like looking up the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook and writing off with a sample of our work until we got an agent we liked and who also liked our work.

On the other hand, and putting agents aside, (in my own view they are not really so necessary if one is publishing in Ireland) at a certain stage in life, you know how to read a contract and what to negotiate for; if not, then it’s high time you learned.

My impressions of Irish publishing are strongly tinged with admiration, certainly in prose and prose fiction. A writer friend of mine often refers to the industry here as a ‘cottage’ industry, with all kinds of people willingly working in several different roles at once, and no overall strong specialisation that has turned the publishing systems here into unapproachable and hide-bound enterprises. He may be wrong, of course. This suggests that Irish publishers are a little vague and make-it-up-as-you-go-along, when the opposite is the case. With the exception of only one of my novels – my third, for which I received shabby, mean treatment by the publisher, whose name I once scrawled on the sole of my shoe before I went out walking – my experience with publishing houses here has been largely rewarding and professional. In Ireland, your relationship with your editor is not remote. They are not unavailable and so overrun with the Next Big Thing that they don’t have time to speak to you and negotiate with you as necessary. This is how it should be, obviously. It is also nothing short of miraculous that a small string of publishing houses, some of them offshoots of parent companies in the UK, France or the USA (Pengun, Doubleday, Hodder, Hachette etc), but also including home-grown publishers such as eclectic, valiant New Island, equally valiant Liberties, classy Lilliput and commercial Poolbeg to name a few, continue to survive and – in some cases – thrive.
Why do they survive?
Probably a mixture of grant aid in the case of some, and plain good business models in the case of most.

If you consider the population of this island right now – some 5 million or so – and then subtract the non-reading population from the reading population, you’re left with a relatively small book-buying public. Many people claim to read books who, in my experience, don’t really. They handle a book for a while, read the endorsements and check out the first chapter or two. But many lose heart very quickly. I’m sorry to be saying this, but there is a reading population who actually find reading a little frightening. Someone, somewhere, will think I’m elitist for writing this, but it is based on observation. It’s not set in stone, just my experience.

Yet Irish publishers manage to appeal sufficiently to many kinds of reader and despite the whopping presence of overseas publishers, despite the fashionable anthologies and cookery books, despite the latest Save-Your-Life-and-Give-Up-on-Men/Women Body & Soul how-to, literary titles are published and bought. Dissemination occurs by word of mouth as much as by distribution. Independent News is particularly strong at picking up on new Irish titles, usually more quickly than its competitor, the Irish Times. The Daily Mail is a strong presence, and publishes reviews and serious essays that are sometimes literary. Regarding the publishers themselves, distribution is as good as it can be in a small island community where the presence or books on shelves may in some respects be dictated to by the main distributors – we all know who they are. Their decisions about what is or isn’t Book of the Month can be problematic. Two presses that produce very good books are notoriously indifferent when it comes to distribution (and I wouldn’t touch them), reflecting the fact that Ireland is inhabited by several half crazy people who invest personally in a business that cannot possibly return what they need: these publishers receive zilch from the Arts bodies, but who persist and publish. Yet, how can they improve their act without some subvention one wonders? Is it not a little unfair that the really small guys struggle so much? With subvention, most publishers develop and plan, they commission the best authors, they introduce new lines. But my impression is that quite often, some of the big guys would prefer if the small guys would simply disappear, as everybody who publishes books in Ireland, is in competition with the larger, overseas publishers, whose books can hog quite a lot of media attention both on radio, television and in print.

If I could ask for one thing from the 2015 Book-Wish Fairy if would be this: better support from the Arts Council for small publishers, and better support from readers in this country for Irish publications. It amounts to a bit of positive discrimination if you like, even for six months of your book-buying year, to acknowledge that not everything that comes from the UK or the USA is tinged with genius. Believe it or not, genius can be right here on our own doorsteps.

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3 thoughts on “Irish Publishing in the 21st Century

  1. Interesting post, Mary. This has been a strong year for Irish and Irish-published novels – including your own (Where They Lie). Without making a conscious decision to do so, I think I’ve bought and read (and enjoyed) more home-grown fiction this year than fiction from elsewhere. But I’m always conscious too, of the criticism that writers in Ireland are too inward-looking. We live in a wider world and need to read broadly as well, and in other genres than the ones we are familiar with. Like just about everything else in life, time is the big issue. It’s precious and hard to find, but reading time is every bit as essential as writing time; we have to make time to do it, and decide where our priorities are within that. Every choice we make is important. I support your call for people to read Irish fiction and not to be seduced by celebrity; and your support for smaller Indie publishers. Equally important is the need to support Indie bookshops. People love the idea of bookshops, but we really need to be aware that if we don’t buy books there, those precious shops will eventually close.

  2. Thanks for this Lia. Do you really believe the criticism that writers in Ireland are too inward-looking? And what do we mean when we say ‘inward-looking’? I never know quite what this is based on when people raise it. It’s a little like the commentators on poetry who decry work which has ‘country’ and ‘nature’ images, as if this too is somehow not broad enough or cannot carry the razor edge and the fragmentation that characterises many contemporary communities. What they really mean, I suspect, is that it’s not their idea of ‘modern’.
    But back to fiction: most people who are writers certainly read broadly, although I can’t speak for readers who read and don’t write, but suspect that good readers will search everywhere for fiction regardless of genre, nationality, gender etc. I actually think the comment is a little lazy on the part of the commentators who really believe we Irish writers are too inward-looking. One critic I can think of used to write a lot about the ‘European’ novel, but what did that mean? A European setting? Did it show that the writer had ‘travelled widely’? Or was there something more? It certainly seemed to be based on the assumption that one could not write ‘broadly’ if one were based in Ireland, indeed that this was an impediment.
    I agree with you that the indie bookshops really need support, they really do and we’re lucky to have some still. So – avoiding the Amazon quick purchase may be key. Amazon will survive but the indies might not.

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