Paper cuts: the struggle of the Irish publishing scene

Like any industry built on SMEs, the Irish publishing sector has to up its game to stay in the ring. Zuzia Whelan talks to the O’Brien Press, Maverick House and New Island about the future of Irish publishing.

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Like any industry built on SMEs, the Irish book sector has to up its game to stay in the ring. Zuzia Whelan talks to the O’Brien Press, Maverick House and New Island about the challenges, upswings and future of Irish publishing.

 

The wolf at the door

The Irish publishing industry is in a state of flux.

Independent bookshops are closing, online sales of books are soaring, and it has never been easier to self-publish through a variety of online platforms.

Ireland has historically produced some giants of literature, but the vocal cynics would remind us that most of them left the country.

Little has changed, with many of our brightest authors gaining bigger publishing contracts with larger international companies. Add to that the complexities of the Amazon v publishing complex, and you’ve got yourself an ordeal.

The kinds of royalties promised by Amazon to those who self-publish are seductive; up to 70% on books published to Kindle, and up to 80% on books published to print. With most authors unable to support themselves on a writer’s wage, this is too good to ignore.

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The Winding Stair is one of Dublin’s oldest surviving independent bookshops. Image by Heather Cowper

The O’Brien Press

O’Brien Press is one of Ireland’s oldest and largest publishing houses. But at just over forty years old, it shows how young the industry here is.

Ivan O’Brien, the company’s MD, has a largely positive outlook, stating that the industry came through the recession relatively unscathed, but adds that the competition has never been tougher.

“80% of books sold in Ireland originate abroad. For a small country, we have an enormous number of authors with big international reputations, but most are not published by Irish houses.”

“80% of books sold in Ireland originate abroad. For a small country, we have an enormous number of authors with big international reputations, but most are not published by Irish houses.”

                                                                                                                              -Ivan O’Brien

The book business is within the entertainment business, and he believes that every minute spent watching TV, playing video games or checking Facebook is a minute spent not reading a book.

“The finances of publishing are very tough. By the time retailers, distributors, printers etc. have taken their cut, and authors have been paid, there is very little left to pay for the substantial up-front costs. Creating great books is hard, and the market is small; these are just the realities of our game.”

The competition is gaining distance, and TV, phones and social media are the new rivals, so what does the future look like?

“It’s not going to get any easier! Retailing is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and retail prices have been static for twenty years. The big publishers have deeper pockets than ever.

With so many writers turning to self-publishing, what do they risk or gain? The question of how this affects the industry is increasingly pressing.

“This is a big question. What it does is force us to constantly justify the value of what we do. Physically making books, or selling books online, is easier than ever, so we have to show that we add enough energy and experience to convince people to use us.

“Self-publishing offers a high proportion of revenue to the author, and for people who sell huge volumes that can work very well. Very few people self-published or conventionally-published can earn a living from writing,” he adds.

He says that the publisher’s job is to work with the author, to give their book the best possible chance in the market – this includes sales, publicity and marketing. All of this is an area of skill and experience that’s difficult to find elsewhere.

Every publisher-author relationship is special and unique. Over time, publishers have come to expect their authors to put in more time for publicity work, while the authors want more creative control over how the book looks and feels.

 

Maverick House

John Mooney of Maverick House believes that it’s the publishers who are embracing new technologies, selling rights internationally and pursuing new projects who are thriving.

“I don’t think Irish firms are different. The successful ones are creative and inventive.”

Mooney doesn’t believe that there are any threats as such to the industry and that the biggest hazard is the companies’ own inability to move with the times and embrace new technologies and opportunities.

“I don’t think Irish publishers are all struggling. I think some are very profitable and doing well. The firms which are creative and willing to take risks are doing well as far as I’m concerned.

There’s lots going on. We are selling rights, making film deals and expanding the whole time. It’s really important to embrace new technologies and continually mutate your business operations. Maverick reviews what we do every six months.”

His hopes are that while print and digital will continue to grow, the business will continue to expand and PODs (Print on Demand) might eventually make a breakthrough.

Despite falling sales of physical books, Mooney says Maverick are experiencing growth in their sales. “I think people are still buying books. It’s all about the content, rather than the format,” adding that they make up for it in e-books.

He stresses that self-publishing is a bad idea.

“I can’t tell you how many deals I could have made for authors if they hadn’t unloaded their books on Kindle or CreateSpace. Bad idea. If a publisher won’t take the manuscript, there’s a reason for it.”

“I can’t tell you how many deals I could have made for authors if they hadn’t unloaded their books on Kindle or CreateSpace. Bad idea. If a publisher won’t take the manuscript, there’s a reason for it.”

“I can’t tell you how many deals I could have made for authors if they hadn’t unloaded their books on Kindle or CreateSpace. Bad idea. If a publisher won’t take the manuscript, there’s a reason for it.”

                                                                                                                                        -John Mooney

 

New Island

Justin Corfield, editor at New Island, says that this is not an easy time to be an independent Irish publisher. These businesses are facing many difficulties at the moment, and others have been put out of business entirely.

The loss of bookshops and increase in online purchasing have a definite knock-on effect to the publishers.

“As in any small country, Irish publishers are small businesses,” says Corfield.

“I have seen more than a few films and TV programmes where somebody takes their manuscript to a publisher, and this publisher will be located in some kind of skyscraper building with a helipad on top”

“In reality, most publishing in these parts happens in small buildings that are full of boxes of copies of books, and is done by teams of people who do the job because they love working with books and with writers.”

There’s a common theme among the publishers of losing authors to bigger companies. It’s one of the biggest challenges facing the industry at the moment.

“If an Irish-published book really does take off in the market, it is all but certain that the author will then try to secure a deal with a much bigger overseas publisher for their future work.

All too often, Irish publishers can be in the illogical position of acting as talent scouts for our own competitors.”

This begs the question of whether the quality of the books being published reflects the success of the industry.

“There are some wonderful books being published in Ireland, but the industry as a whole is not flourishing; it’s struggling to survive.”

“There are some wonderful books being published in Ireland, but the industry as a whole is not flourishing; it’s struggling to survive.”

                                                                                                                                              -Justin Corfield

“There is a joke along the lines of, how do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a large fortune and wait a while.

The success of one title could be the difference between a publisher surviving, or not, says Corfield. But unfortunately for publishers, there’s no way of knowing what the next big thing is going to be.

Similarly to Mooney, Corfield stresses that Irish publishers cannot continue to do “more of the same.” They need to adapt to the marketplace and find new ways to increase turnover; a common problem in any business.

“There is always a temptation to suppose that if you keep on doing whatever you have been doing, then all will be well. But a good strategy in one situation can easily be a very bad strategy in a different one.”

Corfield has the most cautious approach of the three, but rather surprisingly, the most objectively optimistic projections for the future of the industry.

“It might surprise you, but … I think the future of publishing could be a great one.”

He says he has noticed something in the past few years, difficult to pinpoint.”It is something to do with people wanting to connect to the world in a meaningful way.”

He describes the change in people feeling ill at ease in a world in which everything is done online.

“People want to own a vinyl record instead of downloading a song because you can feel the physical thing in your hand.”

“The zeitgeist is pointing towards a return to many traditional ways of doing things.”

“The zeitgeist is pointing towards a return to many traditional ways of doing things.”

                                                                                                                                            – Justin Corfield

Corfield is not a fan of e-books, though he makes the point that they are cheaper for the publisher as well as the reader. A large share of a small price is the same as a small share of a large price, but he thinks people will soon tire of electronic reading.

On the subject of self-publishing, he agrees that the return for the author is greater, but that without the marketing and publicity machine, they will inevitably sell fewer books.

Echoing O’Brien, Corfield says that this makes them constantly have to justify their existence as publishers.

The balance has changed; where before, authors had to pitch their product to publishers in the hope of being accepted, now publishers must fight to prove their worth.

“If you read a self-published book, you can generally tell that it has not been professionally edited. The design of its cover will be worse. And copies of the book will never arrive in most bookshops. Authors need publishers as much as publishers need authors.”

 

Adapt or die

While Corfield, O’Brien and Mooney all agree that the industry needs to adapt in order to move forward, will the changes ever be big enough to convince authors not to seek international representation?

Funding and grants for small publishers shrink every year, and stories of some publishing houses charging unpublished authors for manuscripts, while not paying others or staff, give the impression that the industry is struggling.

Small and medium businesses are difficult to run, but innovation and an open mind are the only sure way of having a fighting chance.

Corfield’s view that readers will return to books, just as we returned to vinyl may be romantic, but he makes a good point.

There are some things that are too hard to give up.

Selling rights, embracing the e-book market and giving a greater share of creative control to the author may be a necessary trade-off if the industry hopes to thrive.

Small independent publishers may never be able to promise the successes offered by international companies, but this is as much to do with lack of funding as it is with their profit margins.

Ireland has an unfortunate history of exported talent, but if this new generation can raise our profile as the source, there may be hope yet.

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Featured image by Zuzia Whelan

1 comments on “Paper cuts: the struggle of the Irish publishing scene”

  1. I went down the agent-and-publisher route for one of my books, and am still waiting for the remaining two thirds of my advance – five years after it was published. I did all the publicity myself, arranged interviews on TV and radio, publicity online and in various national and local papers in Ireland, and others as far afield as India and Boston, and even visited bookshops all around the country inviting them to stock the book (which they did) and went back months later to check the books were selling (which they were because the shops re-ordered). I never got any royalties. When my agent told me he was in talks with publishers who were interested in publishing the novels, I passed; I left him a message telling him I’d talk to him if he could manage to get the money owed to me. I’ve heard similar stories from other authors, most of them journalists (like myself) – experienced writers. I got a solicitor to write to the publishers demanding the rest of my advance, but got nothing back. When I find the time, I will take legal action. Is it any wonder self-publishing is becoming popular among professional writers?

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