For publishers Lilliput and Liberties, independence is all
With these two small Dublin publishers and cultural centres, putting roots down in their communities and taking risks on new writers marks them out in a risk-averse industry
Antony Farrell of Lilliput Press on Arbour Hill, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke
Seán O’Keeffe of Liberties Press. Photograph: Dave Meehan
If you wander past the Lilliput Press in Dublin’s Stoneybatter, there is a strong chance you will see Antony Farrell beavering away at his desk, surrounded by stacks of books and piles of papers. The quintessential independent publisher, he has been embedded in the local area for the past 25 years.
You could be forgiven for thinking that little has changed at Lilliput in those years; that the impact of the internet and ebooks has passed it by. And you would be forgiven for wondering how a small independent publisher could survive in a time of great upheaval in the industry.
But Lilliput and another independent Dublin publisher, Liberties Press, are showing that it is possible to survive – perhaps even thrive – by reaching out to their communities and engaging with the public, and by discovering and promoting new talent.
Lilliput, which is housed in a striking corner building, has become a focal point for the community over the years. Nearby Lilliput Stores took its name from the publisher, while Listen at Lilliput, a regular music and literary event hosted by the publisher, has become popular among locals. There are also frequent book signings, launches and readings.
Crucially, Lilliput is open to the public every weekday. Simply ring the bell, wander in through the narrow side entrance, and you find yourself in a bright space lined with books and furnished with comfy chairs.
Lilliput books, some of which are no longer available in other bookshops, are on sale at a discount. There are also limited and signed editions, including, for example, a signed first edition of Rob Doyle’s Here Are the Young Men, highly coveted since it was snapped up by Bloomsbury.
With the publishing industry in flux due to the rise of ebooks and online retailers, reaching out to customers in this way – with a “personal touch: the individual voice behind the page and screen”, as Farrell describes it – is increasingly important for independent publishers.
It is interesting, then, that across the river in Terenure, Liberties Press has recently opened its premises to the public too. A placard on the main street invites passersby to drop in, through an inviting blue door and up a steep set of stairs.
A section of the publisher’s office has been transformed: bookshelves display new Liberties releases and the publisher’s back catalogue, with rarities as well as signed editions on offer, and handmade cards and artwork by local artists on display. Customers can browse at their leisure, the quiet hum of the office in the background.
Managing director Seán O’Keeffe hopes to develop Liberties Upstairs into a “cultural centre” for the local area, with regular readings, literary events and a book club.
Tonight an open evening will take place for the book trade and the public, at which upcoming titles will be unveiled.
O’Keeffe notes that, with the Village Bookshop across the road, the Company of Books in Ranelagh and the O’Brien Press in Rathgar, Liberties has become part of a burgeoning local literary scene.
“We’re here for the long haul, I hope,” he says. “A lot of publishers have gone out to around the M50, but we’ll be here for the time being, putting roots down in the community.”
This approach can help to offset the challenges of selling books online while contributing to the local economy. “When you buy anything online, most of the money goes to the retailer,” says O’Keeffe, “whereas if you buy in a local shop, it tends to stay in the local community.”
Survival of the most creative
O’Keeffe believes independent publishers need to be “creative” to survive – and building a sense of community around their premises is one possibility. “The publishers that are imaginative in the way they react to change are doing better than the ones just sticking to the old model and maybe declining.”
Liberties and Lilliput selling books directly to the public harks back to the early days of the books trade, when publishing and selling books were not separate activities. And for Lilliput, a recent venture that took advantage of its community of supporters and the internet, via Fundit.ie, also has a precedent in the history of publishing.
“We published an art book recently, James Joyce’s The Ondt and the Gracehoper, illustrated by Thomas McNally, using crowdfunding, which will be a useful future resource for specialised titles, and actually reverts to an 18th-century subscription model whereby the customer pays in advance and has his or her name printed proudly in a list at the back,” says Farrell.
Liberties, meanwhile, has in the past few years expanded beyond its original remit of non-fiction to embrace the more “risky” genres of fiction and poetry, and has taken on debut authors such as Jan Carson and Daniel Seery, both of whom are getting good reviews. Lilliput has also had notable recent successes with Rob Doyle and Donal Ryan. The latter’s first novel, The Spinning Heart, was sold on to Doubleday and longlisted for the Booker prize.
For independent publishers, fostering new talent is increasingly crucial, not just from the perspective of promoting quality literature but from a business perspective. Farrell is keen to emphasise Lilliput’s role “in talent-spotting by taking on unknowns, publishing and promoting them, and bringing them to the attention of the larger conglomerates: this is something agents rarely do, as they’re not risk-takers and largely feed on established writers”.
It is in this sense that independent publishers still have a role to play in a world of ebooks, Amazon and publishing behemoths. “Independence is all, as it assumes choice, discrimination, taste, aesthetic focus,” says Farrell. “In short, we aim to fashion change, not follow it.”
LILLIPUT AND LIBERTIES: DEBUT AUTHOR’S VIEWS
Lilliput Press and Liberties Press are enthusiastic about seeking out new talent, and their recent discoveries are no less enthusiastic about the publishers.