Faber CEO Stephen Page talks positive at Dublin Book Festival

Speakers highlight squeeze on public funding of the arts

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In a week that saw Amazon resolve its long-running dispute with the French publisher Hachette, the theme of Publishing Ireland’s trade day at the Dublin Book Festival seemed inspired. “Working Together” brought delegates from across the publishing industry in Ireland and the UK to Smock Alley in Temple Bar to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the sector.

Speakers at the event included Faber CEO Stephen Page, Irish publishers Michael O’Brien and Declan Meade, Arts Council representatives from North and South and a panel of Irish booksellers. Top of the agenda was government funding, the need for better communication among the various divisions of Irish publishing, and the challenges facing the industry from online sales.

In an interview with The Irish Times, Page said he believed the e-books industry was still in its infancy and did not present as big a threat for traditional publishers as is often reported: “There’s a lot changing, but I don’t think the stories are quite as they’re presented. The vast bulk of reading is still being done in physical book form. Certain genres such as crime, romance and erotica are changing but it’s not the same for literature or children’s books.”

Despite the tough economic climate, Ireland remains “a very exciting place” for literary fiction, according to Page. “Faber’s always had a close relationship with the writing community in Ireland, publishing a disproportionate number of Irish writers in the literary space,” he said. “We’ve felt the pain of an economy in decline and a book market that’s fallen and fallen. What’s encouraging is that there’s a feeling of stabilisation at the moment, a sense that the market is finding its feet again.”

While the market may be steadying, funding for writers and publishers is still suffering the effects of recession. “We are entering extremely difficult times for public funding in the arts,” said Damian Smyth, head of literature and drama at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. “This will start in the next six months and last over the next 10 years.”

In the Republic, the Arts Council’s budget has decreased 35 per cent since 2008, from €85 million to €56 million. Sarah Bannan, head of literature, said the organisation had undergone a review to help them come up with a new strategy. “It’s clear that we need to become a more public-facing body,” she said. “We have zero brand awareness. The public needs to know how their tax dollars are being spent, especially in times like this. It’s also clear that there’s an interest in creativity and local projects as opposed to ‘the arts’ and we’ll be looking to incorporate this.”

Both Bannan and Smyth agreed on the need for a wider network when it comes to funding and support for the arts. “The Arts Council is the only public funding body in Ireland that supports publishing in the English language,” said Bannan. “A question needs to be asked about who else should be helping in this area.” Smyth said it was imperative for the Government to recognise the value of the publishing industry to the economy as a whole: “It can’t just be ‘an arts thing’.”

The importance of Arts Council funding to the publishing industry was underlined by Sarah Davis-Goff, co-founder of Tramp Publishing, who found out earlier this week that it will receive an award under the council’s 2015 scheme.

“The council is very aware that it must work to be public-facing, and creative and inclusive with regard to their funding allocations and we’ve benefited from that,” said Davis-Goff. “In turn we work hard to ensure that our titles are in the public eye, and to provide an excellent return on the investment in us. As a new publisher, we’ve been worried about gaining a foothold with regard to support amongst the establishment, but thanks to initiatives like the title-by-title scheme, there is space for people like us to apply for targeted funding.”

Such support is vital for smaller, independent publishers in an industry that is changing rapidly. Amazon’s dominance in the ebooks market has caused big problems for traditional publishers in recent times. The online giant’s price-fixing strategies and negotiating tactics have been heavily criticised by publishers and authors alike, with the UK literary agent Andrew Wylie referring to the company as “an Isis-like distribution channel”.

Commenting on the resolution of the standoff between Amazon and Hachette, Page said: “It’s as old as time that the channels to market have a commercial dimension to them. That there’s such a public debate about something like this is unusual. Every major player has always tried to squeeze the main suppliers in the market.”

According to Page, Faber is more focused on the changes in consumer habits as opposed to commercial negotiation issues. “People are now buying so many things online, both electronic and physical, and that means the way readers find out books is changing,” he said. “The discovery used to be an alchemy of broadcast and print media and browsing in shops. If 40 per centof your business is being done in a space where that alchemy doesn’t exist, how do you become discoverable? That’s what we’re looking at.”

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