How to get published if you’re not in the know
A guide for Irish writers who don’t have a friend who has a friend who works in publishing
Ronan Colgan, publishing director of the History Press Ireland and president of Publishing Ireland, the Irish book publishers’ association
Everyone who works in publishing will be familiar with the phone call in which you are asked to advise a friend or friend-of-a-friend about a book they have just written. Some people might pretend to roll their eyes or grumble a little, but it is, to be honest, one of the most gratifying of moments. We all know it. Finally, you can be of some actual use to all the people with real jobs who were always happy to offer you practical help over the years when you were reading things.
In the course of these conversations, we’ve been surprised to find that, despite the heaving mass of information that’s available online, many smart, resourceful authors are unsure about the mechanics of the world they are entering into. It quickly became apparent, however, that the issue isn’t the availability of information, but knowing just what information to trust. It can be contradictory, overly optimistic or pessimistic, or just plain wrong.
Alongside this, the information available online often only properly applies to the US or British markets. There are genuinely excellent resources out there, including the websites of Poetry Ireland and writing.ie; there are exciting courses and training events run by Publishing Ireland and the Irish Writers Centre; there is even a nationwide mentoring programme for authors being run by Words Ireland. The challenge, however, as with so many areas of life, is knowing where to look.
When you actually get to sit down with a prospective author, there are often a few moments of that gentle and generous brand of small talk that emphasises how grateful one of you is for the other’s time, and why the other is sure it’s absolutely fine and they really don’t need to mention it (though it would probably be remembered forever if they didn’t). Everyone does their bit. All of this time, however, there is a very real internal struggle smashing all the crockery behind the author’s eyes, as they try to decide if, when and how they will admit that they are, in fact, an author. You are genuinely hoping they win this battle or it could be quite a surreal cup of coffee. Eventually, however, they take a deep breath, smile and say, “So … I’ve written a book”. And so it begins.
At this point, you might ask what genre of book it is. You might discuss the various publishers you know who are working in this area. You might talk about the process of putting together a book proposal, what happens once a book is contracted, or how advances and royalties work. You could talk about the collapse of the net book agreement and why Irish publishers don’t print the RRP on covers, but if you’re arrived here you’ve probably gone too far.
When you’ve had these conversations a few times, you start to notice that your advice tends to follow the same basic pattern. There are some important variations, of course, particularly between fiction and non-fiction. For fiction authors, the literary journal scene in Ireland is thriving, and these can be a wonderful first step for writers. Likewise, the number of excellent short story awards is growing, including the Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards, the Sunday Business Post/Penguin Ireland competition and the various categories of award within Listowel Writers’ Week. Experience of these can quickly hone an author’s craft, and any success there can be a significant stepping-stone to a first novel.
Enjoyable as these conversations are, however, it struck us recently that they do nothing to dispel the myth that publishing is open only to those who know someone who knows someone. What about the people who don’t have a friend who has a friend who works in the industry? What happens if they can’t pick up the phone quite so easily? How many books never get to the desks of the right editors as a result?
It was with these authors in mind that we began writing up the notes of our meetings. And slowly, slowly, this began to take the form of a book all of its own.
As it took to life, its little pine eyes blinking in the sun, we realised that one piece of this conversation that you can’t have at a remove is about which publisher might be right for a particular author. So we decided to look at all the publishers. As soon as that was finished, we realised that the project wouldn’t be complete without the literary journals, from the institution that is the Stinging Fly to its new and vibrant competitors across the four corners of our island. And then we thought about the literary agents operating in Ireland … and so we added them too.
Lastly, we included the details of the resource organisations that are so well-known to anyone who works in publishing but can be entirely invisible to those who often need them most, like Words Ireland and the seven literary bodies of which it is composed.
Finally, we realised that we had written a book, and that it was finished. The battle now, of course, is whether to admit over coffee that you really are, in fact, an author.
Getting Published: The Essential Irish Guide is published by Carrowmore. Ronan Colgan is the publishing director of The History Press Ireland and president of Publishing Ireland, the Irish book publishers' association