The difficult world of Irish (small) publishing

Forget literary lunches and glittering launches, writes Michael Barry. Think low overheads, lower margins, lugging boxes of books and a struggle to get reviews

Michael Barry: With such a litany of woes, why does one bother, you might ask? There is the pleasure of receiving in one’s hand, a new book, straight from the press: perfectly laid out, high quality, the illustrations perfectly printed. It is the joy of creating something worthwhile

Publishing. One could imagine a glamorous world: lingering lunches with authors and literary editors; long discussions with literary giants on structuralism and the state of the novel; glittering book launches, with a few invited luvvies present, all prepped for featuring in the celebrity pages of the press. Ah, the dream!

None of that features in the workaday world of small publishing in Ireland. Yes, there is the odd book launch and a chance to meet interesting people. Welcome to low margins and concomitant low overheads.

In the quest for low overheads, it is a physical world. Delivery of books from the printer: I organise a meitheal of friends, to form a chain gang to propel the boxes of books from the truck to storage. Delivery of books to distributors: books in bulk are heavy, attested to by the sheer physical work of humping them in and out of a car. ‘Use the knees, rather than the back,’ say the health and safety instructions, when lifting boxes of books, worthy advice indeed.

It is a shame, but in my experience, Irish printers are not competitive, certainly not for the kind of quality illustrated, hardback books that I publish. Slovenia, Italy and Poland have been the locations of the printing houses I have used. China is probably cheaper still, but there is the lead time arising from the long shipping journey to Ireland. Incidentally, thanks to the internet, one does not need to visit the printers (and I have never been to any of their plants). One can upload the high-quality PDFs to the cloud and receive proofs by courier, as well as rapidly interface by email.

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Many Irish publishers achieve some margins, by putting more effort into sourcing available Government grants, than perhaps concentrating on the quality of their output. I have had neither the patience nor range of contacts to go down this path. The recent Government cutbacks have led to some Irish publishers’ grants being reduced. One can safely state that if there were not funding for Irish books from such as the Arts Council, small enough as it is, the Irish publishing world would shrink to an even more minuscule size.

One bright spot is that it is a pleasure to deal with bookshops: it is a joy to deal with a bookseller who has a genuine feel for good books. People in the Irish book trade are decent people. However, in some cases, the computer has crept in. Some orders are based on algorithms, not on the human feeling of what will sell. Is this a creeping form of hedge or futures trading in books? In my experience, it can result in bibliographic flash crashes, where the computer is ordering books on the one hand, and simultaneously directing the return of the same book to the publisher.

Then, there is the quest for publicity for a book. Books need reviews: the oxygen of publicity and all that. One begins the self-abasing trek to get publicity. I know something like 200 books are deposited onto books editor’s desks every week, much more so in the run-up to Christmas. (Christmas, by the way is a magical time for the book trade, when books do sell, up to the mad spree around Christmas Eve, when the punter grabs a book, any book, which can be given to Uncle Niall, or Granny).

For one who, so far, doesn’t lunch with the literary editor (literary editors please note, I will buy the lunch!), it is a difficult process to get reviewed. It is a hard world out there, one may have the best book in the world, but if you don’t have contacts in the press or radio, one doesn’t get reviewed or interviewed. Some of the book editors have a fascination with British-published books. I do know that British publishing dominates our English-speaking world and there are great British books deserving of review. However, few Irish books get reviewed as a proportion of the total. On many occasions I have monitored the output of a very serious Irish Sunday newspaper. In the books section, a stream of British books, but not one Irish one was reviewed, in several editions. Several years ago, I rang a producer of an afternoon radio show about a forthcoming book: “Yes, sounds interesting, send a review copy. While you are at it send two (I could hear the mental gears grind – Christmas was coming, he needed it for presents). Naturally I never heard another word. In general I have given up on sending books for reviews to at least half of the Irish broadsheet press, and a good number of the radio stations – they are not serious players in the world of good books.

And then, on occasion, one is lucky enough to get reviewed. There is the (thankfully) rare occasion of the reviewer who doesn’t get it, who has no sense of history or heritage. Thankfully, for the books that I publish, few have ever been accused, in a review, of factual errors, which reflects the effort put into thorough fact-checking and attention to detail. (However, it is an iron fact of life that no matter how one checks and re-checks a book, there will be an error -always. The important thing is that the error is minor, such as a missing full stop etc.)

With such a litany of woes, why does one bother, you might ask? There is the pleasure of receiving in one’s hand, a new book, straight from the press: perfectly laid out, high quality, the illustrations perfectly printed. It is the joy of creating something worthwhile – it is almost like seeing a child just born. And then there are the good reviews: where the reviewer in the newspaper or journal really understands the essence of the book, where it is evident they get what the author has been seeking to convey.

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