The realities of independent publishing in Ireland
James O’Sullivan of New Binary Press offers a rare look under the bonnet at the mechanics of running a small publisher
James O’Sullivan, founder of New Binary Press, and award-winning Irish poet, Leanne O’Sullivan at a launch and poetry reading in City Library, Cork in 2013
Donal Ryan’s recent admission that he was returning to full-time work prompted a timely dialogue on the level of pay being received by Irish writers. The author of three novels and a collection of short stories, Ryan is has received considerable recognition for his work, including the Guardian First Book Award and a Booker Prize longlisting. Onlookers outside the industry might expect the financial rewards to match such critical acclaim, but Ryan’s insistence that he is returning to his job within the Workplace Relations Commission suggests otherwise – in Ireland, it is extremely difficult to make a decent living from literature.
This isn’t the first time this issue has surfaced; it emerged late last year that Liberties Press, who had been in receipt of Arts Council funding, had failed to pay royalties to a number of its authors. The industry message was clear: Liberties are an “outlier”, with most Irish-based operations paying royalties on time, without issue.
But authors are entitled to more than just royalties for their books – readings, guest lectures, journal submissions, interviews; these are all activities that demand time of people whose art is their profession. In an ideal world, these would keep authors fed while working on that prize-winning novel. Ryan’s revelations show that such a world – even though it’s the one that some writers think they live in – is a fallacy. The truth of the matter is this: most authors working in Ireland today will never earn a decent living from their creative contributions.
Donal Ryan was brave to speak out as he did. On an island where everyone is obsessed with the views of their neighbours and peers, it takes bravery to air such private dealings in the public domain. The figures he outlined were telling: a “bestseller” could be established with as few as 300 copies sold.
This issue is important: scanning the comment sections that accompanied the articles on Ryan, one is quick to encounter the usual begrudgery that only an Irish mob can muster for one of its own. There is real danger in these dismissive attitudes – when writers aren’t paid, fewer of them write, and those that do, do so on the back of distraction and pressure. Literary quality isn’t the only thing to suffer in such a context – family, friends, health – they are all caught in the grip.
New Binary Press doesn’t add a cent to my income. I do it for the same reason underpaid writers write - we see the value in literature, and we are determined to make it happen
A compelling piece by Martin Doyle and Freya McClements in The Irish Times gathered responses from other Irish writers, many of whom expressed a lack of empathy for publishers. My intention isn’t to refute their claims – there are many things that publishing, and indeed the publishing industry at large, could do better – my purpose is to simply follow Ryan’s lead, and give an honest account of how things in this sector happen, but from an oft-neglected perspective, that of the fledging independent press. Ryan didn’t start this conversation, but he has contributed to it being brought to the public consciousness, and everyone involved with this act of bookmaking and bookselling should now be looking to engage.
I founded New Binary Press in 2012 with the intention of publishing born-digital literature – that doesn’t typically mean e-books, it means literature with an inherently computational aesthetic. But after publishing our first piece, Graham Allen’s one-line-a-day digital poem, Holes, I decided to try my hand at print as well. The press has published eight print titles to date, mostly poetry, so we’re looking at very limited numbers. New Binary Press, without any state funding or substantial financial backing, pays its authors between 10-20 per cent, depending on the marketability and format of the work. I’m not criticising other publishers, I’m simply demonstrating how different imprints operate in different ways.
Now, while we might offer a higher rate to our authors, you can be sure their earnings will be greater in the long run should they secure a deal with a larger press. Publishers aren’t the only power brokers in this industry, booksellers have a lot of control. It’s one thing to publish a book, it’s an entirely different feat to have it on prominent display behind some glass on the high street. This is where the big houses maintain control, ensuring pride of place on O’Connell Street and Patrick’s Street.
This isn’t always the case in independent bookshops, who often try to look after their publishing counterparts. Unfortunately, while I support independent bookshops as a reader, as a publisher, it makes a lot more commercial sense for me to drive customers towards direct sales, and third-party websites like Amazon – the takings are simply higher. A lot of bookshops I’ve dealt with want a 40-50 per cent discount, with the possibility of returns for unsold books, with most payments taking months to be processed. I’m quite happy to deal in these terms when it comes to a limited number of copies; if the cost of a few books will increase an author’s exposure, even a little, it’s an expense that a press should be willing to absorb.
Publishers work for their authors, not the other way around, and a good publisher should be prepared to lose a few cents if it heightens the likelihood of serendipity bringing readers and writers together.
But for big orders, I often insist on upfront payment with no returns – publishers bet on authors, booksellers should do the same, particularly when they’re taking a healthy slice of the profits. Thankfully, Ireland has a few booksellers who are very supportive of projects like New Binary Press. Dublin-based Books Upstairs, for example, ordered a steady stream of Karl Parkinson’s novel, The Blocks. Whenever they placed an order, it was money upfront, with no returns. Furthermore, they were patient and accommodating – some bookshops expect your distribution to match that of the sector’s giants. When you order a book from Penguin, I don’t know where it comes from; when you order a book from New Binary Press, I pull a box out from under my bed and head for the post office.
Kenny’s in Galway are another who have backed us – in January, Des Kenny took the time to give me a call. He had heard about the press, likes what we are doing, and in five minutes we had agreed terms for a substantial order. Ireland needs booksellers like these, they are an essential part of the industry’s lifeblood – but they are the exception, not the rule. A lot of bookshops – not all, but many – expect you to play by their rules, and if you can’t because of constraints on capacity, you don’t get on their shelves.
It is an illusion to think that publishers – certainly the smaller independent ones – take the share of the spoils when a reader picks up a copy of one of their books. Outsourced printing and production costs, shipping costs, a range of fees, complimentary copies, entry to competitions, trade discounts – it adds up very quickly. When you buy a book from New Binary Press for €12, the cost of production might have been about €4; if you’re buying that from a bookshop, you can take another €4.80 off the top. Before you get into any of the other costs that go into transforming writing into a book, you’re already looking at a profit of only €3.20. Now imagine this is one of the “bestsellers”, as Ryan outlines, that comes to about €960 worth of profit. Say an author is getting a healthy 20 per cent of earnings, they’re not even making €200 for their bestseller. Say they are getting 20 per cent of RRP, they’re still only at €720 – even with consistent monthly sales, it’s not nearly enough to live on.
Publishers feel the strain too, just as much as authors. I’m sure the big ones do well for themselves, but like Ryan, my publishing activities aren’t nearly enough to live on – quite the opposite in fact, as New Binary Press makes a loss, and so it actually reaches into my pocket. Fortunately, I have a full-time job in academia that is secure and rewarding. Maybe this is a privilege that has allowed me to pursue projects like New Binary Press, but it took me a decade’s worth of education to get to where I am, and if you think creative writing is difficult, you should give academia’s publish-or-perish model a spin.
New Binary Press doesn’t add a cent to my income, but it takes up a lot of my free time - I do a lot of the reading, typesetting, design, production, and marketing myself. I do it for the same reason underpaid writers write - we see the value in literature, and we are determined to make it happen, one way or the other.
I’ve recently begun exploring alternative funding models such as patronage, and our new zine, Unreal Cities, will feature a profit-share agreement wherein the revenue from sales, after production costs have been covered, will be divided amongst the contributors. Again, I won’t earn a cent from this, but more literature will have happened. Other New Binary Press publications, such as The Weary Blues, don’t pay contributors. If we did, it wouldn’t be there; and perhaps that means it shouldn’t be – I can accept that criticism.
Writers, booksellers and publishers all have a shared agenda, and it’s a simple one: we want to bring literature to the public. If that literature is to be diverse then we need small independent presses. Right now, Ireland has many of these; consider the stellar journals that have appeared in the last few years alone, periodicals like Banshee, The Penny Dreadful and Gorse. Irish culture would be greatly impoverished should the emergence of such titles come to a halt. Independent publishing in Ireland has suffered a great many casualties in recent years, and that is arguably a consequence of our country having more writers than it does readers – we receive more submissions than we sell books. Even sales of The Blocks – our bestseller – benefitted little from exposure across all of Ireland’s mainstream news outlets. So no, I haven’t yet discovered the best model for sustaining literature at a small but vibrant scale, but of one thing, I am certain – not all publishers are in it for themselves.
James O’Sullivan (@jamescosullivan) is Digital Humanities Research Associate at the University of Sheffield, though he will be joining University College Cork as a lecturer in the summer. His scholarship has been published in a number of leading international publications, and he is the co-editor of Reading Modernism with Machines (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). He is also a published poet, having appeared in journals such as The SHOp, Southword, and Cyphers. His next collection of poetry, Courting Katie, is published by Salmon Poetry. James is the founding editor of New Binary Press. Further information on James and his work can be found at josullivan.org