Plan to provide free books to primary school children likely to impact smaller bookshops

Initiative costing €47 million is expected to be announced in Budget 2023

Irish booksellers plan to seek further details from the Department of Education over its plans to provide free textbooks to primary pupils directly through their schools.

The move, expected to be announced in Tuesday’s budget at a cost of about €47 million, will bring an end to the practice of parents going to local bookshops ahead of the new school year from September next year.

According to the umbrella body Bookselling Ireland, some uncertainty remains around whether schools will be free to choose suppliers locally or be obliged to enter formal tendering processes many feel will undercut community-based shops.

“You don’t make much money on them, you make a lot less than you would on normal books, but it saves people from having a very quiet summer when everyone is gone on their holidays,” said Dawn Behan, the group’s vice-chair, who runs Woodbine Books in Kilcullen, Co Kildare.


“People love to have a local bookshop and they love to support it.”

Primary school parents spend an average of about €110 on books, many through some of the roughly 130 independent retailers in Ireland who sell them. Shop owners often rely on the sales as a means of attracting customers into bricks-and-mortar stores.

Ms Behan said the news had come as a surprise to sellers on Monday when reports appeared in the media. The organisation is gauging the feelings of its members before seeking engagement with department officials.

For Dermot Finegan, owner of Farrell & Nephew in Co Kildare, in an industry long distracted by stories of tightening margins, ebooks and cut-price online sellers, the Government’s move to stock the shelves of primary schools free of charge to parents is just the latest chapter.

“We will diversify and we will still provide a service,” he said, sanguine at the prospect of losing some back-to-school turnover. “They will [still] want the copybooks, they will want the pencils and I don’t know if the Government will provide that.”

After a successful trial among 100 Deis schools, further details of how the scheme will work are expected after Tuesday’s budget is announced.

What it means for shops, especially smaller, rural sellers, is unclear but even if some can avail of a supply contract or continue to provide other essential supplies, a loss of business appears inevitable.

Still, changes to the bookselling business are not unusual. As Mr Finegan points out, “It’s been nibbling away because they have been doing [book] rentals in schools for years so you would notice a bit of a drop-off.”

Farrell & Nephew has about 20 primary schools in the area it serves but it has long diversified its business. Having opened in 1957, it first began selling textbooks in the 1970s before giving it up and resuming about 15 years ago.

The business model evolves — the shop sells arts and crafts, toys and giftware. Its 2,500sq ft floor has between 6,000 and 7,000 titles on its shelves.

Mr Finegan believes the move might have more impact on smaller, rural stores but he is not fazed by the anticipated budget-day announcement.

“It’s not an issue,” he said. “People will still support the local shop and the local service and the local independent. I think so, anyway.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times