Irish Publishing & Parochialism

The Irish publishing world appears to be stuck in a parochial rut and perhaps this is due, at least in part, to its being subvented so graciously by the Arts Council.

FRED JOHNSTON

The problems faced by Irish publishers are not chiefly, as Desmond Fennell argues, a lack of enterprise or imagination on the part of publishers themselves, but the limited public visibility of the industry, erratic State support for the sector, and a trading environment in which bookshop chains hold the upper hand.

SEÁN O’KEEFFE, Editorial Director, Liberties Press

[Extracted from The Irish Times letters pages June/July 2007]

Storm in a tea cup or Fiddling while Rome burns?
There has been a rather petty, sniping and pointless debate running in the paper of national record The Irish Times. To make matters worse, it was all kicked off by what was an interesting and stimulating article in June by Tony Farmar (who is a publisher himself and recently finished his term as President of Clé):

We are proud of our writers. We have four Nobel Prizes for literature, and a world renown for many of our authors – but we also have a book-publishing industry that is suffering from severe market pressures from overseas. The National Development Plan 2007-2013 has allocated more than €1.1 billion to culture, but very little of this will help the one art form in which the Republic of Ireland has consistently punched above its weight.

The general impression is that there are plenty of books, even too many, but in fact very few of them are published here. The average European country publishes four times as many titles per head as we do. In terms of titles per million of population, Ireland is actually the weakest performer in the whole expanded EU, with the possible exception of Luxembourg. We publish fewer titles per head, even, than much poorer countries such as Estonia, Greece, Latvia and Slovakia.

Rather than an invitation to a debate on small issues and over the relative abilities of publishers and authors, this was a call to collaborate, to innovate and to change with the changing industry. By far the most useful contribution to date has been that of Clé itself who have pointed to positive steps taken rather than problems encountered.

From an outsider’s perspective it must still seem petty. I cannot help but feel that to some extent there is right on both sides and wrong on both sides. Authors are right that Publishers (and not just Irish ones) are conservative and tend to dislike huge risks, after all it is their money being risked. They are right too that Irish authors are likely to be published by foreign publishers (not such a bad thing I suggest) and of course they are right that “serious” books have difficulty in getting published.

For their part the publishers are right to point to their efforts and the difficulties of publishing in a marketer which is

attractive to predatory British publishers as a source of both sales and authors. With honed marketing skills and deep pockets, they dominate local bookshops. As a result, even on home territory, Irish publishers find it difficult to gain an equal footing.

Overall, I cannot help but feel that the debate has been more a forum for self justification than for really promoting change in Irish Publishing. Authors need to realize that there is no Right to Publication. Publishers need to be searching as far beyond their borders as they can to achieve success and change. Most of all it seems to me it ignores the reality that there really is no Irish Publishing Market anymore but a global one that writers and publishers need to adjust to.

Amused, disappointed and tired.
Eoin

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3 comments

  1. as a recently published author of apparently endangered literary fiction, i too was fascinated to watch the various factions wheel out their arguments on the pages of the Irish Times. By far the most interesting and illuminating comment, as you have indicated, was from Tony Farmer. Others used the ‘debate’ to self-promote or to attack former publishers. Which was a pity…

    my own thesis is that features editors and programme controllers, in particular of national papers and radio stations, have become slaves to UK ( and to a lesser degree, US) publishing and pr firms. they ( the editors etc) , more than anyone else, marginalise (quite literally) Irish fiction either to the side or bottom of the page….to be fair, Caroline Walshe of the Irish Times and Deirdre Falvey of the same paper, have a real interest in literary fiction…but why for instance does The Ticket carry reviews of dvds, films, cds etc and not books? Why does Eileen Battersby review debuting writers from Canada and America etc, and not condescend to review new Irish writers? Perhaps we are not glamorous enough? Or maybe we don’t write about wizards?

    worse is the obsession in the media with film – I garnered a lot of publicity for my book ( ‘The Companion’, published by The Lilliput Press) based on the fact that I had sold the movie rights – but not every debuting author can offer that carrot, nor should they have to. and the insistence on the author having a ‘ back story’ is, frankly,ludicrous.

    my advice – if you don’t have one, make it up…..

    the readers are out there – they just need a little guidance from the media, and regrettably the media is in the hands of a lot of vapid, superficial young men and women who are not readers, who do not value writers, and who are sheepish in their attitudes

    Lorcan Roche

  2. It is inevitable that Ireland should rely so much on the UK for publishers with the common language and the larger market. There are, I have read, 200,000 books published a year in the UK. I wonder if Austria does the same for Germany, Belgium for France and Holland etc.

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