There was a sizzle of chat and connection going on at the Chester Beatty Library, as Publishing Ireland‘s tenth annual Trade Day kicked off in style on Friday 10 November, as part of the Dublin Book Festival.
In her opening remarks, President of Publishing Ireland, Caoimhe Fox pointed to how the Irish book world has weathered many storms over the last few years—a paper crisis, energy costs, the effects of Brexit and the climate emergency for starters. Yet despite everything, there has still been growth year on year, and Irish publishers “continue to make beautiful, interesting, and interrogating books.”
With metaphors in abundance and quotes from Greek philosophers to Maya Angelou, host of The Innovation Show Aidan McCullen gave an enthusiastic talk about change—how we’re naturally resistant to it, and how to develop a psychology which embraces transformation.
With examples from Ford to Nokia, Aidan talked about S-curves, innovation—and on a personal level, how being able to move on from who we used to be can make us fit to fly.
If all academic texts are to be freely available online, what does that mean for publishers and a sustainable business model? Ruth Hegarty, Managing Editor of the Royal Irish Academy outlined an open access initiative which will be piloted next year in collaboration with NORF (National Open Research Forum)—something which will not only affect academic publishing, but to a certain extent trade publishing too.
There is an exciting job opportunity for someone to take the helm in this project, and interested applicants are encouraged to get in touch with Ruth and the Royal Irish Academy at email@example.com for more information.
Samantha Holman, CEO of the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency (ICLA) gave a lively talk on copyright law and where we are today—with some wry commentary and astute observations on Ireland’s modus operandi when it comes to European directives.
Discussing topics such as the speed of change with technology (and how laws try to keep pace), digital platforms, and fair remuneration for authors, Holman also touched on the new regulations surrounding e-book accessibility—something which will be front and centre for many publishers soon.
Small is beautiful
“The big five publishers,” said Kevin Duffy from Bluemoose Books, “are risk averse.” Capturing the room in five seconds flat Kevin began his keynote address, with the staggering information that despite publishing a third of the world’s books, last year the publishing giants took on only a tiny number of new writers.
Who wants to read a book with a working class character from a small northern town? This is what an editor from a big publishing house said about Pig Iron, by Benjamin Myers, then published by Bluemoose—a book that went on to win the inaugural Gordon Burn prize.
Saying the quiet parts out loud, Kevin talked of how he started out in publishing some decades ago, and the difficulties of being a working class northern publisher in the professional landscape of that era. The classism he experienced at that time drew gasps (and laughs) from the audience.
Of course since then things have changed—but what hasn’t is how the giants in publishing still need to give their shareholders an eye-watering level of profit—currently something like 2 billion euro a year.
Bluemoose Books began in a small way, conceived in passion and probably not a small amount of frustration with a system that saw Kevin’s own book as good—but ‘unmarketable’. Along with his own novel, Bluemoose started publishing other writers, one of which would later be Rónán Hessian.
Kevin read Leonard and Hungry Paul in one sitting, and from submission to contract was only a matter of weeks. Building a readership—doing all the leg work and promotion in house—the book began to find its feet, selected by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature as One Dublin One Book in 2021.
It was only once all the work was done, and the sales figures were impressive—in other words when there was no risk—that the big publishers sat up and took notice. But despite a significant sum of money on offer, Rónán Hessian and Bluemoose declined the offer. It turns out that being small, and publishing with integrity is worth its weight in gold.
Publishing books is all about nourishing the soul, Kevin says, not about satisfying shareholders. Bluemoose Books can remain small and sustainable, and with that comes ‘phenomenal freedom’.
You can’t beat word of mouth for book sales Kevin argues, and the key is starting local—with booksellers playing an integral role. “It’s simple,” he says, “if a book touches us, it’s going to touch readers.”
Bookseller and chair of Bookselling Ireland Aoife Roantree was part of the panel discussing promoting books and she could not agree more with Kevin’s words on the crucial role booksellers play: talk to us, she urged the room full of publishers—because pressing a book into readers’ hands is one of the things her staff do regularly.
And if you hear about a trend on BookTok? Let your bookseller know. She pointed out that if a young person comes into the bookshop and can’t find the title they’ve heard about on BookTok, “they will have it ordered online before they’re even out the door.”
That’s why conversations between publishers and bookshops are more important than ever.
On the subject of TikTok and BookTok, Laura Dermody from Penguin Random House had some fascinating insights into digital marketing—especially when it comes to the young demographic and their relationship with brands and adverts (hint: they don’t like being targeted), and the propensity (or not) to click a link and navigate away from a platform.
Instagrammer Rosie Cremin (@somethingarosie) discussed her role as a reviewer on Goodreads and Instagram, saying that the most important thing was to be truthful, reliable, and consistent; Instagrammers can smell insincerity a mile away—and besides, being paid to write a review would result eventually in people no longer trusting her opinion.
Chairing the panel was publicity guru Peter O’Connell, who runs the marketing campaigns for Tramp Press among many others. He talked of the importance of getting in early with a title, aiming to stand out in a crowd (especially when big books, like Bono’s Surrender ‘eat media’), and how we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of radio in Ireland— with Highland Radio attracting more listeners than any other station.
Everyone on the panel agreed on the rise of podcasts as one of the most effective ways to reach readers (ahem—have you listened to Burning Books yet?).
Nielsen Book Data
From speculation and discussion to the impact of hard numbers, Sara Mulryan presented figures by Nielsen BookData (who supply data for the Books Ireland monthly best-seller charts), which included the effects of BookTok—translating into Colleen Hoover topping bestselling fiction of 2022 so far, selling 56,000 copies (figures supplied were up until the end of October 2022).
In general, the book market is enjoying growth, with TikTok boosting the Romance and Saga sector, currently up by a whopping 143%, to €3.9m. Travel is back on people’s agendas again, and this sector is bouncing back by around 80% to €1.5m, while History and Military sales are at an all-time high, up by 20%, to €4.2m.
The run-away success of Heartstopper on Netflix and the continuing effects of BookTok on the market have seen the Children’s and Young Adult sector explode.
While The Penguin Group are still in the number one publisher spot overall, fresh to the top ten Irish publishers this year are New Island, who have seen phenomenal growth over the last couple of years.
Making Irish publishing more inclusive
Dr. Ebun Joseph, a diversity and race relations consultant, gave a warm, witty talk about making Irish publishing more inclusive.
What are we going to stand for? How are we writing for the future? Dr. Joseph advised making one tiny change to our behaviour instead of ‘a hundred wishes that we could do something’—and that even if we are worried about being performative to just go ahead and do it anyway.
One way to begin was by looking at our circle of influence and making a difference there, whatever our sector or role might be—”see one small thing you can do, and do it,” she urged.
The time for talking around things has passed she said, and it’s time to act: “changing how you think, will change how you do”.
Dr Joseph is Module Coordinator and Lecturer in Black Studies at University College Dublin (UCD), Director at the Institute of Antiracism and Black Studies (IABS), and founder & Chairperson of the African Scholars Association Ireland, AFSAI (2018-2022). She is available to come to your organisation, and you can find out more here.
Books for Screen
Finally, in partnership with the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland, publishers pitched their books to professionals from the world of television and film, in the exciting Books for Screen event.
Two of the publishers pitching included Little Island, and New Island Books—but what exactly went on in the room remains to be seen…
With much to talk about afterwards, everyone migrated to The Bull and Castle just around the corner where there was a lively drinks reception hosted by The Irish Copyright Licensing Agency (ICLA).
And there the discussions continued—marking a lovely conclusion to a stimulating Trade Day 2022.