Publishing Profile—Aoife K. Walsh, Commissioning Editor at New Island Books
“I absolutely love the process of connecting with other people over a manuscript or book idea.“
How I started in publishing
I got my first job in publishing through a series of fortuitous events soon after receiving my Masters in Medieval Literature, Language and Culture from Trinity College Dublin.
The academic publisher Four Courts Press happened to be looking for an office person at the same time as I approached one of my professors, John Scattergood, for a reference while I was sending out a bunch of letters to as many publishers, publications and magazines as I could think of, including Four Courts.
I don’t think I realised that Prof. Scattergood was one of their authors. I also had not seen the job vacancy in the paper. So, everything happened a bit back to front but I was the right person for the job at that particular moment.
I worked with Four Courts for three years, learning everything on the job, and I’m forever grateful for the endless patience of founder and publisher, Michael Adams, who taught me many of the hard skills I still use today.
…everything happened a bit back to front but I was the right person for the job at that particular moment.
After that I moved to Literature Ireland as an information officer, and later a projects and publications officer. That’s when I began to attend book fairs and make lots of contacts.
I made magazines as a child. They were usually transcriptions of television shows plus games and puzzles at the back. Writing, design, illustration all by me! I had quite forgotten this until I decided, in 2011, to set up a digital magazine of short stories called The South Circular. I researched digital publishing, submission processes, and subscription models for a year before launching it in 2012. It ran for 11 issues.
Then I moved to Toronto and freelanced for a bit before becoming assistant to the publisher at McClelland & Stewart (PRH Canada). That was a huge experience! When I returned to Ireland, I freelanced again in scouting and editorial before working with The O’Brien Press, moving from there to my current role.
Where I work now
I have been commissioning editor at New Island Books since December 2018. I acquire/commission across fiction, non-fiction, and occasionally poetry.
In this role I am also a managing editor, shepherding books through editorial and production—I also try to sell rights at the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs, and throughout the year.
My approach is creative, instinctive, collegial and inclusive, globally ambitious while being strategic with a growth-mindset.
The best thing about my role
I absolutely love the process of connecting with other people over a manuscript or book idea. This can range from the author themselves to my colleagues to a publisher in another territory to a total stranger next to me in a bookstore.
The sensation of knowing that the thing you’ve chosen to read today could really be something special, that I really connect with it, that I know how I would publish it and that I know how to communicate that to every single other person who will put a hand on it during its life, is rare and precious to me.
I guess it’s that spark that leads to a whole vision for a book; I find it very energising.
This does mean that if any one of the above elements aren’t present, getting on board with something can be quite difficult for me. But I just don’t believe in spending my or anyone else’s time on something that we don’t adore.
A mistake I made
Every day I must remind myself there can be no assumptions when making books. I don’t feel like I can take anything for granted: that an author understands the stages of editorial and production; that all images will be usable; that a freelance editor will notice what I’ve noticed; that a book I love will sell.
When I have made assumptions, that is when mistakes have occurred. It has taught me to be vigilant and prepared—but there’s a fine line between that and micro-managing everything and everyone.
I’ve now swung the other direction and am trying to brief my collaborators smarter rather than harder.
My proudest moment so far
New Island is the Small Press of the Year (Island of Ireland) at the British Book Awards this year. It means so much to receive international recognition for the hard work and success at home in 2022.
Because my approach to publishing comes from a creative place, I wrestle with all the good, bad and maddening aspects of that. So, to know that I have been a part of one of New Island’s most financially successful years so far is equal parts brilliant and baffling to me!
It’s a reminder that art has all kinds of value, depending on your interest.
On a more personal level, I am extremely proud when a friend or family member tells me they are enjoying one of our books. That’s when I know the hard work has paid off.
What the future holds
We’re always living in the future in publishing! This year’s books are well on their way, so I’m currently immersed in acquiring and commissioning for 2024 and beyond. Next year is already looking like a banger so watch this space!
More generally, I am focussed on exceeding New Island’s reputation for discovering new talent and, as a company, we are working hard to hold onto that talent too.
I am committed to acquiring/commissioning diversely and inclusively as part of a strategy to take New Island to the next level—as well as truly representing Ireland in the 21st century. I cannot tell you what that will actually look like, but I’ll know it when I read it.
Oh, and #BookTok. I want us to take over #BookTok 🙂
Book recommendation this month
In May, we will publish Slant, a debut novel by Katherine O’Donnell, which is a gorgeous lesbian coming-of-age love story set between 1980s Boston and the marriage referendum of 2015.
Ro McCarthy is a very young Irishwoman, thrust into AIDS activism at the height of the crisis and who must, years later while canvassing for marriage equality, reckon with the trauma and loss she and her friends suffered in their heyday.
There really hasn’t ever been a novel like it here in Ireland so it’s a story that I very strongly felt needed to be told here. And as I pulled it from the submissions, I wanted to be the one to bring it to the world.
There is joy, silliness, heartbreak, profound loss and ultimately relentless hope in the lives of Ro and Jenny, Mels and Eily, Russ and Joni, John and Neeraj, MichaelC and Mini. I hope it will resonate with many readers.