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Publishing Profile—Mariel Deegan

Mariel Deegan, General Manager at New Island Books

How I started in publishing

I always loved books and what I really wanted when I left school was to study literature. But as a practical 17-year-old I wasn’t sure this was such a good idea. I couldn’t bring myself to study for an IT degree (a sure-fire route to a good job at the height of the dotcom bubble), so I decided a BA in Communications at DCU was fair compromise.

I imagined this being like studying the arts, but with a practical edge. I majored in radio production and although I enjoyed the course, I must confess that it was just never really me.

Travelling after college put some perspective on things and gave me the chance to think about what I really wanted.

The answer wasn’t that unexpected: I love books, so if there was any industry I wanted to work in, it was publishing. When I got home I enrolled in a Masters in Publishing  in Scotland, and worked in a bookshop to save up for the fees.

My decision to pursue the course by distance learning turned out to be a good move. It suited my style of learning better than full-time college, and on the strength of my commitment to doing the course and my bookselling experience, I got a job as an editor at Blackhall Publishing in Dublin.

Though it turned out editing law books was not for me, I was lucky to find a job at New Island as a marketing executive soon after. I eventually went back to college to finally study literature and history part-time, and I have been happily working in books ever since. 

Where I work now

I am the General Manager at New Island Books. I left New Island initially in 2010 to work in London’s publishing industry, but when I moved back to Dublin I also went back to New Island.

It’s a plucky, independent-minded press with an energetic, collaborative team who are great fun to work with.

In the years I’ve been with the company I’ve seen all the ups and downs of publishing, from glitzy awards and bestseller listings to the gut-wrenching disappointment of a book you were sure was going to fly and it didn’t.

New Island publishes a really diverse range of Irish-interest books, both fiction and non-fiction, so there’s always something to dip into no matter what your mood. 

The best thing about my role

As General Manager the core function of my job is to make sure everything runs smoothly— to have oversight over the whole operation, from editorial to finance to marketing.

Sometimes I feel like a foreman at a factory, going from billy to jack, keeping all the disparate elements moving and occasionally grabbing a fire extinguisher. At other times I feel like a butterfly, surveying the entire operation and dipping in where I like.

While I don’t always have a choice about what I’ll fill my day with – the best laid plans and all that – I really love that no day is ever the same, the variety keeps the time flying by. My favourite part is probably contributing to the visioning for a book, particularly one that is as yet unwritten, considering it on its own merits, but also commercially in relation to other books on the market, the packaging, the audience.

It’s always a huge privilege to work with authors on developing and producing their books and helping them find their readers. 

A mistake I made

Over the years I’ve learned to trust my judgement, but earlier in my career, I was perhaps a little too much of a people-pleaser.

Way back when I was still a marketing executive, I organised a book launch for a well-known poet and playwright in a prestigious Dublin theatre. Everyone – the author, the theatre and the publisher – wanted to host the launch there, it was a perfect fit. Except… Except that show times at the theatre meant that we needed to start at 5pm and be out by 6.30pm. At the time, most launches didn’t start until 6.30 and there was a good reason for this – people coming from work couldn’t make an event that started earlier.

I had my doubts but I didn’t listen to them—and as I stared out at the poor author making a speech to the ten people in the room (half of them New Island staff), I vowed never to make that mistake again! 

My proudest moment so far

This month I was extremely pleased to see the exceptional performance of New Island in 2022 recognised by the British Book Awards, where we won the Small Press of the Year award for Ireland.

Publishing is a variable business, every company will have its ups and downs and growth rarely comes in straight lines, but I felt our team really pivoted very successfully to the new realities during the pandemic and then pivoted back again into a world of real-life events, open bookshops and changing reading patterns among customers.

Being a small company makes us vulnerable (you’re never more than a few bad decisions away from disaster), but it also makes us agile.

What the future holds

The same but better. Every day, every year, brings with it new challenges and new learnings. I take these with me through my career, and hope that I’m becoming wiser as I get older.

I know that I have made a core contribution to New Island’s progress in recent years and it was also a real pleasure to contribute at board level to Publishing Ireland and Dublin Book Festival. I hope that I can continue to make a defining contribution to Irish publishing in the years to come.

A book recommendation

New Island will be publishing Wild Atlantic Women by Gráinne Lyons. Over a series of walks along the Atlantic coast of Ireland, the author ponders the lives of pioneering Irish women, from Queen Maeve to Peig Sayers, Mary Robinson to the surfer Easkey Britton.

This is an inspiring book that you can read from the comfort of your armchair or equally bring it as a companion on your own rambles.