As I’ve written already this week this week saw the second annual Dublin Book Festival at the City Hall. It’s organised by Cle, the Irish Book Publishers Association and will hopefully become a fixture of the Dublin cultural scene over the next few years.
Yesterday I went to a seminar on the future of Irish publishing. Obviously, as a writer with a book published by an Irish publisher it’s something I have a vested interest in but, as a reader, it’s something I’ve always had a keen interest in as well.
Ireland is a country where it’s quite hard to avoid bumping into an aspiring writer. I’ve lost count of the times friends and acquaintances and in some cases total strangers within a few minutes of meeting have brought up the subject of the book they’ve either always wanted to write or that has been sitting in a box under the bed for years.
Don’t get me wrong there’s nothing wrong with being an aspiring writer – I’ve been one for years – but I’m not talking about the serious obsessives. The saying that “everyone has a book in them” has been taken to heart in Ireland and there are a lot of very peculiar people out there. I’ve read a lot of publishing blogs over the years and I know every agent or editor has their horror stories about slush pile rejects but we do seem to have more per head of population than average.
With this in mind it’s always surprised me how little there is for the aspiring writer in Ireland. Once you’re published it’s grand, there’s the Artist’s Tax Exemption, Aosdana and the Arts Council for starters, but in terms of places where you can rub shoulders with the publishing elite we’re a bit under stocked. The Book Festival aims at setting this right.
I’ve already posted here about the Forum on Copyright issues that was held on Friday. As a journalist I’d always been aware of copyright but it’s such a huge subject and when you can publish your words online in seconds these days it’s a massive issue for anyone who wants to make a living from writing.
There’s been a lot of discussion online about the future of publishing in the current economic climate. Like any other business it’s been hit hard but there are also plenty of new opportunities as technology changes on an almost daily basis.
Yesterday, the Seamus Brennan Memorial Seminar on Irish Publishing tackled the issue from an Irish perspective. I’d gone along expecting to find it depressing listening but the four speakers all shared a bullish attitude to the rocky seas.
I tweeted the talk live as much as I could, although using a mobile phone isn’t the most efficient way of using Twitter in Ireland. Apart from anything else I kept getting distracted by the points being thrown up. For example, there are around 100 publishers in Ireland at the moment. For such a small country that’s a massive amount. A lot of them would be virtual cottage industries dealing with a very niche market but it still represents a bewildering amount of choice for the writer with a manuscript to pitch.
Author and publisher Steve McDonogh of Brandon press spoke passionately in favour of amalgamation which would allow Irish publishers to pool their resources to better confront the international scene. He also spoke at some length about the challenges introduced by the new technologies. The fact that digital rights are now such a hot issue is a fascinating subject and it’s one that Irish publishers are just as concerned about as their counterparts elsewhere.
Ireland has it’s own issues to deal with as well though. Even though the majority of books taken out of the library here might be by Irish authors, the vast majority of books on the shelves of bookshops have been published elsewhere. Irish publishers can’t compete with the UK houses if they decide to come and throw money at Irish authors.
As a writer myself I don’t think I’d refuse if someone offered me shed loads of money, any opportunity to spend all your time writing without having to worry about how the bills are paid. But Ireland has such a rich literary heritage it would be a shame if Irish publishing couldn’t withstand the pressures.
The Arts Council came in for a lot of criticism. Growing up in a theatre household I’m familiar with their work but I had never realised that there was such a major disparity when it came to funding for drama and funding for literature. Theatre receives a third of the funding…Literature gets a mere 8%.
How is publishing ever supposed to move into the 21st Century if they can’t apply for state support for R&D, not to mention supporting us poor starving writers. We might not have to pay tax on our earnings but to qualify for that you actually have to earn something. Writing is not a very well paid profession (unless you are one of the golden few). Advances don’t come along very often and when they do they arrive piecemeal. Research takes time and funds and usually isn’t paid for at all. It’s no wonder so many writers have a day job as well.
All in all though the mood yesterday was upbeat. Jean Harrington, the MD of my own publishers, Maverick House, told us to “read our way through the recession” and to support Irish publishing by buying Irish. It’s easy to be drawn to the latest blockbuster release but as the Book Festival showed there is a phenomenal choice of Irish writing out there.
Patsy Horton from Northern Irish imprint Blackstaff Press spoke about the possibilities for niche markets, especially in an environment as small as the one in the North.
Finally Michael O’Brien, the man behind O’Brien Press gave us the A-Z of Irish publishing. There are a lot of strengths out there but the problems of negotiating the international markets kept rising again and again.
It’s was great to see the crowds of people wandering around the bookshelves arranged around the entrance hall of the City Hall. Apart from the publishing bods, out in force, there were plenty of writers not to mention a gratifying number of members of the public.
It would be nice to see the festival grow in the years to come. We do great arts festivals but there is very little in terms of a proper literary festival. Yes, every so often there are opportunities for successful writers to give readings to their adoring fans but we have very little in terms of the kind of festival that offers master classes and seminars. The Dublin Book Festival is definitely going in the right direction but it’s getting there and with luck it will only get better.