International Industry Insight

by Patrick Chapman

We gathered in the Baroque Chapel at IMMA, Kilmainham, to hear some notable industry figures discuss the current state of the business. Sinead MacAodha, the chair, began with an anecdote about a recent visit to Poland. Many of the people she met were saying that books are over, yet they were all about to publish one.

She introduced the speakers: André Breedt from Nielsen BookScan; author Mia Gallagher, whose new collection of stories, Shift, has been getting amazing reviews; Dan Bolger of New Island Books; and Julia Churchill, an agent at A.M. Heath.

André Breedt spoke of the health of the book market. The overall picture is good, with increases in sales both in Ireland and internationally. Audiobooks are growing. Ebooks are not in decline, but neither have they turned out to be the death of the physical book. People still like a hard copy in their hands. 2018 has been the best-performing year since 2012. Value and volume are both up again, meaning that more people are paying real money for books.

Julia Churchill observed that when she started as an agent, careers moved in a straight line. There was a diversity of retailers, so there was more competition, and publishers were able to have conversations with various booksellers. Now it’s not the case. Careers now are more about what did and didn’t work the last time. Her job is to be in it for the long term on her authors’ behalf. If something doesn’t go well, she sits down with the author to explore which area of the market they should go into next. Certainly, an agent has to anticipate the next Sarah Crossan but also must grow the careers of her existing authors, to get the best commercial terms, the best deal and the best decisions for them. With some authors she might send a manuscript first to an editor she knows is right for it. Usually she puts it across everyone’s desk. The decision is based on who is the best publisher in terms of their vision for the book. Sometimes a publisher will go above and beyond. One time, she was selling a pirate adventure, and only one publisher, Scholastic, wanted it. But they really wanted it. They sent a treasure chest filled with gold chocolate coins and a marketing plan on a scroll. Julia  knew this was a publisher who would handle the book with care. Choosing a publisher also comes down to what the campaign looks like, what’s the investment, the advance? Who’s going to give the book the best possible chance?
Dan Bolger spoke next. New Island publishes 18 books a year, of which 50% are fiction and 50% are non-fiction. His company tends to be the first publishers of talent that goes on to bigger things abroad, which is why New Island has started to collaborate with Head of Zeus, so their authors can get access to the UK and Commonwealth markets. New Island is a small independent publisher, not in the big league, but that has its advantages. In the Irish market they’re really strong in getting the books out there. As a publisher they catch the details that bigger organisations might miss. New Island gives writers a voice. Asked if he envisaged opening an office in the UK, Dan said not really. His is a small and nimble press with good friends and a diversity of authors in this market.André Breedt agreed that Ireland has a very good mixture of books that get published. The retail ecosystem has shrunk but publishing hasn’t. If he could magic something up, it’d be a more diverse readership. Publishers have become more creative because there are fewer channels to get out to readers now.

Mia Gallagher related a conversation with an author friend, who had a career with Jonathan Cape, then some wilderness years before a recent return to success. He was wondering if he should self-publish. His wife, a visual artist, told him his job is to write books, not sell them. This speaks to the division between the artist and the salesperson, as Mia observed. If she starts thinking too much about selling, she loses track of her practice. Yes, she wants to understand that side of things as much as possible – agents, social media and so on, but every author is different. Some authors love social media but if she were to spend three hours a day online, those are hours that she doesn’t have to work. ‘If I don’t value my work, nobody else will.’ As a career, writing is often misrepresented in the media. The perception of the writer varies from, ‘Aren’t they amazing?’ to ‘Spongers’. We put our labour free into the work, and if we get the money and kudos we deserve, it’s because we put the work in. Striking a balance between working and selling, is the point.

Asked what he would like to see if books were to bring in more revenue, Dan Bolger said that he would invest it back into the authors and into publishing the books.

Julia Churchill said such revenue should go back to the author, in the form of future deals, refresher advances, and flexibility on royalties. A publisher will pump oxygen into a success, so more money coming in could go on, say, reissuing a book in a prestige hardback for a second bite.
André Breedt was not surprised that Irish people are spending more. Retailers realise they don’t have to discount books. He said we as an industry need to value that we have an amazing thing – and sell that value proposition. Books are an astoundingly good thing that we should be proud of.

As to the future, Sinéad MacAodha asked, if you had a dream for the industry, what would it be? André Breedt would like to see the retail ecosystem to expand, though the internet is the future. Dan Bolger answered, simply, more bookshop competition. Mia Gallagher spoke about ebooks, which are a form that hasn’t been explored yet, it’s still linear. It’s an opportunity to start playing with form. Julia Churchill said she’d like to go back to a broader retail environment.

It was an insightful and enjoyable session, and I learned much about the state of the business and the challenges authors face today, as told from the perspectives of four excellent speakers.