Ireland: a native hunger

<p>Some time ago I advocated for consolidation and mergers in the native Irish publishing sector. The difficulties and potential barriers to such market changes still exist and may well never be overcome but the logic remains (at least to my mind) inescapable.&nbsp; <br />
The Irish publishing scene is dominated by multinational publishers, which are publishing increasingly from offices in Dublin and trawling the same pool of authors as native Irish companies.</p>
<p>To truly understand the dominance of the major foreign publishers one only has to look at the Nielsen BookScan figures for the Top 50 general fiction titles for the first half of 2008.</p>
<p>Of the top 50 fiction titles only four were published by native Irish publishers, seven of the top 50 were from Irish-based arms of foreign publishing concerns and the rest were published by foreign publishers. The table (below) shows in more detail the impact that the foreign companies and their subsidiaries have on the Irish trade.</p>
<p><img width="338" height="129" alt="" src="/documents/UserContributed/image/irishfiction.jpg" /></p>
<p>Bestsellers are a rare thing for an Irish fiction publisher, though Poolbeg is still doing a fine job of breaking new talent&mdash;in fact all four of those titles mentioned above in the top 50 belong to it. But Poolbeg is the only notable mass market fiction publisher in Irish hands. An industry of one is hardly an industry at all.</p>
<p>It is in the field of non-fiction where Irish publishers are at least still holding their own but even if the in-roads by -foreign publishers are becoming very visible. Hachette Ireland, -Penguin Ireland and, more recently, Transworld Ireland have all had a major impact here.</p>
<p><img width="336" height="127" alt="" src="/documents/UserContributed/image/irishnonfiction.jpg" /></p>
<p>The recent announcement that the Irish Times, our premier broadsheet newspaper, is to produce a series of branded books in association with HarperCollins is yet another blow for Irish publishers. If even local media brands prefer to partner with international publishers in this way, what hope is there for non-fiction publishers in the longer term?</p>
<p>The market penetration of foreign publishers is hardly a new phenomenon, though the activities of the locally based offices is surely having an impact as the figures above show. While the figures above only take account of the Top 50 non-fiction titles, they are flattered in favour of the Irish by including within the &ldquo;Irish&rdquo; section, Gill &amp; Macmillan which might also be called an Irish division of German-owned Macmillan.</p>
<p>One of the major effects the local offices of foreign publishers are having on non-fiction lists is that they are targeted specifically at Irish readers and are supported by larger budgets than most Irish publishers can afford. That is not to say that money is making the difference, rather that the advantages of major corporations (organisation, purchasing power, economies of scale in everything from print buying to promotional expenditure) are being brought to bear directly in a small market.</p>
<p>Another major effect is in competition for talent. Where Irish publishers might reasonably have expected to be able to contract journalists with modest to high national profiles for reasonable advances, that is no -longer the case. Even medium-profile authors are becoming expensive as even small amounts of capital injected by local divisions of multinationals drive up advance payments. As advances rise ever upwards, so expectations among authors become unrealistic.</p>
<p>This could be seen as deliberate: a tactic to drive rivals in a less capitalised position towards the bottom of the market. A calculated grab for market share while weakening rivals. Even if it is not a deliberate strategy, the effect is the same.</p>
<p>Don&rsquo;t take this the wrong way: I welcome the challenge presented by competition. One bright spark in this somewhat negative assessment is the smartly published 2007 Irish Christmas hit Great Irish Speeches (Quercus). This type of savvy publishing demonstrates how some vision and excellent execution can help even a modest publisher achieve stellar sales. Certainly, Quercus has other advantages but nothing an Irish publisher could not also deliver.</p>
<p>Where does any of this leave Irish publishing and how does any of it affect readers and writers? Readers need care very little in many ways. The broad trade would most likely continue to be serviced even if no native Irish trade publishers remained, though I doubt things will ever get that bad.</p>
<p>Authors should be conscious that over time if native Irish publishing ends, there will be fewer opportunities for new and emerging voices. There will be fewer native publishing entrepreneurs to risk their capital or who have the specific tastes that have fostered creative Irish writing in all genres thus far.</p>
<p>As for publishers ourselves, it behoves us to look with a strategic and sober eye to our future and ensure we direct our efforts towards long-term survival, towards smarter and more successful publishing and towards countering the threats from books published by locally based foreign publishers.</p>
<p>There is no reason why these changes should spell the end of Irish publishing, or indeed why they cannot lead to stronger native publishers reacting to competition by improving their offering and increasing their own competitive advantage. All things considered though, we will be busy in the years ahead.</p>