Irish independents' core principles offer an alternative to London-based behemoths

The book market in the UK and Ireland has been considered as a single entity forever. When Ireland gained its independence in 1921, the book industry stayed unchanged: the proximity of London’s immense book industry meant that most Irish authors were published in another country, and booksellers sourced most of their stock from across the water.

While Eason dominates the retail field here, and regional players such as Dubray and O’Mahony’s are strong, when Tim Waterstone opened his first shop in Ireland it seemed entirely natural. The Net Book Agreement stood and fell together in both countries, and our book VAT rates (0% for paper, higher for electronic) are paired. Nielsen gathers consumer data for both markets and we have a common Booksellers Association - and trade journal! While territorial rights are occasionally split between the UK and Ireland, it’s rare and difficult to achieve, such are the connections between the two markets. When the Irish and UK pounds parted ways, followed by Ireland’s move to the Euro, the only real impact in the book world was that Irish booksellers got very handy with their sticker guns!

Going local

The O’Brien Press opened its doors in 1974, just after Ireland and the UK joined the EEC together - heady days! But many Dublin booksellers weren’t interested, saying they didn’t see the need for Irish publishing. They changed their minds quickly when the bestsellers started appearing. My childhood was full of books about white cliffs and cucumber sandwiches, neither of which I’d ever actually seen: there were no books for Irish children set in this country. We started to publish for children in 1990. Again, booksellers had to be convinced, and again, readers knew better: Marita Conlon-McKenna’s Under the Hawthorn Tree has now sold over a quarter of a million copies, and it’s been translated into more than 15 languages. The Irish publishing sector has evolved to the point where around 20% of books bought in Ireland are published here. Every country needs to have its own cultural conversation, so this is extremely important, but that 20% is hard won.

The same could probably be said of publishing in the regions of the UK, but there is no Penguin Random House Manchester or Hachette Bristol to compete with. Airport editions are not available on the high street the day a hardback is launched, which is frequently the case in Ireland. While all Irish booksellers have accounts with UK suppliers, this does not apply in the opposite direction. We have excellent booksellers here - Irish indie The Gutter Bookshop won Independent Bookshop of the Year at the British Book Awards 2017 - but the online business is dominated by the big players with .com or .co. uk addresses, reducing the visibility of Irish titles in their home market. And most of our public library business was recently won by Bertrams: would UK library authorities buy from Irish suppliers?

Many Irish authors still aim to be published in London, thinking that this is their route to the wider world. It’s difficult for independent publishers to compete with the perceived glamour of the big names, but our record is strong: we successfully represent our authors at all the major international book fairs, and our sales and publicity teams are excellent. Building authors’ careers and helping them to tell the stories they want to tell is core to what we do. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Irish authors have told us their books are being rejected by London publishers on the basis of being “too Irish”: explain that to readers of Eoin Colfer (first published by The O’Brien Press), Derek Landy, Maeve Binchy or Roddy Doyle! Of course, they can do both: Frank McGuinness publishes his plays with Faber, while his novels (including forthcoming The Woodcutter and His Family) bear O’Brien’s Brandon imprint.

So after Brexit, what happens? Sterling’s current weakness has already had a significant impact on Irish bookshops’ margins, as well as the perceived value of Irish-published books, and uncertainty is clearly not our friend. Hopefully sanity will prevail and there won’t be customs posts checking every lorry that crosses the Irish Sea in either direction, or the border with Northern Ireland.

Ireland is proudly independent, with a growing population, and always outward-looking. We will keep telling stories, as long as there are people to read them.

Ivan O’Brien is managing director of The O’Brien Press, a role he took on in 2006 having worked for the company in numerous departments after joining the firm in 1997.