At a glance, the Irish trade is enjoying a period of positive expansion. Last year saw growth; year to date, bookshops have seen volume increases of 2%. Fiction is up 6%, thanks to Costa Book Award-winner Sebastian Barry, strong performances from Irish women’s fiction authors, and the emergence of the Emerald Noir crime genre, led by Liz Nugent. Children’s books have seen a 5% volume increase across a broad range, and while non-fiction is in decline, a -4% result against last year’s spring boom of 1916 centenary titles almost feels like a win. The trade feels re-energised and there is a positive media rhetoric about the future of physical books. Irish publishing is vibrant and continues to be the backbone of our bookshops’ success.
This air of positivity belies the financial picture, however, as the shadow of Brexit reaches across the Irish Sea.
Our market is at the mercy of currency fluctuations, and a weak pound means less money in our tills. Around 75% of books sold here are UK-published, and the crash of sterling since the Brexit vote has resulted in a reduction of €0.63 in actual selling price: a 6% reduction which even the most skilled margin machinations struggles to fill. Consequently, value sales have decreased while costs continue to climb, and we have recently seen the closure of two respected indies, award-winning Crannog Bookshop in Cavan and Blackbird Books in Navan.
Irish consumers migrate when the pound is weak: the presence of sterling retailers in Northern Ireland is too tempting for consumers who think nothing of driving for hours to save on a weekly shop. Migration to sterling online retailers also spikes when the FX rate swings against the pound, and government tenders migrate too: the library supply sector continues to struggle as price-led bids from the UK undermine the cultural strengths and local economic benefits of using Irish providers.
Brexit will impact tourism - an industry vital to the Irish and an important sales driver for many bookshops - as the appeal of a jaunt to Dublin diminishes for UK travellers now getting a lot less Guinness per pound. Add uncertainty about the future of the supply-chain tariffs and the Department of Finance’s projected loss of some 40,000 jobs due to Brexit, and we have trying times ahead.
There are rising costs, too. Much of the economic damage during the recession was due to property greed, and many retailers are tied into the upward-only rent reviews that have resulted in the closure of many otherwise successful bookshops in recent years. Rises in minimum wage and public sector wages are driving staff costs up after a long period of stasis.
The support of publishing colleagues in the UK will be vital to ensure the health of the Irish trade (and its management of trade tariffs, should they arrive), and Irish booksellers will be hoping for a strong Euro-based publishing schedule to help stabilise budgets in the coming years. The Irish book business has a history of being creative and agile, but we will need our wits about us if we are to combat the effects of Brexit and seize the opportunity provided by the recent growth.
Maria Dickenson is managing director of Dubray Books. She was recently the recipi-ent of the O’Brien Bookseller of the Year Award 2017.