HarperCollins Ireland publisher Nagle looks to build brand as list launches

HarperCollins Ireland publisher Nagle looks to build brand as list launches

Conor Nagle joined HarperCollins UK to lead its standalone publishing division, HarperCollins Ireland, at a pivotal time. He officially started in the new role of publisher on 16th March last year, the day before the country’s Taoiseach gave a speech announcing the first lockdown in response to the Covid-19 crisis. Nagle reflects on that day: “I remember driving in to introduce myself and pick up a laptop. I drove past the supermarket, which was empty… It all felt quite apocalyptic.”

Nagle moved to HC from Irish independent publisher Gill Books, where he had worked for six and a half years. His start there also came at a crucial moment for the company. “I happened to join at a really exciting time. They were in the process of refitting the team and relaunching the business,” he says. Towards the end of 2019, Nagle was contacted by HC about launching a new Dublin-based division. He describes the opportunity as “incredibly exciting from the get-go”, saying: “I got the sense, and it’s certainly been borne out over the past 18 months or so, that everybody was really behind doing something different and innovative in Ireland. I suppose what really caught my interest is the idea of taking the elements of the Irish independent publishing culture that I was most familiar with—a hint of improvisation and opportunism—with the mammoth resourcing, organisational skill and professionalism of HC.” He jokes: “No one could say no to that, surely? I certainly couldn’t.”

Reaching out
Explaining the aims of HC Ireland, Nagle says: “HC had this long-running and quite deep relationship with the Irish market and Irish authors. That’s still there, but we have separated Ireland under its own division and added a publishing component.” In addition to the sales and communications teams that were already on the ground in Ireland, the division boosted its commissioning power with the addition of former Gill Books staffer Catherine Gough in March and, more recently, new assistant editor Kerri Ward. Nagle explains: “Basically, our mission is to kick-start a list that is originated in Ireland, using the broader HC UK infrastructure. The idea is that we are here on the ground, commissioning, able to offer authors that really close care and collaboration, some of which is quite culturally specific.” HC Ireland is also “responsible for promoting and selling the entire HC UK output to Irish audiences”. 

Despite the disorientation of those transitional first couple of weeks, Nagle’s move has generally been “quite pleasant and straightforward”. He praises the support from the HC UK team, particularly HC Ireland’s managing director Kate Elton, to whom he reports, saying: “I’ve been so impressed and excited by the fact that there’s this incredible willingness behind the scenes to make projects happen in the way that fits the book best… There’s an open-mindedness to realising potential.” He cites the example of one title on HC Ireland’s autumn list, Colin Black’s medical memoir Gas Man (published on 2nd September), being issued in collaboration with HarperNonFiction in the UK. “There’s a broad spectrum of possibility, different ways we can approach projects. We have these incredible specialist teams and resources behind us every single step of the way, so I think it’s something that potentially makes our offering in Ireland a little bit different.”

Considering the wider Irish book trade, Nagle says: “It’s an incredibly vibrant place to work in and around—we have so much talent. But there is this weird gap... people tend to publish with Irish independent houses and then there is a little bit of a leap that needs to be made to kind of ‘graduate’ to big London houses.” He believes HC Ireland can bridge this gap. “We can have one foot in each of those markets. I love the idea of having a small, creative team here, able to foster close ties with the Irish creative community, but also draw on these really big resources and give people an opportunity to reach their full potential in Ireland and abroad.”

According to Nagle, the Irish market has seen “aggressive growth” in recent years, which has “sustained itself right the way through Covid into 2021”, and there is “an increasing interest in Irish-originated content”. He feels the market has changed in the time since he started his current job and that it is “almost in a state of flux”, saying: “[Ireland is] a place that is undergoing massive social and cultural change, and I think Covid has accelerated a lot of that.” He continues: “As chaotic and overwhelming as the past 18 months have felt for so many people, there is also this incredible broadening of this horizon of possibility. It feels like there is an opportunity to publish stories that haven’t been heard before, from communities that have been underrepresented. I believe there is a chance for us to build a list that’s more truly representative of Ireland now.”

In terms of commissioning, he says the team is “keeping an eye out for titles and authors that are of particular relevance to Irish audiences” as well as identifying emerging talent early on and developing it “within this much larger entity”. The division has an open submissions policy and publishes across non-fiction, fiction and children’s genres, although its remit for children’s titles is narrower, focusing on books that are very Irish-specific. “The Irish market tends to be really competitive, it moves very quickly. And I think it’s incumbent on publishers operating in that space to be as open-minded, creative and alive to possibility as they can be. To me, thinking in terms of genres is really unhelpful because in some ways, it narrows the focus to such an extent that you miss opportunities.”

He counts himself as fortunate to have published titles at Gill in “counterintuitive” ways—such as the bestselling What a Complete Aisling series of novels from journalists Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen, which originated from the pair’s Facebook page—and he is keen to “keep the horizon of possibility as broad as possible” at HC Ireland too. “The thing I’m probably most excited about is the idea of publishing unexpected titles, perhaps publishing established public figures but taking them in a direction that people don’t necessarily see coming, or inverting stereotypes or expectations. I think that, more than anything else, is what I want to sit at the heart of our commissioning philosophy.”

The launch list
This autumn, HC Ireland is launching its first titles with a varied six-strong list. Published alongside Gas Man on 2nd September was Mr Spicebag by Freddie Alexander, pitched as an “incredible piece of children’s fiction in the mould of a Roald Dahl, based around the world of the Irish spicebag” (a fast food dish of chips mixed with fried meat and spices). On 14th October come two works of investigative journalism: Punters by Aaron Rogan, the story behind the rise of Paddy Power over the past 20 years; and the division’s lead title for the season, Devotion, a memoir from “widely respected” Gaelic football manager Mickey Harte, whose daughter was murdered while on her honeymoon in Mauritius 10 years ago. Nagle describes it as “a really moving meditation on grief and the role sport has played in helping him through the struggle of the past decade”. Finally, coming on 28th October is A State of Emergency by broadcast journalist Richard Chambers, an “entertaining” and “sobering” account of Ireland’s collective experience of the past 18 months, and Returning Light, an “immensely powerful memoir and nature writing” by Robert L Harris, who has been a warden of Skellig Michael (an island off the west coast of Ireland) for the past 30 years. 

Nagle’s ambition is to build the list to 20–25 titles annually. Growing the team is also “part of our agenda in the long-term” and he stresses that the division is keen to hire Irish freelance talent to support them in all stages of the book publishing process. For now though, the priority is to build momentum on the commissioning front. He says: “We’re establishing ourselves in what is a really vibrant, competitive and exciting market. The challenge in the short term is to get the list up to speed and scale. And I hope that in doing that we start to establish a clear identity and voice—a brand, effectively—that is more reflective of the now than publishing in general has been previously.”