Irish publishers revel in unlikely lockdown surge but urge support for booksellers

Irish publishers revel in unlikely lockdown surge but urge support for booksellers

On a pure top-line basis, there probably has been no book trade territory in the world that has had a better pandemic than Ireland. In 2020, sales through Nielsen BookScan’s Irish Consumer Market hit €161.5m, a jump of €14m on 2019 and the second-best full-market haul on record. And 2021 is shaping up to become the record year, with sales to date up 15% on 2020 (see full analysis). 

Astonishing numbers, given Ireland’s strict Covid-19 response: Ireland’s third national lockdown lasted from 27th December 2020 to mid-May, and full restrictions are not scheduled to be lifted until 22nd October. But it would be unwise to say the past 18 months have been an unalloyed success, as there have been stresses and strains, seismic changes in consumer behaviour and ways of working—that may become permanent—and, for retailers in particular, the ongoing stultifying effects of Brexit. 

An image from Old Ireland in Colour 2, which is expected to be a hit sequel this christmas.

By far Ireland’s biggest hit of the pandemic has been John Breslin and Sarah-Anne Buckley’s Old Ireland in Colour from Merrion Press, the smash of Christmas 2020 which has shifted nearly 60,000 units for €1.3m. Conor Graham, publisher and m.d. of Merrion and its sister company Irish Academic Press (IAP), says as physical bookshops reopened in autumn 2020 there was “definitely some pent-up consumer demand. We did essentially a full year’s turnover in the last three months”. 

While Merrion/IAP’s sales are buoyant even compared to its record 2020—and it has just released Old Ireland in Colour 2, on what was a bumper 24 hours for Irish booksellers as it launched on the same day as Sally Rooney’s newest—Graham is not exactly ebullient on 2021 overall. He says: “Yes, sales are great now and we are excited about the good list we have this autumn. But the long lockdown this winter and spring really adversely affected staff morale. We suspended publishing for a few months and even when we came back in late spring, the print runs were about half what they normally would have been. It’s been difficult.”

The big change over the course of the pandemic, Graham notes, is not the number of books Merrion has been selling, but from where those books have sold: “The shift is in the supply chain. My main customers, from one to three, used to be Eason, Argosy [the distributor and supplier to Irish bookshops] and Amazon. Now Amazon is top and the trend to online is undeniable. My worry: is it irreversible? There are probably people who bought books from Amazon last year who had never done it before, and maybe never wanted to, but needs must.” 

The O’Brien Press m.d. Ivan O’Brien notes a similar boost for online over the pandemic, with its business through Amazon increasing about 50%. There was also a “massive, massive” rise in customers ordering directly from the press’ own website. O’Brien adds: “We desperately need bookshops. The type of book we were selling [during lockdowns] was different as there was no browsing, no back of the shop, it was difficult for backlist sales. Yes, we are a front of shop publisher, but maybe more of a back of shop one: I’m interested in the first six months after publication, but really interested in the first six years. So, it was great when the shops reopened and a lot of them innovated massively.” 

Pushing physical
Aoife Roantree, manager of the now Eason-owned Dubray mini-chain’s Grafton Street, Dublin flagship, and chair of Bookselling Ireland (BI), also praised the innovation of her fellow BI members in dealing with the rapidly changing landscape of the past 18 months. She concedes the lockdowns for bricks-and-mortar shops have brought difficulties, though says things are looking up as autumn beckons: “Most of our members are back up to pre-Covid sales levels, barring some shops in big urban centres or very tourism-reliant areas. There has been a strong message and motivation to ‘shop Irish’ as we have reopened, which has been helpful. But there are a cohort who, frankly, just don’t care and will continue to shop with Amazon as it’s easier. So that’s a concern, because the worry is that if the overall market numbers look great, the publishers won’t engage enough with supporting bookshops now as things are starting to open back up fully again. Some publishers are far more engaged on this than others.”

A big worry for shops as they look to this autumn, Roantree says, is not necessarily Covid and its many restrictions and challenges, but “the ongoing nine months of a Brexit nightmare”. She explains: “To some extent, even though things are changeable, Covid is sort of a known quantity by now and is easier to deal with. The supply issues are not, as the BI and the BA are constantly talking to publishers, couriers and distributors as new challenges keep coming up.”

The difficulties were initially long delays when regulations kicked in in January, with paperwork unable to be processed efficiently (“It’s not like people didn’t know this was coming,” Roantree notes). The current troubles are that couriers seem unable to handle the autumn volume—plus, there is the underlying issue of the extra shipping cost to booksellers that perhaps will never go away. This is no small problem, as a little less than four out of five of every book stocked in shops across the island of Ireland are shipped from Britain (in terms of trade from the UK, Northern Ireland and Ireland are viewed as one entity). And a big test is yet to come, Roantree warns, when the post-autumn returns season kicks in. 

Back to work?
As in Britain, day-to-day life for Irish publishers has of course changed over the pandemic, with remote working becoming the norm. For an industry that arguably has an even bigger capital city-centric issue than the UK, the pandemic has levelled the playing field—and then some—for those based outside Dublin. It has boosted interactivity between publishers, argues Ruth Hallinan, The Lilliput Press publishing and production manager, and new president of Publishing Ireland. She says: “That we as an industry are using more digital tools has been one of the positives. For example, Publishing Ireland runs monthly training sessions and switching those to online may not be ideal, but it has meant that more people have been able to [attend] without going into central Dublin. And we do a programme called Fever Pitch with Bookselling Ireland, with publishers presenting their books directly to shops. It has been so much easier for booksellers and publishers to ‘meet’ when we have done them virtually.”

New Island commissioning editor Aoife K Walsh says that the way publishers have had to “in that overused word, pivot” in marketing and bringing books to readers “has transformed how we launch titles. We now think of them in much longer terms, even from acquisition, trying to hit those pre-orders and keep the momentum up months after launch. I think it’s helped us all do our job a bit better under extraordinary circumstances.”

That pivoting has tapped into the “buy Irish” theme, Walsh argues: “That digital way of marketing has created this turn back to the local, to the personal. Unlike, say, Warner Bros or Sony, or other entertainment companies, publishers struggle with their brand identity; it’s our authors’ names on the covers. But I think the pandemic has meant people have really tuned in to what their local bookshop and what their local book publisher are doing. And for an independent indigenous publishing industry in Ireland, that’s been really important.”