Business Irish

Sunday 25 August 2019

This working life: 'The Irish people have a love of examining their own history'

Ronan Colgan

Managing Director, Wordwell Publishing

In conversation with Mary McCarthy

Bright future: Ronan Colgan of Wordwell believes e-books will not spell the end for printed works
Bright future: Ronan Colgan of Wordwell believes e-books will not spell the end for printed works

Enduring appeal

Publishing is supposed to be recession-proof but we saw in the last crash it's not. The concern with Brexit would be that if the UK economy took a big hit, it may have an impact here. Irish publishing is robust right now, with sales up in the past four years in all genres, but most publishers work on extremely tight margins.

The best-selling genres in Ireland are non-fiction and history, children's books and then literary fiction. The Arts Council supports children's publishing and literary fiction.

Audio is a big growth area and just as e-books are dominated by Kindle, this sector is dominated by Audible, also Amazon-owned.

Non-fiction and business do well. Amazon doesn't release sales figures but it's thought men between the ages of 25 and 44 and commuters have been big drivers.

E-books have been around for more than 20 years and when they exploded seven years ago, with the arrival of the Kindle, everyone looked at the music industry in fear. But that parallel never happened as people still wanted the experience of reading, and will even lug extra baggage on holidays.

Another big reason printed books won't die is that you cannot give an e-book as a gift, or flag your own taste and intelligence with an Instagram post of a bookshelf stacked with clever books. E-books don't decorate a room and for certain non-fiction books, photographs are key. Clever design can widen the appeal of any book and Irish publishers have really upped their game.

Conversational currency

Word-of-mouth advertising is the Holy Grail for publishers. When people feel they are expected to have an opinion on a book, this is what we strive for. Advertising in the right places can work and authors doing press interviews, podcasts and literary events is a powerful way to reach readers.

I'm conflicted on whether Twitter is a good force in publishing; is it a good source of news or a hollow vessel, and a colossal waste of everyone's time?

Piracy happens, though it is more an issue for international educational publishers. And a small amount is OK.

The aim is to get your book talked about. E-books allow for limited sharing, which is designed to keep honest people honest.

UK support

The recent strength of Irish publishing has been helped by the support of UK publishers - technically our competition. We have an intertwined literary heritage.

The biggest moment in my career was the phone call from the Booker Prize committee last year that confirmed books published in English by Irish publishers would be allowed to submit entries to the award.

I was president of Publishing Ireland at the time, and myself and Ruth Hegarty had been negotiating for some time. This came into force last year and gives independent Irish publishers the same eligibility as publishers with UK headquarters.

The decision was testament to the talent we have in Ireland. A tangible example in 2016 laid the groundwork case, when Mike McCormack's 'Solar Bones' was only long-listed after it was published by a Scottish firm. It had originally been published by the Irish independent publisher Tramp Press. The Booker is one of the most important literary prizes globally and being in with an equal chance is huge for small Irish publishers.

Thirst for history

Irish people have a love of examining their current relationships with their own history and with other countries through the prism of the past. It is an intense interest, something we can be proud of.

Wordwell was set up in 1986 and publishes three magazines - 'Archaeology Ireland', 'History Ireland' and 'Books Ireland' - which has provided us with a community and market for the archaeology and historical books we publish.

The strength of the Irish market for homegrown history publishing is fascinating and it is worth more than €5m.

In the autumn, we will launch another printing press, Eastwood Books, to focus solely on local and general history.

Our first four books include a history of Kilkenny and Strandhill in Sligo, an examination of the secret negotiations between Michael Collins and the British government during the war of independence, and a photographic history of Ireland during the Second World War.

I would love to commission more historical books from women and this is something we're hoping to do. You see the big stars, like Catriona Crowe and Mary Beard, but on the bookshelves, the female perspective is conspicuously absent.

Love of books

I studied English and set my sights on publishing. But when I graduated 20 years ago, there were no jobs in the industry in Ireland.

Most publishers were small, family-owned or in the education sector, so I got my start in the UK.

The job situation has improved in Ireland since then, particularly with international firms like Penguin and Hachette coming in, but it's still quite a tough industry to get into.

Books are my way to relax, and I consume an eclectic mix. At the moment, I'm reading about the octopus and evolution of intelligent life. Patrick Honohan's exceptional book on the Central Bank during the crash and listening to Alan Partridge reading his own autobiography should be mentioned in the same sentence.

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