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As the fish need the sea to survive, writers need publishers to breathe

THE journey of Irish publishing over four decades is encapsulated in the title of Brian Lynch's first solo collection, in 1969. One of Ireland's most consistently interesting poets, he had published a joint debut, Endsville, with Paul Durcan a year previously. However when New Writers Press launched his first separate volume, the sense that modern Irish publishing was still in its infancy could be gleamed from its title: No Die Cast.

This was essentially chosen because it was the longest title the publishers could construct from the 11 pieces of large letterpress type they had purchased to print the title of their previous book, Dedications. Lacking the resources to purchase more of this point-size, they were reduced to playing Scrabble.

Irish publishing has come a long way from there to the superb production values of Judging Dev -- one of four titles shortlisted for this year's Argosy Irish Published Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. With sales of 20,000, Judging Dev has proved a huge success for the Royal Irish Academy, which (though one of Ireland's oldest academic publishers) has grown more pro-active in commissioning new titles.

Indeed, the diversity of this year's Argosy Non-Fiction shortlist presents a healthy image of Irish publishing. Deirdre Purcell's bestselling Follow Me Down to Dublin (Hodder Headline Ireland) adroitly and successfully walks a neat tight-rope in avoiding nostalgia while presenting a vivid series of pen-pictures of Dublin over the last half century -- primarily by allowing Dubliners from different generations to speak for themselves. Both of Gill & Macmillan's short-listed titles reveal contrasting hidden worlds. Justine Delaney Wilson's The High Society generated enormous controversy in attempting to reflect the hidden circles of middle-class cocaine use.

A different hidden world is revealed in Stephen Walker's superb re-creation of the lives of 28 Irishmen shot at dawn during the First World War, in Forgotten Soldiers. This showed the remarkable disparity about the treatment of Irish volunteers, who were four times more likely to be sentenced to death than other soldiers.

But the success of these titles should not disguise the difficulties of Irish publishers in trying to survive against the vast resources of British conglomerates that dominate publishing.

As Con Collins of the highly respected Cork-based Collins Press says: "We have the same costs publishing for the Irish market as London publishers yet similar economies of scale are impossible to achieve.

"We survive as a business by accepting much longer payback periods and working with much smaller (cheaper, less comfortable, less well paid) overheads. The pluses include seeing titles still selling 10 years after publication, satisfied authors and photographers, plus making a living, of course, doing what you want, not simply being an 'empty raincoat'."

Collins Press is part of a wave of Irish publishers who have found a niche by focusing mainly on non-fiction. Sean O'Keeffe -- co-publisher, with Peter O'Connell, of the energetic Liberties Press -- sums up this explosion.

"We tend to plough our own furrow, publishing high-quality non-fiction titles with broad appeal, based on personal contacts, and work that is offered to us directly by authors or through agents," he says. "We know the market better [than the UK competition]: both from a commissioning and a promotional point of view, and can make a book work on a smaller print run than the multinationals.

"In other words, as well as going for the 'big books', we can also take a chance on an unusual subject that appeals to us, and be pleasantly surprised when it performs well. It is likely that some UK houses who have set up in Ireland will come unstuck as they fight over the few big fish in this relatively small pool."

In an era where few UK publishers are prepared to consider a manuscript submitted directly by an author, this intimacy and openness to risk is what makes Irish non-fiction publishing so vital. While most leading Irish novelists are published from the UK for economic reasons, non-fiction is more fragmented and specialised, with a sense of trust needed that both author and editor understand the world being written about.

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As Pauric Dempsey of the RIA explains: "As the Royal Irish Academy acts as a forum, our editors meet many of the leading academics and writers. That gives us a head start in commissioning new titles.

"The Judging Dev concept of combining text, documents and photos was conceived because our editors knew of the wealth of material in the UCD archives and the National Archives. Editors who really understand the areas being written about are crucial."

Brian Langan, non-fiction editor at Poolbeg, agrees that this relationship between editors and authors is vital, and Poolbeg is making a conscious decision to expand its non-fiction, recognising that this is growing faster than fiction.

Anthony Tierney of Four Courts Press is generous in praising how fellow Irish publishers have upped the quality of books being produced here. "No Irish publisher of non-fiction can afford to rest on their laurels or become complacent," he says. "We believe that Irish published books can now stand proudly alongside books from the giants of non-fiction publishing like OUP and Cambridge."

Yet Des Kenny, of Galway's famous Kennys Bookshop (now thriving in its "virtual" incarnation) makes a distinction within non-fiction between "commissioned" and "non-commissioned" books.

"There has been a marked trend towards most books being commissioned by publishers," he explains. "Some are obviously better than others, but there tends to be a sense of the professional job about them. The real gem is where the author has a story to tell and the ability to tell it.

"When a book comes from the heart, it generally has a greater energy that communicates itself to the reader. These books are the most successful. The problem is that a lot of them don't appear above the radar and struggle to reach their audience."

No Irish publisher has the financial clout to compete with publishing conglomerates, but their continued existence is vital to keep Irish discourse alive. In a fiercely competitive market, Irish publishers have a 15 per cent share of book sales. Yet even with Arts Council support, it can be hard for Irish publishers to keep taking risks and survive.

Speaking frankly in Alan Hayes's interesting report, Is Literary Publishing in Crisis?, many Irish publishers expressed fears about burn-out, stagnation and how UK publishers can heavily discount books and make Irish books seem expensive. There was talk of "a dumbing down of Irish publishing along the celebrity, scandal and crime paths" and of the huge pressure on indigenous publishing -- especially in terms of holding onto Irish authors.

Writing is a perilous career and few authors can afford to resist a large advance abroad, especially when a recent report found that half of Ireland's writers earn less than €10,000 a year from their work.

Yet although Irish writing still remains popular internationally, there is a bigger need than ever for Irish publishers because UK publishers keep gobbling each other up and therefore publish fewer and fewer books. Amalgamation and an increasing lack of capacity makes UK publishers less open to risk.

By being bigger fish in a smaller pond, Irish publishers are more likely to take risks because they are closer to their audience and better placed to engage in the current debates within Irish society.

I wonder would a London editor have recognised in manuscript form the quality of Nuala O'Faolain's memoir Are you Someone? An Irish press took this on, with foreign publishers alerted by its success here. It has since sold a million copies worldwide.

The success of Irish published non-fiction stems from a closeness to its audience -- the fact that publishers have their radar tuned to contemporary debate. It has been helped by the establishment by John Harold of the specialist book printer Colour Books. But with margins tight, some books are printed as far away as China.

Internationally, Irish publishers are still small fry, but they punch above their weight by understanding the society they reflect. Financial pressures are huge, but they are among the shapers of public debate here.

Few readers notice a publisher's name, but maybe it is time they did and that more coverage was given to Irish published books. Indigenous publishers are essential as plankton. In a rapidly changing society it is vital they are supported to provide a platform to let Irish voices chart what is actually going on.

'Walking the Road', Dermot Bolger's play about Francis Ledwidge and the forgotten Irish of the First World War, is playing at the Axis Art Centre, Dublin until April 5. Booking (01) 8832100

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