Sunday 18 August 2019

A definitive study of publishing in Ireland

History: The History of Irish Book Publishing

Tony Farmar

The History Press, €25

Tramp Press is a publishing company founded in Dublin in 2014 by Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff
Tramp Press is a publishing company founded in Dublin in 2014 by Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff

Deirdre Raftery

The History of Irish Book Publishing is a beautifully-produced book, that manages to be both celebratory and scholarly. Published posthumously, the book is testament to Tony Farmar’s vast knowledge of the world of Irish writing, and his enthusiasm for publishing history. It includes small and large publishing houses, and champions independent publishing in Ireland. Men and women publishers are equally noted, from the early ‘giants’ such as Michael Gill, to Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff who have had outstanding recent achievements with Tramp Press.

Indeed, Farmar reminds us that it was Tramp Press that helped to expose contradictions in the Man Booker Prize rules. When Tramp published Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones in 2016, it was deemed ineligible for the Booker. The following year, when Tramp sold the rights to a UK publisher, Solar Bones appeared on the Booker longlist. Tramp Press publicised the discrepancy in Booker policy to great effect. This drew attention to ongoing negotiations between the committee of the Man Booker, Publishing Ireland, and the Royal Irish Academy. From January 2018, Irish publishers became eligible to nominate titles for consideration. 

Packed with nuggets of publishing information, the book is divided into two parts. Part one comprises a thoroughly-researched history of Irish publishing, from the 19th to the 21st centuries. Part two is described as a “chronicle”. It is a year-by-year summary of key events and people in Irish publishing.

 Each entry is concise, yet factual, and the inclusion of the chronicle allows the author to display his knowledge with panache. But the main body of the book comprises the 10 chapters in part one, that survey the field and leave no stone unturned.

Farmar’s impetus for writing this book was his concern that people tend to view publishing as “merely as the method by which literary texts get into the hands of readers”.

He wanted people to know about “the physicality” of books, and how they are designed and constructed. He also wanted to lay bare the processes of book distribution, sale, and usage. He revels in the world of publishing, explaining in detail how it is both a business and a profession.

Some Irish publishers have played a crucial role in encouraging authors, and have invested their technical expertise and capital in manuscripts that they believe have literary quality.

However, literary masterpieces are rarely bestsellers. Farmar reminds us that most publishers stay afloat by having a balanced portfolio of books. He notes that Dublin firms such as Gill, Duffy and Talbot, balanced their literary output with education, religion and politics. Stanley Unwin, a distinguished British publisher, said that the first duty of a publisher was to remain solvent: a bankrupt publisher was of use to neither writers nor readers.

Successful Irish publishers have managed to respond to the “literary swings of fashion”, while also bringing out a steady amount of law, science, education and theology. The Hodges family, which had several firms and partners over many decades, became successful in the 19th Century, having become official booksellers to Trinity College Dublin and to the Queen’s Colleges of Cork and Galway.

Another firm which built up a robust list of factual and educational publications was Alex Thom, who secured the Post Office printing contract. From 1844, Thom began publishing directories, educational titles and legal reference books.

Michael Henry Gill also became a prominent Irish publisher in the 19th Century, and — like  Hodges — ran a university press alongside commercial publishing ventures. Gill would became an Irish publishing success story, settling into a premises on Sackville Street in 1876, where it remained for 100 years.

Ireland’s early success in the export of books is also examined. School textbooks, published by the Irish Commissioners of National Education, were exported in their thousands to English and colonial schools in the mid-19th Century.

The success of this export business caused premier British publishers, including both Longman and Murray, to complain to the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, about “unfair competition” from Ireland. Lord John did little to mollify the two publishing giants.

Farmar’s skill as a social historian is evident throughout the book, and his discussion of the impact of 19th Century circulating libraries, and the popularity of British “three-decker” novels, is lively.

Three-volume novels, which compelled avid readers to buy each volume, soon became “bloated” and poor in quality. By the end of the century, libraries refused to stock them. In Ireland, publishers avoided them, favouring shorter novels that sold well in bookshops.

The growing appetite for amusing fiction in the 20th Century is explored well by Farmar, who reminds readers of Augustine Birrell’s comment that “half a dozen really popular novels… will put their authors in possession of a sum of money more than equalling the slow accumulations of a laborious professional life”.

The publication of popular periodicals is also surveyed. “Almost everyone had a try,” Farmar tells us. Somerville and Ross, Yeats, Joyce, George Moore, and Oscar Wilde were all published in periodicals.

Farmar is particularly knowledgeable about how books were produced, offering a clear account of developments in mechanisation and printing.

He is also at home in discussing the social world of 20th Century Irish publishing, and clearly knew almost every writer and publisher in this country during his own professional life.

This volume will be cherished by book lovers, and will become a valued reference tool.

Indeed, it is unlikely that anyone will attempt to revisit the theme any time soon: Farmar’s work will become the definitive study of Irish book publishing for decades.

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