Books: Small is beautiful for publishers
Changes in the world of literature have enabled two enterprises to buck the trend and go back to grass roots, says Alison Walsh
It's tempting to wonder, with all the tales of doom and gloom, what on earth would possess anyone to set up a new publishing enterprise. Book sales are down, high street names are closing and the publishing world is in flux. However, Ward River Press and Tramp Press are two new Irish initiatives bucking the trend and daring to try something new.
For Paula Campbell, longstanding publisher at Poolbeg Press, the decision to breathe new life into the Ward River Press imprint, which some readers will remember from David Marcus's time with the company back in the 1970s, was a logical one, bringing Poolbeg back to its roots.
"That big wave of commercial fiction exploded and we ran with it, because we'd have been mad not to... and it lasted nearly 20 years and it was huge and, in a way, we put all our eggs in one basket really, because it was so massive and required a huge amount of management."
But then the market for women's popular fiction began to wane and the Celtic Tiger hit the buffers, and Poolbeg, like so many other businesses, began to reassess. The catalyst, ironically, was a Write a Bestseller competition with TV3, as Campbell explains: "The winner was Jennifer Burke, with The Secret Son, which, interestingly, isn't commercial fiction, it was more contemporary, about a family and a will. It was a great read and we sold out of it. And taking into account that commercial fiction has gone into decline, it made me look at our list and say, there is space out there for an imprint that's not so genre led."
For new Irish publisher Tramp Press, market changes worked for them in a slightly different way. Both founders, Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen, had spent time at that standard-bearer of independent publishing, Lilliput Press, learning from publisher Antony Farrell, but what made Tramp Press possible were the huge changes in technology that have swept the industry.
According to Lisa Coen: "There isn't that siloing of knowledge about publishing now that you have the internet. And it used to be so expensive, the editing and the setting of type. I mean, people used to lose a finger typesetting! The fact that we can do so much with programmes cuts out a lot of the industry aspect of it. It's easier to be agile now."
The two ventures are catering for different parts of the market – Ward River Press for book club fiction, meaty issues that bear discussion over a glass or two of wine, and Tramp for a largely literary market – but both are driven by a desire to return to the grass roots of publishing.
Paula Campbell says: "I quite like the idea, after all these years, of being able to say 'I like this book', rather than a decision being made because of the market demands and so on."
For Tramp Press it's all about following gut instinct, as Sarah Davis-Goff explains: "We react to brilliance and want to find books that will leave us sweaty with excitement. We don't trust anyone's taste but mine and Lisa's. It's not just about books that will sell..." And Davis-Goff's gut is obviously pretty good, having plucked Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart off the slushpile at Lilliput Press.
But what about those pesky commercial imperatives? Paula Campbell agrees that the flat market in terms of book sales makes things a little easier: "We'd hope for a book to explode and take off, but with chick lit, we'd sell thousands upon thousands; anyone that made a massive race up bestseller lists would sell that much quicker." Now, "It's not as aggressive as it was. Literary novels are more of a slow burn and there's more of an opportunity to build word of mouth with book clubs and bookshops."
For Sarah Davis-Goff, "The problem is that publishers are looking at a book on the merits of its commerciality and not looking at it and asking themselves if it's a really good book and worth publishing on its own terms. We're approaching it from the opposite end. When we pick up a book from our slushpile and we read it, we just want to engage with how brilliant the book is."
It's the kind of thinking that made prizewinning books out of The Spinning Heart and Eimear MacBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, published by Galley Beggar Press.
The other advantage to both Ward River Press and Tramp Press is that their size means they are nimble. According to Paula Campbell, Ward River Press "is going to be small, and this also leaves me space to deal with a book that lands on my desk and says, 'this needs to be published and it needs to be published quickly'."
She gives as an example Ruby's Tuesday by Gillian Binchy. "That was a very quick turnaround for everybody," because its heartfelt subject matter, when a pregnant woman discovers her child is incompatible with life, is so current.
And this attention to scale is reflected in the size of the lists: Tramp Press will publish just three titles this year, including Oona Frawley's Flight, which Lisa Coen read "in a cafe on a cold day in January and it was so magical, so beautifully observed and so meticulous", and a collection of interpretations of Joyce's Dubliners, by writers including John Boyne, Donal Ryan and Pat McCabe.
Ward River's launch list includes journalist Martina Devlin's The House Where it Happened as well as one of Ward River's original titles, The Friday Tree by Sophia Hillen, and novels by rising stars Caroline Finnerty and Helen Moorhouse.
For both, social media is key to building an audience for their books, as are sales through the website and of foreign rights, but the physical bookselling environment is testing, as Paula Campbell says: "We're running out of outlets, I mean, you really only have Dubray and Waterstones here, and Eason, and of course, you wonder how to make an impact, but we've had a very positive response from independent bookshops to this imprint" because "we're small and Irish and quick to get something out." A description which could equally apply to Tramp.
And it would seem the wind is blowing in the right direction for these adventurous Irish publishers. With Penguin Random House launching 'my' independent bookshop, where people can come together to recommend their favourite reads, and other large publishers creating small boutique imprints, such as Headline's Tinder Press to personalise the publishing experience for readers, it would seem that small really is beautiful again.
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