Responding to Publishing Perspectives: Ireland's Tradition of Small Presses
This came out in July, but I was busy writing, editing, and prepping for my course this fall (in which I taught a novel by Colm Tóibín, another lauded Irish writer who has moved to the US and who is not published by an Irish house [though a quick search indicates that his first two houses were now defunct small Irish presses Raven Arts and Pilgrim Press, back in the '80s, before he moved to being published in England].)
I did an MA at UCD on Irish lit and a PhD on Irish poetry at UC Santa Barbara (so there are my bona fides), and one thing I became entirely fascinated by was the role of the publisher in Ireland. I can't recall the exact numbers off the top of my head, but the arts council report during the boom years showed that about 30% of what was in Irish bookstores was from Ireland, and that only about 30% of Irish authors were published in Ireland.
I spoke with the publisher of a great poetry press back in 2006 about this, and I remember that he -- and later, others -- told me that he felt the problem was not lack of demand, but lack of distribution for Irish titles in Ireland.
I guess there used to be an Irish distributor, but that went out of business, according to the sources I spoke to and read. And, as in the US, where if you're not distributed by Ingram, you basically don't exist to bookstores, a lack of someone pounding the pavement with your catalog in hand, making it easy to order and return your books (a topic for another day), erases you from booksellers' consciousnesses.
In my research, I also discovered that British presses were blatantly ignoring the fact that their contracts with Irish writers who were also published by Gallery or Salmon did not allow them to distribute that work in Ireland. They just assumed that they had the right to sell British versions of Irish books in the Republic, as if it wasn't a different country. Infuriating, especially from a Republican standpoint!
One of the things I also discovered was just how key governmental support of writers and publishing is -- not only the cnuas for the most celebrated writers, but the grants given to publishers of poetry, the bursaries, etc. Ireland's a small island, with a population that doesn't buy much in the way of books (and never has -- it's more of a newspaper culture, seemingly [probably due to a couple centuries of a scraping along sort of economy]), and where, according to the Arts Council report from 1994 (when Heaney was alive) about seven in one hundred had ever bought a book by a living Irish poet (source: Arts Council Report). So without an audience, the government steps in -- or audiences+publishers in the US and Britain do. It's either go to London or go to the Arts Council.
In other words, small presses can make it because there isn't room for big presses, and also because the government supports them (well, some of them -- that's another story), not because there's such a large reading public.
There's such a pride in the tradition of Irish literature, which is truly a grand tradition and which I truly believe continues to be spectacular, yet I wonder now who the audience is for Irish books, especially the more literary (less Binchy, more McBride [who lives in England and was published in England but nevermind, apparently, according to this article?])? Is it an European audience? An American audience? British, even?
I am hoping to write up an academic article on my research into the valuing and funding of literature in Ireland at some point, though it doesn't seem right for a journal of lit crit --maybe one about media and culture would be a better fit.