What I Learned at Publishing Ireland's 'The Life Cycle of The Book'

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

This month I attended Publishing Ireland's 'The Life Cycle of The Book' seminar series, held every Tuesday for the past four weeks. Beginning with 'The Writing Process', 'Getting Published', 'What Publishers Do', and concluding just this evening with 'Reaching Readers', the series touched on every aspect of the book's journey to its readers. As someone who would love one day to work in the publishing industry, I was attending simply to soak up as much information about the industry as I possibly could. And, inevitably, I learned a lot. 

Even Authors Forget to Footnote

Ronan McGreevy, a journalist with The Irish Times, spoke about what inspired him to write Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front, a history book which traces monuments to the Irish of WWI. Not exactly my area of interest admittedly, so the most memorable moment for me was when Ronan admitted to forgetting to footnote as he went along. There were audible gasps throughout the room as he detailed having to find page numbers from hundred year old tomes in the National Library. A rookie mistake for first year university students everywhere and professional authors, apparently. 

The Author’s Name is the Book’s First Sentence

Vanessa Fox O'Laughlin writes crime fiction under the pseudonym Sam Blake - a name she chose for its simplicity. This seemed unnecessary to me as I don't find her real name to be complicated, but that's probably because I'm Irish. However, she did bring up the interesting point of your name (or pseudonym) constituting a part of the text; the author's name is, after all, one of the first things you read before you choose to read the book itself. While most would probably argue that the author’s name falls into the ‘paratext’ category, as some of the first ‘words’ the reader encounters, it is a highly influential part of the book. 

Authors Still Androgynise Their Names

It wasn’t only J. K. Rowling. The fact that Sam Blake is a slyly androgynous name is a very significant factor - perhaps even more so than the supposed simplicity of the name. 

Writing ≠ Storytelling

Vanessa Fox O’Laughlin spoke about the steep learning curve she had to endure when learning how to write fiction. She reiterated some of the popular but nonetheless very important writing tips such as the infamous show don’t tell, and my personal favourite: writing is in the re-writing. Anna Carey, who had previously worked as a script writer for Fair City, was already accustomed to writing story - hitting particular plot points and tonal beats. For her, the real work was in the research. 

Use Your Library

Anna Carey, whose most recent novel, The Making of Mollie, is a middle grade historical novel about teenage suffragettes, discovered the perfect plot the old-fashioned way: by researching the period in question at the library. Anna's key points were to always have a daily word count goal, and to research well. I think this kind of advice can be applied to all writers, not only those who are framing their stories within a historical context. 

Personalise Your Queries

Faith O’Grady, a literary agent with the Lisa Richards Agency, and Deirdre Nolan, Commissioning Editor of Gill Books, were both visibly shuddering at the idea of receiving an email addressed “to whom it may concern” and CC’d to oblivion. Someone really should’ve told Emma Stone’s character in La La Land. 

Take Your Writing Seriously

Declan Meade, founder and publisher of The Stinging Fly literary magazine, emphasised the importance of taking your work seriously - because until you do, no one else will. Halfhearted submissions (“sure, I’ll give it a go”) written mere days before a submission deadline aren’t helping anyone, and certainly not your career. 

Agents and Editors Aren't Always on the Same Team 

Royalties are, seemingly, a point of contention between agents and publishers. Faith O'Grady, as an agent, appeared to dislike the idea of net income as opposed to list price (unless it was a particularly good deal), while Deirdre Nolan, as an editor, was all for them. Of course, you won't see anything until you've earned your advance's worth, which might encourage you to go for a smaller advance.  However, Faith noted that most author's need as big an advance as possible - you know, to pay their rent and things like that. Deirdre admitted to reluctantly ceding to such demands, although she was firm with her limits. 

Penguin Ireland Editors Read Straight From the Slush Pile

Although Penguin Random House is a huge company, the Irish branch is, inevitably, very small. As such, they can take unsolicited manuscripts. They don't have readers, nor do they employ interns (believe me, I've emailed), so the slush pile is read directly by editors at Penguin Ireland, like Brendan Barrington, who confirmed this to be true. 

Even Solicited Manuscripts Have a Low Acceptance Rate

Brendan Barrington, the aforementioned Penguin Editor, explained that while your chances are certainly higher if your book happens to be represented by an agent, the vast majority are still rejected. Landing an agent is no guarantee of publication. 

Not All Good Publicity is Good Publicity

Paul Neilan, Sales Manager at Gill, told us a story of good publicity gone (nearly) very bad. Ryan Tubridy spotted a copy of the then-unpublished Irelandopedia on a producer’s desk at RTE. After perusing it, he preceded to rave about the book, unprompted, on live radio, for fifteen minutes. This was a publishing disaster for Gill Books because the book was not due to be in stores for weeks, and people eager to buy the book at Tubridy’s recommendation would not be able to access it. However, by some act of divine intervention, Gill was able to pull out all the stops and have Irelandopedia on shelves the following morning.

Children’s Books Make Up Nearly a Third of the Market

Maria Dickenson, current Managing Director of Dubray Books and past Head Buyer with Easons, provided us with the happy statistic that children’s books make up 30% of the Irish market. Yay!

Moreover, Children’s is Expanding

Martin Doyle, the newly appointed Books Editor of The Irish Times, revealed that they are doubling the space for children’s books on their website (run by Claire Hennessy). Easons’ flagship store on O’Connell Street has also recently shown its investment in children’s books in the move of ‘Department 51’ (aka the YA section) from the ground floor’s back corner to a much larger area in the basement. 

Sometimes Buyers Get it Wrong

Maria Dickenson, when discussing the risky business of buying large amounts of hyped books, admitted that Dubray expected to sell a lot more of the Fantastic Beasts screenplays than they have so far. Maria seemed confused by the fact that so many fans bought Cursed Child (which, she noted, is not written by J.K. Rowling) while comparatively very few have picked up Fantastic Beasts (which is written by Rowling). The reason for this seemed like a no-brainer to me, and it’s why I have Cursed Child on my shelf and not Fantastic Beasts: exclusivity. Almost every Harry Potter fan has access to a cinema and enough money for a ticket. A tiny portion of Potter fans have had the means to see the extremely in-demand West End play. 

Books are Judged By Their Cover Now More Than Ever

The importance of effective cover design was brought up by almost everyone over the course of the four weeks. Emma Byrne, an in-house designer for O'Brien, repeatedly found herself coming back to an emphasis of the book as an object and an experience. I thoroughly agree with her on this point, being someone who likes to swoon over the smell of a book (old or new). Maria Dickenson also remarked that the dawn of e-books has given the look and feel of the book more weight as an incentive for readers to invest in the physical book. 

Don't Be Pissed Off If Someone Hasn't Read Your Book

Susan Cahill of Newstalk's Talking Books identifies herself as an avid reader. However, in the fast-paced (some might say cut-throat) world of radio, she simply doesn't have time to read every interviewee's book. Nothing personal, she stressed, it's just the way it is. In fact, she seemed to prefer it when author's (even those whose books she has read and loved) speak more generally about issues surrounding their book or other ways that listeners might relate to them more broadly. 

The Internet Has Democratised Writing 

Martin Doyle, Books Editor of The Irish Times, spoke about how he has expanded the online presence of the paper's book coverage, and how the Internet has allowed for more voices than ever before. Martin has also enjoyed loosening the reins on the review/interview format, often preferring to invite authors to write their own feature instead. 

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