December 17, 2014

A Lesson for Irish Children’s Publishers

Back in 2003, the O’Brien Press suffered a major cut in Arts Council funding – a huge blow to one of the country’s top publishers, and unquestionably our most successful and influential native children’s publisher. I responded by writing a letter to the council, appealing for that decision to be reversed. I was only one of many, and the following year, most of the funding was reinstated. Once again, OBP have been hit with a bizarre and undermining cut and it is likely to affect their ability to publish children’s books and to maintain their expert and full-time staff at its present levels.

As a writer, illustrator and designer, I have learned firsthand over more than twenty years, that publishing in Ireland is run on a shoestring. The margins are disturbingly narrow.

This is particularly true of children’s books, with the extra expense of attractive and inventive formats and time-consuming illustration work, while having to charge comparatively lower prices. As well as this, they have to compete with the far greater resources, mainstream marketing and much bigger print runs from publishers in the U.K. who represent the tiny percentage of names who dominate the market.

We live in an increasingly global world and it is right that our publishers should face tough competition, it keeps them on their toes.  But we pay taxes to a government which is supposed to represent our interests and promote our culture, and as with so many things, that representation should start with the nation’s children.

There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that Ireland’s writers have a tremendous wealth of ability to offer their country, but they can and do offer it to foreign publishers if there is nobody here who can pay them.

Children need to see their own country featuring in stories, they need to see their neighbourhoods, their people and their culture in the books they read. They need to hear their slang, laugh at their humour and empathise with characters with whom they can identify.

We are swamped by books from the U.K. and the U.S. and they provide children with access to a fantastic range of stories, but that range has to include some of Irish origin, or the next generation of children will grow up dreaming of a bright future . . . set in Britain or America.

Being a kid is hard. Every day is a learning experience, you always have to do what you’re told, grown-ups control everything and they rarely want to do what you want to do. And don’t even talk about school. Whoever said that schooldays were the best days of our lives didn’t go to any school I ever heard of – and I can look back and be thankful that my primary and secondary schools were as good as I could have asked for. Adults – particularly those who set policy and funding for schools but don’t work in them – are so concerned with cramming your head with the knowledge they think might be useful, promoting the development of the imagination can end up getting shoved right to the bottom of the list of priorities.

But it’s your imagination that gets you through childhood. Knowledge helps you grow up to be a capable adult, but your dreams are what you grow up for. They give you purpose. Algebra and geometry might be able to put a man or woman into space, but it doesn’t happen unless someone dreams of going into space themselves – only then does that knowledge equip them to do it.

Fiction throws aside enough of the rules to let us imagine what could be, to empathise, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to imagine other possible lives. And books exercise that imagination far more than films or television, or computer games – the process is more potent because the entertainment is not simply shown to you, or responding to levers and buttons, it demands that you take part in the act of creation. Your imagination has to do some of the work.

If we are to produce bright, inventive and productive adults, we have to get our children to read. And to make them want to read and to relate those stories to real life, we must produce books that make them feel stories could happen to them, not just to others. Play is as important as education to a child, it is crucial to the development of a healthy mind. It is not enough that our children have Irish-made textbooks to inform them; they need Irish-made fiction to inspire them.

Given that OBP is Ireland’s foremost publisher of children’s books, a decision on their part to stop production of children’s titles would be a death knell for the industry’s efforts to provide indigenous works for the nation’s kids. There has long been a trend among most other Irish publishers to avoid children’s books because of the sheer cost of producing them, mainly because they are unable to compete with imported titles. If the leading native publisher gave up, what message would that send to those who have had an even tougher time in the market?

Even now, authors are forced to look abroad for publishers if they hope to make a living, exacerbating the drain of culture from our country. It’s a simple, financial truth: Our market is so small, you could have a bestseller in Ireland every year and never make a living from your writing.

Without Irish stories to frame their ambitions, children will grow up with little expectation of achieving their ambitions in Ireland, having been saturated with media from other countries. The backdrop for their dreams will be decided by what they read in books and see on television and in films. And with a few exceptions, television and film portraying Irish life hasn’t exactly been holding the kids riveted lately, particularly in proportion to the funding those industries receive.

It would be a poor reflection on the Arts Council if our country could not provide a wealth of Irish culture to where it is most needed and would have greatest effect – the nation’s children. Providing grants for our young after their perceptions have already been shaped by other countries’ literature and media would seem a bit redundant, assuming they haven’t already left for those far away hills they’ve been hearing about ever since they learned to read.

When I first started sending my books around, over fifteen years ago, I didn’t even bother approaching Irish publishers – I went straight for agents in Britain. I didn’t see a market for my types of books in Ireland. I was confident that there was a place for them in the international market . . . so why not Ireland? Well, because I originally thought of the Irish market as a stifling place, where the only books I saw from native publishers were history books, textbooks, Irish language texts, local interest material and the carefully packaged glossed culture we sell to tourists. These seemed to be the only areas where Irish publishers could compete with their British counterparts, simply because the U.K. publishers didn’t want them.

I’ve since learned a lot more about what Irish publishers can do – and there have also been huge changes in that time, but these publishers have to continue serving a narrow market to survive, even when they want to expand into other areas. Every plunge into mainstream publishing, targeting popular markets dominated by foreign publishers, is a major risk for native companies and many have stopped taking that risk. So for a writer who wants to make his or her mark in the children’s book market, approaching Irish publishers is not an obvious choice. I would not have sent my books to OBP if I had not already talked to them about illustration work – at that time, they had produced very few books for the audience I was trying to reach. I was contacted by a British agency the week after O’Brien made me an offer for my novels, and it was only the clear commitment and enthusiasm of the people at OBP that kept me from going over to the agency. I now have an agent and have been published by dozens of different companies in different countries, but having been involved in the Irish children’s books community for over a decade, I can appreciate all that our industry has achieved. At the beginning, however, and from the outside, I found it hard to see what Irish publishers could offer aspiring writers.

As for the illustration and design work that was my trade for more than ten years before I was published as a writer, I had to emigrate to London because of the then miserable rates of pay for illustration in Irish publishing. Every illustrator I have met who has tried to make his living solely from book illustration in this country has ended up having to look for work abroad, turning to advertising work (normally an illustrator’s second choice), or giving up altogether. Designers, too, can find better paid work almost anywhere else and the result is that, for a long long time, most Irish-produced books looked second rate compared to their British counterparts. That has changed; publishing in Ireland has become far more professional, more deliberate, imaginative and expert in the work it produces for kids and it was the O’Brien Press who led that charge.

Now, instead of receiving annual funding as an organization, they are being forced to apply for individual funding for one book at a time, when they publish twenty or more children’s books a year. They endured the recession and the digital frenzy, cutting nearly a quarter of their staff in 2009 and reducing everyone else’s salaries. Since this new type of application has been introduced, they have only been successful in getting funding for a few books . . . And they are the only mainstream publisher that has been put in this position. In these applications, their staff’s salaries cannot be included as costs, so it’s as if they’re being encouraged to hire freelancers and part-timers instead of full-time staff – one of the best ways of ensuring people can’t build a long-term career in publishing and contributing to the general sense of insecurity and, ironically, the prioritizing of short-term, economic concerns over more longer-lasting cultural ones. And that’s just the people are who are employed full-time. I’m not going to start ranting on here about the scant possibility of writers making a living.

The O’Brien Press is one of the few companies who have been trying to do more than just survive, by constantly raising their standards and searching for new authors and alternative projects. But it seems as if they have been penalised by the Arts Council for showing that Irish publishing can do more than produce another retelling of the 1916 Rising, or a guide to the Aran Islands, or a local celebrity’s biography.

For OBP’s ongoing efforts to promote quality, far-reaching Irish fiction, and for endeavouring to produce brighter and better children’s books, the Arts Council have drastically reduced their funding.

Other Irish publishers will surely take this lesson to heart.

 

May 8, 2012

Ireland’s New Children’s Laureate

Congratulations to Niamh Sharkey, on becoming our new Children’s Laureate. The announcement was made by President Michael D Higgins at a ceremony in the headquarters of the Arts Council this morning. To my great disappointment, I couldn’t attend because I knackered my back over the weekend, and am currently walking around like some lop-sided zombie, but I wish Niamh lots of success in the role. She will be a great ambassador for children’s books, while having a very different approach to Siobhan Parkinson, our first Laureate.

Niamh is the author and illustrator of numerous beautiful picture books, including ‘The Ravenous Beast’, ‘Santasaurus’ and ‘I’m a Happy Hugglewug’. The Hugglewugs are soon to star in their own new animated series, produced by Brown Bag Films and broadcasted worldwide on the Disney Channel, so Niamh’s going to be run off her feet for the next couple of years, but I’m really looking forward to seeing what she does as Laureate, and in what new directions she chooses to take it. One can assume that some focus on illustration will be on the cards, but beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.

Congratulations again, Niamh.

Book design is one of Niamh’s passions, so I thought I’d post this link to an excellent TED talk I found recently on David Maybury’s blog. Here’s book designer Chip Kidd discussing his art. Enjoy.

July 21, 2011

A Long-Term Commitment

Caroline Horn has an article in ‘The Bookseller’ that tells a sobering story about the current state of the children’s publishing industry in the UK – one that can obviously be applied to Ireland as well. Many well established children’s authors and illustrators are really struggling to make a living, partly due to a reduction in sales, partly due to the decreasing value of the books that are sold (children’s books are priced lower than other books, often despite higher production costs) and partly because publishers have grown extremely cautious, and are publishing fewer books, further apart.

What’s interesting about the article is not just the piece itself, but also the barrage of comments that come after. It’s a good snapshot of a cross-section of the publishing world. If you’re an up-and-coming writer, you should check it out – it might be educational. If you’re an experienced writer, chances are, you know a lot of this stuff already.

If you’re an illustrator, you’ll already be well used to trying to strike the balance between the work that you love, and the stuff that pays.

As I’ve said before, this is a tough period in the market, and I’d hate to be starting now, but it’s not quite time for new authors to be taking the toaster into the bath. It’s never been a simple matter of just pitching your line out there and sitting waiting for someone to bite. This has always been a tough industry to get started in, and in which to maintain a career. It’s easy to look back over the early part of this decade, see the headline acts, and think that’s how it’s supposed to be. But browse your way back to the dawn of publishing and you’ll find many of the names we hold up as shining examples now just did not make a living from their books.

Things are tough compared to a few years ago, but it was never easy, and in some ways it’s a lot easier now than it used to be. I’m not just talking about the digital media that are supposed to be solving all new authors’ problems, or the greater disposable income people have (even in these raw times – though they might not be spending it on books). These days, it’s automatic for professionals in the industry to immediately go from a book deal, to considering other means of output; foreign rights, newspaper syndication, comic adaptations, audio-book, radio, television, film. These are all much more accessible than they used to be, and the movement between them is more fluid.

Writers have so much more information at their fingertips about how to hone their skills, how to get published, what it’s like to be published and making a living from it. In Ireland alone, we have access to resources such as the Children’s Books Ireland support site at cb info, the Irish Writer’s Centre, the Irish Writers’ Union, Irish PEN and any number of other writers’ centres, workshops, courses and seminars, as well as all the sites supporting writers on the web. We can get funding for projects from the Arts Council. We also have access to a lot of the resources in the UK too.

As far as making the most of the market is concerned, I still believe that there are a lot of opportunities that publishers are missing because their thinking is stuck in a rut. But it’s a hard fact that this weird, passionate and bizarrely hit-and-miss industry works in certain ways, and you have to work with it. I posted a while back about the importance for authors to take the long-term view, but we also have to take responsibility for our careers. If you want to make a living from this malarkey, it’s not enough to be a writer. I am a self-employed businessman, and it’s really down to me to make it work.

This is a long-term commitment. This is my career, and I don’t rely on one publisher, or one stream of income, or one market. I do all I can to promote my books, to put myself in the way of opportunity and I try to be as prepared as I can for when opportunities arise. I’ve published twenty-one books – with more coming out – I’ve had some pretty big sellers and some critical success . . .

And I still can’t count on any kind of security from this line of work . . . but that’s how it is.

In return for working my arse off and taking some pretty big risks – and this unstable career path is one long series of risks – I get up in the morning to a job I absolutely love, and one I feel privileged to have. Getting published was just the start. Now I’m having to earn my keep, and I can’t count on any publisher to do that for me.