On Publishing for the Public Good

A letter written on behalf of the O’Brien Press when it was discovered that they might lose their Arts Council Grant, an important element in their annual decision whether or not to publish non-commercial books:

To Whom It May Concern:

As a writer, my relationship with publishing in Ireland is only beginning. As an illustrator and designer, I have learned firsthand over more than ten years, that publishing in Ireland is run on a shoestring. This is particularly true of children’s books, despite the fact that they demand the extra expense of attractive and inventive formats and time-consuming illustration work, competing with the huge resources, oppressive marketing and massive print runs of publishers in the U.K.

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 talent to offer their country, but they will be offering 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 with books from the U.K. and the U.S. and they provide children with access to a fantastic range of books, but that range has to include some of Irish origin, or the next generation of children will grow dreaming of bright futures… 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 never 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. Adults are so concerned with cramming your head with the knowledge they think might be useful, promoting the development of the imagination gets put right to the bottom of the list of priorities.

But it’s your imagination that gets you through childhood. Knowledge helps you grow up wise, but your dreams are what you grow up for. They give us purpose. Who cares that algebra and geometry can put man into space? Nobody. Not unless some part of them dreams of going into space themselves – then that knowledge has a purpose.

Fiction throws aside enough of the rules to let us imagine what could be, and books exercise that imagination far more than films or television, or computer games. 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, we must produce books that are relevant to them. 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 is already a trend towards the dropping of such works by other publishers, who are unable to compete with imported titles. If the leading publisher gave up, what message would that send to those who have had an even tougher time in the market?

Potential authors would be forced to look abroad for publishers, exacerbating the drain of talent from our country. Children would 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 films. And Irish television and film hasn’t exactly been holding the kids riveted lately, particularly in proportion to the funding those industries receive.

It would be a condemnation of the Arts Council if our country could not provide a wealth of Irish culture 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 started sending my books around, 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 did see a place for them in the international market, so why not Ireland? Because the Irish market is a stifling place, where the only books we see from most native publishers are history books, textbooks, Irish language texts, local interest material and the carefully packaged glossed culture we sell to tourists. These seem to be the only areas where Irish publishers can compete with their British counterparts, simply because the U.K. publishers don’t want them.

Irish 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 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, they had produced very few books for my genre. I was contacted by a British agency the week after O’Brien’s 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. Now, I’m delighted with how things are going, but from the outside, I found it hard to see what Irish publishers could offer aspiring writers.

As for the illustration and design work that has been my trade for more than ten years, I had to emigrate to London because of the 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 (always an illustrator’s second choice), or giving up altogether. Designers can find better paid work almost anywhere else and the result is that most Irish-produced books look second rate compared to their British counterparts. Nobody gets into this business for the money, but making a living shouldn’t be too much to expect.

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. But this year, they were penalised by the Arts Council for showing Irish publishing can do more than produce another retelling of the 1916 Rising, or a guide to the Aran Islands.

For OBP’s ongoing efforts to promote quality Irish fiction at home and abroad, and for endeavouring to produce brighter and better children’s books, the Arts Council took away their grant.

Other Irish publishers will surely take this message to heart.

OisÌn McGann, August 2003.