2020 affected us all in different ways which in my world, manifests as a longing to get back into a bookshop. Normally the only way my family can drag me into a shopping centre is by depositing me in browse mode, collect later, in any bookshop. So I spoke to several book producers to discover how 2020 was different from other years for them.
“The Dark Room” by Sam Blake, a pen name for Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, deals with murder in a small hotel in County Cork, and is hot off the press in 2021. In addition to being a bestselling crime author, Vanessa is also the founder and managing director of Writing.ie and a board member of the Society of Authors. “Anxiety smothers creativity” Vanessa admits “and I know a lot of writers who struggled to keep writing, particularly in the first lockdown.” She recognised that many writers saw their income decimated by the pandemic, particularly children’s writers, who relied on school visits and events as a key part of their income and children themselves picking up their books in bookshops. “As a board member at The Society of Authors, we stepped in right at the start of the pandemic, raising over a million pounds from the Arts Council and other funders, to which our own contingency fund was added, to create an emergency fund for authors.” To date, almost a million pounds in relief has gone to authors and been an invaluable life line for many. The fund is still open and still operating, giving grants of up to £2000 to applicants. It seems all authors sell more books when they are there in person (pre-COVID) at book launches but some authors have adapted to this beautifully by presenting online talks, readings and courses. In March 2020, Vanessa presented some live Facebook chats with her agent Simon Trewin, every lunch time on a Friday which became “Winning the Writing Game”. Vanessa adds that this provided a focus, while also giving authors a platform online and built a community all on its own.
A huge success story of 2020 must be “Leonard and Hungry Paul” by Bluemoose Books. Kevin Duffy told me that book sales are up, partly due to its spectacular success giving Dublin based Irish author Ronán Hession, the best-selling year of his life on his debut novel. Kevin reports that books sales have increased substantially in the last 12 months. When I discussed their extremely canny Twitter updates and successful online marketing campaigns, he somewhat agrees that its success is due to marketing. However, he adds, “You can’t do anything without great books and stories and we do have those. We have very loyal readers and they have supported us but the main driver for increased sales is “Leonard and Hungry Paul” and we are selling even more copies than when we first published. This is also driving readers to seek out our back list.” Bluemoose books are available on Amazon, as they dominate the digital book market. At the moment Bluemoose is not crowdfunding but he does not rule it out for the future. “We will continue to find great new writers who have wonderful stories to tell but it will be great to be able to hold events in bookshops and libraries again.”
This is echoed in the story of Mary Ruddy and Vincent Murphy, a designer and editor duo and owners of Artisan House Publishers in Letterfrack, County Galway in the west of Ireland. Opening a bookshop was their lifetime dream and it would take more than a pandemic to stop them. Not only have they opened Books At One, they have adapted like everybody else, allowing their bookshop browsers to reserve a time so that social distancing regulations can be adhered to while the browser gets the bookshop virtually to themselves. For avid readers, this is truly what I miss the most so this sounds like heaven. Vincent says “We have reduced the number of titles we published in past 12 months. We took this decision as we realised that book launches would be curtailed, if not prohibited entirely. Our titles tend to be quite niche so we rely on good launches for initial sales.” Improving their technology has helped too – they availed of a Local Enterprise voucher scheme to improve online sales, and have also added a Stripe payment facility. It seems a common theme is that this pandemic has forced everybody to become more tech savvy. Vincent admits that they may need to undertake a parallel upgrade in social media activity to raise awareness of their publishing business. On crowdfunding, he said they had tried this for one publication 5 years ago which was moderately successful financially but it did involve substantial additional work for them. He adds that although sales are down on previous years, this is mainly due to the lower number of new publications. They do not use Amazon. “It is a model of retail that we dislike. Although we are aware that this probably reduces our sales, we do not envisage changing our position.” Books At One Letterfrack is part of a growing network of local community-based bookshops, supported by The One Foundation.
Audrey Snee, an Irish author, is the owner of Estuary Publishing and the founder of the Southend Writers and Artists Network, SWAN. Marketing has certainly moved more online, Audrey comments, mostly on Facebook where each of her titles has its own page and followers and also on Twitter, connecting with other booksellers and authors. As a micro publisher of local history books mainly, the business worked well when there was a local bookshop, which worked closely with local authors. Once this closed down a few years ago due to commercial reasons, she was still able to hold local book and arts events and be involved in book festivals, which helped with sales. Since this was not possible for the past 12 months, she has switched to doing more online promotions and selling more via the distribution trade, which has opened up new revenue streams but these are far less in value per sale than in person events. Audrey has also been the guest on a podcast about publishing and on several radio stations talking books. Sales have increased as more people are both reading and going online to order books. “I do hope the latter habit doesn’t stick and people return to bookshops and book events as soon as they can!” She misses the interaction with customers buying a book. Like everybody else I have interviewed, Audrey says she misses “the buzz of book launches and signings” and she loves the faces of children in the classroom as you read an extract from your book about their town. Estuary Publishing use Amazon. Publishers and booksellers, Audrey believes, really have no choice adding that the bulk of her sales online are via the trade distribution. Not being as busy running events has actually meant Audrey is writing more. “The pandemic has freed up time to get started on a new novel set in the USSR where I studied, and to finish a children’s one I have been working on for a few years – both of which I hope to have published by the end of 2021.”
Last of all, Tír na nÓg, a newbie to the publishing world was founded in Galway in December 2020. Using Instagram and Twitter to invite submissions for their first publication, they were overwhelmed by the response. “Our focus is on art and literature from Galway, whereby local and international perspectives enter a dialogue” says Lisa, one of the founder members. Siobhan Brew, Anet Rumberg and Lisa Heuchemer are based in Galway, where they spent most of December packing up copies of their first publication for posting, each in their individual homes as a COVID response, and then posting them out. They held a small launch in a local gallery under Tier 3 restrictions. They also started publishing short eBooks, which are all available on their website to download. For any budding writers out there, a new edition is produced regularly so here is a chance to shine in 2021.
My last question, held like a carrot, was when lockdown ends, are you looking forward to going back to normal or will it make any difference? People seemed to smile at the idea of freedom and being able to just do whatever it was they cannot do right now. Vanessa O’Loughlin summed it up for me, “God yes, can’t wait to be able to travel again and see people! However, I think the move towards online events has increased accessibility hugely though and it would be great to see online events continue. People are much more tuned in to Zoom and Facebook live for instance, than they were before and that’s one good thing that has come out of this nightmare for us book sellers.”