Book reviewing, historical fiction, crime writing, creation of character bios, differences between mystery and suspense and authors’ roles as public performers – these were just some of the topics discussed at the annual Dublin Book Festival earlier this week.
The festival, directed by Julianne Mooney and her team, certainly lived up to the words of Heather Humphreys TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, who said, “Over the last nine years, the Dublin Book Festival has become firmly established as one of the highlights of our capital city’s cultural calendar.”
Among the highlights of the four-day festival was a lively, multi-media presentation by Antrim-based author and academic Ian Sansom; Sinead Gleeson’s comprehensive talk on the art of book reviewing; an impressive presentation by publishers, Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen, on the development of their boutique company, Tramp Press; and invaluable insights by leading publishers about what books became bestsellers and what ones flopped, and why.
Using quotes from well-known authors past and present, eclectic photographs and even clips from movies such as Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan,’ ‘About Schmidt’ with Jack Nicholson and ‘The Big Sleep’ with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Esssex-born Sansom colorfully illustrated specific aspects of writing technique. Among them were ‘minimizing,’ meaning precise, close-up descriptions; ‘contrast,’ particularly of physical scenery; ‘incongruity,’ such as having a terrible event happen in a beautiful place’ and ‘angle,’ writing about a place or character from a surprisingly different perspective. Sansom said he has pieced together material for his crime series, ‘The County Guides,’ from old photographs he has collected. ‘Death in Devon’ is his latest novel.
Well-known Irish book reviewer, Sinéad Gleeson, speaking at a seminar organized by the Irish Writers Centre in association with Words Ireland, warned her listeners not to “simply summarize” a book and certainly not to reveal plot twists in their reviews, though subtle hints are permissible, but rather – depending on space allotted – “focus on two or three critical points.” She added that the “closing paragraph must sum up your opinions, uniting all your earlier comments.”
“In reviewing books, you’re constantly asking questions,” she said. “Don’t think about the author’s or publisher’s feelings while writing a review. Ask, ‘Has the author achieved what he or she set out to do?’ And try to stay away from reviewing friends’ books.”
In encouraging would-be reviewers to “play the ball, not the Man,” Gleeson said while the position in an author’s career might be important in the writing of a particular book, it is best to focus on the text itself. She warned her audience to avoid glibness and adjectives such as ‘brilliant’ and ‘unputdownable’ and to quote from the book to illustrate relevant points.
In a separate event on book reviewing, panelists including Martin Doyle, assistant literary editor of The Irish Times, and Eithne Shorthall, chief arts writer with the Sunday Times Ireland, disagreed on whether peer review was a good thing but warned authors not to reply to bad book reviews but use the energy to write another book.
While various editors and publishers talked about the detrimental effects of Irish public funding cutbacks over the last few years and encroachments on traditional publishing by ebooks, Davis-Goff and Coen spoke about their efforts in developing Tramp Press, a small Dublin-based publishing company. “People thought we were crazy starting a publishing company in the middle of a recession,” said Coen. “But we had nothing to lose. It was either simply stay unemployed and do nothing or try to build something in a field we loved.”
Added Davis-Goff, “While we had low expectations, which was probably good as we managed to surpass them, we were overwhelming positive and so was the reaction from the industry as a whole. I guess it helped that the big guys didn’t see us as a threat in any way.” With no office and no salaries, the dynamic duo focus on fiction, receiving two or three submissions daily. They eventually applied for funding and received grants from organisations such as the Arts Council, UNESCO and Tourism Ireland. Tramp Press now publishes three books a year and distributes with Gill & Macmillan in the UK and Consortium in the US. It has also sold rights abroad.
“As we publish so few books, we must sell a lot,” said Coen. “So we turn over every stone. We travel throughout the country to bookstores. We also rely on social media, including Twitter, Instagram and Google Plus. We do well through our website, having even sold in places as far away as Hawaii.” Involved in re-publishing, Tramp Press launched ‘The Uninvited’ by Dorothy Macardle during the festival, at The Gutter Bookshop.
During Publishing Ireland’s annual trade event at Smock Alley Theatre, fascinating insights were offered as to why certain books in Ireland became bestsellers while others flopped losing the companies money, with specific examples given by Ireland’s most prominent publishers, including Michael O’Brien, The O’Brien Press, Fergal Tobin, former publishing director of Gill & Macmillan, now consultant with the Irish Times Books and Michael McLoughlin, managing director, Penguin Ireland. Unfortunately, even though announced as being a public event, just before it began media was requested not to report details on it so I cannot give any information about specific books in this article.
Positive news is the changes at Books Ireland magazine, owned by Wordwell Ltd. Una MacConville, publishing manager, and Caoimhe Fox, publishing executive, said the company had developed a stronger digital presence including a new website set up a year ago and a digital version of the magazine with the Exact newsstand (app entitled ‘Exactly’) launched recently on iTunes. The 40th birthday of the national literary magazine will be celebrated at a special event in London with the Irish Ambassador to the UK speaking at it.
Stephanie Boner and Maeve Convery, publishing directors with Roads, owned by millionairess Danielle Ryan, which publishes old classics and quality coffee-table books, said about 45 per cent of their sales were in the US – through Ace – and 10 per cent in Ireland, with much of its printing, specially fine art, done in Italy, and that the books have a strong presence in galleries. After hiring a sales director last year, the two speakers said 17 titles would be published next year and that they would be “more commercial” than previous ones, including more children’s books. Regarding rights sales, they said they were “in the early stages.”
Speaking at the Irish Writers Centre, crime writer Louise Phillips urged her audience to “make readers care about characters by developing strong emotional bios thus creating intimate relationships,” adding “make villains human by giving an interesting backstory.” She also discussed using time factors to help build suspense, “short, sharp punchy sentences to create rhythm,” “bite-size chapters” and even “have characters do something to surprise readers.”
On a panel entitled ‘Meet the Editors,’ Gráinne Clear, publishing manager at New Island Books, talked about the “major challenge facing Irish publishers of having big publishers next door in the UK with lots of money to spend,” adding that while publishing “seems glamorous from the outside, it was hard work inside.” On self-publishing, she said, “it doesn’t make much sense to publish an already self-published book as the author has already pushed and sold copies.”
Helen Carr, senior editor with The O’Brien Press, said her company had a 14-strong staff but had suffered funding cuts of around 80 per cent from the Arts Council of Ireland. Patsy Horton, managing editor of Blackstaff Press in Belfast, talked about authors needing to engage audiences publicly, adding that, “it’s brilliant if the author has strong social media skills.” The editors agreed that manuscript rejections were often “not because of bad writing but because there was no gap in the market.” Their professional frustrations included overly long meetings and sending rejection letters; pleasures – finding gems in the submission pile.
In addition to its many speakers, festival goers also enjoyed diverse walking tours of Dublin, ranging from Shane Kenna’s insights at various sites linked to the 1916 Irish revolution ahead of the centennial next year and Lisa Griffith’s descriptions of some of the city’s architectural landmarks. Kenna is author of ‘16 Lives: Thomas MacDonagh’ while Griffith wrote, ‘A History of Dublin in Ten Buildings.’
Events at the Dublin Book Festival, a partnership between the festival and Dublin City Public Libraries, took place mainly at Smock Alley, the oldest theatre in Dublin, dating back to 1662. Other venues included the Irish Writers Centre and the Irish Georgian Centre, City Assembly House. The schools’ programme was hosted at various libraries throughout the city. Book launches took place at Hodges Figgis and The Gutter Bookshop.