In the era of Kindles and self-publishers, one might imagine the publishing industry's mainstream practitioners — particularly those in Northern Ireland — to be under significant threat. The reality is somewhat more nuanced. Over the past two decades, firms have, like many other businesses, been forced to adapt in a drastically altered landscape.
In fact, the sector's competition predates the onset of the digital revolution, giving it something of a head start in that respect. The UK's Net Book Agreement, which had previously set prices and governed authorised retailers, was dissolved in 1997. This signalled the rise of cheap books in chain stores and supermarkets.
By 2014 then, publishing houses are well versed in finding ways to endure. In Northern Ireland, the likes of Blackstaff Press, Lagan Press and Guildhall Press are still going strong. 'They're still there,' says Damian Smyth, head of literature and drama at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
According to Smyth the environment was 'radically changed' even in the years preceding Amazon's arrival. This new arena should be seen as inducing the discovery of fresh avenues rather than the decline of older ones. ‘Now, with the huge developments that have taken place in digital publishing,' he says, 'at the same time that you find a challenge to traditional publishing, there's also an opportunity.'
'The old-fashioned novel is finding it harder and harder to get a place on the bookshelf,' says Smyth. The opportunity, he suggests, lies with the modern mediums of delivering books, on any subject, directly to the readers who want them. 'Not only are publishers able to seek their books online, but they're actually able to get out to a global market with the click of a button. They can put titles up which are searchable and they can draw attention from all over the world. In some ways, the more specialist the book, the better it is for the global attention.'
It is interesting to note from Smyth that publishing has retained enough prestige to save it from becoming irrelevant next to the prospective author's instant ability to cut out the middle stage. Self-publishing is an important development, of course, but many still wish to avail of the services and expertise of respected professionals. He believes that the desire to submit work and receive positive feedback will always exist. 'People still want to go through that route.' Perhaps it is the very nature of writing, but there remains weight in the simple need for affirmation. 'There are those still looking for somebody to say, "Yes, you've done it. That's a good story."'
While publishing in Northern Ireland, and elsewhere, has long faced obstacles, as changes go, the influence of digital content is, in Smyth's view, 'the biggest thing by far' to have settled on the sector. The impact of this is, in fact, strangely warped. By threatening to obliterate the humble hardback, the digital dawn may in fact revitalise stagnant volumes once considered dead or out of print, thus launching them back onto the market. The reality is indeed nuanced.
In these unprecedented times, the emergence of e-publishers like Limavady's Whittrick Press is particularly telling. 'Its mission,' says Smyth, 'was to be the first publishing house to operate solely online and solely digitally.' The work is hard, undoubtedly, but Whittrick represents a new stage in Northern Ireland's publishing evolution. It seeks to ride the wave rather than sink beneath it. The relaunch of The Honest Ulsterman, one of the region’s cherished literary journals, is set to take place in the next few weeks. That too will spring from the screen rather than from the page.
On a slightly more skewed note, the genre exploits of Derry~Londonderry-based Uproar Comics are also worthy of remark. Makers of graphic novels and comics, Uproar's hilariously original Zombies Hi — a tale depicting the prospect of a provincially-tinged zombie apocalypse breaking out in the Maiden City — turned heads after its debut. It has also showcased the skill of local artists in competing with and matching the very best out there. In Smyth's estimation, Uproar are amongst those with the talent to establish themselves as producers, crucially, of quality output rather than lesser imitations of famous styles.
High-level comic book artistry was once the preserve of the Japanese and American powerhouses, and their underground British cousins. That is not necessarily the case any longer, reckons Smyth. Northern Ireland's independent industry, as it relates to 2D graphics, he says, 'is ahead of the field' within the UK and Ireland. 'The idea of being able to tell a variety of hard stories, through what would have been the comic mode, really started here. The harder the topic, the harder the news element of it, the more skill you need as a storyteller, and as an artist, to put that across.'
By Matthew Coyle