Joined-Up Working: Sarah Bannan Talks to Publishing Ireland

Sarah Bannan, Arts Council
Sarah Bannan, Arts Council

Sarah Bannan is head of literature at the Arts Council and will join Damien Smyth, of the Arts Council Northern Ireland at Working Together,  our annual trade event at Smock Alley Theatre on Friday, 14 November. Sarah took time out the hectic council schedule to talk about how publishers can make the most out of the Arts Council and its opportunities.


PI         What are the principal ways in which funding has evolved within the Arts Council and how do you feel they have impacted on Irish publishers?


SB    In the Arts Council’s strategic statement, we are committed to delivering the following goals:

  • Support and develop the work of artists and arts organisations
  • Enable more people to experience the arts in more places
  • Develop our relationships with stakeholders and partners

In Literature, Council’s strategy is to support the individual writer in the creation of work and to support a range of organisations to enable that work to reach an audience.

The literary environment is, as you know, changing rapidly, due primarily to advancements in technology and publishing, but also in terms of significant challenges facing booksellers and in the wider trade environment. The Arts Council has a unique role in supporting this sector in bringing high quality literary work to an audience, in spite of the existing, and emerging, changes and challenges.

Through its funding and initiatives, the Arts Council works to sustain a small but vibrant literary infrastructure. As the international, commercial publishing industry benefits a number of established Irish writers, Arts Council support is concentrated on indigenous, independent literary publishing houses, in particular those that platform new literary voices and literary writing that is risk-taking.

Over the past number of years, the Arts Council has prioritised support to publishers and publications that are publishing literary work of the highest quality and pursuing new ways to bring these books to readers; literary festivals that reach significant audiences; and organisations whose work supports individual writers and supports public engagement with literature.


Publications/Title By Title Scheme

In order to maintain a smaller, stronger and more sustainable sector, which allows for new entrants and new ideas, while also supporting smaller organisations in a manner which is more suitable to their needs, a new, more flexible, competitive Publications/Title by Title scheme was introduced by the Arts Council in 2012 (for titles to be produced in 2013). The Scheme was run in late 2014 for the third time (for titles to be produced in 2015).

The scheme supports journals and publishers, and allows the Council to support literary publications operating on a small scale with a light touch approach, and enables journals to gain support for writers’ fees, publication and promotion costs. In relation to book publishing, the Scheme allows the Arts Council to target its support to publishers towards particular titles. This scheme also provides an entry point for new/emerging publishers, allowing for publications and publishers to develop a track record in publishing literary work and may act, in some cases, as a stepping stone to recurring funding.

Through the 2013 scheme, we supported the publication of 21 new books, including children’s books, debut fiction, arts criticism and arts biography. We also funded four journals in the production of new literary work that appeared throughout 2013. Funding was awarded to publishers of English and Irish language writing.

Through the 2014 scheme, the Arts Council supported 16 new titles and five journals, again including children’s books, debut fiction, arts criticism and arts biography.

The decisions in relation to 2015 are currently being made and will be published on our website in the coming weeks.


PI            What do you think publishers can do to improve the publishing sector in Ireland during a fragile economic climate?


SB    Working with festivals, booksellers, multi-disciplinary venues, libraries, the media: all of these are of huge importance when trying to sustain and grow an audience. Those publishers that have been aggressive in making ‘on the ground’ connections with the festivals and booksellers have been most successful in our experience. Those publishers that are concentrating on quality over quantity have also proved most successful; and we mean this in terms of quality of writing but also quality of promotion, marketing and distribution. The bookselling market is so crowded, and Irish publishers are so over-stretched, that it makes most sense to be strategic and targeted in what one is publishing, and to have a concrete promotional and marketing plan for each title, with measurable outcomes and targets.


PI            The Arts Council has a number of partnerships. How important are these relationships for Irish literature?


SB   In the past, the Arts Council funded literary sector has tended to work in a relatively fragmented way. The literary sector is, as you know, extremely complex, with numerous interconnected parts – writer, agent, publisher, bookseller, library, festival, reader, and on and on – and  working in isolation means that the hard efforts of individuals and organisations can be watered down.

The Council has worked hard over the past number of years to encourage partnership, joined- up working and pooling of resources. And the sector itself has also pulled together in a very encouraging and exciting way. A trade day like this, or networking events and conferences, are all very healthy. Partnership is hard work – and takes lots of patience and time – but it’s what’s required in a layered artform like literature.


PI            The longlist for new Irish Laureate Award was recently announced and included a lot of new Irish talent such as Donal Ryan and Eimear McBride. How do you feel about such a broad list and what impact do you see the eventual winner having  in Irish literary culture?


SB           The Arts Council asked for nominations from a huge range of individuals and organisations – and this is what came back to us. The nomination list is fantastic, really demonstrating the strength of Irish fiction. It’s a list with writers that have experience in all types of fiction writing – short stories, comic writing, experimental, historical – and a diverse group of personalities and writing and working styles. It’s a list full of award-winners and a list full of writers who people love to read.

We established the honour in light of the success of initiatives like Laureate na nÓg and the Ireland Professor of Poetry. The Council was keen to ensure that we established a high-profile honour for a significant Irish fiction writer. The work of the Laureate will be to promote Irish fiction here in Ireland and abroad. One of the main things that we hope they will do is  shine a light on the work of writers who might tend to get overlooked, and encourage the public to read more and perhaps differently. The Laureate will also teach creative writing in UCD and NYU, and in so doing, encourage the next generation of Irish writers.


PI            Much of the output from Irish publishing relates to the genre of non-fiction- a genre, which many Irish publishers feel remains less recognised than literary fiction. Would you agree? If so, what steps should Irish publishers be taking when applying for funding opportunities?


SB    The Arts Council’s remit for literature includes high-quality poetry, fiction, short fiction, children’s literature, critical writing and certain forms of creative non-fiction in both Irish and English language.

The Arts Council’s remit is defined under the Arts Act – and it is beyond the remit of the Arts Council to support writing that is not literary in nature. It’s appropriate for the Arts Council to concentrate its support on literary writing – which of course includes drama, poetry, fiction, children’s literature, creative non-fiction, critical writing – and support for other types of writing would need to be found through another channel.


**Come and here Sarah Talk with Damien Smyth from the Arts Council in Northern Ireland on Friday, 14 November at Smock Alley Theatre, Temple Bar. For more information and to book your ticket, go to