Patsy Horton is the Managing Editor at Blackstaff Press and Chair of the Northern Irish publishers’ association Publishing Northern Ireland. In addition to her publishing and advocacy roles she has also recently taken the reins as President of Publishing Ireland. With her interests on both north and south of the border, Patsy will chair the opening session of Working Together, Publishing Ireland’s annual trade event on Friday, 14 November. She took some time to talk to PI about the challenges facing Irish publishers today.
PI What is the greatest challenge facing publishers, and Irish publishers in particular today?
PH Well, there are lots to choose from – the behemoth that is Amazon, discoverability, declining physical book sales and retail outlets, keeping pace with digital technologies, competition from other forms of entertainment. The greatest challenge, though, is the same as it ever was – reaching, engaging and retaining readers. There are now many more ways to do that – as well as all the traditional methods at our disposal, there are now digital formats and platforms, digital marketing campaigns and social media, SEO, online retail, and so on. The challenge for publishers is where and how to focus their efforts. Publishers, especially Irish publishers who tend to be small and have limited resources, need to be extremely nimble and strategic and to have efficient workflow systems to navigate so much innovation and change.
PI How would you describe the bookseller-publisher relationship in your experience?
PH In general, booksellers and publishers are good at supporting one another and working together and, in the main, that’s been my experience. Both sides recognise that when the relationship is working well, there’s a real opportunity for everyone to benefit. Like much in publishing, it’s a relationship is changing and is open to new pressures. The growth of ebooks and strong online retail opportunities have challenged the dominance of physical bookstores and have presented publishers with other selling opportunities. So too, many booksellers have diversified and now offer a range of products in their stores alongside books. An increasingly tough market is putting pressure on the bookseller-publisher relationship as both sides fight to hold onto margins when it comes to sales. That being said, all publishers and booksellers recognise that their businesses are interdependent and that our survival depends on being able to work together to find and attract audiences for books.
PI Every collaboration in the industry involves the inevitable sticking point or frustration – what would you say is yours when dealing with booksellers in general?
PH Right now, it’s returns. In spite of efforts by bookshops to address this, returns are still an issue and it’s really tough for a small publisher like us. Beyond that, I’d say high discounting and being asked to contribute more and more to promotional and marketing activities by bookshops.
PI You recently became president of the Irish book publishers association Publishing Ireland. How would you describe your role?
PH Publishing Ireland – originally Clé – has been in existence since the early 1970s and its remit is to act as a networking and resource organisation for Irish publishers, enabling the sharing of information, expertise and industry knowledge. Beyond that, Publishing Ireland protects and promotes the interests of publishers, giving them a strong voice both nationally and internationally. My role is to ensure that Publishing Ireland continues to give publishers the support that they need, to create strong partnerships that strengthen the industry and to work with the board to ensure that we are the most effective trade organisation that we can be for our members.
PI What are the main objectives for Publishing Ireland going forward for 2015?
PH Publishing Ireland has had a relatively tough time over the last few years and the focus has been on getting the organisation through that. We’re in a much better place now and have a new board of nine people (including myself), all extremely committed and enthusiastic about the work that Publishing Ireland can do. We recently conducted a survey of our members and that has given us important information about where members want to see us focus our efforts – those areas are lobbying; training; and greater information sharing and networking opportunities for publishers. Beyond that, a key priority for us is to work with our members to develop a three-year strategy for the organisation.