Navigating The Stormy Waters Of Irish Publishing

About a year ago, I got the phone call that all writers crave, word from the publishers that yes, they’d like to take on my book. They said all the right things, too, all the sweet words that I had so longed to hear during those dark days and nights spent building towers out of my rejection slips. My characters were real, they said, my style evocative, my sentences well crafted. The warning, when it came, dangled on the end of such effusive good will that it was easily overlooked. Especially in my heady state.

“Of course, you are surely aware that there is little or no market in this country for the short story, so don’t go giving up that day job just yet.” Heh, heh, heh.

It didn’t seem the moment to admit that, actually, ever since being cut loose from my journalism chores due to the downsizing of a local magazine, this was my day job.

The details of the deal came later, wrapped up in a contract that would have confused Perry Mason. Lots of heretofore an thereafter spiel, mentions of fractions of percentages of net, and some babble about foreign rights. It sounded like the real thing, and it was, and all I had to do to make my dream come true was to scrawl my signature along the bottom, and initial here, here, here and here. Which I did, with a flourish.

The print run was set for fifteen hundred copies. Enough for the Irish market, I was assured. More than enough, as it has turned out so far. I found an agent who bled the bosses for an extra penny a book and who squeezed an advance into the equation, enough for a new pair of (non-designer) jeans, a cup of Starbucks coffee, black with no sugar, and a ticket to a John Prine concert. I’ve always loved his songs.

My collection hit the shelves back in July. All but a couple of the stories had previously appeared in journals and magazines around the world, everywhere in fact from Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine to Versal in Holland to Yuan Yang in Hong Kong, so I was reasonably confident that they would survive the book-printing process, and of the many things I lack, it would be no exaggeration to say that confidence generally ranks very high on any list. With twenty one stories bound in beautifully designed paperback, In Exile was launched to little fanfare, sold a “reasonable” amount locally -- a fact down to curiosity, I suspect, as well as perhaps a little compassion -- and even had the temerity to pop its head above the parapet enough to score a few very positive reviews in the national newspapers. It was made available through all the usual online shopping avenues to furnish any possible expatriate interest and for a while I was seeing the lights of Vegas in my dreams.

But trying to establish yourself as a writer in Ireland can feel at times like trying to turn pebbles into pounds (or, these days, euros). The past decade has seen the market dominated by smash-hit 'chick lit' novels and those sweet tales of autobiographical misery, the 'grimoir'. Even the current literary darlings, the likes of Colm Tóibín, John Banville and our most recent Booker Prize winner, Anne Enright, can't hope to compete in the sales stakes with monster product-movers like Maeve Binchy, Frank McCourt and Cecilia Ahern. The boxes are well defined, and the box reserved for what was once considered something of an Irish speciality, the short story, has shrunken almost to vanishing point.

The funny things about it all is that I know I am one of the lucky ones, the jackpot winner who, in such a clearly unsettled marketplace, happened across one of the very few publishing houses still willing to take a chance on a project bearing an untested name, to dip their toes into the bleak waters of uncertainty and go to the expense of building a book that has a far better than even chance of falling in flames. All of which qualifies Mercier Press, Ireland's oldest independent publishing company, as something of a rare breed now, gamblers in a game were the odds seem increasingly stacked in favour of the house. My heroes, after persuading the Irish Arts Council to soften some of the financial cough, dragged my humble manuscript out of the mire and made me a very small speck on an intimidating and enormous literary map. Let’s not allow anything as odious as money foul the beauty of the situation.

And so, here we are. They’d like to see a novel, they said. No promises of course, no guarantees of publication, but, really, a novel is the only forward step. These days I’m a runaway train, head down and daily polishing my next opus, a frustrating but (I hope) good-hearted novel that I’ve been picking at on and off for the past two years or so and which is finally, at long, long last, approaching a finish.

My problem is that I get distracted. I get ideas for short stories all the time, and it seems sinful not to follow them to their conclusion. Here in Ireland, the market seems to reduce almost daily, with magazines cutting back and then finally cutting out their allotment of fiction pages, and literary journals tiring of the struggle to make impossible ends meet. Maybe I am wasting my time with them, maybe they are an all-but-dead form, but I don’t care. They were my first step into print, and I know I’ll love them forever. If I live that long.

Billy O'Callaghan was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1974. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Absinthe: New European Writing, Ireland's Own, Southword, and Versal, and he has won the George A. Birmingham Award, the Molly Keane Short Story Award, and the Lunch Hour Stories Prize. A collection of his short stories, entitled In Exile, was published by Mercier Press (Ireland) in the summer of 2008. His story, "On the Beach" will appear in issue #43. See more of his work online here.