It was a real pleasure to interview Eoin McHugh of Transworld Ireland recently. Not only was he interesting and entertaining, he also made a pot of tea and produced biscuits, so before we got into the interview at all I was very impressed.
Transworld Ireland is an imprint of Transworld London, a division of Random House. The Irish office was set up five years ago in order to source and commission Irish authors initially of non-fiction books for the Irish Market but always with an eye to bridging the gap over to the UK market also.
With the benefit of hindsight, opening a new business in May 2008 was going to be far more challenging that anyone could have anticipated. By autumn of that year, the Celtic Tiger had been fatally wounded. Eoin says “it was very difficult, the market has contracted significantly over the last five years”.
However start up was helped by the fact that many Irish commercial women’s fiction authors transferred immediately from Transworld in the UK to the Irish operation; writers such as Anita Notaro, Claudia Carroll, Patricia Scanlon and Marita Conlon McKenna. “So we already had a stable of established authors in fiction,” says Eoin, “whereas for non-fiction it was virgin ground.”
The non-fiction side of things was launched with the publishing of rugby legend Ronan O’Gara’s autobiography which went on to win the IBA Sports Book of the Year. “It was a great way to start in terms of announcing our arrival as a publishing imprint,” says Eoin.
Eoin goes on to explain the ethos behind Transworld here in Ireland. “Our intention has been to be quite diverse. We look, as far as possible, for books that would have high profile. So we try to publish less but publish bigger.”
Eoin’s journey into the world of books and publishing is an interesting one. Unusually he didn’t discover books and reading until his mid teens. Up to that point he describes himself as a typical boy too busy playing football and fairly dismissive of books. But once he started reading he was hooked and read all the time.
Having left college he went home to Mullingar and worked in his father’s retail business. But in his early 30s he decided that this was not the life for him and so came back to Dublin where one day he strolled into Fred Hanna’s Bookshop, on Nassau Street and asked what it was like to work in a bookshop. As he says himself he didn’t get out.
“It was a wonderful place to work and to learn about books and book selling. There were fascinating characters that came into Hanna’s and a great sense of bookishness.” He goes on to describe how in awe he was of his experienced colleagues and their intimate knowledge of the books on their shelves. “Someone would come in and ask for the most obscure book and the staff member would go directly to the shelf and pull it down. I thought to myself I will never master that.”
But master it he did and when Easons took over Fred Hanna’s in 1999, Eoin stayed on working his way to from book buyer to Head Book Buyer for Easons. He was also head of the Book Sellers Association when Transworld Random House decided to open an editorial office in Dublin. Eoin was approached to see if he might be interested in making the move from book selling and buying to book publishing.
“I just thought it was a fascinating proposition and so I made the leap, not fully aware of how in the book world there are in fact two parallel worlds. The world of book buying and selling is very different from book publishing in terms of how you go about what you do in any day.”
So, I wonder, how are books born? Eoin explains that sometimes they come almost fully formed through an agent, but other times they are the result of a germ of an idea over a cup of coffee. He specifically mentions that seeing a well written article in a newspaper may strike him as something that might lend itself to a book and an approach may be made to a journalist. However no matter how the book is conceived the acquisitions process is rigorous. “Once I am interested in a book I have to take it to my colleagues. No decision is unilateral,” says Eoin. In big publishing houses all department heads, such as design, finance, sales and marketing meet around the table where the various proposals are discussed in detail. The publisher makes the transition from the person being pitched to, to an advocate for the proposed book. It’s up to him to sell it to his colleagues.
Inevitably the answer is not always going to be yes. But I sense with his years of experience on the other side of the book world, Eoin’s instincts are pretty good as to what will sell.
Clearly the size of the market here in Ireland is a challenge to publishers. “Yes,” confirms Eoin “given the numbers we can sell here in Ireland, the kinds of advances we can offer as publishers is very modest. In fact when you take the time and effort that goes into writing a book and you hourly rate that against the advance, it just doesn’t make financial sense.”
As Eoin had mentioned earlier Transworld Ireland had a great advantage in the early days by having a stable of well known women’s commercial fiction writers. The challenge posed by this however, according to Eoin, was that the company would become solely identified with the women’s commercial fiction market. “We needed to solve the riddle of how we at Transworld Ireland could convince authors and agents that we were about more that it seemed we were about,” says Eoin.
Looking through the imprints of Transworld in London the solution became clear. Eoin decided to set up Doubleday Ireland as a dedicated literary imprint. “The connotations of Doubleday are immediately clear” explains Eoin, “so we let it be known that when we find the right book we are going to publish under Doubleday Ireland.” And that first literary book was The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan which is longlisted for the Booker Prize and is a joint publication with Lilliput Press. Methinks that Mr McHugh does indeed know how to spot a winner.
So what do Transworld publish – other than Women’s Commercial and Literary Fiction through Doubleday?
It is a wide list including current affairs topics, crime, sports and biographies. Transworld have published biographies from such luminaries as Albert Reynolds, Joe Duffy and David Norris.
But I think that Eoin’s favourite genre is humour. Transworld have published books by Jarlath Regan who is a stand up comedian and of course last Christmas the company bought us Irish Mammies by Colm O Regan which was a twitter sensation. And the good news is that there is another Irish Mammies book in the works, That’s More Of It Now, The Second Book of Irish Mammies.
So if you have a manuscript or an outline proposal for a book – what should you do? Transworld do accept unsolicited manuscripts but like most publishers their ‘slush pile’ is always large and pressure of time can mean that it may take up to a year before they have a chance to read your offering. “However it makes all the difference if something comes in from an agent,” says Eoin. A manuscript from an agent has been read and because the agent feels it is something that works it will jump to the head of the queue. So the advice seems to be if you want to get your work looked at – get yourself an agent.
We finish our conversation by discussing the future of books and book publishing. Thankfully Eoin is quite optimistic. He explains that the level of uptake in digital devices and the pace of growth of e-books particularly in the US has slowed. “It has been too hasty a prediction that digital will replace the physical”, he says. “Digital will gain a significant hold on part of the market but we don’t know yet exactly where that will bed down. I think it will vary according to genre. Big brand crime and commercial writers will go to possibly as much as 50 or 60 percent digitally but the more niche and literary books will more likely sell less digitally because people want the physical book.”
Clearly the move to digital will have the greatest impact on the independent book shops who cannot afford to lose such a chunk of their market.
As the tea runs out and the rain patters gently off the old Georgian windows we talk of how much the poorer our communities would be without the local bookshop providing a hub for authors and readers, much like Fred Hanna Books did for decades right in the centre of Dublin city. And our conversation has come full circle.