The situation facing Liberties Press now is similar to two previous episodes in the company’s development. In November 2010, when my then business partner left the company, I decided to continue with it, and began a process of restructuring and rebuilding. The second episode came in November 2012, when I successfully fought off efforts, culminating in High Court action, to prevent Melanie Verwoerd from publishing her life story: a different outcome in the case would certainly have spelt the end of the company.
On several occasions during the economic crisis, the easier path for me personally would have been to close Liberties, and move on to other things. This would have left the company’s creditors, including many authors, permanently out of pocket. As Stanley Unwin put it, ‘the primary responsibility of a publisher is to remain in business, in order to be in a position to pay authors their royalties’. In this spirit, I have always preferred to move ahead and develop the company, despite the many challenges involved.
I am extremely proud of the achievements of Liberties Press over all thirteen years of its existence, and in particular in the past six years, when the company has moved to the forefront of independent publishing in Ireland. Over the years, I have employed around twenty people, many of whom, in the economic climate of recent years, might have not found other work, or been forced to emigrate. I have helped launch the writing careers of many exciting new talents, including Frankie Gaffney and Caitriona Lally, and cement the reputations of midcareer authors such as Joe Joyce, whose book Echoland was recently announced as the 1 City 1 Book selection for 2017 – a great example of the adage that it sometimes takes years to become an overnight success. Meanwhile, Liberties Press has continued to publish popular titles in health, history and other non-fiction genres, the most notable being Dr Harry Barry’s best-selling ‘Flagging’ series, alongside more cutting-edge fare, including Numb and Bare. I am proud of the fact that I have paid for numerous staff members to go on work trips to Frankfurt, London and elsewhere, and on a variety of training courses; this level of commitment to staff training and development is unusual in the sector. Finally, as the leading force behind popup bookshops run in Dublin city centre for the last two years, the company has done more, at a stroke, to raise public awareness of Irish independent publishing than the organisation officially charged with this responsibility.
On the financial side, I have managed to pay off many debts – while accumulating others. I have never paid myself more than any of my full-time staff members, and very often nothing at all. Liberties Press has no significant financial backing from any quarter, and injections of funds from various sources, mainly family members, have been required on a regular basis. A large number of authors are owed royalties, and a small number of former staff members are owed over one month’s salary each; this is a situation I am sorry about, and one I am addressing. I have never run away from a difficult situation, as should be clear, I hope, from the fact that I was prepared to be put through testing interviews on the BBC Radio Ulster Arts Show on 18 October and for The Book Show (an interview which is yet to be broadcast).
For a variety of business reasons, 2016 has been particularly challenging for the company. Unfortunately, this summer, I had to let several staff members go, and others chose to leave. It has clearly been a difficult process for them, and it was painful for me to see them depart. Continually rebuilding the team made additional demands on my time and energies. The path ahead, for myself and the company, is clear: Liberties Press now has a very low cost base and, as a result, good prospects for future rebuilding and growth once again. Having said that, it has been a very tough time for me individually, and for my family.
There has been some debate recently over Liberties’ introduction of a fee for manuscript submissions. One of my aims in introducing this policy was to foster a debate about how independent publishers are funded – a debate in which I plan to continue to play a leading part. My main concern here is that state funding for publishing, despite the best intentions of funding bodies, promotes systemic weakness in the sector, particularly in tough economic times. In recent years, organisations experiencing difficulties have received funds to prop them up – using resources taken from organisations (such as ours) which are, or are seen to be, doing well. In this Alice in Wonderland scenario, weakness is rewarded and success punished.
The current campaign against Liberties has many of the elements of a witchhunt – something I am familiar with from my experiences with Melanie Verwoerd’s book. What those baying for blood seem to fail to realise is that, now as in 2010 and 2012, the only way to ensure that authors and others receive what they are rightfully due is for the company to continue to trade successfully – which remains my first, and only, professional priority.
As a final word, I recently received a message on a Post-It note attached to a manuscript submission. It read: ‘It’s because of people like you that books get published that otherwise would not be. Keep going for it, for all our sakes.’
Publisher, Liberties Press