DBF Interviews: Ivan O’Brien

Ivan O'Brien Head shot 2/2/2016For over a decade, Ivan O’Brien has served as Managing Director of The O’Brien Press, a family-owned book publishing company based in Dublin. He serves on the boards of Publishing Ireland and the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency and (if that’s not enough) he is a regular attendee and contributor to events run by the Independent Publishers Guild in London. Needless to say, Ivan has remained in the forefront of the shifting tides prevalent in publishing today, and he has shared some of his important insights with #DBF2017. Hear more from Ivan at our event Get Published, an unmissable crash course for writers which will be led by industry experts who know all the best tricks of the trade!


Q. What are your top 3 tips for aspiring authors?

Persevere. Writing is a skill and it improves with practice and dedication.

Don’t hold back. If you have a bunch of great ideas don’t keep half of them in reserve for book two — put them in your story or book: there will be more great ideas that come to you, so don’t feel you have to be sparing.

Listen and recraft. It’s amazing how difficult it is to judge your own work! People who are excellent reviewers or others people’s writing often have no insight into how their own could be improved: ask people for honest opinions and try to listen without being overly protective of the writing as it is. After a pause, allow the emotional reaction to ebb away, redraft and improve the work.


Q. What is your professional opinion on self-publishing?

Physically producing and selling books is so much easier than it ever was before. Self-publishing is clearly the right channel for some people if they are willing to dedicate huge amounts of time, energy and money into all the aspects of publishing that need to be done for a book to succeed. Writing is one part of the process, but editing, design, covers, publicity, marketing, sales and distribution take a lot of knowledge, experience and sheer graft to do well.

Publishers exist for a reason – there is a huge amount of expertise and experience in publishing companies, as well as a genuine love of writing. If you think you can do enough of this better, then go for it, but the hit rate is low and the hours are very long if you’re ploughing your own furrow.


Q. Three of the best industry lessons you have learned through the years?

It’s a friendly industry: if you have a question, you can always ask a colleague or competitor for advice. 9 out of 10 times, they will help you: it makes the book world really special.

Nobody knows anything: it’s a cliché from the film world but also applies to books. Many people want “the same book that worked last year, but a little bit different”, but the real energy is in trying new things. They often fail, but romantic vampires, adult colouring and Scandicrime show that there is a return on true originality: people said we were mad when we starting publishing children’s novels, and true crime, and historical graphic novels and others, but the reward when it works is fantastic.

Create objects of desire: the craft and care that goes into making a thing that looks, feels and even smells right is always worth it. You would not believe the number of people who stopped at our stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair to look at, hold and caress Frank McGuinness’ new novel The Woodcutter and His Family! If they love it before they have read a word, you’re half way there.

Q. Where do you see the publishing industry in 5 years? In Ireland? And internationally?

It’s not getting any easier! Thankfully lots of people can see the value in well-crafted, beautiful, long-form writing and are willing to pay for it. For all the massive changes that are ongoing, books have been a lot less disrupted than other entertainment sectors, like newspapers, magazines, cinema and music. There is a strength in books that is not going away.

In Ireland, we need to constantly show how important it is to have Irish publishers creating Irish book for Irish readers: it’s central to our cultural identity. Publishing Ireland and individual companies will continue to work to this end, with support from our readers, the government agencies who are part of the cultural space, our dedicated booksellers and the amazing writing talent that we have in this country. So we’re going to be alright!

Worldwide there’s no sign of the growth of the international blockbusters and movie tie-ins slowing up. There is a constant risk of bestsellers squeezing out the middle, making it ever harder for authors to build careers and publishers to sell enough to stay strong. Hopefully, there will be more literature (fiction and non-fiction) in translation into English, and more diversity to reflect the rapid changes in societies worldwide. Books are a bulwark against fake news, anti-science and nationalist tendencies worldwide: the industry simply has to be strong for society to work. I believe it will be.


Q. What is your favourite book?

I always come back to Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. A flawed but massively ambitious novel and a book that really spoke to me when I read it. Not sure I’d dare to re-read, in case it would break the spell for me!