Interview with Grainne Clear

Grainne Clear is a major figure in Irish and international children’s book publishing. Founder of national broadcaster RTE’s children’s books segment, she went on to become Publishing Manager, and now Art Director, at Little Island Books. Alice Geary spoke to her about the Irish children’s book industry and her career to date.

Congratulations on being named one of The Bookseller's Rising Stars for 2017. Why do you think you were chosen and what advice would you give to future Rising Stars? Are there particular skills they should hone?

Thank you so much! Honestly, it came as a very big surprise. I work quite closely with the wonder team at Children’s Books Ireland in events, book promotion and a whole host of other things, and they were the ones who put me forward for the award. Their Director, Elaina Ryan, wrote up a piece about who I was and why I deserved to be on the Rising Stars list and sent it off to the Bookseller without me knowing a thing about it. A lot of wonderful opportunities have already come out of being on the Rising Star list, and I've met some fantastic people, but in some ways it meant as much to be nominated by them as to get the award – to have colleagues I respect write those things about me, and to believe that I deserved recognition. Also, my mum was very proud, and who doesn’t want that?

I think the primary reason I was chosen is my absolute passion for children’s books and its community in Ireland and the UK, and the huge amount of time and energy I've (gladly) invested in books for young people, both in my job and in voluntary work. That sounds like such a basic answer, but passion and enthusiasm genuinely brings you miles beyond someone else who is just doing a job. Find the area of publishing that makes you heart thump, that makes you talk at a mile-a-minute when someone asks you what you do, and chase that as hard as you can. Long before I got the job I have now, I spent my free time talking and writing about children’s books, and being passionate and educated about them – and who doesn’t want that kind of person involved in making the books?

Another main reason is my ability to spot potential – whether that’s in an author, an illustrator or an idea – and to draw that potential out. Because I work with a lot of first-time authors and illustrators, a lot of my job is spotting new talent and giving them support and guidance, as well as pairing them up in the best possible way, whether that’s an author with their subject, or a story with its illustrator. There’s a lot of creative thinking involved in making books happen, and I think I’m good at that. My best advice for this is to read and read and read – you need to know your culture and your area of publishing really well to do that – and also to keep your eyes open all the time for people who might some day be the right person for the right subject! I have a folder full of illustrators, bloggers and writers that I’d love to work with some day if I can just find the right scheme.

An example of that in Little Island would be A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell – a book on the Syrian refugee crisis for 11+. The Irish people are seeing the crisis unfold on the news and in the media, and so are our young people, but gunshots and explosions are so dehumanizing that it can be hard to get our heads around the real experience of Syrian people. My colleague Siobhán and I knew that this would be especially important when refugees start to arrive in Ireland and join our schools and our communities – young people needed to have an understanding of their lives. So we commissioned this book from an excellent children’s writer and very politically conscious person, which is the combination you need, and asked her to write about one child and their family fleeing Syria. It sold very well in Ireland and the UK, and we sold rights to four countries, because it’s a book that is needed and wanted.

One of your first big breaks into the industry was started by an email to RTE about their children's book coverage. Please could you tell us a little about this and what skills and experiences you gained there?

I decided part way through my final year as an undergraduate that I wanted to pursue Children’s Literature and children’s books as a career, but I was still a little hazy on the details of what role or area I’d end up in. I decided that more education would help me figure that out, so I applied for and was accepted into an MPhil in Children’s Literature. As a result I spent a lot of my summer excitedly catching up on recent children’s books and looking around at what was happening in that scene in Ireland.

One of the things I noticed was that RTÉ had recently started up a radio station called RTÉjr – a dedicated children’s station – and yet there wasn’t a single programme or segment on books. I knew what amazing talent we had in Ireland in terms of children’s writers and illustrators, and it seemed more than a little criminal not to have an outlet for that when we had this medium that was going right to the audience those books are trying to reach. So I wrote them an email! I offered my services as someone who knew things about children’s books, was just about to start a Masters in the subject, and who could perhaps do some research and help put together a show. I heard nothing for a few weeks and had almost given up on the idea until finally they wrote back and said ‘Yes, we’re interested – come in for a chat’. What I didn’t know was that this chat was really an interview to become the creator of the whole show, which is what happened – I walked out as researcher and presenter of a new book show for children for the national broadcaster. This became a half-hour weekly programme where I interviewed children about books and asked their real opinion on plots and covers and characters, giving airtime to new Irish and British children’s books but also to classics and translations.

It was an amazing experience for me, not just in the access it gave me to authors, illustrators and publishers, but also in that I learned how to talk to children. I was so careful never to speak down to them, to be kind and fun and approachable, but also make it clear that I really wanted to know what they thought and that they had an important job to do. That’s what made the show different from so many others – that and the fact that we actually had time for the kids to speak at some length about their opinions, and not thirty seconds as part of another programme. I gained a lot of confidence in myself and in my ability to talk about books from that show.

As the show progressed, I introduced a segment on authors and illustrators and went out to interview them as well. This gave me the perfect excuse to meet some really amazing people like Sarah Crossan, Jon Klassen and Chris Judge, and to speak to them as someone from within the children’s book industry for the first time. It gave me enormous confidence, and was a great reminder that authors and illustrators are just people like the rest of us – albeit extremely talented and hardworking people – and can be insecure about their work and unsure of where to go next. It made publishing seem a much more approachable and accepting world, and it helped me later on when it came to dealing with authors and illustrators in my current role.

Your current role as Publishing Manager and Art Director of Little Island Books covers multiple and various elements of the publishing process. Please could you talk a little about how you got into this role and what your workload looks like? If you are able to, please could you tell us how your relationships work with organisations such as Children’s Books Ireland, IBBY and The Arts Council?

Little Island Books is an absolutely tiny publishing house, which in my opinion is the best possible place to start out your publishing career. I work very closely with the publisher, Siobhán Parkinson, on choosing and editing the books from submission stage through to the final text. One of my favourite parts of the job is reading submissions, finding gems (whether polished or rough), and working with authors to bring it through to the best version of their book that it can be. Because I also manage the marketing of our books, I find that to be really useful in the editorial process. While the utmost importance and respect has to be given to what the author wants the book to be, I also always have the reader, the buyer and the reviewers in the back of my mind. I have their voices asking ‘Why should I buy this book over this other book? What makes it special? Why is Little Island the right place for this book?’, and that of course has to inform our editorial and publishing decisions too.

After a year or so in my role as Publishing Manager, Siobhan and I both realised that I had a good eye for illustration and design, for how to package and present these books as well as commenting on what was inside. I began directing the cover designs and interior illustration, working almost exclusively with Irish artists and illustrators, many of whom had never worked on a book cover or in children’s illustration before. I thought it important to use Little Island as a starting place not just for Irish writers but also for Irish artists – we were drowning in talent and all it took was a good guiding hand to bring their skills to the children’s book world. Of course I always have to a tight budget, which can be stressful, but you can make some wonders when you’re given boundaries, and in some ways the pressures of a small publisher can also be its making.

As I mentioned, I also manage all of the publicity and marketing for our titles, in some cases working with PR people to help with our big titles and sometimes not. I pitch authors and their events to all of the festivals in Ireland, and I’m starting to reach out to UK festivals now that we have a bit more of a presence in their bookshops. I pitch articles and interviews to all of the media outlets, and work closely with the authors on editing their pieces and making sure the tone is right for different audiences. I also organise and manage all of our book launches, and I try to make them a little different to your stand glass-of-wine-and-a-long-speech event, to capture something unusual in the book and bring it to the launch. For example, at the launch of Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan (a book about tattooing and the body), I set up a temporary tattoo parlour in the corner of the bookshop. For the launch of a YA book of ours with a big party scene, I recreated that house party right down to the decorations and the food and drinks for the launch. It’s one of the areas of my job where I can have a little fun and less the creativity run wild.

I also have the exciting job of being involved in rights sales for our titles, and the buying of rights to translated titles. One of the things that Little Island specialises in is translation – in bringing books from all over the world to the Irish and UK market. This means I get to travel to the Bologna and Frankfurt Book Fair every year and seek out new titles for our list, as well as talk very excitedly about our own books to foreign publishers. Honestly, this isn’t that dissimilar to selling a book to our sales team or to a customer – the only difference is that you’re thinking about why our book on, say, the Syrian refugee crisis might particularly fit into their market. It requires knowing a little about international politics, a little about cultural norms, and a lot about how to engage someone in the idea and the story of your book.

One of the joys of working in a tiny publisher is not being able to do everything yourself, and not being so self-sufficient that you can afford to be an island (excuse the pun). We need the support of organisations around us, especially the likes of Children’s Books Ireland who promote reading for young people across Ireland. They review and promote our books, bring our authors on international visits representing Irish writing for young people, and can give excellent advice on placing a book within the market because they read simply everything out there. They also run a stellar conference every year in September, bringing authors, illustrators and publishers from around the world to discuss children’s books and what we’re all about. IBBY Ireland work closely with the less well-represented communities within Ireland, such as immigrants and refugees, and also have excellent international ties with IBBY committees around the world. They can be a great sounding board for events and also put our books forward for international awards such as the IBBY Honour List and the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Of course, the main people we have a relationship with as a tiny publisher are the Arts Council of Ireland and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. They provide funding for us to pay salaries, to produce books that might not always make a profit, and to support and publish Irish authors. Without them, so many Irish publishing houses wouldn’t exist and we’re superbly lucky to be under their wing. The arts – and particularly literature – are severely underfunded in Ireland, so it’s a competitive plain for the few funds that are available.

You were also on the board of Publishing Ireland. Please could you tell us a bit about what they do?

Publishing Ireland is a sort of central hub for publishing in Ireland, and their main role is to provide a place for all the publishers to come together on issues of mutual interest and concern. So, for example, they run a Trade Day every year that features talks and seminars on different aspects of the publishing industry that are of particular relevance to the Irish market, they organise training courses in all different aspects of the trade, but they also do lighter things like host bookish table quizzes and networking nights. In many ways, they’re not dissimilar to what SYP do, but their audience is the entirety of Irish publishing rather than just those in the early stages of their career. My role with them was as a board member, helping organise events and communicating with our members, but more specifically I oversaw their training courses. As my particular interest is in editing and in design, I brought in some new courses that hadn’t been offered before. For example, to coincide with the Year of Design 2015 I ran a Design Day for publishers, bringing in design experts to talk to publishers about how to improve their covers, their typeface choices, their layouts and their production.

The main thing I took from Publishing Ireland was gaining a sense of the publishing world outside of my own company – of not feeling isolated away in my tiny publishing house but being reminded every few weeks that there were a lot of us trying to achieve the same thing in our own corners of the bookshops. It was very comforting and very energising, and it also provided me with a place to go to with questions and problems when Siobhan and I hit a wall somewhere along the way (as absolutely everyone does, on probably a weekly basis).

What, if any, are the main differences to the publishing landscape in Ireland compared to the UK? What are the main advantages and disadvantages?

In some ways it’s hard for me to answer this question, as I know the Irish publishing landscape so much more intimately than the UK one! But the first thing I would say is that the Irish scene benefits from its very existence in the island of Ireland, which has given birth to some of the most amazing writers of the 20th and 21st century. It has made our standard for writing and for storytelling exceptionally high, and we expect excellence no matter what the form. I also think that the Irish scene benefits from its absolutely tiny scale – there are only about sixty publishers in the whole country and most of them are based in Dublin. The community is very tight-knit – we all know each other and are aware of each other’s books and each other’s markets. In my experience, that has only been a positive thing, and I would attend the book launches and parties of the likes of New Island, Tramp Press and Gill just as they’d come to ours. Perhaps because our industry is so small, none of us are quite doing what another publisher is doing, and so none of us quite step on each other’s toes. That might all sound a little cheesy, but it has genuinely been my experience. The UK is a much bigger animal, and there are so many more publishers, that this just couldn’t exist in the same way.

Of course, the advantages that come with a small place are also its disadvantages. There is a tiny audience for the books being produced in Ireland – we only have about four million people living in Ireland and so any kind of niche market is so tiny as to be quite unsustainable. It makes it very hard for publishers to grow beyond a certain size, which is why we have a lot of very small houses. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but its impact is that many people working in publishing in Ireland need to be multi-skilled and do about four different roles at the same time, and everyone is overworked.

I would also say that our bookshops work in quite a different way to the UK model. The behemoths of Waterstones and WH Smith, who have the power to make or break a book in the UK, don’t hold the same. We have those shops, but they are in the minority. Independent bookshops and smaller chains such as Dubray Books – who are beyond excellent in their choice of books and their service to customers – have enough power to make your book a success even if they aren’t commercial enough for the bigger beasts. Our only comparable chain is Eason, which has over ninety shops nationwide, but my experience with them in the children’s and YA department has been very positive. Their children’s buyer, David O’Callaghan, was named Children’s Bookseller of the Year at last year’s British Book Industry Awards, and that’s no accident – he is like a mole for excellent books and always supports the little publishers when he can. All that being said, the Irish publishers do struggle a lot with competition from British and American books. It’s difficult for a title from Little Island to command the same shelf space as a book from the likes of Penguin or Scholastic – we don’t have the same kind of budget for promotion or the ability to provide as high discount as a big publisher. We can’t afford to shout about the book in every bookshop’s catalogue or get in on all the special offers, because all that comes at a high cost.

What do you think is the biggest issue/innovation/trend in publishing right now?

We’re seeing the same trends in Ireland as in the UK, and the biggest one for us right now is feminism and gender equality. I’m delighted to see this issue being explored and dealt with frankly for young readers, as they of all people need to be able to think about these issues of body, gender roles and expectations, and the related issue of sexuality, in the safe space of a book. This year Little Island published a book called Declaration of the Rights of Boys and Girls, which was actually originally published by a tiny French publisher and which we found at the Bologna Book Fair. In its French edition, there was a book for boys and a book for girls, each with a list of fun and liberating rights such as ‘Boys have the right to wear pink and purple and any colour they like’ and ‘Girls have the right to be engineers and pilots and doctors’, and so on. We loved it and the illustration, but we decided to publish it as one book that you could read from either end. The idea was, of course, that boys would read the girls’ side and vice versa, and it’s been a really big hit in Ireland. While feminism and gender equality is being discussed widely for young girls, it’s still not being as freely talked about for young boys, and we wanted this book to make a very strong statement about that, but in a fun, playful and colourful way for kids. We also knew that this book was as important for their accompanying adults, and we’re hoping that it might open some older eyes too. Similarly, we commissioned a collection of traditional fairy tales from YA author Deirdre Sullivan, rewritten with a feminist twist. She produced the most stunning book we’ve done to date – Tangleweed and Brine – which explores the role of women as either princess or witch in so many fairy tales, as well as themes of sexual abuse, anorexia, enforced marriage and miscarriage. It’s a dark book, but one that needed to be written and to be read.

An abridged version of this interview was published in Inprint issue 155.