Ivan O’Brien & Sean O’Keeffe: The Independent Bookshop

By stephaniekelly

The spirit of independence is alive and thriving. Celebrating the opening of a seasonal pop-up independent book shop on 47 Drury Street, we spoke with Ivan O’Brien from The O’Brien Press and Sean O’Keeffe from Liberties Press.

Photo credits: Ste Murray

What was the idea behind the collaborative pop-up, The Independent Bookshop?
Sean: This is the second year we’ve run the shop. Last year we were around the corner at 27 South William Street, in a basement. This year we’re at ground level: progress! We wanted to showcase the best of the independent publishing sector, which is on the upturn now after some dark years.

There appears to be a buoyancy in sales and support for booksellers. Do you feel the digital storm has been weathered? What challenges lie ahead?
Ivan: We are in the middle of the digital storm! Lots of people read books electronically and eBooks actually open up a world market for Irish publishers that was much harder to reach with physical books. We have sold books in 100 countries this year, which wouldn’t have been possible before. I think the main challenge is to continually prove that our words and pictures are worth paying for – good books are difficult and expensive to make, and if people want to have quality available, they have to be willing to pay for things they don’t get free with their broadband subscription. Books have risen really strongly to this challenge, and the books in shops these days are such lovely objects that (we hope!) it’s hard NOT to want them!
The challenges? Keep getting better, avoid getting squeezed too hard from all sides and keep the wonderful authors and staff who work so hard to create our books.

Sean: The buzz around digital has been driven mainly by people selling the devices. The talk now is of a plateau: digital sales are not rising at the rate that was originally expected, and are actually declining in some areas.
Booksellers who know their market and do something more than just pile the books high are thriving, particularly in big cities. Manhattan, for example, has a dynamic independent-bookseller scene, and similar things are happening in London and Dublin.

You have fourteen diverse independent publishers who collaborated on the project, what breadth of publications are on offer to visitors of the Bookshop?
Ivan: There’s huge diversity… price-wise from a fiver to nearly €200! At the beautiful object end we have hand-printed and bound limited edition works of art from The Salvage Press or the special numbered edition of Eileen Gray: Her Work and Her World from Irish Academic Press. There’s also poetry, fiction (including Swan River Press’s lovely fantasy books, and Lilliput, New Island and The Stinging Fly’s new literary novels) and non-fiction, including Irish Thatch, written and photographed by our own designer, Emma Byrne. There are children’s books from Mercier Press, Little Island and ourselves (A Dublin Fairytale and Gulliver are super Christmas presents!). I could go on… come along and see for yourselves, people!

Sean: Many of the books in the shops are hard to find elsewhere, and in some cases fairly rare. We’re not selling remainders: you may not find a bargain, but you will certainly find some superb books

What does it take to survive as an independent book publisher in 2015?
Ivan: 80% of all books sold in Ireland comes from Britain. As Irish independent publishers we have to prove that we are still needed and prove to authors that they are better off with us than looking to be published overseas. We have to share information and work together because, while we do compete on individual titles, we have much more to gain by cooperating than we have to lose. And we have to keep coming up with great books that people will want to own or give as presents – no pressure!


Sean: At Liberties Press, we moved from survival mode to a growth outlook some time ago. Numb was the most talked-about book of the year, and Brand New Retro is flying out the door. The average person probably isn’t aware that there are so many excellent Irish publishers around, or that by buying our books, they are directly supporting Irish jobs. We’re very proud to have ten people on the payroll here in Terenure: designers, publicists, editors and others.

What is your favourite book of this year that you would recommend buying as a Christmas gift? (Excluding your own titles)
Ivan: Excluding our own? That’s hard! But I will certainly be giving Sinead Gleeson’s wonderful The Long Gaze Back to several people. A real labour of love bringing a huge range of women writers, both well-known and neglected, to a new audience.

Sean: Salvage Press published a beautiful handmade edition of the Old English poem Maldon which I’m proud to own. Their books are exclusively available in Drury Street. Irelandopedia deserves all the praise and sales it’s receiving. Now that Gill is becoming independent again, we’d be delighted to have them in The Independent Bookshop next year!

The Independent Bookshop is being run by 12 other independent publishers. They’ll be open from 11am-6pm, Monday to Saturday, up until 23rd of December. The shop will be fully staffed by one of the publishers each day.