What if Ulysses had never found a publisher?

Posted on: 16 June 2023

As we gather to celebrate another Bloomsday the researchers behind a new digital directory of Irish publishing reflect on bibliodiversity and the landscape of the Irish publishing sector.

What if Ulysses had never found a publisher?

by Prof. Eve Patten, Dr Jane Mahony and Ruth Hegarty.

As we gather again for Bloomsday to celebrate James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, we might well reflect that Joyce, like so many Irish novelists of his time, published abroad. Ireland, he wrote, was the ‘lovely land that always sent/Her writers and artists to banishment.’  

A century later the Irish publishing landscape is a more welcoming place for writers, both domestic and international, and the nation’s publishing industry is a quiet success story. But with the ushering in of a new era of digital Open Access (OA) through EU directives, can that success—and that welcome —be sustained?  

Joyce’s publishing history was famously fraught and tortuous. Successive publishers in London, New York and Dublin refused outright to publish his work or would only agree to do so following major changes, which Joyce passionately rejected. In the conservative publishing environment of the early twentieth century, publishers and printers feared criminal prosecution for publishing obscene or libellous material. It took nearly a decade for Joyce to find a publisher for Dubliners, while securing a publisher for Ulysses took several more turbulent years. Early instalments of the novel issued by The Little Review magazine were repeatedly seized and burned by the United States Post Office. 

Eventually in 1914 and 1922 the London publisher, Grant Richards, and the Paris-based American bookseller, Sylvia Beach published Dubliners and Ulysses respectively. Their heroic role in Joyce’s publishing history underlines the importance of small, independent, risk-taking publishers who prioritise intellectual adventurousness over the commercial incentives that constrain major corporate bodies. Independent, risk-taking publishers promote ‘bibliodiversity’, the publishing ecosystem that fosters new authors, supports small publishing ventures, and tempers the dominance of large publishing conglomerates.

Bibliodiversity is crucial in small markets like Ireland, which has often languished in the shadow of a powerful UK publishing industry. A healthy Irish publishing trade encourages and serves local authors and local interests. It enables home-grown successes like Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat (published by Tramp Press), and the acclaimed Coastal Atlas of Ireland (published by Cork University Press). It supports Irish-language publications and grows their readership. And it caters for a distinctive – even maverick – body of writers whose expertise on everything from botany and birdwatching to medieval history would otherwise go unsung, and unpublished.  

 Mapping Ireland’s publishers is a valuable tool in supporting our publishing ecosystem. This task is now being undertaken by PublishOA.ie, a research consortium led by the Royal Irish Academy in partnership with the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute and eight other country-wide institutional partners.

This year, on Bloomsday, PublishOA.ie is issuing the first digital edition of a comprehensive all-island directory of Irish publishers.  The directory, compiled by the project’s manager Lucy Hogan, provides a unique and dynamic map of the Irish publishing landscape, which today encompasses over 180 active book and journal publishers. From Belfast to Bantry and from Dublin to the Galway Gaeltach, Irish publishers are active as never before, to the benefit of authors, readers, and the economy.   

But like any ecosystem, Irish publishing is vulnerable to a changing climate and Ireland’s treasured bibliodiversity is fragile. Beyond the familiar problems of supply chains and rising printing costs, Irish scholarly publishers in particular face a revolution in their field as the move to Open Access publishing gains momentum under EU directives. Open Access is the system through which publications are made freely available online upon publication, with no fees. The advantages of this are obvious and the Open Access ethos is to be celebrated, but there are hidden hazards at work, not least for small independent publishers, who, outside the shelter of large educational institutions, may not survive this new financial model.  

As part of the planning for the new Open Access landscape the PublishOA.ieproject – which is funded by the National Open Research Forum – is also conducting a feasibility study for an All-Ireland digital publishing platform for Open Access journals and books, designed to meet EU requirements and serve the needs of authors, readers, publishers and funders in Irish scholarly publishing. This is far from straightforward, not least in the wake of the Brexit vote which left Ireland in a unique position in Europe. An Open Access platform would be ‘national’ in scope, but encompass academic publishing across two jurisdictions, which are now both inside and outside the EU.  

How will this work? And how do we preserve and nourish the Irish publishing ecosystem to maintain diversity and sustainability? Publishing in Ireland must always have regard to the considerably larger and better resourced publishing trade in the next-door United Kingdom, where Irish authors, writing mainly as they do, in English, have historically had strong representation. But the backdrop of Open Access disruption presents an opportunity to rethink our priorities, and should prompt us to be more ambitious for our island’s publishing culture. Over the next 18 months, PublishOA.ie will contribute to a national conversation on Open Access involving publishers, authors, editors, readers and policy makers to discuss the routes ahead for publishing across the island. This is a timely discussion that must engage all parties in order to prepare for change, and to help ensure that Ireland continues to foster a healthy publishing culture, one in which Joyce’s masterpiece -- if it were submitted today--  might find a welcoming home.

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