The BookBrunch Interview from Ireland: Eoin McHugh, publishing director at HarperCollins in Ireland

Claire Coughlan
News - Interviews Wednesday, 30 May 2018

As HarperCollins grows its Irish presence, Claire Coughlan meets its recently arrived publishing director, Eoin McHugh, to talk about his vision for the business

The Irish publishing landscape developed an international dimension in the early 2000s, when Penguin Random House, Hachette and Transworld set up shop in Dublin. All three companies have "Ireland" imprints, which tend to publish separately from their UK counterparts.

When I meet Eoin McHugh, the newly installed publishing director at HarperCollins in Ireland, at the News International office in Dublin's Ringsend, he points out that HarperCollins has held a sales and publicity presence in Ireland since "forever". However, now it also has a dedicated editorial function, which is about to expand.

McHugh has been in the role for six months, and is in the process of doubling the entire team. The vital difference between HarperCollins in Ireland, and say Transworld Ireland, of which McHugh was publisher from 2007 to 2017, is that there will be no separation between the UK and Irish markets. McHugh will harness a growing Irish writing talent pool, before approaching UK colleagues with a view to acquisition.

"The idea with HarperCollins in Ireland is that publishing is a fully integrated part of the London publishing, and it's not intended that there'll be a separate HarperCollins Ireland imprint," McHugh says. "Which is a point of differentiation, I suppose; it's just a slightly different approach than has been taken in the past. But in all other substantial respects, it's about having an editorial and publishing presence on the ground in Ireland to try to identify potential projects across the spectrum."

McHugh started his career at Fred Hanna's bookshop in Dublin, which was later bought by Eason. He then became head of book purchasing at Eason, before moving to Transworld Ireland. While at Transworld, he launched the Doubleday Ireland imprint and with it the career of Donal Ryan in the UK market. He concedes that it's quite rare for books published separately under an Irish imprint also to do well in the UK.

"Donals don't come along every day," he says wryly. He adds that booksellers championed Ryan's debut, The Spinning Heart, from the outset.

"All evidence of the last 10 to 15 years, of UK publishers having imprints in Dublin, publishing Irish books, suggests that it's exceptional to gain much traction in the UK," he says.

"I think the overwhelming evidence suggests that most of the publishing is locally focused, it's for the Irish market. And that is often quite a challenge in itself. The Irish market is a substantial one and if you can make a book work here, sales can be considerable. Breaking into the UK is an aspiration but it's not the primary focus. Irish readers are interested in Irish stories; local books in fiction and non-fiction have significant appeal. You look at the Irish bestseller lists in any given week and there's quite a significant representation of Irish material."

McHugh has already made four confirmed acquisitions, all non-fiction, with a possible fifth in the offing, though he is at liberty to discuss only one of these, out this September - the autobiography of Rosemary Smith, the Irish motorsport pioneer.

"Rosemary was a trailblazer in the world of rallying in that period of the Sixties, particularly when it drew huge audiences internationally and in the UK," McHugh explains. "Her story has resonances culturally with a lot of what's going on now. She was very much ahead of her time and it's interesting to read her story and get a sense of what that must've been like for her: the kind of resolve and courage it took to do what she did."

Though for the last five to six months HarperCollins in Ireland has been in "very much a start-up situation", McHugh says he has already received quite a number of submissions, a combination of work being sent in directly, by referral and through agents. That is the nature of Irish publishing, he says.

"They've found their way in. I think it's a feature of the Irish market: that the scale allows for the fact that people's emails can circulate. People will find a way to get in, but that's fine. I'll be trying to spot good books, whether they're fiction or non-fiction, literary or commercial."

McHugh says that inevitably there are going to be areas that he's more familiar with personally, or of which he has more experience editorially. However, the brief in this new role is to "keep a lookout and to liaise and keep an open channel to various colleagues in London... There'll be books that'll be specifically Irish, and quite local. There may be books that have the capacity to bridge across, and there have been a few already submitted which might have a restricted potential in Ireland, if Ireland is the only market that's being considered.

"It wouldn't be viable if you were thinking solely of Ireland. But they may be books with a wider international or UK dimension. In those cases, I've been liaising with appropriate colleagues in London and talking to them about these proposals and seeing how they go."

In more specific terms, in fiction, McHugh says he is on the lookout for an emerging author of literary fiction, for an emerging crime/thriller writer, and for "more general" commercial fiction.

We mention HarperCollins' hit Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, which has been a fixture on bestseller lists since publication last year. Is McHugh on the lookout for a similar voice, an Irish Gail Honeyman?

"Absolutely," he says. "It's a case of being fortunate to find that voice, that writer, and I think we will be looking out for authors of that calibre in that area, but you can't predict what may emerge or who may emerge. I suppose for the first time, HarperCollins has got a dedicated focus now, on emerging Irish voices and Irish work, and that is something new."

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