The Irish Booksellers Association conference took place on Friday 8 March at Maldron Hotel, Dublin Airport. The event is run in partnership with Publishing Ireland and if I had one word to sum up the event that would be “success”.

Like all industries in Ireland the book industry has had a very hard time over the past 10 to 15 years. Not only are they dealing with fallout from the economic crash in 2008, there is also online retailing to contend with and for bookshops, ebooks. Throughout this time both bookshops and publishers have managed somehow to survive and the BA reports that there are 200 bookshops as members.

The day opened with speeches from John Keane, president of the Irish BA and Ivan O’Brien, chair of Publishing Ireland. A highlight of the introductions was the appearance of Sarah and Cillian Fitzgerald. Sarah at 14 years of age was the book ambassador for Irish Book Week and with her little brother she took part in a Q&A with John. They both had “worked” at Easons in the run up to Christmas helping shoppers buy books for children. You can find out more about Sarah and her book project here.

It was with some pride that John Keane introduced the keynote speaker, Dr Margaret Heffernan. And sure why not, he had been at the BA conference in Birmingham to hear her talk and he bumped into her at the coffee machine. Not one to hold back,he asked would she come to Dublin and Margaret said yes, resulting in a treat for Irish booksellers and publishers.

Speaking for near on 45 minutes (without notes) Dr Margaret Heffernan pointed out, in her powerful and thought-provoking address, that bookshops might have survived the onslaught of Amazon but other retailers are struggling. She went on to say that bookshops were the first to be hit by Amazon and maybe the first to survive that, but a business cannot continue if all the other retail outlets around you are closed. The shoppers that used to go to our neighbouring shops are now shopping online. There are no prizes for being the last man standing on the main streets of Ireland. We know from recent research by PWC that online shopping in Ireland is growing at a phenomenal rate and there is absolutely no doubt that this is going to negatively impact independent bookshops. She said we need to think about our bookshops as part of the whole ecosystem of shopping. We need to reach out and collaborate with our neighbours, bring complimentary businesses to events to attract more people and talk to other businesses to find out the best fits for you. She suggested that if we cannot do this, we will not survive long term.

Dr Heffernan was followed by a presentation by Sara Mulryan from Nielsen on the 2018 book sales in Ireland. As Sara said it was a good year to be presenting with book sales up across nearly all categories. Volume sales were up 6.4% with value sales up 6.5%. A statistic that was encouraging showed that the average selling price was slightly up year on year. It was also heartening to see that over the last ten years UK titles sales have declined whilst Irish published titles have grown. It is worth noting that over 18% of genre and general fiction are purchased in the last 4 weeks of the year with Milkman and A Keeper being the biggest sellers for 2018.

The conference is now running slightly behind schedule so it’s a quick turnaround at coffee before the conference splits into three sessions: for booksellers a talk on window displays or business mentoring programme and for publishers a discussion on building a brand. Booksellers are then treated to a round up of the key titles for 2019 from Irish publishers before we are treated to a hugely enjoyable and funny talk from Adele Parks.

The Maldron Hotel reported that this was the biggest conference they had run, and it was therefore a testament to their team that the sit down lunch was excellent and quick. Important as we were quickly back in the conference room for an economic update from Jim Power. Jim is one of Ireland’s leading and best-known economic analysts. Click here for more details.

Jim outlined Ireland’s exposure to the situation in the world economy. As that slows, which it is, Ireland will be negatively impacted. Stripping out the multinationals the real growth in Ireland in 2018 was 4%, an impressive figure but one that cannot continue. His statistics shows that the rapidly growing and ageing population will put serious pressure on a failing health service and as the country moves towards full employment this will inevitable mean the cost of labour will increase.

Two more break out sessions shared best practice on dyslexia bookselling and cover design for publishers. A quick coffee was the order for the day before we were treated to an inspiring talk from Bobby Kerr.

The highlight of the event was the conference dinner which the hotel staff coped with very well. The guest author at the dinner was Colm O’Regan and what a treat that was. Colm has a debut novel published in March 2019 called Ann Devine and he was hugely entertaining and funny. You can read my thoughts on it here.

I would rate the conference an all round success. I would recommend any bookseller or publisher who is looking to grow their business, want to chat with colleagues and want to be inspire should be putting the 2020 date in their diary now.

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