Archive 1997 – Birth of the Irish American Book Company

Delving into the archives of Books Ireland to February 1997, Issue no. 201

A lot of people have been making a lot of money out of Michael Collins in recent months, but publisher Jack Van Zandt recognised the mass appeal of the big fellow long before Neil Jordan’s cinematic coup. Back in 1990 Van Zandt’s company Roberts Rinehart, a transatlantic venture with bases in Schull, west Cork, and Boulder, Colorado, was struggling to find its place in the Irish and UK markets. Then Van Zandt had a call from Tim Pat Coogan, author of the definitive biography of Michael Collins, which would prove to be a milestone in the company’s development.

Van Zandt had moved to Schull from California, via London, where he had worked as a music publisher, in 1983. Surprised at the dearth of well stocked bookshops outside Ireland’s major towns and cities, he and his wife opened Mizen Books.

“It was a real struggle at first,” Van Zandt recalls. “The big wholesalers like Easons weren’t interested in doing business with small bookshops at that time and it was a number of years before we were taken seriously I’m not sure the shop would have survived in any other rural area, but west Cork is such a cosmopolitan place that we soon built up a diverse and regular clientele.”

Meanwhile, back in the US, Rick Rinehart, an old friend of Van Zandt’s who comes from a long and distinguished line of publishers, had started his own publishing company, focusing mostly on natural history books for the US National Park system.

“Rick and I had kept in touch through the years and we were always exchanging ideas for going into business together,” Van Zandt says. “We started doing our first books together in 1989. Initially we thought we’d bring books by small American publishers to Ireland and Britain but that proved to be a bad idea. Then Tim Pat Coogan got in touch and asked me how he’d get his biography of Michael Collins published in the US. I was amazed that the original publishers, Hutchinson, hadn’t already sold on US rights. I asked him to come down to Schull and we talked about it and I said I’d really like to see Roberts Rinehart publish it in the US. So I took the book to Colorado, where Rick was by now concentrating on children’s books for the American market, and they agreed to do an initial run of 5,000 copies in hard back. The first edition eventually ran to 15,000 hard backs. The paperback had sold 50,000 copies before Neil Jordan’s film was launched; it’s up to about 100,000 now.”

Van Zandt went on to originate a number of successful titles in Ireland, for both the Irish and US markets, including photographer Ton Kelly’s Ireland:The Living Landscape and Ida Grehan’s Irish Family Histories, but the phenomenal success of Coogan’s book in the US, and the difficulties of carving a niche in the Irish market, had set Van Zandt and his partner thinking along alternative lines.

“As publishers our experience of Irish wholesalers was similarly unhappy” says Van Zandt. “We almost had to beg Easons to take our books. Things improved with the development of Gill & Macmillan Distribution and since 1995 we’ve had a reciprocal arrangement with Town House,whereby they distribute our books in Ireland and we distribute theirs in the US. But the problems we experienced led us to the conclusion that as long as we were publishing for the Irish market we were working too hard for too small a return.”

The future, Van Zandt decided, was in selling or co-publishing Irish books in the US, where Roberts Rinehart now has a solid reputation. Recent successes include Pictures in my Head by Gabriel Byrne, co-published with Wolfhound Press, Free Ireland: Towards a Lasting Peace by Gerry Adams, published in Ireland by Brandon, A New Ireland by John Hume, and Tom Kelly’s most recent photo book Legendary Ireland (both Town House).

Next month sees the launch of a brave new venture, the Irish American Book Company, a  subsidiary of Roberts Rinehart dedicated to the representation and distribution of Irish publishers–so far,Wolfhound,O’Brien and Mercier–in the US.

“Most Irish publishers have been disappointed by the performance of their books in the US,” Van Zandt explains. “We feel that the potential of the US market for Irish books is largely untapped and with the Irish American Book Company we’re going all out to realise that potential. The company will have its own marketing director, its own catalogue and a network of sales representatives nationwide. We’ve also got a substantial mailing list which is growing all the time–We enclose a reply card with every book of Irish interest we publish and the cards come back at an amazing rate.”

Roberts Rinehart will continue to co-publish Irish books which it considers to be of major trade interest–a US edition of Conor O’Clery’s Greening of the White House (Gill & Macmillan) has just appeared under the title Daring Diplomacy–and the company will retain an office in Dublin where rights manager Mary Hegarty will acquire books from Irish and UK publishers for publication in the US aswell as selling European rights in Rinehart books. Van Zandt himself, however, has had to relocate to Colorado.

“It was a very difficult decision for me,” he says “But it got to the stage where I was flying back and forth from Cork to Colorado at least once a month, and working on the phone to the US deep into the night. You can’t sustain that kind of lifestyle for very long.”
For now, Van Zandt and his IABC colleagues in Colorado are poised for an assault on the US market.

Simultaneously in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Thomas Lavoie of Dufour Editions, who have long boasted a strong Irish list and specialise also in importing from the smaller quality publishers of England and Scotland, announce that they have secured US and Canada distributorship of Ireland’s Lilliput Press, Gallery Press, New Island Books, Dedalus Press and the newly-founded University College Dublin Press–a handful that might not be quite so commercially impressive as the O’Brien-Wolf hound-Mercier axis, but is at least their equal in terms of literary reputation and quality.

Ethna McKiernan of the big mail-order outfit Irish Books & Media of Minneapolis, now employing five full-time, doesn’t feel threatened by these new alliances. On the contrary they’re going to simplify her buying. Only time will tell whether they will produce the spectacular results that Irish publishers have always hoped for but never quite achieved.


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