Who are we, she asked, and what's our rationale in setting up Cuilean Craicte? Why are we proposing a 'book club' model in which all of our members receive all of our books? Could we not sell the books individually? Could we not introduce an element of choice? Are our books going to be available elsewhere? How does our pricing compare to other Gaelic books on the market?
We would like to share our answers and thereby offer a glimpse of the thinking - commercial and otherwise - that has informed our approach.
Our experience as parents has been that there is not nearly enough Gaelic material available for children who are setting out on their journeys as independent readers. There just aren't enough books around for GME children to read. This is no criticism of the work that others have done. Put simply, no small language can begin to compete with the breadth of provision available to English-language readers. Every year in the UK, 10,000 new children's books are published. That's around five times as many new titles hitting the shelves of Waterstones as there are kids in GME.
The 10,000 new titles include all sorts of books - poetry collections, sticker books, colouring books, doodle books, picture books, novelty books, non-fiction books and, of course, fiction for children and young adults. Many of these publications are only viable when printed in 'runs' of hundreds of thousands, often in international 'co-editions' in which the printer prints the English book, changes the black plate and 'runs on' a French or German edition, and/or a Korean one, and perhaps one in Hebrew etc etc. The economies of scale this allows make even very intricate books possible, although each individual language 'run' has to be quite big if it is to be commercially viable, as the costs of changing the black plate are not inconsiderable. On the other hand, some books can be made viable in pretty small runs - the publisher of an unillustrated fiction title might be able to make it work with an intial run of only three or five thousand, for example. Of course, the hope is that the book will take off, the publisher will reprint it in the tens of thousands, sell the translation rights in a dozen territories and make a killing. Twenty four times out of twenty five, this doesn't happen, but when it does the money's enough to cover the risk of publishing all of the others.
Even a run of 3,000 or 5,000 is unimaginably large for Gaelic. There is no chance of a 'hit' to boost the bank balance, since to be a 'hit' a book needs to sell a number of copies that is many, many times the size of the entire Gaelic-speaking population of the world. Even co-editions are tricky since the typical 'run' size for Gaelic is small enough to make plate change costs painful. For this reason Gaelic publishing exists in a context of 'market failure' - i.e. the size of the market is not sufficient to sustain commercial operations. Because of this 'market failure', funding structures have been put in place so that Gaelic publishers can afford to operate. This is of course a blessing - it means books can exist that might not otherwise. But it has its downsides - publishers may spend more time filling in funding applications than actually publishing books, for example, and funding bodies the world over tend to be known less for speed and agility in responding to opportunity than for lumbering bureacracy. And funding is limited, meaning that strategic priorities have to be set. In the Gaelic context there has been a focus - rightly, we think - on books for schools, and on books for babies and toddlers.
At Cuilean Craicte we have looked for a different way of doing things. Our board includes a commercial publisher who crunched the figures, sweet-talked a few contacts and worked out that - if we offer our translation services for free - we can produce books in runs of one or two hundred. This still lets us cover the unavoidable costs of translation rights, print and design if - and it's a big if - we can guarantee that we will sell these copies. And that's where our unusual model comes into play. By asking for an up-front membership fee that covers the price and postage of the books at roughly the same level as the RRP plus postage on an equivalent title from a website like Waterstones, we can make this happen. We won't make any money, and we still won't pay ourselves for the work we have done, but neither will we risk our own savings in a market-failure business in which the very best we could hope for is to break even after offering our services for free. We could apply for funding to cover this risk but we don't want to do that, because we don't need to. If just 100 people agree to buy the six books upfront, we can go ahead. That leaves the funding for other things that are equally important but that can't break even, and lets us move at speed to get the books out there in a matter of weeks, not years.
We won't be making the books available elsewhere because we can't give away a cut of the price to retailers and still break even, and because we want to repay our members' investment by keeping the books especially for them. The fact that the books won't be in schools is, we think, a positive - sometimes it's nice to have a book to read at home that isn't also going to pop up as a class read. Hopefully the explanation of the publishing process above answers the question of why we can't offer a choice - we'll be working hard to make 100 or 200 copy runs viable and there's just no way we can split this miniscule market further.
We do hope you will join us on our reading-for-pleasure venture. As well as offering your child fun and a chance to further develop his or her Gaelic skills, you'll also be helping us trial a new way of working - we're calling it 'Gaels doin' it for themselves'!
An Cuilean xxx