The Cover Design of The Woodcutter and his Family

Emma Byrne takes us through the fascinating design process that created the eye-catching cover of Frank McGuinness’s upcoming novel.

This is a novel that chronicles James Joyce as he lies on his death bed. A writer’s thoughts on his life, his children’s thoughts on their famous father, and a final story to defy them all.

Given the breadth of James Joyce’s life, and more importantly his work – a bridge, as it were, from an older tradition to a newer one – I felt that a cover inspired by the old technique of letterpress had an intriguing potential.

Letterpress was the normal way of printing text in Europe, from its invention in the mid-15th century by Gutenburg, until the late-19th century.  (The Chinese had invented ceramic moveable type in the 11th century.) Much like our digital revolution and the huge opportunities brought about by social media, Gutenburg’s moveable type changed the dissemination of information forever. Texts were no longer written by specialist scribes for the select few. Words, knowledge and ideas, could be printed and seen by many. It was an invention that brought great power.

I had used a letterpress in college, and as a budding typographer was impressed by the sheer discipline, patience and respect it gave me for letterform. Today, anyone can type an essay on their phone, if they wish, but creating something in letterpress is a game of control and endurance. Fitting letters – wood or metal type – into a chase (a metal frame) is sometimes like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. So, we use furniture (metal, wood or resin spacing tools) various em-spaced leading in different lengths –to fit the letters into the chase.

Wood type is cut and this fact tied in nicely with the title of Frank McGuinness’s second novel, The Woodcutter and His Family. I mocked up a cover approach using images of wooden type that I found online. Again, thinking about how Joyce’s work continues to connect us to an older literary tradition, I mixed a serif and a sans serif typeface. For me, the serif represents a traditional letterform and the sans serif evokes a modernist typeface. I wanted the title to fill the entire cover, so it meant breaking the word ‘woodcutter’ over three lines.


I presented the cover draft and my approach was liked by The O’Brien Press team, especially the sales team. Most importantly for us, the author himself loved the resonance that the image creates. This was progress; my next thought was when the danger loomed … I wondered if I could recreate this cover approach using only letterpress!

I contacted the National Print Museum and, to our delight, the museum’s education officer, Gretta Halpin, loved the idea too. We arranged for us to visit the museum early one morning to recreate the cover with wooden letterform, and the artisan compositor Mary Plunkett was to be our printer for the day.

The first thing to do was look for type. I noticed (with great relief) that there was plenty of wooden type. The museum had several drawers or ‘cabinets’ of wooden Caslon (a serifed font) and Frutiger (a sans serif font).

The next step was to pull out the type case of our chosen letterforms and see how they might work together.

Once we had the type together in galleys we began the slow task of fitting it to the chase. The challenge here was fitting the two fonts together. This process alone took about two hours. With the type finally placed snugly in the chase, the furniture was held in place by tightening a quoin key or a locking device.

The type was now ‘set’ (hence the term ‘typesetting’) and we then prepared the paper by cutting it to size and brought it to the Vandercook press.





Before Mary inked up the press, she ran a sheet of paper through it to see how the type might sit, that is, where it would land on the page.

A few adjustments later and the press was inked and ready for the first proof!

This way we could see the position of the type, and see if anything needed nudging or moving.

After a few further adjustments, we started the run.

And so the print that appears on the book cover, under the dust jacket was born. The image on the dust jacket shows the serif and sans serif wooden type set in their chase. Something that might take 10 minutes on a computer had taken us a number of hours. These disciplined and patient hours, immersed in the letterpress process, have given me a new appreciation of letterform, and its many iterations.



With thanks to Arts Council Ireland,  Mary Plunkett and the National Print Museum.

Emma Byrne, August 2017

The Woodcutter and his Family by Frank McGuinness will be published in September 2017 and will available here and in all good bookshops!

On the Road with Sarah Through Ireland’s Ancient East

Rep on the Road

Our sales representative, Sarah Cassidy, tells us all about being on the road, exploring Ireland on a daily basis and Ireland’s Ancient East.

The job of being a sales representative for The O’Brien Press involves visiting bookshops and other retail outlets throughout Ireland. One day you can be in Belfast and the next Galway or Waterford. It is a great perk of the job to be able to visit every corner of the country, particularly when the sun is shining, the sky is clear and Ireland’s breathtaking scenery is at its best. Some days the Atlantic Ocean is so blue I think about pulling the car over and going for a paddle but I soon remember I’m in Ireland and the likelihood of my poor toes being frozen off is quite high! Instead I grab my lunch from the car, perch on a nearby stonewall and listen to the sound of the rolling waves as I munch on my ham sandwich. Feeling energised by Ireland’s natural beauty (or the bucket of coffee I picked up at Barack Obama Plaza), it is back to the car and on the road again to the next customer.

The Rock of Cashel

It is not just Ireland’s coastal roads that offer beautiful scenery; the countryside and rolling hills that are often dotted with the ruins of castles and monasteries can be so vibrant and green in spring and summer, riotous with russet and gold tones in autumn and captivating coated in early morning frost in the depths of winter. This year in particular, the O’Brien Press reps gained a new appreciation for the countryside and the sights that can be found on the eastside of our beautiful island. We have been selling Carsten Krieger’s fifth book with The O’Brien Press, Ireland’s Ancient East. Filled with fantastic photographs and captions from this talented photographer, Ireland’s Ancient East is the perfect book to guide you around the east side of the country. Linking the Stone Age period with Saint Patrick, the Vikings with the Normans, Ireland’s eastern counties are abundant with monuments and relics that bring to life the stories of our ancestors. Whether you are an armchair traveller or looking to get out and explore the delights of our ancient east, this book is a great place to start! We put it to the test as we took to the roads to sell our autumn list.


Ireland’s Ancient East spans the area outside of Dublin and east of the River Shannon, extending from Carlingford in County Louth to County Cavan and south to Cork City, including East County Cork and East County Limerick and across to Rosslare Harbour. There is so much to see and do! We started in Meath at the UNESCO World Heriatage Site, Brú na Bóinne (meaning the ‘palace’ or the ‘mansion’ of the Boyne). This is the site of Newgrange, a passage tomb found in the Boyne Valley area. Built around 3200 BC this phenomenal structure is older than both Stonehenge in England and the pyramids of Giza in Egypt! Newgrange is a large circular mound, 85 metres in diameter and 13.5 metres high. The mound is surrounded by 97 kerbstones, some of which are engraved with megalithic carvings. Inside is a 19 metre stone passageway, chambers and a roof-box. It is here that Newgrange reveals itself to be more than your average megalithic tomb. Every year on the winter solstice as the sun rises over the tomb, the beam of light travels through the roof-box, illuminating the chamber within for 17 minutes. The visitor centre holds an annual lottery for tickets as only a limited number of people can actually enter the passage tomb and witness what our ancestors created almost 5,000 years ago. So if you do visit make sure to get your name in the draw!

Trim Castle

From here we travelled on to the heritage town of Trim which is alive with history. Close to the River Boyne it is surrounded by rich, fertile land that provided an ideal location for a medieval settlement. Trim Castle on the outskirts of the town is one of the finest examples of a Norman castle in Ireland. You might recognise it: Trim Castle and its surroundings featured heavily in the movie Braveheart (‘They may take our lives but they’ll never take our freedom!’). Sloping down from the castle gate is a winding path leading down to the town and what would have been a busy medieval market place. Although little evidence of shops or taverns remains in Trim, street names indicate that such establishments did exist. Take Fishamble Street, for example. This street name survived as such up until the 18th century. Likewise Cornmarket Street suggests an area where corn was sold. From Trim we headed south towards the garden of Ireland, County Wicklow. This gorgeous county is a haven for day-trippers from Dublin and meandering Sunday drivers for a reason. There are so many glorious sights: the majestic Powerscourt waterfall where you can picnic on a sunny day, the valley of Glendalough and St Kevin’s monastery, the many walkways, hills and mountains calling out for a climb and, of course, the gorgeous beaches, seaside towns and locally made ice-cream!


The Wicklow Mountains

We headed on to the medieval town of Kilkenny with its cobblestone streets and magnificently preserved 12th-century castle but the skies opened up and the rain poured down meaning the camera never made it out! The same happened in Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city founded by Viking raiders in AD 914. Waterford is the largest settlement in Ireland to retain its original Norse- or Viking-derived place name, Vaderfiord, meaning ‘haven from the windswept sea’. It wasn’t quite the haven we hoped for but beautiful none the less!

Brittas Beach

This is only a fraction of what is out there to discover on Ireland’s Ancient East. Carsten’s gorgeous photos have given us ideas about where we would like to explore next. It was great to take some time and become tourists in our own country, appreciating the beauty and stories right on our doorstep. We would encourage you to get out there and embrace Ireland’s Ancient East! It has a lot to offer with plenty of history, nature, locally produced food, photo opportunities and, of course, bookshops! Or you could always just pick up a copy of the book and go touring in your mind…

Sarah Cassidy, July 2017

Thank you to our sales reps Sarah and Brenda for the photographs.

Ireland’s Ancient East is available here and in all good bookshops!

Children’s Books Ireland Conference 2014

The O’Brien Press is delighted that Sheila Agnew, author of Evie Brooks is Marooned in Manhattan, will be part of the Debut Writers’ Panel at the Children’s Books Ireland Conference 2014. She’ll be joining Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (Back to Blackbrick) and Leslye Walton (The Strange & Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender) to talk about the exciting, and sometimes painful, learning experience of publishing a first novel! This session is at 1.30pm on 24 May and is chaired by Bob Johnson of The Gutter Bookshop. If you’d like to attend, check out the official conference page and booking form here.

Our take on ‘Dubliners’ by James Joyce

DublinersOur wonderful designer Emma Byrne gives her thoughts on designing the jacket for our new edition of Dubliners by James Joyce, which was published last year as part of Dublin One City One Book 2012.


When something like Dubliners by James Joyce comes across your desk for a new jacket and design concept, it really deserves a little more attention. How do you represent the visual shell of one of the most famous books in the English language? Indeed.

All of life is here in this collection of fifteen short stories. The characters of these stories, these ordinary Dubliners lives, loves, triumphs and failures are observed with a sharpness and empathy that few writers have ever achieved.

Father Flynn in The Sisters, Jimmy Doyle trying to better himself and failing in After the Race, these, for me, were just two ‘windows’ on these Dubliners’ lives that convinced me that using the ‘window’ as a metaphor might be the approach to take. The stories centre on Joyce’s idea of an epiphany: a moment where a character has a special moment of self-understanding or illumination. The initial stories in the collection are narrated by children as protagonists and, as the stories continue, they deal with the lives and concerns of progressively older people. This is in line with Joyce’s tripartite division of the collection into childhood, adolescence and maturity.

There I had my two design elements:

1.The tripartite division of the collection of short stories into childhood, adolescence and maturity. This is achieved by splitting the word ‘Dubliners’ in three. Also within the book three photographs break up the main body of text.

2. A ‘window’ looking onto Dublin of the period hidden behind the letters. As the stories look deeply at their characters, the image used is College Green in 1914.

What did you think of our cover?

For more information on Dubliners click here.

Throughout the month of June receive a 20% discount on all our James Joyce books when you buy online at!

Happy Bloomsday!


Marketing & PR Internship


book-loveAlways wanted to work with books? Fancy seeing what it’s like to work in a publishing house? Well now is your chance to find out! The O’Brien Press is offering an unpaid marketing and PR internship for our busy autumn season.


This position would be ideally suited to graduates who are seeking to gain experience in publishing, and in the area of marketing and publicity, in particular.

Candidates should be:

  • Highly organised
  • Able to work as part of a team and on their own initiative
  • Able to handle a very busy and time pressurised working environment
  • Proficient in MS Office (Word, Excel) and Outlook. Experience with InDesign and/or social media for business would be a bonus

Further details are available on request.

Please send applications to Ruth Heneghan at Closing date for receipt of applications is 5pm on Wednesday 19th June.

O’Brien Press announces the acquisition of Brandon Books at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2011

Here it is folks! Our big announcement at Frankfurt, as seen today in The Bookseller and Book Trade publications…

The O’Brien Press, Ireland’s leading independent publisher, has announced its acquisition of distinguished Irish press Brandon Books, a year after its founder, Steve MacDonogh, died suddenly, leaving Brandon leaderless.

This important deal includes the purchase of the Brandon name and a significant number of their key titles, their contracts and book stock. Brandon Books will continue trading as an imprint of The O’Brien Press as of October 2011.

Publisher and founder of The O’Brien Press, Michael O’Brien, noted that The O’Brien Press looked forward to welcoming many of Brandon’s writers to their new home at The O’Brien Press and commented:

‘Steve was a man of many talents. From a small base in beautiful Kerry, he created an international literary press. He was a lifelong friend and colleague.’

Brandon Books has been a leading imprint in Ireland since 1982, during which time it has established an international reputation for both fiction and non-fiction. It has enjoyed a colourful and often controversial history and its list includes bestselling authors such as Alice Taylor, whose 1995 book, To School Through the Fields, quickly became the biggest-selling book ever published in Ireland.

Looking forward to 2012, Ivan O’Brien, Managing Director of The O’Brien Press, commented:

‘We will be focusing on fiction of literary quality and will actively seek out new original talent, bringing to our Brandon imprint the care, flair and fresh thinking that has helped O’Brien become Ireland’s leading independent publisher. Of course, we will continue to publish established authors like Alice Taylor, Gerry Adams and Sam Millar. Brandon authors will benefit from our worldwide literary agency network and from our in-house design, editorial and production management.’

The O’Brien Press, founded in 1974, is an independent, award-winning book publisher with almost 600 titles in print. With over 500 active translation agreements in 50 territories, O’Brien Press has built a reputation for books of quality and integrity both at home and abroad.

 Visit the Brandon Website to see their excellent list.

O’Brien Press author is named first ever Laureate na nÓg

Siobhan ParkinsonIrish children’s author Siobhán Parkinson was named the first ever Laureate na nÓg in a ceremony in Dublin yesterday. A new initiative by the Arts Council, with the support of Children’s Books Ireland, the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and Poetry Ireland, the honour was awarded to Siobhán by President Mary McAleese. A multi-award-winning children’s author, Siobhán has published many books for children and her work has been translated into many languages. Among her most popular and award-winning books are Four Kids, Three Cats, Two Cows, One Witch (maybe), which was described by Robert Dunbar as ‘one of the best Irish children’s books we’ve ever had’, Sisters … no way! and Amelia among others. Congratulations to Siobhán from all at The O’Brien Press!

Another year over: what have we learned?

Happy Christmas!So it’s the official end of 2009, when the last of the stock is still piled up in the shops as people scramble to fill those stockings! Several autumn reprints, and a few titles out-of-stock for the last week or so, mean we must have been doing something right, but it’s been one heck of a year. The main memories of 2009 will be of change and pressure to be a part of that change: a transformed economy meeting a rapidly transforming book world.

As what are now called “traditional publishers” we have to read the writing on the wall: we may have had our domain for 20 years now, and a commerce-enabled website for over 10; we may have developed and enhanced databases and workflows to reduce repetitive tasks; we may have half a dozen staff who connect to the office either solely, or largely, via VPN (ie over the internet); we may even be supplying all of our title information in the new-fangled Onix format (if you don’t know what this is, you don’t care: believe me) but the full impact of the digital world is certainly upon us — people are now buying content digitally, so we have to become a Content Company instead of a Book Publisher, and we have to do it fast.

This blog has been running for a year now, and I would not have thought when I started it that, by now, we would:

  • have developed custom web gizmos for the site (see the flashy new caroussels on the homepage!)
  • be trialling a range of .ePub conversion tools, including custom software, to enable our books to be sold through a range of new channels, whether e-readers or on-screen
  • be building our own iPhone application (and no, I won’t tell you what it is. You’ll have to be patient …)
  • immerse ourselves in quite the degree of blue-sky thinking that we are doing

Many of the old-fashioned things that publishers do have stayed the same: publish a great book and people will buy it. Build a marketing model, or an export sales structure, and great things can happen (more on this in the New Year, when we can go public) but given what 2009 has brought, I wonder what O’Brien Press (and the rest of the publishing world …) will look like come the holidays next year: answers on a postcard, please!

Happy holidays to one and all: and make sure you read a good book (I can recommend a few …)


It’s digital week!

A bit like the number 17 bus, you wait all year for a digital seminar, and then three come at once (Well there was one last month, but stick with me here)!

Tomorrow there’s a digital seminar organised by Publishing Ireland about online marketing (with Ireland’s leading online marketing evangelist Damian Mulley: is Twitter the answer to all our needs? How much content should we give away free? Lots of potential for fun there …), bibliographical information (with Tim from Anko: dull-sounding but really important stuff about how the world learns about books) and digital rights (from Samantha Holman, ICLA).

No sooner is that over than it’s off to London for the Independent Publishers Guild Digital Quarterly Meeting: this is a great idea whereby four times each year the independents throw ideas around, share success (and failure!) stories from the e-universe and help each other compete against the conglomerates.

And as if that was not enough, on Saturday, I’ll be on the panel at the Children’s Books Ireland Digital Developments Seminar, organised by Eoin Purcell.

There’s no question that all publishers need to get on the electronic road sooner rather than later, while some have jumped headlong into the choppy waters. Instant access to worldwide markets, the potential for direct selling, the threat to bookshops (who are our main customers, after all), and the huge pressure on pricing brought about by the amount of free stuff out there are all becoming more important issues now that the format wars appear to be dying down a bit. Interesting times.