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Monday musings on Australian literature: SPUNC has spunk

March 7, 2011
Having cried wolf, book cover

Isn’t this cover gorgeous? (Courtesy: Affirm Press)

Yes, come here for your wit. I bet I’m the first one to have thought of that line! SPUNC, in case you haven’t heard of them and you probably haven’t, is the Small Press Network (in Australia). The acronym actually stands for Small Press Underground Networking Community. It was formed in Melbourne in 2006 and its aim – as you would have guessed – is, in its own words, “to promote independent publishing and support the principle of diversity within the publishing industry as a vital component of Australian literary culture”.

Its definition of small is, I think, pretty broad. I suspect the key word is “independent” more than “small” as its members range from what seems to me to be well-established companies, like Text Publishing, which publishes some high volume works, to smaller more boutique publishers like Ginninderra Press and, a new kid on the block, Affirm Press.

In 2007, SPUNC commissioned a report into independent publishing in Australia. It was titled A lovely kind of madness: Small and independent publishing in Australia. Aha, there it is “small” and “independent” and it seems that for the purposes of this report the focus was on the smaller end of the scale.

In fact, definition is one of the issues the report confronted and so, using the evidence they gathered from their survey and overseas research, they came up with one. Their suggested guidelines for ‘small press’ is that they are independent publishers who:

  • Have published at least one book title or journal issue (in hardcopy);
  • Have an annual turnover of $500 000 or less;
  • Have print runs of usually less than 2000;
  • Have published more than one author;
  • Publish fewer than 10 book titles per year; and
  • Usually do not charge authors fees for production, editing or distribution.
Kill Your Darlings Issue 4

Kill Your Darlings

Guess what the report found? Well, in case you can’t, I’ll tell you: it’s that the main problems faced by smaller presses are publicity and distribution. Who’da thought it?! They do admit though, that distribution in particular is a problem for all publishers, not just the small ones, due to “the combined effects of a crowded market, a geographically wide distribution area, low margins and relatively small print runs”. It’s hard running any business in “a wide brown land”.

Why am I writing this? Because I do read books from small presses, including Affirm Press, Black Inc, Ginninderra PressGiramondo Publishing, Griffith Review, and Kill Your Darlings to name just a few. And because I want them to survive: they pick up new upcoming writers; they publish poetry; they publish essays; they, in fact, make the major contribution to the diversity of publishing in Australia; they foster local talent; and they are often simply just beautiful to look at and hold.

Do you read small presses? Do they contribute to your literary scene? What do you think they could do to lift their visibility?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2011 4:52 pm

    I would like to support small presses in this way, but the problems highlighted here are precisely why I don’t very often… publicity and distribution, which translates into visibility and accessibility for me. It’s a quandary!

    • March 7, 2011 5:08 pm

      And they don’t employ many people! They do like volunteers and interns often though.

      • March 9, 2011 12:27 am

        But internships and volunteering also allows people to gain experience in the publishing industry so it kind of works out.

        • March 9, 2011 12:59 am

          Absolutely true …

        • March 9, 2011 1:46 am

          Which also means that the people most likely to be employed in the publishing industry are the kind who can afford to start their careers with a stretch of unpaid work — people who are already rich or semi-rich, or whose parents are flush.

  2. Michelle permalink
    March 7, 2011 10:53 pm

    I started reading more from the small presses (in my case, US small presses) a few years ago, and have loved the experience. I find more diversity and more daring in the literature, something I really appreciate. The big publishers have a lot of control about which writers make it or break it in the US, which is a shame, because the small presses have been consistently publishing excellent new and old writers for years. Wish there were some way to re-skew the system to level the playing field.

    • March 7, 2011 11:08 pm

      Thanks Michelle … I’ve noticed here, too, that some of the smaller and independent presses are republishing authors. It’s great to see isn’t it – the mix of new authors and older authors. Did you find these books easy to locate?

  3. March 8, 2011 4:52 am

    Small presses received a tremendous boost in the UK the year that “The Life of Pi” won the Booker, because it was published by Cannongate which at the time was certainly amongst the smaller players out there. People began to look specifically for the independent publishers and it’s a movement that has never really faded away as it might well have done. We certainly have some very interesting publishers including here in Birmingham The Tindal Street Press who have had several authors short-listed for major prizes in recent years. However, there is a problem that comes with success because inevitably the writer has to move to another publisher for later works as Tindal isn’t set up for the type of print run that becomes necessary. That seems a real shame.

  4. March 8, 2011 9:25 am

    Thanks Annie…I’ve heard of Canongate of course (I’ve read Pi and a couple others of their books though can’t recollect who now!). You make a very good point re loss of authors later. Fremantle Arts Centre Press started off quite a few very significant Aussie writers who then went on the Penguin et al. I often wonder how these presses feel about this … and probably they vary depending on what their goal is and who the author is! Some may like operating in the small more personal environment but there must be costs in terms of survival stress in that!

  5. March 8, 2011 10:50 am

    I am starting to take more notice of small presses here in Australia, but it is definitely as a result of finding out about specific books and following through from there. Getting the word about about small presses in general does seem to be a bit difficult in the first instance.

    • March 8, 2011 3:58 pm

      It sure is … one of the places where I see some of them is the National Library Bookshop but they tend to be the small press journals like Kill Your Darlings, Griffith Review, Island magazine etc but I do see Black Inc, Scribe, Ginninderra and others there too. You are probably more likely to see independent pubs in independent bookshops! Funny that, eh?

  6. March 8, 2011 11:40 am

    Hi Sue, this is a great post – and really draws attention to some of the challenges faces by small, independent presses. ‘Small’ is indeed an all-encompassing definition, and independent is more accurate (Affirm Press, for example, publishes around 10 to 12 books per year; while Text has a far larger list, publishing books from both Australian and international writers). One of the large, continuing challenges is the publicity and promotion of our titles – which is expensive and time-consuming, especially for companies with a very small staff. But it also means that we’re really pushed to be creative and innovative, and the internet, particularly, has been an essential tool in new forms of promotion (Twitter, Facebook, online forums such as this blog). At Affirm Press, we’re certainly looking to spread the word about our books for widely and more effectively, and with that make efforts to create a sense of community.

    • March 8, 2011 3:51 pm

      Thanks so much for commenting – and confirming and expanding on the points. The Internet is a great tool but I bet it’s a challenge to work out how to target it.

  7. March 9, 2011 12:34 am

    I try to read more titles from SPUNC and I occasionally, or used to, read the Sleepers Almanac, Griffith Review, Harvest, Voiceworks and Meanjin (although that might be considered large?). Getting access to copies is part of the problem but a lot of the independent bookstores stock them. I also dip into Zines which I love for their quirkiness.

    • March 9, 2011 1:05 am

      Ah, there are a couple there I don’t know, Mae – Harvest and Sleepers Almanac. There’s a wonderful variety out there. I’ve seen Voiceworks at NLA but haven’t delved into it. They used to carry Wet Ink, which I sometimes bought for my daughter but I’m not sure whether it’s still going. I’ve heard of and read about Zines, but haven’t really delved into them myself. But, they are another rung on the publishing ladder aren’t they?

  8. March 9, 2011 4:32 am

    I don’t pay special attention to size but I do love several independent presses. There are two right in my lovely city, Coffeehouse Press and Graywolf are absolutely fantastic. I also like New Directions and for interesting genre (scif/fantasy) Small Beer Press is pretty good.

    • March 9, 2011 8:52 am

      Thanks for sharing that Stefanie. I was hoping to hear of small presses from around the world. One thing I could have mentioned in my post is that small presses, as you imply, can also specialise in genres like sci fi, fantasy, romance etc.

  9. March 9, 2011 8:50 am

    DKS, that’s true but it’s not limited to the publishing industry is it? It’s also part of formal education to a degree that I think is pretty unreasonable too. Nurse training, Teacher training. Seems to me that a training wage should be offered. Apprentices get paid, albeit small, for their training.

  10. March 10, 2011 1:48 pm

    Howdy and thanks for this post whisperinggums. How nice to see so many comments from people interested in small publishers. Finding the books is absolutely the tricky bit for readers. That’s why we started SPUNC and I hope it’s helped draw attention to the 80+ publishers we have as members. For those of you who want to know more about the small and independent publishing sector in Australia then SPUNC is certainly a one-stop-shop. We’re also trying to improve distribution by developing a digital distribution service, the first phase of which has been a collaboration between Readings bookshop in Melbourne, and web software development company Inventive Labs. A number of our members have titles up there at the moment, and there’s more to come. If you’re interested, head to ebooks.readings.com.au. Thanks again for the discussion folks, it’s very pleasing to see. More please!

    • March 10, 2011 2:41 pm

      Thanks so much Zoe … I had seen a promo about the Readings arrangement but it is great to have you come here to share your perspective and tells us some of your plans. As you can tell, we readers want you all to be here … and like to be part of the discussion.

  11. March 10, 2011 2:27 pm

    DK: It is tricky but not impossible to work in small press if you don’t have independent finances. Not being remotely rich or from a rich family, what I did when starting Sleepers was work part-time at a paid job, and working 3 days paid and 3 days unpaid per week meant that my rent was just covered, I had no time for social spending anyway (being poor didn’t matter!), and the business got underway. It is, of course, not ideal, but it can be done.

    • March 10, 2011 2:50 pm

      Thanks Lou … I suspected that this would be one way people would go about it. The old “have a day job and work on your passion at night” thing. Thanks for sharing how you went about it … and, congratulations. I admire having such a dream and following it!

      • March 10, 2011 3:12 pm

        Thanks very much, WG. Like lots of these tiring, tough things, it’s incredibly rewarding. Keep up the great work here.

        • March 10, 2011 4:25 pm

          Thanks Lou, we’re all in this together aren’t we – writers, publishers, distributors/booksellers and readers.

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