Monday musings on Australian literature: University presses

I was inspired to write this post last year when commenter Wendy Borchers mentioned Catchfire Press and described it as being associated with the University of Newcastle. I’d never heard of it. It is a community-based press primarily run by volunteers, but their covers, they say, are chosen by competition between senior design students at the University of Newcastle. The link is perhaps a little tenuous though there may be other connections not mentioned on their website. Whatever, they look like a delightful press with a wonderful heart doing something good for a local community, and they reminded me to look at the role university presses play in Australian publishing.

So, let’s look at some of the university presses which are out there promoting and publishing Australian literature – and I’m going to focus mainly on fiction. There’s probably a lot going on that I’m not aware of, but there are a few publishers who for me really stand out, and the grandma of them all is …

UQP, or the University of Queensland Press

Way back in the 1980s when I rediscovered Australian writers, and particularly Australian women writers, it was UQP that brought some of the best to me, like the wonderful Olga Masters who died way too early. Their imprint is recognisable and when I see it I know to expect quality. But then, they’re Queenslanders and so am I! UQP has apparently been going since 1948. They started as a traditional academic press but moved into more general publishing of fiction, poetry, indigenous writing and children’s literature. They published the early works of writers like David Malouf, Peter Carey and Kate Grenville and are now moving into digital publishing. Check out the authors page of their website and you can’t help but be impressed at their contribution to the Australian literary landscape.

Now, jump three decades and we come to the next university press to make an impression on me, and that is …

Sydney University Press

This was the first publisher to send me books to review. It was a new thing for me, and Lisa of ANZ Litlovers, and it was new for them. That was in late 2009 and what they sent us was their first lot of books in their Australian Classics Library, some of which they had already captured and published via their SETIS digital program. They introduced me to writers like Price Warung, encouraged me to read CJ Dennis, and gave me another Jessica Anderson to read. Their focus is still, I think, more traditionally academic, but I love and appreciate their commitment to some lesser known Australian classics.

And then, in just the last week or so I heard, via Twitter from bloggers Marilyn and Yvonne, of

Australian National University

And its ANU E Press which is publishing, electronically and free of charge, books in its ANU Lives Series in Biography. You have to buy the print versions but the online versions are free. These aren’t fiction – being biography – but are of interest to me with titles like Maori and Aboriginal women in the public eye and Transnational ties. I need to keep an eye on them.

That’s three but I’m sure other Aussies can point to more … and I hope they do because universities are well placed to offer different spins on publishing as these three examples do. It looks to me as through each is operating under different economic imperatives but achieving something important in our local publishing scene.

And here I will close, well aware that it is now nearly Wednesday … My excuse is that I am currently on the other side of Australia and my personal time clock is out of whack! Or something like that ….

Oh, and I will add more links when I am back in my more comfy computing domain …

24 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: University presses

  1. Aren’t University presses great? In my experience they can be relied on to publish high quality work. I think that is neat that Catchfire Press covers are done by university design students. What a great experience it gives the students!

  2. There’s MUP too, Melbourne University Publishing, the ones who reissued The Man Who Loved Children last year — was it last year? — with a cup of tea on the cover.

    • Oh thanks DKS … I wasn’t really aware of what they’d done specifically … I was hoping commenters would do exactly what you’ve just done. University imprints are often not well publicised.

      I should also have mentioned ADFA/UNSW and its Aussie classics. It was their edition of Ada Cambridge’s A woman’s friendship that I read back in the late 80s or early 90s. I’m not sure thought whether they are still active.

      • They’re an umbrella over Meanjin as well — down the bottom of the magazine’s website you can see their logo looking very grey under “Sponsors.”

        • Yes, you’re right … And that’s a great thing they’re doing … Thanks DKS. Worth another post one day probably … I’m about to read the new Meanjin Canberra edition in fact.

  3. To me as a mainly fiction and memoir reader, UQP is the best by far of all the university presses. They publish the David Unaipon winner of best unpublished manuscript and a number of other indigenous authors, too. Plus they have the wonderful Patti Miller, Venero Armanno, Kristina Olsson and many other great Australian authors on their books.

    • I agree, Annette, UQP do have a good literary fiction list but I think their support for indigenous writing is what sets them apart. It’s not just the David Unaipon Award (though I love the way they have honoured it with his name not their own) – I think they must also seek out and nurture indigenous writing as well.
      And they’ve been giving great new authors a break for a long time. They published Roger McDonald’s first novel 1915, kick starting the career of a major author, and they also publish Karen Foxlee. (If you haven’t come across her second novel The Midnight Dress yet, you are in for a treat).
      MUP is peculiar. On the one hand it tends to be more scholarly, focussing on non-fiction (politics, philosophy etc) but they published Hazel Rowley’s last biography of the Roosevelts, which was very readable, and so is Damon Young’s Philosophy in the Garden which reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s very popular philosophy books. On the other hand MUP have a imprint called Victory which is unashamedly popular fiction (crime, sport etc), an odd focus for a university press, especially considering how many other publishers they would be competing with – unless perhaps the profits are shoring up the finances to support less saleable titles? Anyway, if they do publish literary fiction I defy anyone to find it on their very badly designed and clunky website. You’d think that with Melbourne being a City of Literature and home to some stunning authors, they’d have a fantastic LitFic list, but I have no idea who if anyone is on it …

      • Interesting range they (MUP, I mean) do Lisa … and you’ve made a good point about websites.Some of these publishers have very poor websites … some are very hard to navigate to find the content you are looking for, some are not kept up to date.

    • Yes indeed, including Amanda Curtin’s own book The SInkings which really impressed me; Stephen Scourfield who seems promising from his first collection of three novellas and has a new one out which I haven’t read yet; and Simone Lazaroo whose book Sustenance should have had more attention IMO. They also gave Annabel Smith her big break with A New Map of the Universe, a beautiful book which is our bookgroup’s choice for later on this year. (But somehow they lost her to Fremantle Press for her stunning second novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot!)

  4. A thought-provoking post, as it actually raises a lot of questions, a key one being, In this rapidly changing publishing landscape, what role can universities play? As to the ANU, up till around 2006 they had Pandanus Press, which published fiction and poetry (disclosure: they published my novel, ‘Remnants’). Currently the University of Canberra runs the creative practice e-journal ‘Axon’ and is about to launch another e-journal for literature. What am I saying? Yes, universities have played a significant role in helping to build and sustain a literary culture in Australia, and some are thinking creatively about a new kind of contribution, but there’s a heck of a lot of potential for universities to play an even more active role – if commercial publishers are struggling, and Fairfax is rapidly going down the gurgler, perhaps our unis can fill the gap?

    • Great questions Nigel … I recollect seeing Pandanus Press around in the past. The publishing landscape is quite an intriguing place at present isn’t it? It would be good to see universities doing more in this area re new ways of publishing and distributing.

    • Oops … I meant to add … This includes loose or more formal partnerships and cooperative activities like Catchfire, doesn’t it. More literary journals? How to keep up?

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