Monday musings on Australian literature: Who is publishing THE interesting books?

I had another post planned for today, but it can wait, because this morning writer-artist-feminist and out-of-the-box-thinker Sara Dowse made a provocative comment on my review of Australian love stories, which was edited by Cate Kennedy and published by the well-known Inkerman & Blunt. Oops, did I say well-known? Perhaps that was overstating the case. The fact that they are not particularly well-known is, I presume, what prompted Dowse to ask:

are the interesting books being published by small publishers now? I know this is entering dangerous generalisation territory but I think it’s worth discussing, don’t you?

Well, let’s enter this dangerous territory – and let’s not be afraid to generalise a bit. How, though, to approach it? Perhaps we should start with definitions. What do we mean by “the interesting books?” and what is a “small publisher?”

I’ll start with the easier one, “small publishers”. We have, in Australia, an organisation called the Small Press Network or SPN (about which I wrote a couple of years ago). They define themselves as being “a representative body for small and independent Australian publishers”. They don’t specifically define what this means on their site but they do provide a link to a report they sponsored from Kate Freeth in 2007. Titled “A lovely kind of madness: Small and independent publishing in Australia”, this report aimed to come up with a usable definition. Here is what Freeth presented:

Based on survey data collected, other organisations’ definitions of small press, SPUNC’s [now SPN] current membership and the SPUNC working group’s discussion of how they judge membership applications, potential guidelines for ‘small press’ 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.

As an outsider, I can’t really assess which publishers that I think are small meet these criteria, but I suggest we be flexible as SPN is. For example, Text Publishing is a member but I’d be surprised if they fully meet these criteria. Most of SPN’s members probably do, though – so I suggest their membership could form the basis of our discussion here.

Now, the trickier question: how do we define “the interesting books”? For me, and I’d guess Sara Dowse, this would mean books that innovate, that take risks and break existing moulds, either in terms of style, form or subject matter, or that are by writers who aren’t from the mainstream culture.

So, let’s look at who’s publishing what? If we look at authors shortlisted for Australia’s best-known literary prizes in recent years, we see a mix of those published by the big publishers like Penguin (Tim Winton and Fiona McFarlane), Random House (Richard Flanagan and Evie Wyld), and Picador (Hannah Kent), and those by small publishers like Giramondo (Alexis Wright), Text (Cory Taylor) and Scribe (Cate Kennedy).

What about smaller prizes? Readings bookshop has created a new award called the Readings New Australian Writing Award. It’s for “an Australian author’s first or second book of fiction, and recognises exciting and exceptional new literary talent”. I’m going to assume that “exciting” implies “interesting” by our definition. The shortlist comprises six books by the following publishers: Giramondo (2), Hachette, Penguin (2, if we included Hamish Hamilton), and Allen & Unwin (a large but independent publisher). Again, there’s a mix.

But prizes aren’t necessarily the arbiter of “interesting” (particularly, if we use my definition above). Nonetheless, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria won the Miles Franklin and must surely be described as interesting with its unique, slippery and exciting evocation of indigenous reality. It was published by small publisher Giramondo. If you look at Giramondo’s website, you will see a catalogue of what they call “innovative new fiction”, including by well-established and well-regarded writers, like novelists Gerald Murnane and Brian Castro. Murnane and Castro are not known for being “easy”, but they are interesting! You will also see novels, poetry and short story collections by newer writers like Maria Takolander (also published by Text), Alice Melike Ülgezer, Michael Mohammed Ahmad.

I could continue in this vein picking out examples of publishers and looking at who publishes whom. My sense from my brief survey and my own reading is that when it comes to novels, larger and smaller publishers are both publishing “interesting” work. I would, though, add the proviso that if you want novels by writers of diverse backgrounds (who are, for example, indigenous, non-Anglo, or LGBT) you are more likely to find them at the smaller publishers. UQP, for example, has published many indigenous writers, Spinifex Press specialises in “controversial” writing, Transit Lounge is expressly interested in “creative literary publishing that explores the relationships between East and West, entertains and promotes insights into diverse cultures and encompasses diverse genres”, and so on.

But, where small publishers particularly stand out, I think, is in “taking risks” with less popular forms – with short stories, novellas and poetry. While the novels I’ve read on this blog come from the gamut of publishers, large and small, the short stories, poetry and novellas I’ve read have been published almost exclusively by small publishers.

I’m not sure that this rather off-the-cuff discussion has gone in the direction that Sara Dowse was thinking, but it does lead to the important question: Does it matter? What are the implications for authors of being published by small publishers? I suspect there’s a complex web of pros and cons, with the balance varying from author to author, publisher to publisher. For readers? I fear that small publishers may not be able to reach as wide a readership as the works (and their authors) deserve. And for our literary culture in general? I’d like to think that variety and diversity in publishing is healthy – but it has to be sustainable (and, dare I say, “fair”). Is it?

Let the discussion begin …

38 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Who is publishing THE interesting books?

  1. WG: I have pulled a good 50% of my books from the shelves (to dispose off – once – 25 years ago willed to Deakin University – at the encouragement of Sneja GUNEW then at DU) and nowadays purchase only for iReading! (Via iTunes on iPad/from Amazon (occasionally) on Kindle app. on the same iPad.) What I find though is that though my interest is piqued by week-end literary reviews of Australian publishing – often unavailable via iTunes. My question/comment in this conversation is to ask whether the small but interesting book publishing going on here in Australia is taking into account that a sizeable part of the market is no longer hard copy. To learn whether they are making their authors available to iReaders.

    • Oh good for you Jim … I haven’t made the transition yet. I do have a Kindle but it’s not my preferred reading method.

      You ask a good question. My observation is that quite a few of the small publishers are getting into e-publishing – but the question is format. Not all are publishing via Amazon and the Kindle format. That has tripped me up a few times. I don’t like reading intensively on the iPad so I haven’t tried to acquire many books for it. However, I’ve just searched the iBooks store on my iPad and found Melissa Lucashenko, Ouyang Yu, Brian Castro, Gerald Murnane, Merlinda Bobis there so it looks like UQP, Giramondo, Transit Lounge and Spinifex are active in this area. It would be good though to hear from some of the publishers about their thinking on this.

  2. Righto, I’ll kick it off…unless someone posts their two-bob’s worth before I’m finished dashing mine off…

    First of all, thank-you for your round-up of ‘small and interesting’ publishers, even when their defined by such contentious criteria (your words, not mine!). It was most clarifying on a few points.

    I believe the esteemed Ms Dowse may have touched on this point in a previous blog post of her own, but I’d like to ask both of you whether it’s still the case that certain publishers are able to subsidise their more ‘daring’ titles with the sales of their more conventional (and thus more saleable) stable-mates. I think Sara suggested that this was the model employed during Australia’s halcyon days of the 70’s and 80’s, but I’m curious to know if it’s still being used. Given that only the small guys put out short story and poetry collections these days, it seems as though they’re the only ones willing to take the risk and bear the financial burden (if indeed there is one.)

    It was your comment about ‘sustainability’ that raised this question for me, actually. It’s not to say that one breed of literature is necessarily more worthy or meritorious than another, more that some of us are remain curious about the kind of work that tends to sell less than the others, and that we’d still like access to that work in a public forum in spite of its lower profitability. And I’d like the creators of those works to receive the credit for getting their work out there into the marketplace, whether it be in print or electronic form.

    I’ll invite a smidgen of controversy myself by suggesting that perhaps we need market conditions whereby the more ‘interesting’ literature shouldn’t feel obliged to grow its audience, or even necessarily pay its way. And that’s not to be overly elitist about it, either. I’ll own up to the prejudice, but can avant-garde enthusiasts (for instance) really claim to be more highly evolved and astute than readers of Mills & Boon romances? The artistic imperative should not be to preach to the unconverted, or even to preach to the converted, but to preach to the receptive. And the ‘receptives’ are simply those who are willing to indulge certain literary tastes, satisfy certain curiosities and, thus, take certain steps in their reading processes. No more, no less. The overall numbers of such people may not vary a great deal over time. But the supply of worthy material to that sector of the market, via commercial channels, should be maintained regardless .

  3. Good for you Glen … thanks for tackling the question/s. I believe that it is still the case – with some publishers anyhow – that some works in effect subsidise the publisher’s ability to publish more, let us say, esoteric works. It must surely though depend on the publisher because as you noticed some publishers probably don’t have any/many works that could play this role.

    Thanks for taking up the sustainability issue. I agree, of course, about the importance of maintaining the breadth of publishing – love your idea of preaching to the receptive. I would say all literature wants to grow its audience, in the sense that any creator surely wants his/her work to be read/heard/seen? But, “paying its way” is another whole story. I do believe in government support for less “popular” areas of the arts – I believe in the need to maintain our ABC for example! I guess the question is how this is done with such a diverse industry as publishing. Authors can apply for grants, that’s part of it. If you’re a best-selling author you don’t need grants but many authors aren’t that and do need support. Literary prizes also provide support. Both these though don’t reach many people and are very precarious one-off sorts of things aren’t they? When it comes to support for the publishers who then publish the output of these less-mainstream authors I don’t know? I think there’s the odd grant … but again that’s not far-reaching or sustainable. Let’s hope some publishers weigh in here and give us the gen.

  4. Such a good question! I can’t speak for Australia, but in the US it seems that small/independent publishers are publishing the really interesting and exciting books and the prize nominations for National Book Award and Pulitzer have reflected that. It seems smaller presses are more daring, more nimble, more willing to take a risk. A number of those publishers are in Minneapolis (I’m so proud!) and one of them, Coffee House Press has been doing wonderful work creating cultural/artistic/reading experiences. They sponsor a writers in residence program at public libraries and they always seem to have some kind of public participatory literary art event in the works. It is quite exciting.

    This is not to say that the big conglomerate publishers never publish anything exciting or interesting, they do and they dominate the market. But, if you are a reader who wants to get off the beaten path, the small independents are where it is happening. I think the Random Penguins publish interesting books, but there are also tends to be a flattening sameness between the big publishers and they will all suddenly be publishing the same types of novels because that is what is “hot” right now. The small presses manage to not fall into that trap and continually try to keep it fresh and interesting. They have to in order to stay afloat. I imagine if a small press ever manages to become a big one, they will start to lose some of that edge.

    • Thanks for this response which says more eloquently much of what I was trying to say! Nimble is a great word. Interesting that you are seeing over there the same mix in terms of awards lists.

  5. What a quick response, WG. I have little more to add to the discussion other than to note my experience of publishing in Canada, where they seem to have many more small publishers by comparison. Here in Oz we are more or less dominated by the Australian branches of big multinational and the two independent publishers – Allen & Unwin and Text – that have transformed themselves into relatively large, commercially-oriented outfits. The university presses, especially UQP and UWA occupy a special place here, more like small publishers than their now tentative institutional support would indicate. On the relative quality of books, that requires more consideration. The big publishers do bring out good books, it would be churlish to say otherwise, but much of the expense of editing has either been taken on by the authors and/or their agents, or is spent on a select few from whom the publishers can expect, with marketing and promotion, to get a good return. (In many cases, this is a self-fulfilling exercise.) The miracle of course is that good books do get published under the most unpromising circumstances, great books too. But I have picked up the vibe that the smaller publishers seem to care more about the things I care for, and do it more for the love than for the money.

    • Thanks Sara. And thanks for the question … I nearly didn’t tackle it right away but thought I might as well.

      Yes, I’ve picked up the vibe that many of the small publishers are in it for the love … At least I’m sure they want to make money … But it isn’t the driving factor. It’s a two-edged sword isn’t it. They need to make money to survive but they want to publish what they want to publish. There are a lot of them out there, and many have been around for quite a long time now, I think, which says something positive about the health of what they are doing.

      That’s interesting what you say about editors etc in the big houses … That’s the sort of knowledge and experience I don’t have.

      • Well, all I’m going on is my own experience, WG, and that of my former agent (only former because she gave up being an agent and is now a freelance editor and consultant) and that of an editor-cum-ms adviser I paid. It’s very common for authors to get their manuscripts edited before submitting to a publisher or publishers. I’m talking big name authors here as well. Another factor is the number of creative writing courses and the practice of staff endorsing manuscripts for submission. Agree that there’s a lot of gimmicky experimentation but at least some playing around with form and content and subject matter is happening, and that isn’t going to get past the commercial gatekeepers. As for money, well, we all need it to survive, publishers and authors alike, but keeping afloat so you can keep on publishing is different from publishing for the bottom line. Same for authors. But look, there are no real certainties in publishing, there will always be surprises. Bring on the sleepers, I say.

        • Thanks for further explaining that Sara … It’s useful for we readers to understand the landscape. Personal experiences can be generalised to some degree can’t they.

          I hope I didn’t sound too negative about gimmickry because I love the fact that there’s experimentation. Shows people are alive, engaged, doesn’t it.

          And oh yes, re survival and the bottom line. The trick I’m sure for our passionate small independent publishers finding the balance so that the survival isn’t so shaky that life is stressful. I bet that balance isn’t easily found … And then the challenge of keeping that balance and not becoming a victim of one’s own success!

  6. As a very small publisher based in Melbourne (and a member of SPN), Hybrid Publishers now produces ebooks as well as print versions of its titles, which are available on all the main electronic platforms – Kindle, Kobo, iTunes, etc. It is more difficult, however, to get ‘noticed’ with the thousands of books, often self-published, flooding the internet.

    We are always interested in new writing, including poetry and short stories, but the realities of remaining commercially viable mean there’s a tricky balance. More than ever, author willingness to be involved in marketing, having an online presence, etc. makes a big difference to the success of a book.

    • Thanks for that perspective Anna … The “get noticed” bit is clearly the challenge … Getting noticed in the big, influential places must be tough. I like your point about author willingness to be involved in marketing, have an online presence. Tricky for those who don’t have the skills or confidence in being out there but that’s life isn’t it.

  7. What an interesting question and one which could just as easily be asked about other countries. I don’t have enough knowledge to do justice to the question that would in any way equal the other contributors. One of the points I’ve heard mentioned a few times is that the real innovation is happening even outside the publishing world as we have traditionally viewed it and is taking place in self publishing . I have huge doubts about whether that is really the case, much of what I’ve seen as self published is really so poor it shouldn’t ever have seen the light of day.

    • Good question BookerTalk. I think you’re right – there is some very interesting activity occurring outside the “publishing” sphere, particularly in terms of integrating literary and textual experiences with other forms, or interactively, but sorting out the wheat from the chaff isn’t easy I suspect. Like you I don’t have much experience or knowledge of this, but it’s probably something to keep an eye on. There is I think a lot of gimmickry in the experimentation, but also some good stuff capable of reaching different audiences. Thanks for throwing this into the mix.

      • I’d invite you both to check out Annabel Smith’s “The Ark” (reviews on GoodReads) – it’s self-published and available as a print book, e-book, app, and has it’s own interactive website. Once you realise what it’s about and when it’s set you’ll know why. But it’s pretty innovative and far beyond the current scope of e-publishing. It’s one example, at least, of a self-publisher really breaking the mould and doing a really professional job of it.

  8. A great post and discussion: while larger publishers do publish great books, I think there’s definitely a case to be made for smaller publishers taking on riskier, more experimental and ‘interesting’ works. The best example of recent times is not Australian but English: Galley Beggar Press taking on Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half-formed Thing’, which is *very* interesting, and was rejected by the bigger, more established publishers. So it’s not always novellas and short story compilations. It can be novels too.

    • Oh yes, it sure can, John …My point was more that I think the risk-taking is spread a little more evenly across the big and small publishers with novels but clearly the small publishers are doing a lot here.

  9. I always feel in the uk small publisher have been taking chance in translation publishing more challenging books ,the larger publishers tend to stick with the big names and winners of big prizes around the world ,

  10. We really need small publishers (like we need independent bookshops).There do still seem to be small publishers that spring up and sometimes succeed despite the behemoth that is Amazon and long standing worries about variety and diversity in publishing.

    • Thanks Ian … yes, that’s the same here. I guess there will always be people who are passionate about something, like publishing in this instance, and will give it a go. I’m surprised by how many we do have here, many developing specific niches to work in. Long may they live, eh?

  11. Maybe I ‘m just feeling a bit liverish today because a Big Publisher Who Shall Not Be Named has sent me, unsolicited, two of the most unimpressive books ever to enter my premises and destined for urgent despatch to the Op Shop …
    but I would say unhesitatingly that I agree with Sara Dowse. It is the small publishers who publish the really interesting stuff, and if the interesting stuff gets a bit of mainstream high volume sales then those big publishers poach the author away from the place that gave them a start.
    Giramondo, Transit Lounge, Affirm Press, Black Pepper, UWAP, Fremantle, Wakefield Press, Scribe, Finlay Lloyd, Hybrid, Brandl and Schelsinger – they’re the ones I know that take risks and offer readers a real choice. I take my hat off to them all!

    • Thanks Lisa … Yes, seems like we all agree, with the proviso that the big ones do publish some new literary novelists. Black Inc is another … And Gininderra Press, and Blemish Books and the university presses. But if we start naming them all, I guess, we’ll be here all day! We are blest here with so many aren’t we?

      I was going to discuss the poaching issue. I always felt sorry that Fremantle Press lost Elizabeth Jolley after giving her a start. Poaching though is a loaded word. Should we blame authors for changing to a house which can get them more reach? In the best of all possible worlds I’d love to see loyalty underpin these interactions but I can understand why authors might look elsewhere or let themselves be poached when their star rises.

      • Yes, I suppose you’re right about the verb, because poaching implies ownership and of course, nobody owns an author. But I do wonder what the ethics of this situation are, not from the author’s PoV, because they are free to move at will as you say, but from the publisher’s, when the first approach comes from them.

        • I do too … but of course we, as readers, often don’t know how each arrangement has come about, and what role literary agents may have played in the negotiations. From my few discussions with authors, I’ve come to realise that the whole thing is pretty complex. Do I have some sort of relationship with the publisher? Do I trust my agent to get me a good deal? Do I do it on my own, hoping the last publisher will publish me again? I know of one local writer here whose publisher has taken his last three books as sort of a package deal (if I’ve understood correctly), and another who’s had to struggle for each book (and yet the second last one was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award). So I think that what it looks like to us from the outside, and what happens behind the scenes may be two different things? But, I don’t really know!

  12. Wonderful post! My publisher is a small UK independent and while at times I’ve been frustrated by the amount of promotional work I’ve had to take on myself, I am grateful for the opportunity to have had a short story collection published and distributed (and also published as an ebook which I think is the norm) in a world where agents and publishers STILL ask for a ‘novel with a hook’. Obviously small businesses have to survive but it is warming to work with publishers who seem to work on the whiff of a wordy rag, and there are publishers out there like Galley Beggar, Salt Publishing and Comma Press who have stuck to their guns and are making a name for themselves. Interestingly, I heard a writer friend who is just beginning to make a name for himself say recently, that once you are published by a small press you are branded for life, while another writer friend who has made it into the clouds thinks that this is not the case. I think that preaching to the receptive (as a publisher) is as key as writing for the receptive and keeping your soul in place.

    • Love the “whiff of a wordy rag” Catherine! I think Anna of Hybrid Publishers commented here about authors helping with their promotion. Works fine if you are an author with the skills or personality for it but otherwise? And then, even if you are an author with the skills and/or personality for it, the whole business takes away from the author’s time to write, doesn’t it?

      • Yes it’s terribly time-consuming and expensive. Small-fry writers like me are barely paid for readings and appearances. I find it’s better to think in terms of career investment rather than economic logic. And networking and reading aloud – there is no shying from this now! I think they have become central to the writer’s task. Which means of course that time organisation is crucial. I did a workshop this summer with Simon van Booy who talked about protecting your creative energy (A) for writing, using your B energy for submissions and promotion, your C energy for social networking and hobnobbing. It’s sounds simple but it’s a neat model, no?

    • Oops, Catherine, I certainly know of many authors here who have not been branded by being published by small publishers (Elizabeth Jolley is a good example I think) – though I’m sure there are others who have been, or feel so.

    • I salute you for having written and published a short story collection, Catherine. And I KNOW I can order your book online, but it saddens me that so much writing from overseas is not available in bookshops here in Perth, Western Australia. Surely there is a lot of work being produced in this global village of ours that deserves to be known the world over, like the Hemingways and Faulkners and Mansfields were in the Days of Yore, when the impediments to international exposure were far greater than they are today. Then again, in those days only the best and the hardiest survived, let alone flourished, when headlines and by-lines were rationed, and printing and cabling required time and commitment. The White Noise of online publishing has actually made it harder in some regards…

      Just had a quick skim through your blog, Catherine. I never knew there was a London Festival of Short Stories. I may have found enough of an excuse to finally get myself over to Dear Old Blighty for a visit…

      • Glen, if this post has introduced you to something new, including Catherine’s wonderful short stories (which I have reviewed here), then I’m very pleased. I’d be even more pleased if it resulted in your being able to travel!

        I liked your point too about the rationing of by-lines. I’ve been reading articles from Australian newspapers in the 1910s-1930s and have been reminded, as a result, of how rarely the writers did get bylines those days. Now, we’d like to know who wrote those articles, reviews and commentaries.

        • Thanks Glen for dropping by the blog. The London Short Story Festival happened for the first time in June and was held at Waterstones, Piccadilly, so why not? It was small and quite intimate – all speakers were accessible afterwards and the programme was interesting. Next year they have signed up David Constantine I think. Also, if you’re looking for excuses to pop abroad, there is the International Conference of the Short Story, held every two years. In 2016 it’s in Shanghai, then in Australia (they are hoping and so am I!) in 2018. There was a great Australian contingent in Vienna this summer and so much passion for the short story. I think you would have enjoyed it WG !

        • Australia in 2018? Fingers crossed. I assume it’s for humble readers like me, as well as writers, critics, publishers? That’s great to hear there was a good Australian contingent there.

        • Spineless Wonders had a presence at the International Conference in Vienna. I would love to go to the one in China in 2016. The London Short Story Festival sounds great, too.

  13. (Without having read the other comments yet.) I think that small publishers can take greater risks, without the same overheads to maintain as large publishers. I have had conversations with small publishers (and authors published by them) that indicate they pick up a lot of great books that have indeed been rejected by the larger houses. That said, I think there are some wonderful commissioning editors working at big publishers, like at Picador, Hachette, Harper Collins, Vintage (Random) and Penguin, who definitely choose (and probably push through meetings with sales teams) ‘interesting’ books. One that springs to mind in Ceridwen Dovey’s excellent collection Only the Animals. Overall, the presence of small publishers (and their passion!) means we have much more diversity in content and form than if they didn’t exist. We really do have some fantastic small publishers: Sleepers, Affirm Press, Giramondo, Transit Lounge, and (I’m biased about these two, as they’ve given me opportunities) Spineless Wonders and Inkerman & Blunt. There are also small publishers working with poetry, and genres like speculative fiction—small pubs can sometimes work well and develop a following in catering to a niche.

    • Lovely to have your insider’s perspective Angela. Your point re overheads is a good one and make sense. The best thing as you say is that we have diversity, and while we have a good range of small indie ones surviving, it must mean the industry is pretty healthy?

      BTW I loved the name Spineless Wonders when I first saw it!

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