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 …