Monday musings on Australian literature: Two new indies

This month – February* – has been designated #ReadIndies month by two British bloggers, Karen (kaggsysbookishramblings) and Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life). The rules are simple: “read anything you like, in any language you like, as long as it was published by an independent publisher”. This is not a difficult reading month for me to take part in, as the majority of my reading comes from independent publishers.

However, the question is, what is an independent publisher? Karen and Lizzy admit that it’s not easy to define, but they mean smaller outfits that print and issue their own works, and aren’t part of a larger conglomerate. In Australia, the Small Press Network (about which I’ve written before) is a good place to start. In the end, Karen and Lizzy suggest “going with your gut”. They also say, quite rightly, that most independent publisher websites will proclaim their independence. I have written a few times about independent publishers. You can find most of these on my Small Publishers tag. In those posts, I’ve named many small and independent publishers. In this post I’m adding two very new publishers which launched during the pandemic: Ultimo Press and Upswell. What a funny coincidence that both start with U!

Ultimo Press

“to be distinctive, a little bit different, to disrupt and to have fun.”

Launched in 2020, Ultimo Press is an independent publisher with the simple ambition of becoming “home to Australia’s best storytellers”. They say they are part of Hardie Grant Publishing (which is now a reasonably large, diverse business with offices worldwide), making me wonder what they mean by “independent”. However, Hardie Grant describes itself as “independent” and “Australian-owned”, so I’m going with it.

Most Australians will assume, rightly, that Ultimo’s name comes from the Sydney suburb, but here is how they describe it:

Named for the Sydney suburb that houses Hardie Grant’s Sydney office, Ultimo references our home – an historic and colourful part of Sydney. The Italian translates roughly to ‘the latest’, and that will be our ambition: to provide a platform for the latest trends and newest voices.

The staff has some extensive industry cred, as the Who We Are page shows.

They “want to excite readers of general and literary fiction (especially the sweet spot in between), and discover non-fiction that inspires and ignites”. Their “hallmarks will be editorial excellence, arresting design, dynamic marketing and publicity, respect and loyalty to our authors, and publishing compelling new voices and original perspectives that reflect the full spectrum of Australian life”.

They have certainly started with a bang, with some of their books already making a splash, like Diana Reid’s Love and virtue (which I gave Daughter Gums for Christmas and she loved) and Shankari Chandran’s Chai time at Cinnamon Gardens. They’ve published Claire G. Coleman, and coming up is Yumna Kassab’s Australiana (March 2022), and local writer Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel, My heart is is a little wild thing (May 2022). Regular readers here will be familiar with Featherstone’s warm, expressive writing.

Ultimo certainly looks like a new indie to watch, as does …

Upswell

“where have all the adventurous readers gone?”**

Launched in 2021, Upswell is, you could probably say, a passion project, but it’s the passion project of someone with significant cred too. Director Terri-ann White ran UWA Publishing from 2006 until mid-2020. During that time she was responsible for significant publishing output across the genres, but, for litbloggers like me, especially for some great literary fiction and creative non-fiction. Josephine Wilson’s Miles Franklin Award winning Extinctions (Amanda’s review) and Jessica White’s hybrid biography-memoir, Hearing Maud (my review) are just two examples of too many to name.

Upswell is a not-for-profit company, with its directors being three impressive women, Carmen Lawrence, Linda Savage and White.

Like Ultimo Press, White wants to publish distinctive works, but puts it this way. She will publish

a small number of distinctive books each year in, broadly, the areas of narrative nonfiction, fiction and poetry. I am interested in books that elude easy categorising and work somewhat against the grain of current trends. They are books that may have trouble finding a home in the contemporary Australian publishing sector.

She’s shown, with her early list, not to be afraid of forms that often scare off the big publishers, like novellas, essays and poetry. And, like Ultimo, Upswell has started well with one of its first books, John Hughes’ The dogs (Lisa’s review) being shortlisted for last year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (not that awards are the only – or main – marker of excellence.)

Upswell is also distributing a bit differently. Of course, individual books can be bought from them directly or from booksellers, but they also have a subscription program, which Lisa and I took part in last year, receiving their first three books: John Hughes’ The dogs, Belinda Probert’s Imaginative possession and Vietnamese-American author Monique Truong’s The sweetest fruit. This year they are offering several subscription packages, which is a great option. You get to support an excellent publisher by providing them some certainty and you get little surprises during the year.

This isn’t the only different thing, however. Upswell also has DGR status, which means that (Australian) donations to them are tax-deductible. Donations will support their Regional Writing and Publishing Workshops, Mentorships with White, a strong poetry list, and their Noongar Voices program.

So, two new indies to add to the ever-growing list of wonderful indie publishers in Australia. Do support them when you can – and, the bookshops which stock (and feature) them. If you don’t see them at your local bookshop, talk to the bookseller. A personal touch is a powerful thing.

Finally, a little aside just in case you are interested, Marcie (Buried in Print) is running a Read Indies series on her blog, in which she is devoting posts to individual Canadian indies.

* The “month” has been extended to 15 March.
** From an article by Terri-ann White in SeeSaw magazine

25 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Two new indies

  1. When I was in my MFA fiction writing program, “indie” always meant a small press. They weren’t connected to the “Big 5” in New York City. Some are smaller than others, but they tended to be presses that were reliable (i.e. they didn’t open their doors one year and close them the next — that would be more like a pet project than an indie press). However, after I graduated and started book blogging, I received lots of emails from writers asking if I would review their “indie” published book. When I Googled the author and her work, I always learned that “indie” was used to mean self-published. Basically, self-publishing authors co-opted the term “indie” to mean “independent” as in “I did it by myself!” Yikes! Since then, I’ve been wary whenever someone says their book is “indie published.” You also have to be careful about books that look like they were published by a press because you just may learn that the author created a website, called it a press, and published their own book. That’s a vanity press.

    • Thanks for this Melanie. I had never heard of self-publishing as “indie” publishing, but I guessed something of the sort was around because Karen and Lizzie expressly say their ReadIndies does not include self-publishing. Really, I thought, of course it doesn’t! But you’ve explained that it is a thing!

      One of the very few DNFs for me in recent years – I tend to be picky about what I choose to read so rarely DNF – was a Vanity Press book I “won” via LibraryThing. The woman did publish some other works as well but I felt she set up her press primarily to publish herself. What she needed was a very good editor but presumably she thought she was a good editor. She was mistaken. Anyhow, a few pages in and I was done.

      Fortunately in Australia we seem to have a flourishing indie publisher environment, with many being around for a long time. These two new ones look like they’ll join them, but time will tell. You never know what might happen down the track.

      • I’ve come across this a couple of times, writers seeking reviews and published by what looks like a micro publisher. but a little digging (which I always do when I come across something new like that) outs them as self-publishers. I don’t blame them, they’re using their initiative and they’re not expressly claiming to be indie published, but I still don’t review them because I’ve had too many disappointments from self-published authors to spend my time on them, unless someone I trust has read them first…

      • I hate to generalize, but a lot of self-publishing folks I’ve interacted with are really intense. They seem to be people who have tried to publish their book traditionally but keep getting rejected because “the publishing industry just doesn’t know what’s good!” Then I would read their book, find it a hot mess, and write my review because that’s what I do. I’ve had authors contact me to say I ruined their day or that I was rude and they thought me “better” than negative reviews, whatever that means. I also had one woman stalk me online for a year. Thus, when I changed to “no self-published novels,” it was more about my safety than the quality.

        • And fair enough Melanie. I really didn’t want to put myself in a position of reading books that had a greater risk element knowing the author was desperate for a positive response. Way too stressful. I like the middleman of a publisher.

  2. My first Ultimo Press read was Heidi Everett’s lyrical and generous memoir My Friend Fox, about mental illness and creativity. A beautiful book, inside and out. Definitely a press to watch.

  3. I’ve just finished Chai Time and now need some time to process it. The second half of the book was very powerful stuff indeed and I hope I can do her story justice. I’m very impressed with the line up for Ultimo this year. they’ve certainly started out strong.

    • I knew I’d seen someone reading it, Brona. I remember now. It was in your Shout Out post? I look forward to your post on it. The title sounds like a nice little retirement village story!

      • It is and it isn’t. It tackles racism in Australia head on as well as the experience of refugees in Australia. Chandran is also a Canberran author, which I thought might interest you, though the book is set in Sydney.

        • Interestingly, the day after I posted this, I lunched with a friend who was 2/3 through the book so we had a chat about it. I said you said it was powerful, and she was seeing that to. I’m certainly intrigued. Maybe it’s one for my reading group.

        • It would be a great book group choice Sue, almost designed to promote discussion. It has some flaws, that will irk some readers more than others,. but that all becomes grist to the mill in a good book group 🙂

    • Thanks for this Sara … I’m interested in Kassab, which is why I chose to mention this one, but I’d not heard anything about this book, so it’s good to know it’s appealing to early readers.

  4. I’m glad you’ve given Bill a project. 🙂 And thanks for linking to my Canadian co-celebrations. It’s great to see increasing awareness about the vitality of this industry (more vital than it often seems, when we are only scanning bestseller lists compiled by the Big Five). And to have conversations about the important distinction between someone publishing their own book independently and having their book published by an independent press. Heheh

  5. I’m so glad they’ve extended the Month as my reading has gone a bit astray this month – work is a little less frantic now and I’m carving out more reading time again, phew. Lovely spotlight on two excellent-sounding publishers!

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