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A ripple in the vast, soundless mud

7 May 2009 929 views No Comment

One Sydney novelist is proposing a subscription model to alleviate our perpetual publishing crisis, says Ross Fitzgerald

They say there’s a publishing crisis in Australia, but that’s nothing new. Publishing has always been in crisis in Australia because, for a start, the population has never been large enough to fully support a local industry: not for quality literary titles, anyway. The book trade has always been dominated by imports, initially from British companies, then American, now joined by German- and French-based multinationals.

Writers in Australia are often a desperate bunch, struggling for a slice of a relatively small pie. Truth to tell, most authors fail to make much impact. As Vance Palmer once said: ‘Writing a book in Australia is like throwing a rock into vast, soundless mud.’

Back in the 1860s, Marcus Clarke tried to publish quality literary journals — the Melbourne-based Colonial Monthly and a weekly comic journal Humbug. He went bankrupt. Adam Lindsay Gordon tried subsidy publishing and, deeply depressed when he couldn’t pay the printers’ bill of £70 for his last book Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes, shot himself in June 1870 by Melbourne’s Brighton Beach.

In 1881, Henry Kendall chose subscription publishing, on the advice of the NSW attorney general Robert Wisdom. Leading Australian politician (and future father of Federation) Sir Henry Parkes subscribed for 50 copies of Kendall’s collection of 35 poems, Songs from the Mountains. Kendall sold a thousand copies and made a modest profit.

Subscription publishing dates from 1617 when an English lexicographer, John Minsheu, issued his dictionary by that method, which thrived in the 18th and 19th centuries. The novelist, memoirist and friend of Dr Samuel Johnson Fanny Burney (1752-1840) used it successfully for her novel Camilla, as did Alexander Pope for his translation of the Iliad, Dr Johnson for his Shakespeare edition and Robert Burns for his poems.

In 2009 a new Australian publisher, Press On, has adopted the subscription model as a way of raising startup capital in difficult times. Press On needs only 200 subscribers to get its first three titles into print.

But Press On is drawing on another model, too. It is pitching itself as a magazine, and readers subscribe to three issues for $50 ($80 overseas, postage included) and get a substantial discount on the recommended retail price of $25 a copy. For years, magazines have been presenting themselves as books in order to survive — New American Review in the 1950s, Granta in the 1980s. So why shouldn’t books present themselves as magazines?

Writers have often made inroads by establishing magazines. But they have been known to set up presses, too: Virginia Woolf with Hogarth Press, Lawrence Ferlinghetti with City Lights. T.S. Eliot was busy at Faber, Anthony Powell at Duckworth and Graham Greene at Eyre & Spottiswoode.

Authors and publishers can sit around lamenting the state of the economy, or they can see such times as an opportunity. In the past, recessions have been good for books and for new publishers. The existing conglomerates are huge, debt-laden and, like most big business right now, resorting to cutting staff and cancelling contracts. There is a lot of ‘product’ looking for a publisher.

A problem for the accountant-driven big publishers is that every title now has to make money, which means that significant print runs are essential. Genre fiction, celebrity memoirs, and ‘how to’ books are still being pumped out. Books are targeted at the 95 per cent of the population that never go into a bookshop, and are then sold, heavily discounted, through K-Mart, Target and Big W.

But there are certain traditional categories of book with a committed readership that currently are not being supplied. Quality fiction is such an area. It has always been so. At the height of their powers, novelists like Henry James and Joseph Conrad were often selling no more than 1,000 copies of a new book.

Hence there are opportunities for publishers who can work with such modest print runs. They may not make a lot of money, but they need not lose money either. In the past, publishing houses run by individuals like Victor Gollancz, André Deutsch, George Weidenfeld, Peter Owen, John Calder and Alan Ross published books because they believed in them. Their companies have all been absorbed by the conglomerates. Now may be the time for that individual touch again, an enthusiasm for books that are worth doing because of their quality.

Press On is an initiative by the Sydney novelist Michael Wilding to intervene actively in the publication and promotion of new fiction in Australia. Wilding has been there before. In 1973, with Pat Woolley, he set up Wild & Woolley. The previous year, only 19 novels had been published throughout Australia. Wild & Woolley, Morry Schwartz at Outback Press and Frank Thompson at University of Queensland Press set about improving things and rode the exciting new wave of the revival in Australia’s fictional fortunes.

The immediate aim of Press On is to publish new works by Peter Corris (author of the iconic Australian Cliff Hardy private eye novels), Phillip Edmonds (a road novel about Henry Lawson, Leaving Home With Henry), and Michael Wilding himself. Inez Baranay’s novel, With the Tiger, set in India, has just been published there by HarperCollins. But the vagaries of global conglomerates are such that the Australian branch did not pick it up. So she too has joined the Press On list.

These are all established writers. Their work has product recognition that will get them into the shops. Once the Press On brand has made its mark, it is planned that new writers will feature on the list. Similarly, once the subscription model and the bookshop distribution is established, other delivery models are planned: the internet, print on demand, maybe even the possibility of having a novelist come and read to you over dinner, or when there’s nothing captivating on television.

A subscription-based press might be just the sort of endeavour to resonate in 2010. At the very least, it deserves a red-hot go and support from fiction writers throughout the nation.


From Spectator Australia, May 9, 2009

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