Book business

Forget the crowds, the performances, the T-shirts, the book bags; forget the misnomer ‘writers’ festival’. The business of festivals is business. In restaurants and hotel rooms publishers and agents strike deals and, like models draped across the bonnets at a car show, writers are hired to make books the sexiest commodities going.

This is why, on arriving at Sydney’s Walsh Bay to cover the seventh annual Sydney Writers’ Festival in May, I headed straight for the bookshop. And there was more to the story. This year Gleebooks, Sydney’s esteemed independent bookseller, had the sole franchise. They used to share it with the Dymocks chain, but there was dissatisfaction with that arrangement and the little guys bagged the contract.

The first morning they were just getting started. Piles of crisp new volumes were set out on tables in neat alphabetical order. I approached one of the assistants. Yes, it had been a job, she said, tendering, setting up shops (they’d be wherever the writers were), and, yes, their hopes of sales were high. Some big names were featuring: Alice Sebold, Jodi Picoult, as well as our own Helen Garner.

Having paid my respects to commerce, I left to enjoy the festival. My first job had been to find it. Two-hundred-and-forty writers were performing, in places as far as Byron Bay, Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, Parramatta in Sydney’s outer west and Cabramatta farther south. Wollongong got a look-in too. In Sydney’s centre, events were at the Town Hall, the Opera House, and the InterContinental Sydney. Most of the action, though, was at Walsh Bay, a ten-minute stroll from Circular Quay. It proved a glorious location. Clear skies, dazzling harbour—Sydney at its sundrenched, hedonistic best.

Yet some very serious people were on the program, the keynote speaker being Lewis Lapham, whose Harper’s Magazine column, discharged in his blistering, Savonarolan invective, I live for every month. There was Jared Diamond, promoting his latest book, Collapse, and Tariq Ali on the two lethal fundamentalisms—enough on the parlous state of the world to entice even a Cassandra like me. And these aside, Gillian Slovo was a guest.

Her novel Ice Road was one of my best reads of late, so I focused on stalking Slovo and chasing Lapham.

The question on everyone’s lips these days is: does Slovo’s kind of novel sell? A writer friend recently announced with a mordant laugh that literary fiction was dead. As it so happened that there was a panel on the subject, with Hachette Livre Australia’s Lisa Highton, Judith Curr of the US-based Atria imprint, Iris Tupholm from HarperCollins Canada, and Text’s Michael Heyward. All three women publishers waxed lyrical on the health of the industry, with a future rosier still. Only Heyward, it seemed, hadn’t been thoroughly deluded by his own marketing hype. I was impressed by his honesty, his resolve to keep producing fine books, and his challenge to the rest of our ‘underdeveloped’ industry to encourage thought-provoking writers before books get so dumbed-down that there won’t be much point in reading at all.

There was more in the sessions where I caught Slovo, who measured her words on politics as the stuff of fiction. ‘Politics is life,’ she observed, and couldn’t imagine writing without it. She discussed the influences on Ice Road, from Tolstoy to Serge Leone, the former because his Natasha had been the inspiration for her heroine, the latter because he was planning to make a film on the siege of Leningrad when he died. In Ice Road she’s tackled his subject, an epic rendition, yet handled with such mastery that I was delighted to hear her say that, rather than being a drag on her writing, motherhood had deepened it and given her the courage required for it.

But still I hadn’t managed to catch Lewis Lapham. My last chance was Sunday, where he was scheduled to speak in Parramatta. I caught the rivercat, and to make sure of a seat arrived many minutes early, waiting in the courtyard of the plush Riverside Theatre. To my surprise, not many others came. It was only when the session kicked off that I learned that Lapham had already left for New York. But political economist Susan George was riveting on the world’s wealth imbalance and the certain disaster it spelled. Though her outlook was grim—‘nature is not going to give us the time we need’—she was determined, and cautiously hopeful.

The festival wrapped up and I talked to Gleebooks to get an idea of the sales. It was too early for an exact tally but the concession was lucrative as expected, and they were ecstatic over not having run out of many books—the perpetual hazard of festival bookselling. Who were the sellers? ‘The writers who moved people,’ I was told. Hana’s Suitcase, for one, a Canadian book on the Holocaust; Sam Wagan Watson’s poetry volume Smoke Encrypted Whispers, winner of the NSW Premier’s Prize, another. Both David Suzuki and Tariq Ali sold well. And Gillian Slovo? ‘Yes, she did very well, Ice Road did very well.’ A good sign, perhaps, for the serious literary novel. Like Susan George, I live in hope.



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