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Resurrecting the book


book, Flickr image by flyzipperIt's that niggling voice in the ear, the bête noire of most writers as they grind away, inscribing their words on to a page or keyboard and asking whether anybody will ever get to read what they write. The barriers to publishing often seem insurmountable. To the low-profile, unpublished writer they seem practically impossible.

Even writers with a substantial publishing history must continually confront that bogyman Bookdata, where statistics about sales of previous books may often predict for a publisher whether a writer is still a commercial commodity or not. The unforgiving market is always breathing down writers' necks.

Financial or economic justification for the role of the arts and creativity in society has long relied on an old economic-rationalist paradigm. Bureaucrats had to invent labels like 'cultural capital' to justify financial support for the arts and to ascribe dollar figures to creativity.

In these early years of the 21st century, amid market collapse, this economic theory may be losing support and in need of overhaul, despite the fact that most major publishing houses have long been tied to it. 

The contemporary publishing landscape is changing in other ways too. Recently there has been a string of downsizing operations in many big publishing houses, notably Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, as well as lay-offs in Simon & Schuster, Random House, Thomas Nelson and Macmillan.

Jason Boog in salon.com maintains that this is because some publishing houses are run by people who don't understand books. Many corporate owners of major publishing houses, he argues, expect 15 to 20 per cent profit margins in an industry with traditional margins of 3 to 4 per cent.

Such expectations are unrealistic. Since the 1990s the advent of new technologies saw the markets of the big publishers already being eroded by smaller independents. Now the high returns demanded by shareholders could further work against them.

The current review of the Copyright Act law that restricts the parallel importation of books into Australia may signal other challenges for the publishing industry. It is not clear what effects this law will have. Books may be cheaper for the reading public, but publishers could also face competition from foreign publishers for editions of their own books.

Peter Carey has recently drawn attention to the limitations of a model of book-making that seemed so attractive in the late 20th century. He says: 'Executives, newly arrived in publishing from finance or "content control entities", have one abiding interest in literature — it is their product. Their job is to save their corporation.'

Enter the small, independent publishers who have a love affair with books and, with low overheads and the time to lavish care on the books they produce, appear to be making some inroads into the market.

SPUNC (Small Press Underground Networking Community) is a recently formed community of small publishers with 52 Australian members. Its principal mission, according to Zoe Dattner, their publicity agent, is 'to assist in raising the profile of Australia's small publishers, so that they might enjoy a relatively similar amount of media, bookseller and individual reader attention as the larger players do'.

She believes that these publishers will publish exactly what they want and that their simple business model is less affected by the ups and downs in the economy.

Keith Stevenson of Coeur de Lion, which specialises in Australian speculative fiction, maintains that 'small publishers are well connected within the writing community and more prepared (and able) to take risks on what we think has artistic merit without having to convince the marketing guys'. He says that if you want the 'edgy new frontier stuff' you should go with the independent publishers.

Dattner says that dramatic changes in an economy can mean 'a renaissance-like cultural and artistic boom' and perhaps micro-publishing is one sign of these changes.

Of course distribution is a perennial problem for publishers large and small. Many distribution companies, according to Stevenson, won't even give the time of day to independent presses. However, the advent of the internet and email and the relative cheapness of setting up good-looking websites to direct marketing and sell online with a paypal driven storefront has been a boon for small publishers.

As SPUNC's name indicates, its vision is all about networking and collaboration with joint marketing and awareness-raising activities for members. Here may lie the strength of micropublishing. Stevenson says: 'What's exciting ... is the continued willingness of independent presses to work collaboratively rather than competitively'.

'With social networking and blogs, if you have something to say, it will get heard', says Boog. 'It just might not look like the traditional publishing model you are used to.'

John BartlettJohn Bartlett's fiction and non-fiction has been widely published and he teaches Professional Writing at Geelong's Deakin University. His collection of short stories, All Mortal Flesh, will be released on 29 March 2009 by his own independent press, Heartsong Publishing.

Topic tags: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Simon Schuster, Random House, Thomas Nelson, Macmillan, downsizing, publishing



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Existing comments

A timely and helpful article on the inherent labyrinth of the publishing world, especially for one who is finalising a national history on local government and community development. Your articles, each day are read and appreciated.

Frank Hornby | 16 March 2009  

Thank you John for this excellent overview of a field you know so well.

Ian Fraser | 16 March 2009  

Thanks for a revealing look under the bonnet of independent publishers. I would like to advance the cause of my own publishing company, Strictly Literary, which publishes and sells books direct into the giant US market through its print-on-demand site. This is a way forward for the business of Australian writing.

Dr John Cokley | 20 March 2009  

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