31 Dec 2008

Unseen Hands Turn These Pages

By John Hunter
Against the odds, independent publishers and small presses proliferate in Australia, and, argues John Hunter, they keep our literary culture alive
There's a scene in the movie Annie Hall where Woody Allen describes his feelings about love using an old joke: A guy goes to see a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, my brother's crazy, he thinks he's a chicken." To which the doctor replies, "Well, why don't you have him committed?" So the guy says, "Well, I would, but ... we need the eggs".

I think of that joke when I try and understand the enduring success of independent publishing in Australia. Little to do with independent publishing makes sense, least of all commercial sense. The strange life of the small press is as improbable as it is prolific — its longevity seems irrational and yet, Australia's independent publishers continue to produce an extraordinary range and number of quality books and publications that articulate Australian literary culture.

Perhaps it began in response to the colonial history of mainstream Australian publishing — that is, most major Australian publishers were established and continue to operate as the local office of a multinational publishing corporation. And perhaps it endures as a reaction to the disastrous effect that foreign ownership has on local writing. That, given a choice between investing to publish new Australian writers or reproducing a local version of a commercially proven, lucrative product from their existing publishing programs in Britain and the USA, multinational corporations will almost always favour the risk-free, low investment option.

For whatever reasons, our independent scene has thrived and experienced such regular growth spurts — in the 1950s, 1970s, and again more recently in the 1990s and 2000s — that it seems here to stay.

There are some obvious independent success stories, such as the inaugural winner of the Prime Minister's Literary Award for non-fiction in 2008, Ochre and Rust (Wakefield Press) or the 2007 Miles Franklin Award Winner Carpentaria (Giramondo). But independent publishers also work to shape our literary culture in more subtle and profound ways, despite operating on a small commercial scale.

In the current homogenous publishing environment, where major publishing corporations eschew risk and abandon Australian content, it is small and independent presses who perform the vital role of discovering and nurturing new authors, ensuring that Australian content continues to be published, supporting innovation and artistic diversity, and ensuring that non-commercial literary forms, like poetry and short fiction, survive.

The enduring significance of Australia's independent publishing sector was acknowledged in Melbourne's recent designation as a UNESCO City of Literature, which specifically recognised the city's broad-based publishing industry, represented by independent publishers, as an indicator of the a strong literary culture.

If this sudden international recognition is unexpected, the findings of a report, commissioned by the Small Press Underground Networking Community (SPUNC) in 2007 to address the lack of formal information about the small and independent publishing sector in Australia may also be illuminating.

Kate Freeth's report reveals: "a diverse independent publishing sector, with a healthy mix of established presses and new ventures. It spans all genres of publishing, with a strong representation of fiction, particularly poetry and short fiction. Presses usually operate with very limited resources, and many do not receive funding at all. Despite this, there is a widespread sense of dedication and devotion to publishing new writers, providing high-quality content and maintaining the diversity of published work, where multinational publishing corporations may not be so supportive."

It will probably come as little surprise to hear that many independents run on personal "dedication and devotion" rather than sound commercial principles. To paraphrase Adam Smith, there is an unseen hand at work in the thriving independent publishing scene: the strictly non-commercial enterprise of editors, designers, publishers, and writers that drives the independents. But while all this is vital, I think most readers would understand that this model is unsustainable and many small presses grind to a halt once they have exhausted the energy and enthusiasm of the participants.

In a society that has so commodified culture, we need to understand the material conditions that have supported independent publishing in this country.

The most important factor is the extensive network of quality independent booksellers operating around Australia. In this respect, we are the envy of the English-speaking world. There is a tight connection between the viability of independent booksellers, who actively promote Australian writers and publishers and stock a diverse and extensive range of books, magazines, and journals, and a thriving publishing scene. Conversely, you can chart the demise of independent publishing in the UK alongside the loss of market share from independent booksellers in Britain to supermarkets and discount chains.

A good bookshop is more than just a retail marketplace. It acts as a community centre and, through supporting book launches and author events and circulating news, reviews, and interviews in newsletters and websites, acts as a literary hub for readers, writers, and publishers. A good bookshop is a stimulating, enlightening, and fun environment — something a supermarket can never be.

Whether a vital Australian literary culture is a valuable thing is a decision that Australians need to make for themselves, both as individuals and collectively. I would argue that, in an age of globalised culture, we need the fruits of a truly independent, truly Australian publishing industry more than ever — but then I'm an interested party.

Perhaps we all have an interest in the continued success of independent publishers. If that's true, then we need to let our choices as consumers reflect those interests by supporting not only our local publishers but also the independent booksellers who continue to create the environment in which Australian publishing can thrive.

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