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Small publishers press on regardless

3 December 2011 1,383 views One Comment

IN a time of doom and gloom in the publishing world it’s uplifting to read about an era when publishing was exciting and the future was pregnant with possibilities.

Yet even then, books needed smart people willing to take a punt on talent.

In ‘Wild & Woolley: A Publishing Memoir’, the Sydney-based Michael Wilding recalls how he and Pat Woolley set up a small press in the 1970s to do just that. Wilding and Woolley knew that there was a lot of good writing around that wasn’t getting out. So get it out they did. A rich mix of new Australian talent such as Robert Adamson, Vicki Viidikas, David Foster and Dennis Altman poured forth along with distinguished established writers such as Dal Stivens, Jack Lindsay and Katharine Susannah Prichard.

Thirty years later, what does the Australian publishing scene look like? Lots of product, but much good material is not getting out. The global publishers dominating the Australian book trade now work on a strict managerial model. Each book stands alone. Gone are the days when best-selling cookbooks subsidised small-run new fiction and poetry. Indeed, gone are the days when large publishers could justify doing small runs at all.

Yet there has always been a steady readership for quality novels that sell a thousand copies or fewer to begin with. Later they might turn out to become staples of our culture, as happened with literary greats such as Joseph Conrad and Henry James.

And the new digital technology means that it is feasible to publish short runs of new books. The capital outlay is small. There are no warehousing costs. When an edition sells out, it is easy to print more copies on demand.

Multinationals are not interested but it presents a window of opportunity for small publishers, and Wilding is out there with a new imprint, Press On, in partnership with Nick Walker’s Arcadia, based in Melbourne.

In the 1980s, a small publisher issued the first of my Grafton Everest novels ‘Pushed from the Wings’. It was picked up by a major British house and went global, along with its sequels. But by the time of the fourth in the series, ‘Fools’ Paradise’, written with Trevor Jordan, the publishing world had changed, companies had been taken over and merged, lists abandoned, editors vanished. Grafton Everest was looking like a redundant banker after the global financial crisis, until Press On came to the fore.

I was not the only one to be rescued. Two of Australia’s top crime writers had taken time off from genre fiction and written something different. Their regular publishers were committed to the established brand for their lists — Peter Corris’s private eye Cliff Hardy, and Garry Disher’s police-procedure whodunits featuring Inspector Challis and Sergeant Destry. So Press On seized the opportunity and took up Corris’s ‘Wishart’s Quest’ and ‘The Colonial Queen’ and Disher’s ‘Play Abandoned’.

Meanwhile Wilding, after a distinguished career in literary fiction, turned to crime with ‘The Prisoner of Mount Warning’ and ‘The Magic of It’.

Then there is Morris Lurie, a master of edgy comedy and sardonic observation. Back in the days when the world was wide his first novel, ‘Rappaport’, was accepted four days after submission. His last took 14 years.

When Wilding approached him for a manuscript, Lurie announced he’d given up writing. In fact, he hadn’t. Press On signed up his ‘Hergesheimer Hangs In’ and by the time it hit the bookshops, Lurie had produced a sequel!

The best stimulus a writer can have is a publisher wanting to publish his work. Or hers. Press On isn’t all blokes. Far from it. Inez Baranay had published ‘With The Tiger’ with HarperCollins in India. But the Australian branch of this global corporation (part of the News Limited group) didn’t take it up. Press On acquired it, and followed it with Baranay’s latest, a transsexual vampire novel, ‘Always Hungry’. Although Victoria Thompson’s memoir ‘Losing Alexandria’ was a success for Picador, her novel, ‘City of Longing’ has just been issued by Press On.

And now there is Brisbane-based writer and critic Matthew Lamb and his associate Phil Crowley, who next month are launching an online ‘Review of Australian Fiction’. Each issue will feature a story by an established author and another by an emerging writer chosen by the former. Priced at $2.99 an issue, or $12 for six issues, it is difficult to see how such a venture can break even, let alone make a profit. But along with other readers and writers of innovative fiction, I certainly wish it well.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books.
The Weekend Australian December 3-4, 2011

One Comment »

  • Victoria Thompson said:

    Subject: your column today re Press On

    Thank you, dear Ross for your wonderful support — and instructing the reading public with what is happening in this terrible business dominated by the multi-national corporations calling themselves publishers. It’s twelve years since my memoir was published. It’s taken me ten years to find a publisher, so I’m deeply grateful for Press On!

    Hope you have a lovely week-end.

    Warm regards
    Victoria Thompson