Australian literature's problem is that it is written in English.
In Iceland, there are 1000 writers for a population of 375,000. The Icelandic government contributes 25 per cent of publishing costs for every book published in Icelandic. They even pay writers a salary.
Iceland does this for its writers because otherwise there would be no Icelandic literature. Icelandic is a small language group so it cannot compete in the global book market.
Melbourne, like Iceland's capital Reykjavik, is a UNESCO city of literature. But Australian writers face a cruel trifecta of publishing monopolies going global, sucking up local imprints while Amazon out-competes them on distribution. With economies of scale and mass audiences, the combination of digital disruption and commercial genre-publishing squeezes out Indie publishers. Or the "Big Five" publishing groups buy them up when they succeed, and add them to global stables where marketing directors sit on every editorial board.
Australian writing is emerging as a downtrodden colony of Anglo-American cultural imperialism. With the new government's National Cultural Policy due out by the end of the month, it is time to ask: can Australian literary culture survive and flourish if left to the market?
Or, to preserve Australian writing, do we need a national publisher, like we have a national broadcaster?
Public service broadcasting was created across western European democracies and beyond, beginning with the BBC in 1922, to provide media free from state control and private interest. The ABC began in 1929. Its charter directs it specifically to address market failure, in areas such as the delivery of local content. Its programming is required to contribute to national Australian identity and reflect cultural diversity.
Penny Hueston, a senior editor at Text Publishing, said in a recent interview with the 2Seas Agency podcast that Australia has a "very strong market" for book sales, and that Australia is "up there with Iceland" for its numbers of readers. It's disheartening to hear her report that Text profits are up, when Australian writers are living on an average of $4000 a year. It can only mean that it is specifically Australian writers that are losing out. Australian readers are buying books; they are just not being offered local product. The parlous state is a result of a distortion of the market, rather than a lack of one, and it is brought on by the arrangement of the global English language publishing industry.
The literary culture in Australia is chronically underfunded, but its benefits are "persistent, precious and immense", as Professor Gail Jones from Western Sydney University put it to the National Cultural Policy inquiry. Total literature funding at the Australia Council has decreased by 44 per cent over the past six years from $9 million in 2013-14 to $5.1 million in 2018-19. Commercial genres can't substitute for a writing culture. Australian books need support; voices, genres and experiments are dying on the vine because of a lack of sustenance.
Publishing of culturally significant work in English was traditionally folded into commercial British and American publishing. The local market had its chances to grow throughout the 20th century, from Angus and Robertson to University of Queensland Press and more recent independent publishers like Text and Scribe, but the advent of global commerce has decimated local prospects.
The double onslaught of internet distribution and increasing global conglomerates has weakened this market to a critical degree. The first literary genres to go under were poetry and plays (not produced commercially to any degree since the 1970s). And since the early 2000s, the rise of Amazon and the global financial crisis of 2008 has forced English-language publishers into ever more market concentration.
As a result, the local market - in particular for literary writing - has become distorted. Local publishers and booksellers, who had offered varying support to Australian writing throughout the 20th century, really met the limit of their commercial viability in the 2010s, and the withdrawal of public funding to Australia Council on neoliberal rationales has exacerbated this.
It's an observable fact that fewer local titles are originated when editorial boards (whether subsidiaries of, or indentured by distribution arrangements to, global publishers) are directed from London and New York.
It seems the global market isn't travelling so well, if we consider the anti-trust suit in the United States. Bertelsmann, the parent company of Penguin Random House, wanted to take over rival publishing behemoth Simon & Schuster, reducing the big five global publishers to four. The planned merger was struck down in court.
The US Department of Justice argued the merger would drive down author advances, resulting in fewer books being published, and provide less variety for consumers. Dr Agata Mrva-Montoya from University of Sydney wrote in The Conversation in August that, while Penguin's lawyers argue the deal will create "efficiencies" that will lead to "better offers to more authors", previous experience suggests the opposite. Fewer imprints mean fewer opportunities for mid-list authors and new writers without a proven track record, in an industry that the New York Times characterises as increasingly pursuing a winner-take-all strategy where "the largest companies compete for brand-name authors and guaranteed best-sellers."
Dr Mrva-Montoya quotes Francois McHardy, until recently head of publishing at Booktopia, as warning: "Promises of editorial autonomy being made by Bertelsmann are not to be trusted. They made them in the late 90s when Bantam Doubleday Dell/Transworld was merged with Random House ... yet Random House imprints are now being phased out".
The consolidation in the global market now is a logical outcome of the fact that the "trade" itself is shrinking. Sales made by legacy publishers constitute an ever-diminishing share of the total market, book industry commentator, Mike Shatzkin, has observed. In an October 2021 post on idealog.com, Shatzin acknowledges the power of digital players, arguing that nowadays "every publishing strategy should start with Amazon and Ingram". (Ingram Spark is a leading provider of hybrid publishing and print-on-demand services).
Funnily enough, it has never been cheaper to produce the physical object of a book. There are several services, like Ingram Spark, that will publish and distribute a manuscript to market for around $2000. These are usually print-on-demand publishers - e-books are cheaper still - and the figure even includes some rudimentary distribution.
With the future for publishing becoming more and more digital, it reduces the need for books to have the global scale of the legacy publisher. Indeed, literature no longer needs to be commercial-at-scale at all. This landscape could be more sympathetic, not less, to the publishing of small handcrafted highly-valued manuscripts.
We need a not-for-profit national publisher with a blind peer-reviewed process and some "zero-price" marketing strategies, like handing out free books on public transport or free downloads at Australia's libraries.
Call it The National Press.
We need this publisher to seek out critical reception for these books, advocate for them on curricula and sponsor them in literary awards. Here are two strategies I can imagine for doing this, neither which would be at exorbitant cost.
The paperback began as a budget edition of a book with a utilitarian cover, designed for mass reading on the train. On a "Paperback model", government could fund unpublished creative manuscripts authored by Australian writers to be published in small print runs/print-on-demand without regard to commercial potential - requiring them only to show literary merit, and a nexus with Australian cultural life.
An editorial board of writers themselves, like that of an academic journal, could ensure each manuscript chosen was blind peer-reviewed. Books would be made available to all Australian libraries and could also be offered as e-books.
Importantly, the board would be charged with entering the books it publishes into various literary prizes, for making review copies available, and having a presence at writers' festivals in order to promote the critical culture that grows a literature. Other commercial rights could be reserved by authors. This model draws on some of the features already directing the ecology of academic collegial publishing.
Alternatively, a "Digital Repository" model could select manuscripts as in the paperback model, above, but place them as e-books into an e-repository that is attached to the website of a national institution like the National Library. The site would allow for electronic borrowing that would be paid to authors as a copyright lending right, something already done for articles and chapters of educational books. Authors would retain all commercial rights, including rights to enter into a traditional publishing contract.
The e-repository would provide a resource and database of Australian creative writing, and a way of preserving and mentoring this cultural bounty. It would include novels, memoir, book-length essay and creative nonfiction and poetry, plays and film scripts.
On a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation, you could fund the publication of fifty titles a year on the "paperback model" for around $250,000, counting editorial services and a salary for a part-time director. The "e-repository model" would need even less.
There are only so many hours that even the dedicated reader can give to books. Writers must compete today with podcasts, news sites, streaming services and video games.
But readers will find room for good books - the fact that reading has survived the changes in the last two decades of the digital shows this. Good books take commitment from writers, readers, their teachers and their critics, but they benefit the whole cultural milieu.
What books might be written if cultural and aesthetic resonance took priority over commercial competition? Let's get the market out of the way, since it cannot foster the best in Australian writing.
Make Australian writing free-to-air.
- Robyn Ferrell is a freelance writer and researcher, and honorary professor in Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney.
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