Sunday, September 11, 2016

Stephen Stratford on Australian publishing

The 94th  in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the August 1996 issue. I had just spent a week in the Hunter Valley on a junket, staying in luxury lodges and eating barramundi and kangaroo. Now it was time to party with the publishers. In those days, being a journalist was fun. The intro read:
Last month, at the Australian Book Fair, held at Sydney’s Darling Harbour Exhibition Centre, more than 230 Australian and international publishers presented their latest titles to the trade. Also wearing his “Hi! l’m….” badge: Stephen Stratford.
There are many frightening things in Australia. As if redbacks, crocodiles and the Howard government weren’t enough, now they have a Poets Union, with 300 members in NSW alone. I’ve been at the book fair only a few minutes and am just getting oriented when, walking past the Poetry Stand, I am seized by a man who says, “Hello, I’m Ivor Indyk, and this is Robert Adamson, Australia’s best poet.”
Indyk is the editor of Heat, a new literary quarterly whose first issue is being launched at the fair. He extols the virtues of Quote Unquote: “If only we had something like it in Australia!” What a fine fellow. Oz Poetry Inc is clearly in very good hands.
A group of small presses has got together with the Poets Union to organise the stand, which was launched by state premier Bob Carr. The 24-page catalogue shows a busy poetry industry, though it’s hard to believe its claim that “a recent survey... found that 85 percent of people surveyed stated that they love Australian poetry”. Some of the small presses aren’t that small: Five Islands, for example, lists 44 titles published since 1991. (Information on all these books is available at Australian Writing Online’s website at

A surprising — to me, anyway — number of New Zealand publishers are prowling the aisles, from AUP’s Elizabeth Caffin to Rugby Publishing’s Bill Honeybone (see “In Touch”, QUQ, July). They’re here for several reasons: to sell their books, to buy the rights for books they can publish in New Zealand, and to set up co-editions — which means a higher print run and thus a cheaper book for both markets.
If they can find someone to take 2000 or even 5000 copies of a title, that lifts the print run, which lowers the unit cost and means a lower retail price for the New Zealand bookbuyer. And if the book is at an early stage of planning, the Australian publisher may suggest changes so that chances of good sales across the Tasman are enhanced. It’s also useful for them to see what’s being published over there. For example, there’s a new genre of bush-tucker books, with — to be frank, not very enticing—recipes for preparing the likes of witchetty grubs, lillipillis and quandongs. Expect to see some New Zealand titles on new and exciting ways with huhu grubs and fem roots.
One can only hope they take as much notice of the Australians’ superior jacket design. Some, notably Allen & Unwin’s fiction list, boast terrific covers with evocative images, strong typography and even non-tacky lamination effects.

Some of the Australian publishers have marvellous names: Slouch Hat, for example, specialises in military history. Then there’s Wild & Woolley, Wagga Wagga Writers Writers, Cheeky Ferret, Beaten Track, Books At Manic…

With a market five times the size of ours, it’s no surprise that there are some big budgets on display. Scholastic stands out, with a horror room, displays of Goosebumps and, the latest craze, Animorphs. Goosebumps author RL Stine has been invited, but was apparently too busy to come: well, he does produce a book every two weeks.
Others stands are almost as impressive in both design and content: interactive CD-Roms are all the go, while Macmillan has a free sampler with extracts from new Picadors by Joyce Carol Oates, Graham Swift, Justine Ettler, Kathy Acker and RM Eversz’s splendidly titled Shooting Elvis. Random House boasts a particularly good range of upcoming titles, prominent among the Australian fiction being Alan Duff’s What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted?
Other new titles spotted: Dangerous Love, Ben Okri; The Solitaire Mystery, Jostein Gaarder; Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood; The Last Of The Savages, Jay Mclnemey; Darkness Be My Friend, John Marsden (and a poetry anthology, For Weddings And A Funeral); Test Your Cat ’s Creative Intelligence, Burton Silver and Heather Busch; The Same River Twice, Alice Walker; and The Law Of Love, Laura Esquivel (of Like Hot Water For Chocolate) which comes with a CD of Mexican songs and Puccini arias.

There is a frustrating number of good Australian books we’ll never see, especially but not only in fiction: the Picadors, the Allen & Unwins, and above all the amazing range of interesting crime books. There’ s more to it than just Peter Corris, Jennifer Rowe and Garry Disher.
There’s a vicious circle in operation here: New Zealand distributors won’t promote Australian books, because booksellers won’t order them, because their customers — that’s us — won’t buy them. And we don’t buy them, in part, because they’re not available, so the audience never develops.
It works the other way, of course: Australians are deeply uninterested in our books, regarding New Zealand as a duller version of Tasmania. Gleebooks in Glebe, 1995 Bookseller of the Year, has Stephanie Johnson’s The Heart ’s Wild Surf in its Australian fiction section, while Ariel has Barbara Anderson’s The House Guest in the (very handsome) English hardback edition, Elspeth Sandys’ River Lines and Emily Perkins’ Not Her Real Name, but that’s it. No Patricia Grace, Maurice Gee, Maurice Shadbolt, Witi Ihimaera... and it seems the only New Zealand poetry to be had in all of Sydney is three books in the remainder bin at Dymocks. However, Perkins is the subject of a half-page interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, billing her as “the first New Zealander in a very long time to publish her first book in Britain” (what about Kirsty Gunn last year, I grizzle, and Deborah McKinlay the year before that?). The story concludes of this bestseller and Montana finalist, “she does not know whether New Zealand is for her or against her”.

Last year 6000 trade and 70,000 public visitors attended the fair. This year trade attendances are thought to be significantly up, with publishers reporting brisk business being done with booksellers and their overseas counterparts, although the open days at the weekend are quieter, with “a steady stream of visitors but always space for strolling in the aisles”.
I’m glad I didn’t go last year — the open days are plenty busy enough for me as they are. The programme of author appearances is heavily tilted towards children’s authors — Miss Spider’s Tea Party, with author David Kirk, is particularly well-attended — so there are children’s characters in costume everywhere, and thousands of charming Australian children underfoot.

On Wednesday evening I have a drink with My Publisher — God, I’ve always wanted to be able to say that — who has had appointments every half hour and is clearly exhausted. One of the books MP has been discussing with other publishers is my own, and he reports some interest.
Of course, this is very gratifying, but unnerving at the same time because not a single word of it has been written at this point beyond a sketchy outline, and the manuscript is due in a month. But the dummy cover looks good, which I guess is the main thing.

Penguin Australia is celebrating its 50th birthday. Begun in 1961 with £10,000, it’s now a $A100 million conglomerate. Reminiscing, its first editor Geoffrey Dutton says that some of their most successful books were conceived in the pub. “You can’t have a committee meeting and come up with ideas. That is not the way it works at all. When everyone is a bit pissed it usually goes better.” Memo to self: next Quote Unquote editorial meeting is in the Northcote Tavern.
On the Thursday night, when the now-octogenarian Gough Whitlam launches Dutton’s account of the Penguin years, A Rare Bird, he goes into some detail about the inadequacies of Penguin’s translations from modern and ancient Greek giving his own rendition of Greek declensions — compared with those of Allen & Unwin. He then goes into even more detail about the inadequacies of his successors as Labor leader. After 20 minutes, a Penguin exec is moved to call out, “Launch the book! Launch the book!”

To the bash down by the wharves, in a concrete-floor warehouse open at the sides to the elements. This is not a night for fancy dress, but for dressing up warm and huddling or — and this is the option preferred by many drinking a lot of alcohol. A band plays energetic R’n’B, and there’s even dancing. The New Zealanders present look on and say wistfully that we could never do anything like this at home.
It’s a great party, but there’s work the next day so I slip away at midnight to my suite at the Regent. I’ll say this for the good people of Sydney, who have kindly paid for my trip through the offices of Tourism New South Wales, they lay on pretty classy accommodation. The suite is on the 30th floor, with a fabulous view of the Opera House and North Head, a bed large enough for half a dozen consenting adults, and a two-room bathroom full of potions, unguents and fluffy white towels and bathrobes. The main room is so vast that if one person was in bed and the other at the breakfast table, you would need a mobile phone to communicate.
When I arrived hot and sticky at 3pm on the first day, I immediately poured a cleansing ale. The minute I finished it, there was a knock at the door and a waitperson asked if he could come in and replenish the minibar. It’s a good thing I don’t smoke — they’d be in every five minutes cleaning the ashtrays.

On the third day there is a noticeable thinning of the New Zealand presence from around noon, as the Bledisloe Cup match in Wellington is on TV at 12.30. Unfortunately this is the last business day, so there’s only the afternoon left to tease the Australians about their dismal performance.
In the evening, the National Book Council’s Banjo Awards, Australia’s equivalent of the Montana, are announced at a grand dinner: the major sponsor is... Carlton and United Breweries. Winner of the $A20,000 fiction prize is Rod Jones for his third novel, Billy Sunday. Set in 1890s Wisconsin, it was described by the Boston Globe reviewer as “the great American novel — by an Australian... perhaps the most American book I have read”. In his acceptance speech Jones gives heartfelt thanks to the Australia Council for a writing grant, and to the Keating government for the dole, which helped him and his family survive the” three years it took to write the book.
Poetry winner, posthumously, is Philip Hodgins for Things Happen, while Allen & Unwin are named Publisher of the Year. The $A20,000 nonfiction prize is shared between historian Hemy Reynolds’ Fate Of A Free People, a history of the Tasmanian Aborigines, and Abraham H Biderman’s The World Of My Past, a memoir of the Holocaust he published himself as he couldn’t find anyone else willing to take it on — which may be some consolation to all those writers out there collecting rejection slips.

Jeffrey Archer is billed as guest speaker for the dinner, but is upstaged by the MC, David Marr, who, in the spirit of the new Howard government, launches proceedings with a call for a voluntary 10 per cent cut in all speeches, “not so much a cut as an efficiency dividend”.
To Archer he says, “Can we just go by our pen-names, Jeff?”
When it’s Archer’s tum to present Helen Garner with the Book of the Year award — her The First Stone, a thoughtful account of a sexual harassment case, has been chosen by booksellers as the one they most enjoyed selling — Marr asks him about a character in The Fourth Estate who begins to read a Patrick White novel but doesn’t finish it.
Archer is not pleased. “I have in my day seen many ways of plugging someone else’s book and I’m damned if I will,” he says, throwing away his speech notes. The charitable ones in the audience take this to be his contribution to ending the evening on time.
Not to be outdone, Garner speaks for a mere 30 seconds. However, she is followed by a man who has won a long-service award to Australian publishing. After 10 minutes of his life history, then another 10 minutes or so of the life history of the person the award was named after, he says, “And one thing I hope to do before l die is...” at which a voice with a distinctly New Zealand accent can be heard clearly across the room desperately begging, “Die now!”

1 comment:

michael byrne said...

You are droll. Enjoyed that. Yes, Australian jacket design is way better. What's wrong here? Just reviewed Don't Dream it's Over, and my only quibble is what it looks like. Part of the problem (with the content), I suspect. I mean I would have had a clock, draped over some landscape with the time showing 3 minutes (or less in this case), to midnight. Something like that. What's going on?