The astounding popularity of book series such as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones comes at a cost, writes publisher Terri-ann White.
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At a time when our reading is increasingly homogeneous, founder of Upswell Publishing Terri-ann White believes it is independent publishing houses that will preserve diversity, not just in literature but across our cultural landscape.
If you’re reading Seesaw, you’ve probably had at least one experience of buying a book from a bookshop or an online outlet, usually followed by the act of reading it. Most readers don’t have a particularly strong brand recognition of the publishing house, with Penguin usually standing in more as a generic name for a paperback than an editorial house.
I wish to make a strong claim here for independent publishing as a weather vane in arts and culture, often taking the lead in what marketers might call ground-breaking or innovative books. I might boldly call the work of independent publishers vital for our cultural strength: promoting startling new writing and ways of thinking about language and narrative that mark out a melding of past precedents with the present moment to make anew; the arrival of an entirely distinctive voice saying something.
In recent decades you may have noticed the concentration, at the front of bookshops and in the media, of multi-volumed or series-focused books to a degree we have never seen previously. I think it started with the Harry Potter books, and moved into what seemed like a never-ending Game of Thrones series, and numerous book and film co-productions.
I connect this up with a withering of success for Australian literature of the ground-breaking variety. I think you’ll know what I’m getting at here: books that take more concentration, perhaps, with less of a direct connection to the idea of entertainment. By which I don’t mean the equivalence of cod liver oil – good for you but it’s unfathomable that you are sinking it down your gullet. I could be more explicit and name some names often cited as difficult writers: Shirley Hazzard, Randolph Stow, Beverley Farmer, Elizabeth Jolley, Kim Scott, Gerard Murnane. Or I could name literary forms that are not novels (including poetry and short stories, for instance).
These are the writings that’ll still be in the system in 100 years time.
The Australian publishing industry was, until the later 1960s, very small and quite homogeneous; most literary books of note by Australians were published in London or New York. The people who set the tone and started a flourishing Australian publishing industry were in the mood for testing boundaries and by the 1970s books by previously overlooked identity groups such as women and migrants were taken up with gusto, and followed soon after by books by First Nations writers.
I’ve spent my working life around books, starting as a bookseller in 1980 and opening my own bookshop in 1982. I’ve had plenty of time to observe how detached many readers in Australia have become from reading literature about this place and out of this society. It reminds me of a few other cultural moments: how I grew up here watching American and British television and then what a revelation it was when the Australian voice came to the fore. I’ll always treasure my teenage memory of The Aunty Jack Show and the comic genius of Norman Gunston. And the liberation I experienced when I first heard the work of Australian composers played by orchestras when previously a rather gnarly and often tired set of dead European works was all that was served up. Thanks, Ross Edwards and Elena Kats-Chernin, amongst others.
I can’t believe I’m writing about this again. But in the maelstrom of our current world we appear to be hiding out in the world of imported escapism. Am I exaggerating? Where have the adventurous readers gone? So much is on trend these days, with great swathes of the population all reading the same book simultaneously, and so much of it from the star-making machinery of billion-dollar multi-national publishing houses with their marketing millions. Do I sound bitter and twisted yet?
The only positive trend across the sector at present, that I’m watching with enthusiasm, is that of a whole two generations of First Nations fiction writers coming into their own at the same time and gaining a serious readership that’ll serve us all well for next generations to come. Because being a writer takes an age to work up to, and the last few decades have involved the sloughing-off of many mid-career writers with three or four books under their belts who were thinking they had a safe publishing home for life. (If I named names you may be shocked.)
If it was simply the cult of youth causing this not all would be lost, because it’d set the groundwork for years of productivity, but I fear it is usually the cult of the trend that’s the drive, the ultimate culprit.
Is what I am saying is that we are lousy in Australia at thinking about an artistic life being for keeps? Working out how to enable this in the good times appears beyond us as a policy matter. Certainly the crisis right across our artistic world during COVID-19 and the flagrant disregard for stabilising it has brought all of the questions of what and who art is for into painful relief. It’s more than simply a vindictive government or set of ideologies causing this carnage. How much do we really care?
Independent book publishers, not the multinationals, do much of the hard work of keeping cultural matters nurtured and taking the bloody risks. And it is great when those writers then get scooped up by the billionaires. It can’t hurt. There isn’t much money to be made in the independent sector: you keep waiting for that elusive bestseller and meantime you try and find an audience by wielding a rag that perpetually stinks of oil. The margins are narrow: it’s usually hard to even name them as profit. But you always strive towards these gems of books making it into the annals of history and legacy, because you believe in them and they turn you on. And you talk the leg off a chair at every party you still get invited to – raving about important writers such as Amanda Curtin or Josephine Wilson who are still not known enough in their hometown, while the dominant discussion always involves crime fiction and police procedurals on the telly. (I hate today’s version of crime fiction.)
If I could be the boss of the world for a day I’d compile a list of books that everyone could choose one book from. My list would not include any sentimental books written to a template of trauma, although trauma could be a theme if treated productively. Most of these books would require time and concentration and they wouldn’t have to be read all at once either. Each would have been carefully created by its author and then nourished by its publisher to be the best book it could be, as if their lives depended upon it. For posterity, but as well for reading now. I lament that we appear to be detaching ourselves from the good stuff and turning into sheep.
Terri-ann White has recently launched Upswell Publishing. Based in Perth, she is her own boss and postage clerk, but has the multinational Penguin Random House distributing her precious books across the nation.
Want to win a book that has been “carefully created by its author and then nourished by its publisher to be the best book it [can] be”? Enter our competition to win one of Upswell Publishing’s new titles!
Pictured top is the cover of The Dogs, by John Hughes, with cover art by Abdul-Rahmann Abdullah, published by Upswell Publishing, to be released 20 September 2021.
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