Over the next month or so, the Sydney Review of Books will start to look a little different. We’re about to roll out a website upgrade and shed our orange and white dress for a much brighter wardrobe. It won’t just be a matter of cosmetic prinking. We’ll gradually be adding new features to the site too – so please bear with us if there are a few bumps along the way. For regular readers the most immediate change you’ll notice will be a reduction in the volume of essays we publish over the coming months. I am going on maternity leave and we plan to return to business as usual by the time I return to the editorial desk in the second half of the year.
The truth is, however, it hasn’t really been business as usual here at the Sydney Review of Books since George Brandis and Joe Hockey announced debilitating changes to arts funding in May 2015. As former Australia Council CEO Michael Lynch put it in a speech last week, the surprise reallocation of $40 million of Australia Council funding to a new body known first as the National Program for Excellence in the Arts, and now as Catalyst, was an ‘astonishing way to run arts funding and arts policy’. Small publishers and journals have been hit especially hard by the changes, with the most recent round of Australia Council funding being directed almost exclusively to writers’ centres and to festivals. The baffling policy trajectory of the now abandoned Book Council has been another blow.
The impact of this policy realignment is now becoming apparent: literary magazines and journals are struggling. The evidence? Crowdfunding appeals, discount subscription bundles, a scramble for patronage, intense competition for funding. Editors are winding back their publication schedules and, more worrying, winding back their rates for authors. A whole sector was put on the back foot – including the Sydney Review of Books. We’ve been left with a smaller commissioning budget than we’d hoped for 2016, so we will be forced to publish one essay a week rather than two for a few months to stay out of the red.
Despite all the bad news we remain very optimistic about the future of the Sydney Review of Books. We have enjoyed generous and consistent funding support from Western Sydney University since our launch in 2013. We’re lucky: that support continues to provide us with the stability we need to pursue funding and other forms of income. As an online-only publication, our overheads are relatively small. Almost every dollar of grant funding that we receive goes to our contributors. If we receive less funding, we have no choice but to cut back on our publication schedule as we do not want to slash the fees we pay to our contributors.
It’s gratifying for us that even as the funding emergency sirens sound, our audience continues to grow. Short reviews may be the order of the day in the mainstream media but our most-read essays are those that develop their ideas at length, and in detail. We’re not hearing any signals from readers that we should abridge our essays, or consider making the transition from in-depth to in-brief analysis. And while there’s no clear consensus as to whether publishers and authors are thriving or battling as the industry changes, new, interesting books cross my desk for review each month. There’s the perversity of it all: a community of free-thinking, intelligent critics, engaged with Australian and international literatures in their many forms, our office shelves groaning with new books for them to consider, more readers than ever – all flourishing in what’s generally agreed to be the most difficult funding environment in 40 years. We’re looking forward to watching the pendulum swing in the opposite direction so that we may continue to give expression to this flourishing in the years to come.