Matlok Griffiths, For a Brief Moment on Saturday Night, Utopia Existed, 2015, oil and acrylic on canvas, 123.8 x 123.8 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Darren Knight Gallery.
When I commissioned my fellow publisher Richard Walsh to write the new technology chapter for Paper Empires: a history of the book in Australia 1946–2005, he told me excitedly about the latest invention being developed in the US: Electronic Ink – designed to mimic on screen the look of ink on paper. Within a few years this formed the basis of Amazon’s now popular Kindle reader.
Over the course of my own career I saw the business of literary publishing transformed, first by the photocopier in the 1970s, then by the fax machine in the 1980s, and finally by the laptops and mobile devices of the past quarter century. In 1998 I predicted that ‘smaller “on demand” photo-printers may one day enable the local bookshop to print instant books’. Ten years later a few bookshops (including one in Melbourne) trialled the American in-store Book Espresso machine.
Last year I visited a well-stocked New York bookstore and saw one of these machines myself for the first time. Taking up no more floor space than a dining room table, this Heath-Robinson-looking curiosity can print a book (from your USB stick or an online warehouse) in the time it takes to drink a tall coffee at the store’s café – conveniently situated right beside the Book Espresso machine.
Richard Walsh is the personal embodiment of media ‘convergence’, having been co-editor of Oz magazine in the 1960s, editor of Nation Review and publisher at Angus & Robertson in the 1970s and editor-in-chief of the Australian Consolidated Press magazine stable in the 1980s. He now has his own new technology company and publishes a lively list of books at Allen & Unwin – our most commercially successful imprint since the halcyon days of A&R. During an ABC Radio National discussion with co-conspirator Richard Neville to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Oz, Richard Walsh observed that books are holding up in the digital era far better than magazines and newspapers because they have always survived by their sales not by advertising.
Way back in the colonial era, Australia’s canny booksellers forged close links with their British suppliers, and local publishing became a sideline undertaken by enterprising booksellers and printers. Angus & Robertson, which began publishing around 1890, prospered so much that by the 1950s it employed 600 staff in Australia, New Zealand and London, with retail, publishing and printing divisions. This extraordinary empire was broken up in the 1970s and its publishing core later became part of Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins conglomerate. By then, other major global imprints – notably Penguin, Random and Pan Macmillan – were expanding their Australian lists. During the 1980s there was even something of a book trade boom as rival retail chains developed and trade paperback lists thrived. By the early 1990s, however, Australian book publishers were facing recession, a looming digital revolution and then – at century’s end – a GST on books.
Although powerful computers were harnessed to manage mega-warehouses, our book market remained geographically challenged, unlike the compact UK or the more densely populated US with its cheap book-rate postage. Amazon, Apple and Google overthrew that age-old tyranny of distance. Faced with the novelty of hand-held electronic reading devices, paper book sales peaked here in 2009 and then contracted during 2010–14 as readers migrated from pages to screens.
Just in time comes Jan Zwar’s invaluable new book-length research paper Disruption and innovation in the Australian book industry: Case studies of trade and education publishers (released through Macquarie University’s Department of Economics where she is a postdoctoral fellow). The academic-flavoured title conceals a must-read book for anyone with a professional or merely readerly interest in books. It follows her extensive and equally valuable research work on authors based on a survey last year of 1000 members of the Australian Society of Authors. (Both projects are part of a three-year ARC grant led by Professor David Throsby).
The 25 publisher case studies in Disruption and innovation in the Australian book industry range from experimental start-ups (including the Queensland Writers Centre’s if:book Australia) to heavyweight locally owned independents Allen & Unwin in Sydney and Hardie Grant in Melbourne. Multi-nationals are represented by Hachette, Harlequin, Simon & Schuster, Pearson and Oxford University Press. Along the way, there are fascinating encounters with industry insiders such as Rachel Bin Salleh at Broome’s Indigenous house Magabala Books, Susan Hawthorne at feminist imprint Spinifex Press, Alice Grundy at Seizure, John and Linsay Knight at Pitt Street Poetry and a wide range of educational publishers along with the new breed of scholarly e-presses at Monash and ANU. The online new edition of Adam Shoemaker’s pioneering Black Words, White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929–1988 (originally published by my old firm UQP in 1989) recently received 34,000 downloads from ANU’s e-press site, making it a digital bestseller.
Jan Zwar was keen to ask all her surveyed publishers about the role of digital technologies in the design, production, promotion and distribution of their books across various platforms and genres. ‘It is important to note,’ she says, ‘that this set of case studies is illustrative, not comprehensive.’ The good news is that book sales stabilised last year, after a fairly traumatic few years and the shock 2011 closure of REDgroup’s bookstores which had been generating 20 per cent of the country’s retail sales.
‘Publishers have developed defensive strategies to entrants such as Google, Apple and Amazon,’ Zwar reports. These include direct-to-consumer print as well as ebook sales. Romance specialist Harlequin, for example, has treated ebooks as an extension of its existing mail order business. On the other hand, Pan Macmillan’s innovative digital-only e-press, Momentum, was established four years ago to test the potential for such e-publishing from a commercial perspective. Their experience so far indicates only modest sales unless books appear in a series. Zwar’s indefatigable work reveals a plethora of experiments with ebook pricing, subscription models and non-traditional royalty agreements with authors.
There is at least a forty-year history of book industry reports, starting with that of the Australian Book Trade Working Party in 1975. When the GST was introduced, the Commonwealth-funded Book Production in Australia Joint Industry Study in 2001 surveyed 26 publishers but highlighted just six – all major multi-nationals (except for Allen & Unwin). This study, however, was essentially a management handbook for corporations, analysing the business philosophies and marketing strategies of each big player and chastising them for their collective lack of investment in staff training. The study’s model company was the then Australian-based travel publisher Lonely Planet whose trajectory would have made an interesting comparative study for Zwar though it is no longer Australian owned or operated.
According to Michael Webster, who set up BookTrack (renamed Nielsen BookScan) to mine bookshop sales data on a daily basis, Penguin in 2001 accounted for 18 per cent of Australia’s bookshop sales, followed by Random House (14 per cent), HarperCollins (13 per cent), Allen & Unwin (9 per cent), Pan Macmillan (7 per cent) and Hodder Headline (now Hachette, 6 per cent). The recent Penguin Random merger has considerably altered this corporate landscape. Although publishers – big and small – learned to live with the GST, the challenge from ebooks and online bookselling was recognised by industry peak bodies and the government as this digital revolution got under way in earnest.
In 2010 a Book Industry Strategy Group (BISG), chaired by Barry Jones, was formed to report to the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr, on digital platforms for books in Australia. The BISG was tasked with assessing the ‘digital disruption’ to the supply chain for books, and the likely impact on authors, publishers, printers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers. Its brief was also to highlight opportunities for the industry to participate ‘more actively in the global marketplace for printed and digital books’.
The group’s first recommendation was to set up a Book Industry Collaborative Council (BICC) – chaired during 2012–13 by Macquarie University’s Professor David Throsby (a regular consultant to the Australia Council since the 1970s). The BICC was to provide ministerial advice on ‘priority issues’ for the book industry, oversee industry-led reforms identified in the BISG report, and bridge ‘any divide between business and research’. Its key recommendation was the establishment of a self-sustaining industry body to represent the book industry – provisionally entitled the Book Industry Council of Australia. This became the ill-starred Book Council of Australia, floated ineptly by Prime Minister Abbott in late 2014, and then officially announced in September 2015 with publisher Louise Adler as chair – before being buried by the new-broom Turnbull regime a few days before Christmas.
David Throsby’s involvement with the book industry has however had an overwhelmingly positive outcome: his ARC collaboration with Jan Zwar. Her conclusion to Disruption and innovation in the Australian book industry is one of the best informed and most cogently argued summaries I have ever read about our industry. With Australian book sales at $1.6b a year, her research anticipates only ‘a slight decline in demand … until 2020–21’. The successive introduction since 1900 of film, radio, television, the Internet and social media ‘has not rendered books redundant’, but publishers are now conscious they must compete for consumer attention with a range of expanded leisure options. Big W is now believed to be the single biggest book retailer in Australia. The online retailer Booktopia, which purchased Bookworld in 2015, is now the dominant Australian-based online retailer, with an estimated market share of 6-7 per cent.
Current experiments with genres and genre-blending are breaking down the traditional boundaries between ‘mainstream and pulp fiction publishing’. Hachette’s publisher however laments that most online retail book platforms are located overseas and their merchandising managers have no particular interest in featuring Australian books. In several New York bookstores last October I couldn’t find the backlist titles of Carey, Grenville and Keneally until I located the bookcase labelled ‘Oceania’.
While Zwar’s case studies show some Australian authors are experiencing success in the digital marketplace, most ebooks have very modest sales. ‘These findings combined with the 2015 survey of authors, strongly suggest that the digital marketplace does not provide a panacea that solves the centuries-long struggle by professional authors to find sufficient time and income in order to write.’
There are also worrying indications that blockbuster titles ‘are becoming even more dominant as a proportion of overall sales’. At the same time, prospects for ‘niche’ literary titles have not improved although publishers may now be more willing than in the past to take on more adventurous hybrid genre titles.
My own view, as someone with a first-generation Kindle, is that narrative fiction and memoir are perfectly suited to fast reading at the press of a button or the swipe of a finger. Yet I am old school enough to also love the flickability and aesthetic appeal of well designed and printed books. After all, they’ve been around, in codex form, for two millennia. The transition in the fifteenth century from beautifully hand-lettered and illuminated books to printing radically altered the course of history. Five hundred years on, we have the great good fortune to be witnesses to an equally revolutionary Gutenberg moment.
The English translation of the fourth and final instalment of Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child, was published late last year. In our first essay this week Melinda Harvey reflects on ‘Ferrante fever’ and the relationships readers have formed with these novels and the characters who inhabit them:
Confidences exchanged cannot entirely explain the level of intimacy the Neapolitan novels generate, though it is certainly a major factor. Ask any couples therapist: building intimacy also entails making the other person feel safe, at ease. When the person in question is a reader, safety and ease translate as her ability to get lost in a book, to move through its pages without the fear of being caught short by it. Ferrante creates this kind of environment by satisfying just about every old-fashioned expectation readers have of novels.
Our second essay on the Sydney Review of Books this week is by Randolph Stow’s biographer Suzanne Falkiner, who travelled to the Trobriand Islands in pursuit of information about the novelist’s posting there. She writes:
Embarking on a biography of Randolph Stow, an introspective author widely thought to be a recluse in his later years, had not been easy at the best of times, but writing about his time in New Guinea in 1959 was troubling on several levels: not least because during his last months there he had experienced a mental and physical breakdown that brought him close to death. I was probably not the first researcher, too, to discover that Stow’s Department of Territories personnel file—or the portion of it that dealt with precisely this period—had gone missing from the Australian Government Archives. When I tried to get in touch those ex-Department officers who had been in closest contact him, I was met with silence.
Finally, in From the Archive we turn this week to Richard King’s 2014 centenary essay on Robert Tressell’s classic of proletarian literature, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists:
As a novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists has many problems, and may even be flawed. But such problems as it has arise from the seriousness with which its author went about his work. If The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a failure, it is a glorious one.
In many ways, the novel’s early years were as inauspicious as those of its author. Initially published in abridged form (over 100 000 words shorter than the original manuscript), its political message could not survive the jingoism of the First World War, when even unionists and social reformers tended to fall in behind, or in front of, their aristocratic overseers. Sales, though decent at first, soon plummeted, and did not recover until after the war, when an even shorter (one-shilling) version began to command appreciation from a decimated working class heartily sick of imperial slaughter and inspired by the revolution in Russia. From the 1920s on, its influence continued to grow.