To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture. To provide a meaningful counterpoint we will also be publishing a series of creative, critical and insightful responses to these works from contemporary writers and artists.
In 1979, Winifred Belmont and I started to publish some poetry broadsheets by writers around New England in New South Wales, under the imprint Fat Possum Press. About the same time, Tony Bennett started to publish slim volumes under the Kardoorair Press imprint—a continuation and extension of the Kardoorair Poetry Society, which he started while living on the New South Wales north coast. Winifred Belmont and I ploughed our own cash into Fat Possum Press, which we wound up in 1986, while Tony Bennett funded Kardoorair Press through a co-operative membership: Kardoorair continues to operate and produce substantial volumes.
Some of the elements of the foregoing moral tale were already apparent to us in 1979. The establishment of a co-operative publishing venture was a task that Roland Robinson had urged ‘new’ poets to consider some years before. His own Lyre Bird press was such an undertaking, and around 1982 he was happy to consider Kardoorair as publisher of his Selected Poems, thus maintaining a link of sorts with co-operative publishing. Kardoorair (a word signifying ‘In the Beginning’ or ‘Creation Time’) had members throughout Australia and Europe, who undertook to remit payment for copies received, or else to cut out their initial subscriptions in books. The method was quite simple: each member subscribed a certain sum and agreed to sell a certain number of copies, remitting the wholesale sum. Any profit was for the members, and the scheme sought to guarantee that publishing and packaging costs would be covered by members’ assiduous sales efforts. This was one way around the difficulties of distribution experienced by small-press operations in the provinces.
Visitors to Armidale in the late 1970s and early 1980s often suggested to me that if a writer’s work were any good, it should be sent directly to a large commercial publisher in a capital city. I’m not so sure; I have never been entirely convinced that large commercial publishers auto-matically have better taste or judgement than provincial editors or small-press editors in general. There have been occasional flurries of activity in the area of poetry and prose pubHshing by large operators, and many risky propositions have graced the bargain bins of UQP, A&R and other firms. The fallout rate of titles from large publishers suggests to me that decisions about what constitutes ‘good work’ can err even among the top-flight.
I have met writers of poetry who actually prefer small-press publication. This seems to be justified on two or three grounds. The relationship between publisher and poet can be close and fruitful in terms of producing an object to please all concerned. A small-press edition can be limited, cheap, disposable, or arty as required. Some presses specialise in beautiful editions, which are advertised for—and purchased by—bibliophiles rather than followers of poetical fashions. Authors can negotiate directly with publishers to arrange royalties or other payments and over the sharing of costs, depending on projected sales and the money available. Some small presses simply deliver a stack of volumes to the freshly-minted author, and say ‘Here’s your lot: good luck.’ The lot can be a percentage calculated according to all sorts of factors. Kardoorair Press actually pays a regular (and generous) royalty in advance, calculated against the whole printrun; this arrangement is possibly unique among small-press operators, but the Press seems to have little difficulty in selling out an edition, even if some titles inevitably take time. The nature of limited first-printings guarantees that the price will not fall, at any rate. The editions appear to be retained: I have not located any in five or six years of scanning second-hand booksellers’ lists.
There are poets who prefer small-press publishing on the grounds that they can achieve better sales this way than with larger publishers who hardly bother to push their works, but who include a few poetry titles as part of a general release. Geoff Goodfellow’s first title, published by Friendly Street in Adelaide in 1986, sold out rapidly and went into reprint as a result of Goodfellow’s hawking the volume about schools and other reading venues; this is somewhat unusual, since we are used to thinking that a poet achieves high, fast sales only when school syllabus status has been achieved. Such sales figures, however, demand that the author also double as an entrepreneur, and I have met with few such double-beings.
Distribution is the topic most frequently raised among small-press publishers. Some Melbourne and Sydney presses have established co-operative book catalogues to promote their wares, but I have not seen spectacular results from this procedure. Nor has the establishment from time to time of co-operative bookshops appeared to boost awareness of the impact of small presses in general upon Australian writing. It might be a sad fact that small magazines appeal to a small readership, and that small-press publications inevitably make contact with the already converted. I must say that I do not expect that small presses will be able to get the reach across the market that the larger operations enjoy, or endure. Unless the publications are frequent, and given high visibility, I don’t see how small presses are in the race. But the point isn’t to compete with the mainstream publishers on their own terms. Everything is against it.
A few years ago, I applied to the then Literature Board for some publishing assistance. We were first told that certain standards of book production were expected to be achieved. Well, we thought, that’s no bother; we had come to be rather proud of the quality of some recent productions. Then the news was relayed that distribution would have to be taken into account. We pointed out sales figures and procedures relating to recent publications, to demonstrate the efficiency of a co-operative organisation. And then the crunch came: we were told that co-operative publishing organisations were ineligible for subsidies. Thank you very much. Some time later, when library services and bookshops began to stock works from Fat Possum Press and Kardoorair Press, requests for subsidies were more favourably received from time to time.
There are many traps in small-press publishing. I know few small-press publishers who actually typeset, print, bind and package their productions. For most, it’s a piecemeal operation involving skills picked up while working on school, college or university papers, at some hobby or other, or through career experience with writing, layout, design and publishing. There are hilarious as well as heartbreaking stories of those who rush in without seeking quotes, assistance or advice on procedures. A small thing can save a lot of bother: knowing, for instance that a printer’s ‘When do you want this?’ means ‘I hope you don’t think you’ll get this for a few months.’ A printer’s dilatoriness cost us a book-bounty on one occasion; about the time we were still pleading to get the job done, the government stipulation about numbers of units printed was raised. On another occasion, a printer’s designation of a publication as a magazine and not a book—through printing an ISSN and not an ISBN—cost an amount that is still sickening to contemplate. Printers have a terrific sense of humour and small publishers need to develop one as well, faced with the disappointments that come with every single aspect of publishing that is delegated to someone else. Costs of paper can rise at the oddest times, after work is delivered; ink and binding costs can also play havoc with estimates unless a firm undertaking has been attested to by all hands. Photographic work is hardly to be contemplated by beginners unless the proverbial Good Mate runs the printery; but Good Mates are the most unsuitable people I know to do business with. I cannot think that relatives are better bets.
I am drawn to small-press productions. They possess all the quirky distinctiveness of the hand-made product, even when their production is hi-tech. Those that aspire to glossy status are no less attractive than those that carefully reproduce every misspelling and ellipsis of speech pattern in an effort to be authentic. I admire the great tradition of small presses, which have given birth to Dada and Surrealist tracts, Constructivist poetics and ‘underground’ or ‘alternative’ works of all descriptions. In Australia, the self-funded publications and small-press productions that have attained ‘classic’ status belie the notion that the best literary works—or the most incisive critiques of society—are the province of the larger presses. Vision, Conditional Culture and Power Without Glory reflect, in different fashions, dissatisfaction with the state of publishing in Australia. Such dissident voices and such ‘alternative’ publications may from time to time serve as reminders that the small press, for all its exiguous means, is capable of making a major impact on the interpretation of our culture.
Meanjin Volume 46 Issue 3 1987
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