By the end of 1974, some $2,520,000 had been allocated in grants to writers and subsidies to publishers by the new Literature Board of the Australian Council for the Arts in its first two years of operation. This injection of finance can be seen as part of the Labor Government’s ‘new nationalism’, supporting Australian creative products. Paradoxically, the dominant impulse in the new writing in Australia now is an internationalist one. The nationalist period, the consciously ‘write Australian’ period with its preoccupation with defining the nature of ‘Australian life’, belongs to a past era; it is preserved in some of the literary prizes, the Miles Franklin award for a novel ‘which necessarily presents Australian life in any of its phases’, and the award established in 1974 by the Melbourne Age for a work that ‘best expresses the Australian identity.’ But the younger writers are concerned with being writers, with creating verbal artefacts, with relating to other writers, in California and Argentina and Europe and New York and Asia.
The contradictions lie deeper however than this opposition of a nationalist political platform and an internationalist writing movement. The control of book publishing and distributing in Australia is international—despite the Labor party’s nationalism; and the internationalist Australian writers are not getting adequate exposure or distribution either in Australia or internationally.
Australia is a very profitable book market; consequently Australian publishing has become dominated by foreign-owned companies. Most of the major U.K. publishers have branches in Australia—Collins, Nelson, Macmillan, Pergamon, Oxford University Press, Hamlyn, Heinemann, Hodder & Stoughton, Hutchinson, Longman, Penguin and Pitman are all here. And the once Australian companies—now owned by U.K. interests—include Hicks Smith (Associated Book Publishers), Cheshire (Rank-Xerox ), Sun Books (Macmillan) and Jacaranda, Lansdowne and Ure Smith (all part of the IPC – Reed conglomerate). U.S.A. publishers have a mailer hold on the market, but it has been a noticeably expanding hold in the last ten years, and if the traditional market agreement (by which U.K. publishers control ‘Commonwealth’ rights of books) breaks down, American publishers will move in further. The major companies currently here are McGraw Hill, John WiIley, PrentIce-Hall, Cassell-Colher-Macmillan (now controlling ex-U.K. owned Cassell), Golden Press, and Holt Rinehart and Winston.
The function of all these companies is to market the overseas product. The profit goes straight back home. They also operate local publishing offices to mop up areas of the market that British or American initiated programmes have missed. ‘This involves particularly the education market, in which they produce material for the local syllabuses; gift style books on kangaroos and so on; and some nominal ‘literary’ publishing.
It is important to stress how nominal this literary publishing is. Literature Board subsidisation has encouraged expansion in this area, but the nature of the operation hasn’t changed. Writers justifiably unhappy about the inadequacy of local publishing companies are likely at first to feel that these international companies offer greater distribution, greater sales, international exposure and international status. This is not the case. These are purely local publishing ventures, initiated by the local branch; very rarely do any of the titles initiated here get taken up by the London office of the company and marketed in the U.K. To be published by Penguin in Australia or Macmillan in Australia does not mean that the book will appear anywhere else than in Australia. The odd one may. The majority don’t. The writer may well believe there is little point publishing with an Australian-owned company that has no distribution in the U.K. or U.S.A.—particularly since U.K. publishers will not take on a book already published in Australia, except in rare circumstances. (Australian sales are crucial to the U.K. publishers, who cannot survive on sales in the U.K. and Commonwealth if Australian rights are not included). But the local branch of the overseas company offer no better a deal.
The U.K. and U.S.A. publishers in Australia are taking out large profits and not reinvesting them to establish a strong Australian publishing industry. Their offices here are predominantly run by executives and editors from the U.K. and U.S.A.—who have little awareness of or sensitivity for the Australian literary scene. The interests they serve are not those of Australia, but those of the U.K. or the U.S.A.
What Australian companies are left ? Five university presses, of which only Queensland has a significant literary programme. Horwitz (mainly pulp paperbacks); Rigby; Angus & Robertson. When Collins, the U.K. publishers, decided to sell out their holding in A&R they gave the A&R board time to find a new investor, so that the company wouldn’t fall into foreign—i.e. American—hands. It fell into the hands of Australian capitalist Gordon Barton, who proceeded to dismember it, realising the real estate assets, selling off the map and printing divisions, rationalising the organisation (which meant dispensing with most of the editorial and production staff)—and selling the big education division to the American company McGraw Hill.
The rest of the Australian scene consists of a number of small companies such as Wren, Lloyd O’Neil, Outback, Hawthorn, Wentworth, Edwards & Shaw—some of them primarily printers with small publishing division; a handful of small presses on the U.S.A. model—South Head, Wild & Woolley; and the subscription membership based Australasian Book Society. The directory of the Australian Book Publishing Association lists various other companies, but they are not generally literary houses—and those other literary houses that exist are in very limited production. It is not in the interests of the big corporations that any big Australian publisher should survive. The past pattern of takeovers demonstrates that clearly enough.
The disadvantages of the Australian publisher in terms of capital, reserves and financial resources, when put against the foreign companies, is frightening for anyone concerned about the independence of Australia’s print culture. The problems of overseas representation are notorious—only A&R has a London branch now. But absurdly, internal distribution within Australia is equally difficult, and in comparison with the foreign corporation, disadvantageous for the local companies. One of the small Australian companies can afford full time nation-wide sales and promotions staff; without the volume of titles an overseas publisher brings in, most Australian publishers cannot support a big distribution organisation. So they have to turn to book distributors.
The major book distributors in Australia are Gordon & Gotch (U.K. owned); Book Wholesale (70-75% owned by Nelson, U.K.) ; Collins-Forlib and Leuteneggers (now integrated into one operation owned by Collins, U.K.); Hicks Smith (Associated Book, U.K.); Prentice-Hall (U.S.A.) . These are the major distributors who handle books published by Australian companies. Most of the U.K. and U.S.A. companies listed earlier also distribute, and may occasionally represent, an Australian publisher. There are also some smaller distributors—but for one single, nation-wide operation, those are the major companies.
Thus there has come about a two-pronged foreign control of the Australian publishing industry. The effect of the establishment of branches by overseas interests, together with the takeover of local publishing companies, has been exacerbated by the takeover of Australian-owned distributors and the establishment of further distribution outlets by the same foreign interests.
The Australian film industry was killed by the American takeover of distribution and exhibition in the 1920s, which put the local production companies out of business so that the Hollywood product could dominate the market. In 1974 Australia—with not one of the world’s largest populations—was America’s second most lucrative film market. Independent local film makers now fill less than 1% of the local film market. The film situation is well known—though nothing has yet been done to legislate about it. The book publishing situation is the same. How can Australian books published by Australian-owned companies be distributed properly and effectively when the distributors are overseas owned, and when their prime concern is to sell the imported product? Something has to be at the bottom of the list—and it isn’t the imported book.
In terms of publishing books, the new subsidy scheme of the Literature Board is offering some help; Australian publishers need capital. The Board won’t provide that. But in lieu of capital, subsidisation helps finances. Of the subsidised books ‘produced or soon to be produced’ from 1973 to the end of 1974, 24 came from foreign owned companies, 67 from locally owned companies.
However the scheme, like any subsidisation scheme, has created new problems in the areas in which it has tried to solve problems. The Board sees one function of the subsidy as keeping down retail costs of Australian books—so they will be cheaper, more accessible; however the bookseller’s profit and the author’s royalty suffer from this pegging of the retail cost on subsidised books (various formulae are applied to control the cost). A book that might have retailed at $8.50 may appear with a subsidy at $4.50; so the author earns 45 cents a copy instead of 85 cents a copy. The bookseller similarly operates on a percentage basis. You have to sell a lot more books to make up the discrepancy in earnings. The board now requires a 12% royalty to be paid on subsidised books to try and remedy the situation: and it requires a 40% discount to the bookseller, instead of the old 33-35% discount; but 40% had been becoming standard—so now the booksellers are talking of asking for 45% discount on subsidised books. All this, of course, closes in on the publisher’s room to manoeuvre. And a publisher is now unlikely to bring out an unsubsidised literary work since it will have to retail at something like $8.50 in competition with subsidised books retailing at $4-5.50. The board’s belief that lower prices on subsidised books will mean bigger sales is reflected in their policy of not subsidising a reprint, but of encouraging runs of over 2,500 with a printing subsidy. Consequently, when a subsidised title sells out the publisher often cannot afford to reprint it, since the unsubsidised reprint will have to retail at a far higher price than the original edition—an absurdity that the book buyer and the bookseller will not tolerate. Those are contradictions within the detailed application of the subsidy scheme. There are bigger issues, however, that have not been considered at all.
There is a strong case that companies not 51% or more Australian-owned should not receive subsidisation. This was the model followed in Canada in an attempt to resist the U.S.A. domination of the book trade there, in trying to rebuild the devastated local industry. There is also a more immediate problem arising from the scheme’s progress so far. What is the point of publishing books when nothing is done about the distribution set-up? The situation is analogous with the film industry again—where money has been spent through the Experimental Film Fund and the Australian Film Development Corporation to produce films, only to find that distribution and exhibition are still foreign-controlled and geared to Importing the products of the foreign owners.
The need in cinema, in recorded music, in books, is for Australian-owned and controlled distribution operations. Until these are established, the Australian writer, musician and film-maker are never going to have fair treatment; the Australian public is never going to get fair treatment. Australian rock music received almost no radio air time until 2JJ began broadcasting in Sydney in 1975; the commercial stations ran predominantly mainline commercial imported material. 2JJ’s programming has been to broadcast overseas album tracks rather than top 40 singles; and local album tracks. Until the A.B.C. established the station, those interests (i.e. local rock and international rock that wasn’t narrowly mainstream commercial) were not catered for. There is a close analogy with the book trade here. The imported books that dominate the trade are the mainline commercial products of the big corporations. It’s good that they are available. But the Australian reader is being denied proper distribution of both local material and international works from small presses—alternative writing, avant garde writing, underground writing. Similarly in the movies, the local product and the international experimental and avant-garde are not being exhibited. Everyone suffers from this partial, this selective diet. Not just the consumer, but the creator, too, who is isolated from new areas of creativity internationally.
The answer to the problem is not quotas and tariffs. The big U.K. and U.S.A. publishers are publishing material that we want to read, and it would be absurd to suggest curtailing their operations. The ALP’s new media policy of insisting on 75% local content on television will simply exclude the international material that we want to see. Instead of stopping the imported material, we need to see the local built up adequately capitalised, rather than left to reply on ad hoc subsidisation. 2JJ has succeeded by creating a positive alternative—not by the restriction of the 2SM and 2UW programmes with quotas, tariffs, and so on. Strengthening the Australian product does not necessitate establishing a narrow nationalism that exclude the foreign. It means providing the locally owned and controlled media outlets for the local product, so that it can co-exist and compete with the international and imported. The argument for spending $1.3 million on ‘Blue Poles’ and $646,000 on ‘Woman V’ was that Australian painters and public should not continue to be isolated from the major modern artistic achievements, but should have direct access to them—and that this was a necessary part of creating a context for Australian artists to work in. It is a valid argument, and it applies equally to the other arts. It is important that Australian writers should have ready access to the best avant garde writing; it is vital that Australian writers should co-exist in print with international writers: it would be disastrous if Australian writing were subsidised in a totally insular, isolationist context. This isn’t happening, but the restrictive aspect of the ‘new nationalism’ needs to be watched. Mutterings that subsidies should go only to those journals with fully Australian content are always around; but if that happened, it would isolate Australia from the international community of letters that Australian writers are at last becoming part of. If we could achieve a situation whereby major international writers chose to publish their new works in Australian journals and with Australian publishers, because those journals and those publisher stood for the standards that those writers valued, then we would have achieved an internationalism of which we could be nationalistically proud. We don’t want to build up a wattle wall around our literature and publication media.
In the U.S.A., The Book People organisation of San Francisco developed to distribute and represent the multitude of American small presses. It now sells American small press publications throughout the world. A comparable distribution organisation in Australia, set up to handle the distribution of books published by Australian publishers, and to import works from the international small presses that have no commercial representation here, is essential for the health of writing and reading—in Australia. Until something like that is established, we will carry on floundering in this mass of contradictions; a political party expounding nationalism but allowing its educational and artistic resources to be dependent on international corporations, and the profits made from them taken out of the country; and a writing that increasingly proclaims an internationalism, but whose practitioners cannot normally see the significant international writing, and whose own works are not available internationally or nationally.
Michael Wilding is a British writer and academic who has spent most of his career in Australia.