‘IT’S very hard to make a definite assessment of this book.’ In the course of rejecting novels they probably should have published, big publishers sometimes, kindly, enclose with your rejection letter a copy of their reader’s report, should your particular manuscript have got that far in the assessment process. The day after receiving this particular rejection, I took a copy of the reader’s report down to the local library where I used the photocopy machine to photocopy this phrase then enlarge it to ten times its original size. I then took this enlarged phrase home and glued it to the wall above my desk. It’s still there now: ‘It’s very hard to make a definite assessment of this book.’
So what did the reader mean by this, and in what way did this form part of the argument for the book’s rejection? Because no matter which way you hold it up and look at it, the reader clearly intended it to be taken as a negative comment. The reader, basically, was not easily able to sum up the book, identify its genre and therefore its market—and if they, the reader doing the reader’s report, were unable to sum it up and package it succinctly, then how on earth would the marketing department? The book was rejected, in part, because the book could not easily be explained.
￼Why is this a negative? What is it about the state of our current literary culture that says a work must be easily explained? What’s wrong with not being easily able to explain or assess something? Isn’t that the way it should be?
After a few more such misunderstandings (seven in all), my book was published. My eventual publisher, the Melbourne independent Black Pepper, thank goodness, had no such concerns. They saw difficulty of assessment as a cause for celebration, allowed its oddity to stand, even advertised it as ‘eccentric and original’ on the cover. On release I got a rave review in the Age and was stamped their ‘Pick of the Week’. More good reviews followed. The book was put on the VCE English recommended reading list (alongside Dickens, Greene and Camus) and quickly went to a second edition.
So I didn’t fall through the cracks, as it turned out, but I easily could have. There, down at the bottom of the publishing pecking order, was Black Pepper, picking through the tailings, finding the gems. Black Pepper is a cottage publisher, literally, working out of an old house in North Fitzroy. Kevin Pearson and Gail Hannah made their reputations initially as poetry publishers but have now also built an impressive fiction list. They operate on a shoestring. Every March they submit a list of proposed new titles to the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the subsidy on offer of $4000 per work of Australian fiction ($2500 for poetry). This allows them to typeset and print the book, but little else. They do the cover design in-house, as well as all editing and proofreading. They have no marketing department or publicist, no budget for either. They send out copies to reviewers at all the major dailies and journals and do a general mail-out to bookshops, but promotion of the book is left pretty much to the author—or if they decline, to the lap of the gods.
So is it good to get your book up with an independent publisher, instead of with one of the big ones? It depends what your expectations are. It is sometimes frustrating not having a full-time editor with plenty of paid time to help prepare your book for publication—but it can also be a blessing in disguise. I’m quite sure my book wouldn’t be so ‘eccentric and original’ if a tribe of mainstream publisher’s editors had got hold of it—they would have knocked that sort of crap out of it quick smart. A small publisher’s editor is much more likely to accommodate an author’s intentions, no matter how commercially misguided those intentions are. An original voice is not just allowed but actively encouraged. Limited editorial intervention (as is blessedly the case with Black Pepper) also puts the onus back on the writer to think about their work beforehand, to self-edit, in other words; to not hand over a rag-bag of material and expect the publishing house to pull it together and ‘make it work’.
￼As for the marketing side of things, with no publicity and marketing department, any book published by a small independent publisher is at an obvious disadvantage in terms of sales. But equally, for the writer who has not thought about ‘marketability’ when writing their book (me, for example) this is an advantage. The book is not accepted (or subsequently packaged) because of its perceived ability to cater to the whims of a fickle buying public but because the publisher actually thinks it’s good.
I wrote my first novel when I was thirty-three and didn’t see it published till I was forty-six: it takes a lot of faith and good humour to keep hanging in there for that long. But over that time, as articles about the state of the post-1980s Australian publishing industry started to proliferate, I couldn’t help wondering if what I was doing—putting my manuscript in an envelope and sending it off to Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins—might not be a complete waste of time. Throughout those years my other life was as an independent theatre-maker, working in the alternative Melbourne theatre scene, writing grant applications, scratching together the money (public and private), developing the project, finding the venue, helping with publicity, getting the thing on. In theatre I was making art entirely outside the mainstream, but with my novel I was desperately seeking mainstream approval. It took me a long time to figure it out: approval from whom? Not Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, that’s for sure. I was seeking approval from nerdy bean-counters and gadfly publicists, most of whom worked out of Sydney. I was waiting on the big Yes from editors who with all the best will in the world couldn’t say Yes anyway—they were at the mercy of forces much greater than them, that is to say, marketing.
I work casual hours in a bookshop (that’s what happens when you don’t get published till you’re forty-six), in Receivals and Despatch; I see them come and I see them go. One moment we are taking them freshly baked out of their boxes and putting their shiny new price stickers on them, the next we are taking those barely scuffed price stickers off and packing them up as ‘Returns’, the unsold and unwanteds, sending them back whence they came. The shelf life of a book these days is short, too short. When the relevant staff member checks the system and notes that this thing (it is a ‘thing’, unlikely to have been read by the person doing the checking) hasn’t racked up the required sales to justify its shelf space, off it goes to the knacker’s yard.
So is there another way of doing things, a better way of building a conduit between writer and reader, something that will give us both a more satisfying, longer lasting and ultimately more enriching experience? I’ve become convinced that there is.
￼VERY little art survives in this country without some kind of government funding. As unpalatable as it is, we all need to get our snouts in the trough at some stage, if not directly then indirectly through government support to organisations higher up the food chain from whose table we then collect the crumbs. Many if not most books of literary fiction will have received some government support at some stage. But you’ve got to wonder whether this money is being spent wisely.
The principal source of funding for the production of Australian literature is the Literature Board of the Australia Council—any freelance writer trying to scratch a living will be very familiar with their booklets, their application forms and their closing dates. So too the Theatre Board for a person working in the performing arts. Let’s compare for a moment how these two bodies work—the comparison, I think, is instructive.
At the Theatre Board, as with the Literature Board, the main area of funding from which a freelance artist such as myself could benefit is the New Work category, funding grants to individuals and/or small performance companies. If I want to make a piece of theatre, for example, from the ground up—write it, develop it with a director and actors, put it on, promote it—this is where I go. All these stages (and my ability to justify the money for them) become the criteria against which my proposal is assessed. At the Literature Board, on the other hand, under their New Work category the story is quite different. What you are applying for there is ‘time to write’, not ‘funds to produce’. That is, you can’t apply to self-publish, nor demonstrate publisher support for your project from any other than one with ‘effective national distribution’. There is a distinct difference between the two boards’ definitions of new work: at the Literature Board the creation of new work is the writing of it, at the Theatre Board it is its writing, development, production and presentation. At the Theatre Board you can apply for money to write, workshop, develop, rehearse, present and publicise your new work—in literary terms, to write, edit, typeset, print, publish, market and distribute your book. That is, to do precisely what you can’t do under the Literature Board’s current rules. They’ll give you money to write, and will give money to a reputable publisher to help publish what you’ve written, but they won’t let you do it all yourself because—well, I don’t really know why.
Let’s say the Literature Board gives you an Emerging Writers grant of $15,000 (twelve months of toasted cheese sandwiches) to write a book that a major publisher—let’s call them X—has said they are interested in publishing. When it comes time to publish (assuming they’ve been able to ‘make it work’), X will then ￼go back to the Literature Board for a publishing subsidy of $4000. The question has to be asked: why should a major commercial publisher get a $4000 subsidy to publish a new work of Australian literary fiction that the taxpayer has already paid to have written? If commercial publishers want to publish new literature (do they? really?), then why don’t they put their own money into it? Why don’t they pay for the writing of the book they are supposedly so enamoured of? Yes, that’s right, they won’t, it’s new literary fiction, they’ll run a mile. And this is a good thing. Let them run. Let them publish no more Australian fiction but the lowest-common-denominator guaranteed bestsellers. Instead of spending our precious arts-funding dollars helping out these massive global businesses, encouraging them to do something they couldn’t give a rat’s about anyway, let’s invest the money in new Australian literary fiction.
There are two ways of doing this. The first, obviously, is to better fund the infrastructure of small independent publishers, to help them deal with the massive quantities of fiction manuscripts they are now receiving and to help them better promote, market and distribute the books they select. (We’re not talking big dollars here: the weekly wine-and-canapés budget of your average big publisher will do.) The second, and more problematic, is to fund new publishing ventures, including self-publishing.
Self-publishing: the hyphenated horror word that makes most literati reach for their revolvers. Family histories, bad story collections, worse poetry. But why not something else besides? Brilliant poetry by front-line poets, innovative fiction by the best going round, new unclassifiable genres of writing that might reach a whole new readership. It happens every day in the film and music businesses: as these industries become more corporatised and money-driven there is a definite move on the part of artists and arts consumers towards more independent, self- promoted art. The world of independent publishing, of which innovative self-publishing is a legitimate part, could do pretty well everything everyone is whingeing about not being done, if it just had a little bit of money to do it.
The physical production of a book (with all due respect) is not rocket science. The big commercial publishers no longer hold copyright over the mysteries of book-making. With digital technology for the layout and money for the printing costs, anyone can ‘make’ a book—that is, wrap a couple of hundred printed pages into a sheet of thin cardboard with a picture on the front. The challenge is to make a good book. A bigger challenge is to find your readers. But let’s imagine that Literature Board policy has been overhauled and that I’m going to ask for money to write and publish my own book, or write and publish it through a small ￼independent publisher that doesn’t (yet) have ‘effective national distribution’. The checks and balances are already there in the system. In any Literature Board grant application you already have to jump through a lot of hoops to prove the worthiness of your project: the same deal applies here. If the supporting material is bad, the project won’t get funded. If the marketing strategy outlined is poor, the project won’t get funded. If real thought hasn’t been put into distribution, the project won’t get funded. If the thing hasn’t been properly costed, the project won’t get funded. It happens every funding round over at the Theatre Board: your project proposal has to show artistic merit, but just as importantly, if you can’t show realistic box-office returns and how you will achieve them, the project won’t get funded. If independently published and self-published literature is subjected to the same quality control as independent and self-produced theatre, then I don’t see what the problem is. Sure you can’t quality-control everything, sure there’ll be some bad work produced (had a look at what the commercial publishers are putting out lately?)—but at least something is happening.
For about the same amount we taxpayers ‘gave’ X to get their book written and published ($15,000 for the writer to write it, $4000 for the publishing subsidy), a new, innovative work of Australian fiction will be independently written, published, marketed and distributed. It will not have passed through the commercially biased filter of a big commercial publisher but through a peer assessment process that is committed to risk and innovation. With the Literature Board’s financial leg-up, the writer and/or small publisher (the ones who believe in it most) will get out there and promote it, get it into the bookshops (which are now far more receptive to it since the Literature Board will also have overhauled its promotion of Australian literature strategies and will no longer waste money on pointless Books Alive promotions to the tune of $2 million a year but instead will encourage promotion of new independent Australian fiction). On a self-published title at $24.95 RRP with a 60 per cent return after the 40 per cent bookshop discount on 100 per cent of sales on a print run of 1000, the writer pockets $15,000—which they will now use to write their next book …
I, LIKE everyone else, I suspect, am sick to death of stories and articles decrying the state of Australian fiction. The trouble is, too many people have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo—it is only by giving power back to those who don’t, those whose interest is in subverting if not overturning the status quo, that any kind of change can be effected. This takes money, government money preferably, money with strings but not rope-and-tackle attached: a small investment for a massive return. Forget the big publishers, they don’t care. If they did they would have done something about it by now. Put the money where it matters, where it will actually make a difference.
I didn’t fall through the cracks. I’m a bit greyer around the temples, but I didn’t fall through the cracks. My second novel is out, again through Black Pepper. I sometimes resent the time lost but there’s no point whingeing about it now. And above my desk, edifyingly, are two bits of paper. One is an extract from my first review: ‘If more Australian literature was of this calibre, we’d be laughing.’ The other, the phrase from that reader’s report: ‘It’s very hard to make a definite assessment of this book.’ They sit very comfortably together.