Navigating the modern business of book publishing

Richard Flanagan – 2009 Sydney Writers’ Festival Closing Address

Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan

Chimanda Ngozi Adichie opened the 2009 SWF by urging us to foster, wherever possible, a multiplicity of stories and a voices to guard against the silencing effects of poverty and political domination. As SWF Chair, Sandra Yates, observed, Richard Flanagan’s closing speech was the perfect compliment to Adichie’s caution against the ‘single story’.

Where Adichie spoke broadly about the cultural and political importance of a diverse and representative library of international voices, Flanagan asserted the vital role Australian literature has played in forging our own cultural identity and voice. But, at precisely the time when Australia is one of the most productive and exciting centres of publishing in the world, we risk dismantling the very platform that allowed our writers and publishers to finally escape the colonial shadow of Britain and stand alone on the international stage.

Territorial Copyright is the legal ground on which the platform of Australian Literature has been built–and from which it risks being undermined. The Federal Labour Government has requested a Productivity Commission enquiry into the abolition of Australian Territorial Copyright for the book industry. The major driver of change has been the mischievously named Coalition for Cheaper Books, comprising of the book retail chain Dymocks and the supermarket duopoly Coles and Woolworths. At essence, their argument for removing Australia’s territorial copyright run that Australian Publishers are price gauging and that local readers would get a better deal if the market were opened up to competition from overseas.

My own experience, running an independent bookshop, working in an Australian Publishing House and now contributing to an online bookstore, has given me an excellent perspective on this entire issue and I it is my considered opinion that the removal of territorial copyright will have a nett negative impact on Australian literary life. The Coalition for Cheaper Books are no doubt after exactly what they say they are–cheaper books–but do not for a second believe that the brains behind that campaign are interested in enriching the reading experience of Australians, or even, for that matter, actually ever improving the cost of books to Australian readers.

As Richard Flanagan brutally revealed in his speech, the executives at Dymocks, Coles and Woolworths are merely looking to increase their buying power over their suppliers (in this case, Australian publishers) to achieve greater margin for themselves. The fact that the removal of territorial copyright will inexorably lead to a decline in Australian publishing, independent book selling and in all probability even to the decline of events such as the Sydney Writers’ Festival itself (one thing Flanagan didn’t mention, but could have), are not of their concern, as long as they control the majority of the book market on their own terms.

But I cannot hope to express the wrong hesdedness of this campaign as clearly and evocatively as Richard Flanagan, or match his cynicism towards the motivations of the Coalition for Cheaper Books. So here, in all its unedited glory, is Richard’s full speech from his Closing Address to the 2009 Sydney Writer’s Festival:

Sydney Writers Festival Closing Address by Richard Flanagan

Sunday, 24 May 2009

I am reminded standing here of my cousin, Arthur ‘Mad Dog’ Kemp, a professional boxer of falling note in the late 1960s, who featured occasionally on the Golden gloves tv show, and who was once described by the old Melbourne Sun as ‘having taken the once noble art to a new all time low’.

In truth the bottle was already winning with Arthur and he took to spending much of his life in the park in Fitzroy with the multi-hued humanity that drank and slept there, including those Aborigines who looked after him.

Some years passed and in 1972 Muhammad Ali flew into Australia. The first thing he said to the crowded press conference at Tullamarine was- where are  the black people?

There was stunned silence, but within a short time Ali’s limo was speeding its way to Fitzroy followed by a motorcade of media.

It stopped at the park and Ali made his way across to where Mad Dog Kemp was drinking with a group of blackfellas. Mad Dog still retained something of the old pugilist spirit and recognising the figure advamcing toward them,  leapt to his feet, walked over to Ali, and said, ‘You’re not the greatest, I am.’

‘No,’ said Ali, ‘You’re just the ugliest.’

Now I had intended to talk to you today about love stories. But at  the end of this most marvellous week for Australian writing that began with Christos Tsiolkis winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize and has continued with this wonderful festival, it would be wrong of me to not talk about the attack that is presently being mounted on Australian writing.

Mad Dog Kemp was part of a sport in which boxers were expected to take falls and lose fights in order to benefit rich promoters. And at the moment Australian writers and readers are being asked to take a fall in order that a few rich people get richer. And I don’t think we should be taking that fall, and tonight I want to talk about what strikes me as the rotten and stinking deal that is being proposed to us.

And so I’d like to begin with the word—if not quite at the beginning—then in the late fourth century AD, when St Jerome translated the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament into Latin. For the next thousand years St Jerome’s version, which became known as the Vulgate Bible, was the book.

But as Latin became not so much a lingua franca as a language of exclusion and priviliege—a form of power in other words—the battle to know the great truth of that age in your own tongue—to hear the stories that mattered most in your own language and idiom—became inextricably bound up with the battle for freedom of thought and for freedom itself.

For good reason the Inquisitors first question of a suspected ‘heretic’ was always whether he knew any part of the Bible in his own tongue.

This battle begins in earnest with the birth of the printed word and the desire—punished throughout Europe by hideous death—to read the book, the Bible, not in Latin, the dead tongue of the old imperium, but in the tongue of the field and town, the languages of the people —German, Dutch, French, Spanish.

In our language, this battle’s greatest landmark is the publication in 1525 of William Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible.

Though there had been English translations before, Tyndale, under the influence of Erasmus of Rotterdam, was the first to base his work not on corrupted Latin glosses, but return to the Hebrew and Greek originals, coupling his linguistic and literary gifts to a profound humanism.

‘If God spares my life,’ Tyndale said, ‘I will cause the boy that drives the plow in England to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself!”

Tyndale introduced many phrases that the plowboy might comprehend—such as the salt of the earth; let there be light, filthy lucre, fight the good fight. But in tandem with such earthiness, he brought the poetry of the Hebrew original into the English language. And so we have not the best song, but the song of songs, not the best book, but the book of books. And he made changes that have transformed scripture into some of our greatest poetry.

By insisting, for example, that love—and not charity—was the correct interpretation of the original Greek in St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians 1: 13, we have that great poem that begins—

‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. ‘

In this way, writes one scholar Tyndale’s Bible ‘directed the language to a form of eloquence that became its paradigm’.

But this same English Bible was deemed heretical, and people caught distributing it were burnt at the stake. Nor did God spare Tyndal his life. Strangled at the stake, Tyndale was then also burnt

But the liberating currents of his Bible were to bring fundamental change not just to English religion but to its politics, and more fundamentally and enduringly, to the language itself, his translation forming the basis for the definitive King James bible of 1611.

To make his bible accessible to the plow boy Tyndale had invented many new words, including atonement and beautiful. For such words many died, yet the moment this process begins, that time when we discover ourselves in our own vernacular, we gain something extraordinary in the merge, and we begin to invent ourselves anew.

For translating the Bible into English simultaneously gave what was a mongrel language a new authority and dignity, while investing the language with a grandeur, a poetry, and a sense of transcendence that was not just to inform English literature that followed, but in a fundamental sense also invent it.

The battle to understand this world in our own tongue that Tyndale’s Bible represents, to make the universal particular, the sacred secular, and the secular in its turn sacred, is a battle that has strangely resurfaced here in Australia this year.

For it falls to us to once more to defend the right—our right and our deepest need—to our own stories in our own voice, which is also, historically and perhaps inevitably, that same battle between truth and power.

At this moment, as many of you would be aware, the Australian government is giving serious consideration to a proposal that would see the ending of territorial copyright for Australian writers.

This dullest and dreariest of phrases –territorial copyright—is the drab motley thrown over a measure which will do untold damage to Australian culture. I cannot begin to convey to you the destructive stupidity of what is being proposed, nor the intense sadness and great anger that so many Australian writers feel about this proposal.

At a recent dinner in New York with the leading publisher in the USA and a leading European publisher, the conversation came round to territorial copyright.

‘But why?’ asked the European publisher.

After all, territorial copyright for writers was fought for from the nineteenth century on, and was the basis for the rise over the last two hundred years of the novel as the great democratic art form.

The American publisher laughed, saying that while Australia’s folly would profit him, why on earth was Australian government contemplating such an insane idea that would destroy an industry and damage a vibrant literary culture?

Why indeed?

Even a few Manhattan blocks away from where the king of fraud, Bernie Madoff, flourished with his Ponzi rackets, people know it to be stupid idea fit only for the most credulous. But in Canberra, our Federal government, which sometimes gives the appearance of being almost bizarrely hostile to Australian culture, is now giving serious consideration to destroying one of our greatest cultural success stories.

For publishing in Australia, though it has a history almost as old as European settlement, is effectively an industry less than forty years old. When in 1945 the Federal Government held a Commission of Enquiry into Australian publishing, it was told by Harold White, the Commonwealth Librarian, that Australia had no publishing industry. Australian readers were, said Gough Whitlam in 1964, ‘a captive British market, a subject people’.

Then something remarkable happened.

Against the odds, an Australian publishing industry came into being. The battle to build a worthwhile culture of writing and reading in a country so large with a market so small was extraordinarily difficult.

But Australian publishing over the last four decades is an extraordinary cultural achievement. In an era when national cultures suffered greatly from globalisation ours grew stronger, in no small part because of our book industry. We read Australian stories from cradle to grave, and the best of our writing is judged around the world as globally significant.

It is also an outstanding commercial success, a story that might warm the heart of the coldest free trader. Today we sell more books per capita than most nations. Our print runs of literary novels are often the same in absolute terms as the USA or Britain. We export cook books, children’s books, fantasy, thrillers, literature  low and high, and every year more and more of our books are being published in more and more overseas territories.

And though the book industry returns in GST alone somewhere in the realm of $75 million, it receives virtually no government support other than just $6.7 million in Australia Council grants—much of which goes to other, smaller arts bureaucracies.

This is nothing like the over 100 million dollars of direct  subsidy that the Australian film industry receives—to say nothing of the tens of millions more of taxpayer breaks Australian film receives on top of this. Yet Australian film is a cultural industry which, with very rare exceptions, unlike Australian books, struggles to find either critical success or any audience here or overseas.

I am not at all suggesting that our film industry shouldn’t be supported. But on what logic is one industry supported on essentially cultural grounds to this extent, while another, which makes money and creates jobs and tax revenue and costs the tax payer almost nothing, threatened with destruction?

Unlike the car industry, the book industry receives neither tariff protection nor endless handouts. Yet, ABS figures suggest it employs 15,000 people directly —one quarter of what the car industry does. Unlike the forest industry it does not receive hundreds of millions in taxpayer subsidies, or the fossil fuel industry, which according to a recent NRMA report, receives $10 billion in taxpayer subsidies. Yet it generates greater attention for Australia globally—all positive—than almost anything else we do culturally or economically.

The big end of town— Dymocks Booksellers in cahoots with Coles-Woolworths—are pushing for a change that will see jobs lost, a remarkable industry crippled and Australian cultural life dealt a body blow. Misleadingly called ‘opening the market’, it would allow the dumping of books by overseas publishers on the Australian market. Territorial copyright protection for Australian writers would cease to exist.

This alliance of wealth for profit has given itself the predictably deceitful title of the Coalition for Cheaper Books.

What they propose amounts to a return to the colonial days, not so old nor so distant as we perhaps thought, when Australian companies merely sold books from another country, and we bought with them notions of life that bore little relevance to our own world.

While the Coalitions proposal is opposed by everyone from Matthew Reilly to Tim Flannery to Tim Winton, from the Australian Booksellers Association to the Australian Publishers Association to the Children’s Book Council of Australia, the only people the Coalition can wheel out in its defence, to plead its supposedly egalitarian case, are those horny handed sons of the proletariat, Alan Fels and yes, Macquarie Banker Bob Carr, pedalling the fiction of privileged writers and grasping publishers opposing cheaper books for the masses.

It’s all a bit like Fatty Vautin criticising a rape crisis centre for insensitivity to women.

Which may explain why Dymocks felt compelled to so shamefully manipulate its customers, using its e-mail subscriber lists to enlist support for its purported campaign for ‘cheaper books’. Would the members of its ‘Booklovers’ group have felt so moved if they had been asked to support a proposal to make big business richer? And would Dymocks franchisees welcome a call by Australian writers to Australian readers to boycott Dymocks stores because of this attack on Australian writing? That would be rightly condemned as destructive stupidity that will cost jobs—but then, what better description could be given to Dymocks own dissembling campaign?

For it is the old lie —self serving elites versus the masses—that the true self serving elites used through the 90s to serve themselves ever more from the trough. For while the proposal may make money for a few big corporations whose power is already widely regarded as damaging and distorting in other retail fields, it is not even demonstrable that it will make books cheaper.

My most recent novel, Wanting, was published in Australia for $35 and generally sold at $30. Earlier this month it was published in the USA where it will sell for US$24—or at 75 US cents to the Ozzie dollar, the exchange rate on the day of publication, Australian $32. But if you add GST—$3.20, the cost goes up to $35.20.

Of course, it will be objected there is Amazon. And indeed there is. Wanting is discounted on Amazon to $16.32. But there is a shipping charge to Australia of $4.99, taking the cost up $21.31, or at 75 US cents to the Ozzie dollar, $28.45. Were GST to be added as it is here, applicable at full and not discounted retail cost, the figure comes to $31.65—or more than the discounted price of my novel here.

But perhaps this isn’t really about cheaper books at all.

Behind the rhetoric of cheaper books, the Coalition is about something else—a new sensibility among Australian book chains. Some among their number have come to believe that publishers have the whip hand over book chain retailers and that this is a situation now needs to be reversed., that this is a war, and it is a war that will be won by the book chain retailers.

They believe it will give them more power to force larger discounts off publishers and increase their own profit margin, while by destroying the viability of smaller competitors, allowing the major chains to increase their market share.

It is a mentality that comes out of Australian grocery retailing. There, according to a Price Waterhouse Coopers report in 2007, the Coles Woolworths duopoly control 80% of the national grocery retail market and are pushing aggressively into petrol and alcohol markets. The Coles Woolworths duopoly has the highest level of market dominance in grocery retail in the developed world.

Ria Voorhaar, spokeswoman for consumer watchdog Choice, was reported in The Age in 2007 saying shoppers were losing out due to the lack of competition.

“The duopoly’ she said, ‘is not doing consumers any favours when they go to the checkout.’

The aggressive push by Coles Woolworths into new retail areas such as liquor and petrol doesn’t seem to be helping consumers there either.

Last year RACV petrol spokesman David Cumming was reported saying he was “extremely worried about the huge market share” of the two retail giants in the petrol sector, while the NRMA claimed motorists were paying eight to 10 cents more for petrol because of the dominance of Coles and Woolworths service stations in NSW.

Nor is the Coles Woolworths duopoly doing any favour for producers. The Victorian Farmers Federation, the Horticulture Australia Council and the Australian Beef Association all expressed concerns about the market power of Coles and Woolworths to the ACC in 2008. A HAC survey showed 85 per cent of growers were unwilling to raise issues with major retailers “for fear of retribution”.

As business journalist Michael West wrote in The Age in 2008—

‘A bundle of evidence has emerged from the [ACCC] inquiry about the chains monstering their competitors with town planning laws, and monstering farmers because the farmers are forced to deal with them as they cannot go elsewhere – such is the dominance of Woolies and Coles.’

West went on to say—

‘The push into liquor by Coles and Woolies has left them so dominant in grog retailing that Lion and Foster’s are held to ransom on prices. You want us to stock that wine or that new ale? Sorry, we’ll have to pay this very low price for it. There’s a lot of  wine and ale around.’

‘There is a case for legislative relief. The Government could pass antitrust legislation as has been done in US, Canada and the UK’

Yet West concludes this is unlikely.

‘Competition policy has failed,’ he writes. ‘It is too late.’

This then is the ghost of Christmas future that now haunts Australian writers and readers.

To trust companies like Coles and Woolworths, companies with this sort of record, with the Australian book industry, is like inviting the Taliban to babysit the Obama children. No one should express surprise with what ensues.

One might have thought the Rudd government would be keen to rein in the excesses and distortions consequent on such a duopoly, to wind back its power. But no, far from it. Courage does not seem to have spent an evening at the Lodge. Rather, to placate the cruel gods of commerce, the reform the Rudd Government is considering is feeding the monster more victims.

The concentration of ownership of book retailing in the hands of one or two chains as in Britain and the USA has been catastrophic for the book industries in those countries.

The Australian book retail sector—with its strong and varied mix of independents, chains and discount department stores —is regarded as one of the healthiest and most diverse in the world, enabling large volume, large variety and price competition.

Yet many independent booksellers believe the ending of territorial copyright will lead to the further closure of independent bookstores, concentrating bookselling further into the hands of the discount department stores owned by Coles and Woolworths, and the larger retail chains, which have a record of often charging above the recommended retail price for books and even discriminating actively against small publishers.

Australian independent bookstores have for decades supported the unknown Australian writers, built the audience for books for us all, from David Malouf to Christos Tsiolkis, backed the Chloe Hoopers and Joan Londons, reminded us why Helen Garner mattered and Don Watson was important, persuaded us to buy a first Australian book by a Nam Le or a Steve Toltz.  They are also the path into which books from elsewhere that matter are introduced to this country, and keep our book culture from becoming gangrenous. Their future under this proposal is bleak indeed.

Writers and books that matter, will become like an endangered species with no habitat left to support them. The fate of most of them in the large chain and discount mega store culture will be that of marsupials in new outer suburbs, dicing with death on freeways, not knowing until that short moment of blinding light dazzle that this is no longer their home.

Of course, as the Coalition for Cheaper Books—or, as we might more accurately call it, the Coalition for Bigger Business—would point out, that’s not the whole story.

This is.

What is being proposed doesn’t exist in Europe or the USA. And even if US and British publishers are allowed to dump books on our market, Australian publishers will not be allowed to do the same in theirs.

In the one country in the world where the change was introduced, New Zealand, publishing has, according to the New Zealand Publishers Association, suffered, and books are now more expensive.

Bookselling in America, like Australia, runs on a consignment system. Where it differs is that return rates there are typically 50%. These returned, unsold books are generally pulped or remaindered—sold off for one or two dollars, the author receiving no payment. Under this proposal these returned books will now be able to be dumped on the Australian market like Italian canned tomatoes.

Thus even a hugely successful Tim Winton novel—a book that enables his publisher here, Penguin Australia, to nurture new Australian writers of talent—could end up in Australian remainder bins. A dumped US hardback of Breath would be far cheaper than an Australian paperback, but with no royalty payable to the author and no profit to their Australian publisher.

The effects of this would be two-fold: it would ultimately force major Australian writers to publish out of the USA to protect their own interests, with all the sorry consequences that would entail, while it would see the destruction of support for the next generation of Tim Wintons as Australian publishers went to the wall, or survived as they did for the best part of two centuries, as distributors for imperial wares made elsewhere for others.

It is true that books are made more cheaply in the USA in part because they pay writers less. While the royalty on an Australian paperback is between 10 and 12.5%, in the USA it is 7.5%. Thus once Australian writers are compelled to again publish for Australia from New York, they will effectively have taken between a 25 and 33% pay cut, a sacrifice for laissez faire economics that Macquarie Bob may wish to publicly emulate. And yet, even after ripping writers off, US book prices are often no cheaper.

At the same time, Australian publishing suffers the problem—and considerable costs—of a small market spread over a huge land. Every major Australian publisher maintains a large sale force. And yet books here are no more expensive.

My Dutch publisher, Ambo-Anthos, highly successful, employs just one sales rep. And yet, come this September, the Dutch paperback of Wanting will go on sale for e19.95—or, (at 54eurocents to the Ozzie dollar) Australian $36.92. The Australian paperback, to be published in the same month, will sell for $24.95.

The Coalition for Cheaper Books make several arguments that are simply untrue. They argue that ‘there is no connection between the business of importing and distributing international books and the business of publishing Australian books.’

If this were true how do they explain the success of, for example, Australia’s most successful independent publisher, Allen and Unwin. A large part of its business comes from overseas titles such as the Harry Potter series, but these profits are ploughed back into its outstanding Australian list, featuring such Australian writers as Andrew McGahan, Christos Tsiolkias and Michelle de Kretser.

The Coalition argue that there will be a greater diversity of books available under this proposal. But as large publishers believe it will compel them to reduce their Australian lists, as small publishers believe it could push them to the wall, and independent booksellers—those bookshops that stock the diversity of books consumers want—believe it will damage their trade and close shops, what will happen is a significant reduction in the diversity of books available to the Australian consumer.

Or does Bob Carr think Big-W will stock the complete Gore Vidal just for him? For there may be more American celebrity books, and dumped best sellers going as red light specials, but that will be it. Given the pricing of overseas books, the practice of large chains and the experience of New Zealand, it is likely that a less competitive retail and publishing environment will make books generally more expensive.

And as a nation, and a society, we will be back forty years ago to when we were a colony of mind, with the money we spend on books going overseas.

The Coalition argue the Australian publishing industry ‘will continue to grow’ because it ‘is a dynamic industry driven by local demand. People want to read about their country, its peoples, its history and its prospects.’

If this were true, why was this demand not met for most of the last two centuries when Australians were force-fed a pottage of English books?

And the answer is, because that’s what made money for the big English publishers, as this proposal, as the American publisher observed, will now make money for him.

Bob Carr doesn’t believe this though.

On Lateline, in response to a question about how the ending of national copyright might lead to less Australian writing being published, he said:

‘I have never heard such garbage spoken as this. I have heard a lot of garbage in my time. The fact is Australians will always want to read Australian stories. Can the publishers point to a single title they’ve put into print as a subsidy for Australian writers. In other words a title that they know is not going to make a profit but which they’re putting out into the market as a favour to Australian culture.’

At this point I’d like to share with you one of Australian publishing’s odd secrets, something no publisher, I suspect, would say publicly. I’ve been published in my time by three major Australian publishers—Penguin, Pan Macmillan, and Random House—all subsidiaries of international companies, yet each fiercely proud and supportive of their Australian writers.

In every company every year there were Australian books that were published that everyone knew would not make money. And they were published because those publishers believed that this Australian book mattered. That this Australian writer mattered.  That this Australian story should be heard. That these Australian poems, these Australian essays, this Australian novel should be read.

But they didn’t do it as a favour to Australian culture, or the writer, or to anyone or anything. They did it because they intuitively understood that their role was not just making money, necessary as that was. Because as well as being a business, every Australian publishing house I know of sees itself as part of Australian culture. Publishing companies are not millionaires factories for anyone involved and Australian culture is not an abstract term for them: it is what they do. It is who they are.

And despite what some in the chain book retailers think, the Australian book industry is not yet a war zone.

The Australian book industry is for the most part a series of collaborations and partnerships. I am not pretending that there aren’t differences or battles, that it isn’t competitive, that tough business isn’t done. But my experience is that the industry is most successful when writer works with publisher and publishers with booksellers in all their forms to sell books. My experience is that there are many good people at every level and in every size and aspect of the book business who believe in books as something more than mere product.

One might think that if the Federal Government were serious about creating free trade, if they really wanted a level playing field, that they would either take the GST off books sold in Australia, or oblige Amazon to charge it at source, as Amazon does for other countries and several US states to which it ships.

Taking GST off books ought be seriously considered as an economic stimulus that would create jobs, stimulate sales, and act as a considerable fillip to our literary culture. If the Coalition for Bigger Business are genuine about Australians having cheaper books they would come out and back one of these measures. But that won’t happen, because this isn’t about cheaper books at all.

It is the final sorry issue of big end of town greed coupling with starry eyed free trade ideologues in government who, knowing nothing of the market, believe in its genius only working when fully unfettered. The same combination, in other words, of corporate greed and political naivety that has given us the greatest economic crisis since the Depression.

Kevin Rudd has famously declared, ‘that the great neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years has failed,’ going on to say, that, ‘ironically, it falls to social democracy to prevent liberal capitalism from cannibalising itself.’

But does he mean any of it?

For it falls to Kevin Rudd to explain exactly why his government is now seriously contemplating exactly the sort of cannibalism that he so publicly railed against.

And if his government sanctions this proposal it will fall to Kevin Rudd to explain not just to Australia, but to the world, what sort of nation he wishes to lead that would seek to destroy rather than support and develop its writing?

For what nation can advance with its tongue torn out?

Maybe this proposal will benefit its sponsors, Dymocks and Coles and Woolworths. But it will not the Australian people. They will pay more for books made elsewhere in the image of others. There will be less Australian books. There will be a slow dieback of Australian literature that will be as sad in its way as the dying of the Murray or the Great Barrier Reef. There will be less jobs in publishing, bookselling, and printing, something else Kevin Rudd and his economic ministers claim to be concerned about.

And for those Australian writers who do not do what they had to do for the best part of two centuries—leave for exile in the US and Europe—there will be even less chance of surviving in a country that perhaps values its writers and book culture less than any other in the western world.

That for a short time Australian book culture had been one of the more inventive, vibrant and exciting literatures in the world, will be the cause for wistful wonder, rather than the foundation of a dream of the different country we might have been. And for that we’ll be able to thank  Bob Carr and his mates and think of how only Bernie Madoff got away with selling a bigger fantasy.

For this reason, there is at the heart of this battle a great sadness. There is a new philistinism abroad. The cold contempt which it reveals some in power to have for a creative community that has done so much for this country is despicable.

It is therefore not enough that we defeat this pernicious job, wealth and culture destroying proposal. Because unless we propose something better, something worse will eventuate and Australian writing faces a future defined not by its achievements, but by the interest of the rorters and racketeers, those who fleece and fly. We’ll be taking the fall again and again for the promoters that Mad Dog Kemp always warned about.

I began by speaking about the battle six centuries ago to have the Bible published in the language of the people, and I spoke of the right—our right—to our own voice, which was also, historically, the battle between truth and power.

Once more, that battle to want to know stories that matter in your own idiom flies in the face of a dominant orthodoxy, this time a theology of the abacus rather than that of the cross.

We can prostate ourselves to the abacus, tear out our tongues, and end up as a banging gong, a clanging cymbal. Or we can with love seize our language, our stories, and with them make ourselves anew.

Because none of this would be just a reflection of who we are, but a reinvention of ourselves that never ends. That is the great and historic possibility that now presents itself to Kevin Rudd, a possibility that allows his government to show that it is not just one more empty vessel; that it is brave and that is visionary, and that it wishes to build on our strengths, our creative talents to make Australian literature one of the world’s great emerging literatures of the 21st century.

Kevin Rudd can do more than just reject the measure to end territorial copyright. He can turn around, recognise the centrality of Australian writing to Australia, and offer something large and positive in its place. He could make explicit national support for Australian stories told in Australian voices. Is this too much? I think not; it is, after all, exactly what Canada has for its writers.

And then, building on that clarity, create a raft of measures, programmes, laws and institutions all with the purpose of supporting Australian writers telling Australian stories. We could for example have a national book commission charged with developing the book industry that takes over the grant work of the Australia Council’s poorly financed literature board, but has a broader and larger role.

It should on a much larger scale instigate well funded, comprehensive measures that aid and develop small publishers that assist in book distribution, maintain retail diversity, that build professional standards in editing, design and publishing, and develop book culture. That fosters exports and creates international attention for Australian writers. That ensures Australian literature becomes a central, rather than peripheral part of our humanities teaching at secondary and tertiary level. That ensures Australian writing benefits rather than suffers from the new technologies, and prospers in a twittering world of e-books and e-commerce.

For the last quarter of a century we had a politics, an economy and a society that had as their central dreaming a certain idea of life as being reduced to a fiction of a free market. I say fiction pointedly. We are after all a species defined by above all other things our capacity for reflecting, diving and creating anew our world through story.

The free market was a cocaine rush of a story, a blast of confidence and belief that fortuitously coincided with the collapse of a rival utopian tale, Communism. It gave unprecedented economic growth to the world, delivered millions from poverty and famine.

But at the beginning of this millennium it has become apparent that it also is running out of time: that it led us also to epidemics of depression, to ceaseless, unwinnable wars, to an economic malaise and environmental despair. Today more people live in poverty than in any time in human history. Today the land and the sea are under assault from a climate system stressed and unstable. We need new stories. We need the capacity to make those stories. And to do that we need to come together— readers, writers, politicians.

But as in Tyndale’s time, we will need to stand up for such things to happen, for the ongoing right to hear our stories in our voice. And in time I hope we in Australia may even find our own words as remarkable as those words beautiful and atonement, new words that not just describe but create a new country and people coming into being, an idea for our language in the shape of these words and the worlds that come forth from them, words and worlds it remains our shared possibility to make and our future glory to know.

Thank you for coming to listen to me.

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  1. Territorial copyright – and a move away from it when others like the UK and US won’t, seems to put OZ at risk of being swamped, but hasn’t OZ always been swamped – putting aside for the moment OZ’s own little clubby literary scene – the Brits have enjoyed control over the OZ for long time and have have exploited it, still even do when the UK’s hold over OZ was aid to have been swept away in the 90s…

    But is territorial copyright in itself a good thing? When Allen Lane brought in the Penguin paperback (the trad book publishers in the UK hated him for it) he lowered prices dramatically and created a boom that went on for the best part of the 20th century. Don’t books and the processes of getting books out need every now and then to be reformed, overturned, renewed? Must we always shore up the old clubby ties and holds over books – I tried to read this speech by Flanagan, everything and the kitchen sink, and what did he really say, I can’t work it out, between Ali and parks and the Bible, Christ, couldn’t he have just stuck to one simple line? And can’t we? Books are written for people to read, that’s it. Global seems to me at least, an OZ writer exiled abroad, a good thing…nothing irritates me more than the publisher hold over territories (territories are about the middlemen)..writers need to reach readers not keep middlemen alive.. You are right about Coles etc, they’ll crush diversity, but so-called clubby diversity isn’t really diversity at all, just a bunch of OZ writers nicely cocooned by a system that they help decide and create, for whom, readers? No, themselves. Open the system up, let some fresh ideas in. You can’t turn the global tide back, so why not join it.

  2. Thanks for getting the debate started swimanog.

    Your comment suggests to me two major beliefs that seem to be driving your opinion. The first arises from your limitation of Australian Publishing to a small ‘clubby’ literary scene. The second encompasses the ramifications extending from your statement ‘books are written for people to read, that’s it.’

    While I won’t deny there’s a literary elite in Australia that has dominated the scene for some time, your assertion that this accounts for all the diversity of authors in Australia betrays a literary exclusivity of your own.

    Random House Australia alone published almost 100 separate Australian authors last year, the vast majority of whom will never make it onto best seller charts or have any role in this clubby literary scene you speak of. Yes, that scene will always be there (it exists also in the UK and the US) but such authors were always going to get publishing contracts (whether it be here or overseas). The strength of Australian publishing isn’t measured purely by how many international best sellers we produce, but also by how many local authors are afforded the same opportunities.

    I’m also not going to argue that Australian bookshops don’t feature a large proportion of international authors on their shelves. One of my major gripes is the lack of Australian titles reviewed in the local press–the SMH is notorious for ignoring local publishing. But I will contest that, even over the last ten years, there has been a significant increase in the range of Australian titles available in bookshops, not just locally, but around the world. Not only this, but territorial copyright has meant that those international titles that do sit on Australian bookshelves are contributing to the publication of more Australian talent.

    This is important considering your opening remark about the swamping of the Australian market by the UK. Yes, the UK still enjoys a large influence and publishers like Random House are still largely controlled by their UK owners. However, territorial copyright allows Australian publishers to capture a good proportion from the sale of every international book sold and invest it into the publication of local writers. This is, fundamentally, what these publishers are set up to do. Territorial copyright allows the Australian book trade to manage this ‘swamping’ by the UK and US and channel the profits into the development of local writers. Allen & Unwin are just now releasing some wonderful new Australian authors (check out Craig Silvey’s ‘Jasper Jones’ if you get a chance) thanks largely to the profits from Harry Potter.

    You say ‘You can’t turn the global tide back, so why not join it?’ That’s exactly what Australian territorial copyright laws did in the first place–it allowed the Australia to join the global literary industry. The removal of territorial copyright will close down a major source of revenue for Australian publishers and drastically reduce the ability of our writers to reach their audience.

    Which of course brings me to your second belief. I suspect that my argument up till now hasn’t made a large impact on you. If, as you assert, ‘books are written for people to read, that’s it’, then the fate of old media institutions like Random House probably isn’t one of your major concerns. Nor do you seem to place much value on the role large publishers play in editing, design, producing, printing, marketing, publicising, selling and distributing an author’s work. They are just middle men, after all.

    I agree completely that books should be written for people to read. But that just simply isn’t the end of the story. Whether you are talking about the old or new media, you can’t simply put a book out there and expect its audience to find it. And, unless you are a particularly talented designer, editor, project manager, self-promoter and retailer, as well as an author, you are going to need help to get your story heard over the cacophony of every other writer trying to pedal their thoughts. That help costs money. There is also the question of how you are going to earn a living from your work. And, now that your life seems to be taken up with trying to sell your first book, when will you ever get around to writing that second one?

    I have advised a number of authors on self-publication, helped publicise their books and arrange distribution. I have sold their books in my bookshop and organised launches and author events for them. Very few every make their money back, let alone earn a living from these books. Most are either doing this as a hobby or are looking to attract the attention of a publisher so that they can get published properly. The fact is, while there are a few exceptional cases where writers are able to communicate directly with their readers, almost everyone else needs the professional help of a publisher.

    Personally, I am a huge fan of independent publishing. As a bookshop manager I hosted many events for small, independent publishers such as Wakefield Press and Ginninderra Press. Inevitably these events rarely attracted more than the author’s family and close friends. But we had fun and sold a few books. I stocked their books but lost money in doing so. I never regretted it though because I believe strongly in independent publishing, just as I believe in independent bookshops. The problem is, these small publishers struggle to provide much more exposure for a book than might be achieved with clever self-publication. If, as an author, you want to stay true to the ideal of writing books purely for people to read, then most times a mainstream publisher is going to increase your chance of making a living doing that (though I so suggest a good agent or lawyer when going over your contract).

    New Media offers some interesting possibilities of course, and I would love to hear your thoughts on that because I suspect this is an area you have far more experience in than I do. But, if we can agree that the printed book has at least a few more years left and that the Australian literary industry is something worth cultivating, then I have to conclude that Australia should maintain its territorial copyright as long as the US and the UK still maintain their own. I am all for new ideas and welcome anything that frees writers and creates readers, but the removal of territorial copyright simply won’t do that.

    And don’t get me wrong, I’m not an apologist for big publishing per se. I just don’t think that this move is good for Australia’s literary culture, full stop. I’m sure you’ve got more to say on the subject though Swimanog, so I look forward to your reply.

  3. Do I care for for ‘Old media institutions like Random House’ ? – yes, when Bennett and Cerf owned it. An author can’t put a book out and find an audience? Yes she he they can and the best Shakespeare is there to prove it, part owner of his company, of course a successful company and how much help did Shakepeare get? More importantly though who told him, when he was in his high art period, what to write? A play out every six months or so when he was working speaks for itself in terms of what publishing resistance he met.
    What you are talking about in the middleman function to me is the dubious argument that publishers are there to add value to the work. No, they are there to extract monetary value from the original works of chosen authors, chosen authors, and who chooses them and why? Some mercurial inner judgement publishers are born with? Murdoch deciding to give Palin seven million, to write what? Yes, powerful publishers provide help and money to those they wish to help for all sorts of reasons, many (most perhaps) of them political, help in the form of copyeditors and marketing personnel (most of the latter young and inexperienced, and just personnel cattle, however bright they might be individually – young staff, that in Jason Epstein’s view, who do what they are told because they don’t know any better). Help a writer, if organised, can find anyway. Toeing the line is the line. The Foucauldian argument of the tower without the gunman. We do as we are expected do even without a guard in sight pointing a gun at us.

    I am very impressed by what I see of the OZ literary scene these days – the current works themselves I don’t know enough of at this very moment to comment on, but the scene, yes, it looks very exciting, vibrant. (I will get to the works eventually). And if this vibrance can be attributed all to territorial copyright then I stand corrected and tip my hat to it, but I have my doubts that what you claim is value of territoriality is that at all but something else completely. Though I am sure protectionism can work in some contexts.

    On New Media, it is still too new and raw to provide THE answers but how it is developing, its forced-development if you like, interests me. I battle with Foucault’s concept of power, how it is distributed, how books are also distributed and what this means for individual writers and what they have to say.

  4. Sorry..Donald Klopfer and Bennett Cerf.. co -founders of Random.. not Bennett and Cerf

  5. Swimanog, you are talking to a guy who opened an independent bookshop and filled it with a wide selection of literary fiction, philosophy, science writing, sociology, political commentary, poetry, classics, essays and other works I thought (and still think) were important for people to read. As the shop was established and more people found us I was commended constantly on the wonderful selection of books. But still, the most common questions in that first year were “do you have The Da Vinci Code?”, “Why don’t you stock more bibles?” and variations on the “Do you have the latest [insert mass market crime author here]?”. In the end I had to bow to the inevitable and return all the unsold philosophy, sociology, politics and science books, merge the literary fiction, classics, essays and poetry sections and expand the crime and general fiction sections or face going out of business.

    Now, I’m not saying I lost my literary idealism. I live for those authors who can show me an entirely new way of thinking and am excited by writers who play with language in ways that (I also fear) few large publishers will risk paying an advance for. But these authors are, by definition, the leading edge and as such will always occupy the fringe of the book market. Regardless of how important I personally think it is that all of society should be conversant with Shakespeare and Bertrand Russell and Foucault and (to pick a favourite contemporary writer) Slavoj Zizek, most people just aren’t interested or don’t have the time to do the necessary background reading to fully appreciate James Joyce, for example.

    This is not as bad as it first appears, however. Modern life dictates that we specialise in certain areas at the expense of others. But the extreme depth to which these areas are specialised today can mask the level of sophistication the average person has across a broad range of subjects, compared with a similar person only 50 or even 25 years ago. Your typical book group attendee reading ‘The Kite Runner’ is exploring ideas and horizons that simply weren’t available to most readers a generation ago. Now you and I probably look at ‘The Kite Runner’ and yawn, but it is important to keep this stuff in context.

    Each year the number of books published grows. Modern bookshops contain the largest variety of authors in history. That might be missing your point a little but I still think it’s worth saying—today there are more writers connecting with their readers than ever before. The problem, of course, comes down to selection. Your point here is taken and it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that many of the final decisions at big publishers are not made by the sales and marketing departments. At the very least, they wield a large veto power in acquisitions meetings that I believe goes to the heart of your concerns about what books are chosen for publication and why. If there is a guard in Foucault’s tower, he is watching the market.

    Yes, I am concerned about the dumbing down of the literary market, and the ridiculous advances paid for celebrity bios makes me shake my head and wonder at many of the decisions being made in large publishing companies every day. But I think we can sometimes be blinded by these headline-grabbing publications and miss the many worthy books published each year that will never match the sales figures or marketing budget of a Sarah Palin bio but nevertheless receive just as much care and attention from their publisher and editor.

    And here I want to stand up for the editors and publishers. As right as Epstein was about the nature of marketing departments, the Australian editors and publishers I have met are all highly dedicated, passionate, intelligent and capable. The editors in particular take their role very seriously—that is to collaborate with the author to polish the work in preparation for publication without changing its meaning or compromising the author’s voice. While there are a few authors who are able to produce powerful literature with minimal editorial support (David Malouf is one I can quote from personal experience) the vast majority of manuscripts that are submitted require significant work to render them publishable. By the way, editors are also, without exception, overworked and under-paid.

    To return to the topic at hand, one of my major fears for the removal of territorial copyright is the amount of Australian authors who will again be forced to seek publishing contracts overseas. US publishing companies in particular are notorious for Americanizing foreign works on behalf of their audience. This to me is completely anathema to the spirit of international publishing and something which fortunately happens rarely in Australia. This is part of what is worth protecting in Australian publishing.

    I am also constantly surprised and delighted by how many of fringe authors actually DO get published in Australia these days. I mentioned Christos Tsiolkas earlier and he is a good example here too—his first books were right at the edge of public acceptance in Australia to begin with but his publisher stayed with him thorough four books until society began to catch up. ‘The Slap’ is certainly his most commercial book, but that’s only in relation to his previous novels, which are all now starting to be picked up and read more widely as a consequence of his recent success. Even 7 months after publication and after being awarded the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, ‘The Slap’ (which is unambiguously Australian in setting and subject) has still not been published in the UK or USA. This is precisely the kind of Australian literature that might never have been published if the industry wasn’t strong enough to take risks.

    My defence of Australian publishing here must of course be placed in the context of the threat to territorial copyright. While I have many concerns about the amount of crap that gets published in Australia (I like to call it ‘publishing by numbers’), the removal of territorial copyright is only going to worsen the situation. As Australian publishers get squeezed more and more by the uneven system proposed by the Productivity Commission (remember, the US and UK territories will still be protected and foreign suppliers currently don’t need to charge the 10% GST Australian publishers do) they will be forced to become even more conservative when selecting titles and it will be even less likely for exciting new literary talents such as Tsiolkas to find a foothold.

  6. Points taken on bringing talent out (and being an independent bookshop) and don’t get me wrong, OZ needs to be wary. The UK has long exploited Australia and probably still does, and is demonstrated by the fact The Slap has not yet been published in the UK. The UK publisher’s adage has always been: if we can’t get complete commonwealth rights we don’t want them…Nice trick because it sounds business-rational but really is simply an old form of control, that way they don’t have to publish Australian material that they didn’t first pick up (their imprimatur – how many do they pick up anyway?) and then they can squeeze the ‘daring’ local industry into an OZ cul-de-sac only, hoping it will die or go away.

    The US and UK have long worked in concert dividing the Anglophone world, though I don’t blame the Americans on this who have always been simply home centred – why not? their market is so big. The Brits though, they are calculating in this – they need the Commonwealth in order to be big global players.

    We can easily generalize on staff etc but the big overall fact remains that the real change has come when we slipped from the largely cottage industry approach to conglomerate streamline market control which has meant staff (not just sales) are now largely followers of the edicts from above, not thinking publishers (not able to think, though sometimes they do). Conglom-control meaning much fewer better known authors, certainly not better authors. The 10% GST on local publishers sounds to me wrong, simply an unfair competitive advantage for foreign publishers. Why tolerate it?

    My only point is that for the very small like ElephantEars Press, the online environment is the first and only connection to a wider global audience, in a sphere that the congloms don’t yet own and control – not yet. But like early radio in the 1920s they are working on it.


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About Richard

Richard Bilkey has been selling, marketing and distributing books for over ten years, managing independent bookshops, a major online retailer and, most recently, one of Australia's largest Independent Book Distributors, Brumby Books.

Contact Richard directly at
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