Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Secret Book Business

How did over 5,000 books remain hidden from sight?
In 2003-04, the last period for which the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) collected information on the book industry in Australia, the figures showed that 8,602 titles were published in Australia. The ABS numbers came from 244 publishers, purportedly fully representative of Australian publishing, being both big multi-national and small one-person operations.
However, as Andrew Wilkins reported in the September 2008 Australian Bookseller & Publisher, the Australian Books in print database showed that 14,258 titles were published in Australia in 2007. This is 5,656 more books than the ABS numbers – a whopping 65% increase. At first blush, this suggests the Australian publishing industry has had phenomenal success since 2004. Were it only so. When Wilkins linked titles to the 244 publishers used by the ABS, he found these publishers produced 8924 titles in 2007. This represented a reasonable 3.7% increase on their 2003-04 output. Good, but not fantastic.
Where did the other 5,334 titles come from and why haven’t they been counted before? The answer lies in the fact that Wilkins looked at a bibliographic database, one compiled from the list of all books published in Australia in 2007 with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), rather than rely on the reported output of 244 designated publishers.
All major publishers use ISBNs, as do the vast majority of small and self publishers. In 2007, Wilkins shows that 2782 publishers were responsible for producing just one book. While one book per publisher is an insignificant output, when combined these books represents 19.5% of the total number of books produced in Australia. This is an output up there with the really big publishers. The Top 20 publishers, just 0.1% of all publishers, produced 4512 titles in 2007 – 32% of the total output. What these means is that over 50% of the books published in Australia come from both the 20 largest publishers and the 2782 smallest publishers, with the rest of the titles coming from “medium” publishers (those publishing from 2 to 100 books a year).
Yet, prior to this study, the books produced by he smallest publishers were ignored as part of our publishing output. Their existence wasn’t acknowledged. They were flying “under the radar”, which is the title of a US Book Industry Study Group into this sector. However, no such study has yet been comprehensively carried out in Australia.
How significant a part of the overall sales of books are these “secret” titles? The answer is we don’t know. Many of the books Wilkins identifies may not sell within the traditional bookshop market. Take for example the works of ASA member Philip R. Rush (www.philiprush.com.au). I’ve met Phil in Tasmania and talked to him extensively about his writing and publishing. Phil produces his books and CDs of bush-flavoured poetry himself. He currently has 15 in print and he reprints regularly – in runs that would make many larger publishers salivate! He sells his books and CDs across Australia, using his own card-based customer management system to rustle up order before he first prints, so most of his first print run goes out to his customers straight away – and as a firm sale! He’s developed relationships with the outlets that sell his books over the years. These outlets are rarely traditional bookshops. They are more likely to be Australiana shops, stock and station agents and other retail outlets Phil has identified.
Phil’s poetry has found a wide audience, but it’s one the mainstream market misses. While Phil writes bush poetry, poetry of all descriptions is making quite a mark for itself outside the traditional publishing marketplace. Wilkins’ analysis showed that there were 302 books of poetry published in Australia in 2007. This represented 2% of the total output of titles. However, the ABS numbers, which have been a benchmark for Australian publishing up until now, put the proportion for published poetry at a much lower rate. This is because most poetry is being produced outside the 244 publishers regarded as the backbone of the industry. The print runs may be small and the sales may be slow but poetry is still a going concern for publishers like Five Islands, Puncher & Wattman, Ginninderra, John Leonard Press and other small outfits.
Some of these small publishers (including the ASA) have banded together to assist each other in marketing and distribution. The umbrella group Small Press Underground Networking Community (SPUNC) represents their combined interests. The group may be representative of some of the smallest publishers in Australia, but these publishers are producing books and other media that are on the cutting edge of Australian literary culture. Their work has gone on largely unrecognised by the traditional publishing industry. Yet in creative terms it is an essential part of our cultural development. The SPUNC publishers also include literary journal publishers such as Overland, Meanjin, Griffith Review, and Going Down Swinging as well as publishers focused on young writers such as Wet Ink and Express Media.
All of these activities show that there is a vibrant publishing culture in Australia that has so far remained secret in terms of official analysis. It has escaped the attention of the ABS and the 244 publishers who are commonly regarded as “the trade”. In the USA, the BISG estimated that the value of the “secret book business” there was in the millions of dollars. We can’t come to any similar conclusions about Australia as the data are so sparse, but what is clear is that the areas that are commonly disparaged as valueless by the book trade are in fact both viable and sustainable, albeit marginal in terms of profitability. Not only is publishing flourishing, but short stories are appearing more frequently in book form, 76 collections being published in 2007.
These publications are also finding readers. They may be small in number at present, but they are sufficient to provide impetus for this publishing to continue. SPUNC provided assistance for its Melbourne members (and most of them are at present) to showcase their authors and publications at well-attended fringe events at the Melbourne Writers Festival. These events involved both readings as well as performances of work.
The sessions I attended were exciting, and indicative to me that they were reaching people who were not attending sessions featuring the latest Tuscan summer memoir or wacky American childhood tale. They featured poets and prose writers focused on the local, keen observers of a world they loved and loathed in equal measure, but accepted without hesitation as their own. Laboratory work, sure, and I was reminded of Frankenstein not only by the processes of creation I could see at work but also by the clothes the audiences were wearing.
So how could something this colourful, this enthusiastic, this damn good remain secret? Oops, I’ve let the secret out – Australian literature is alive and kicking all over the place. But there’s a whole heap of it the official radar has missed. It’s happening at small, intimate readings and poetry slams near you, no matter where you are. Catch it before commercial publishing bashes the life out of it. And buy one of the books on sale. Because they won’t be in the bookshops, even though there’s over 5,000 of them.
Copyright © 2008 Australian Society of Authors/Jeremy Fisher. First appeared in Australian Author, December 2008.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why don’t we care about our literature?

Following is the text of a speech I gave to the South Australian Writers Centre on 27 November, 2008. Many people have asked that I provide a public copy.

Recently the mass media has been full of Baz Luhrmann’s new movie Australia. The spin doctors were working over time. I hope the movie does well. Our film industry needs it to do so.
But one of the unfortunate side-effects of the spin that accompanies the marketing of movies is that there is a perception movies have more significance and public appeal than books. In Australia, this certainly isn’t so. Even if Australia does very well at the box office, the vast number of movies we shall watch are produced in the United States. The box office will total about $1 billion – an awful lot of that will have been spent on spin, on attempts to get you and me into movie theatres or to buy DVDs to watch often very lacklustre films.
In August, figures from Nielsen Bookscan revealed that trade sales for books in Australia were worth $1, 250 million for the previous year. This represented sales of 63 million books, an increase of 7.5 per cent on the previous year.
Nielsen Bookscan data doesn't break out Australian books, but ABS data shows that Australian fiction, non-fiction and children's books (excluding educational titles) had average sales of $438.5 million each year over the period 2000-04. This is a major contribution to the Australian creative industries economy and of course a significant proportion of the sales of books in Australia. It’s also a helluva lot more money than Australian movies made.
Not only that, but five of the top 10 Bookscan bestsellers in the 2007-08 period were Australian. One, 4 Ingredients, sold over 600,000 copies. Another was Underbelly.
Unhappily, only one Australian film, Happy Feet, was in the to 50 films for the same period. So why, I ask, did Baz Luhrmann receive a 40% tax incentive to make Australia while the Australian book industry was rewarded with yet another parallel importation enquiry?
We are being punished for being successful and for standing on our own feet. The funding for Australian literature is pretty paltry. In 2003-05, the Australian Government allocated only $27.6 million to Literature and print media. This included funding for lending rights of around $17 million and amounts offered by the Australia Council. This amount is dwarfed by the enormous sums that flow to major performing arts and opera, arts forms that often fail at a cost recovery basis and offer none of the economic returns that can be seen with literature.
Australian literature is making an enormous contribution to our creative industries economy and this is largely unrecognised. This should not be so.
Let's face the fact that, as a post-colonial country, Australia is still strongly influenced by the central points of English-language culture. From about 1850, those points have been the United Kingdom and the United States.
It is sensible that our schools teach using cultural materials emanating from the United Kingdom and the United States. It is also sensible for them to use cultural materials from Australia's Indigneous cultures as well as the many other cultures from which the children in our schools come. This is all representative of where we have come from and what we are, a bit of a mongrel mix.
However, the most unifying and central themes for educating young Australians come directly from Australian culture, that unholy mess that has evolved here since this timeless land has been named "Australia". Our literature exemplifies and demonstrates those themes best because there is more of it than other forms of narrative. Unfortunately, there are simply not enough Australian films and television programs to fill out a curriculum. That's not so for poetry, novels, non-fiction, biography and so on. There's plenty there.
Now let me get a little personal. My book Perfect Timing is about to be published in a Vietnamese translation. It will sell for 20,000 Dong, about A$1.45. I’ll receive 5% of that price on each copy, a princely seven cents, so I’m not about to retire.
But what this makes clear is that books are much cheaper in Vietnam than Australia. I could buy 15 copies of my Vietnamese edition for the price of an average Australian paperback.
So, why is the book cheaper? The paper and print quality will be lower than the Australian edition for one. Another is there’ll be several more thousand copies printed in Vietnam than were ever printed in Australia, but the book will still be a tiny blip in a market of over 80 million readers. And those readers are much poorer than readers in Australia. To them, spending 20,000 Dong on a book is a luxury purchase.
This simply makes it clear that the price of books is relative from one country to another. The return to me from sales in Vietnam will be small financially, but large in the sense that I will have many more readers. I’m assisting with a tiny bit of cultural exchange as well. These are immeasureable benefits with no financial value.
But they’d still be there if I was lucky enough to sell US rights to my book, although the financial implications would be very different. I’d actually make some money – again, not enough to retire on, but enough perhaps for a new computer or new car.
As an author, I can trade my rights in different markets for different reasons. Trading of rights is the commercial basis for life as an author. We can sell Australian publishing rights, rights for translation into Vietnamese or rights to an American edition. This is intrinsic to our continued livelihood. Quite a few authors have different publishers in different markets. Australia, in line with most major book markets in the world, including the United States and United Kingdom, is currently a “closed “ market. Books can only be published here by the entity who holds the rights to the Australian territory. These rights are saleable parts of the bundle of rights that make up an author’s copyright. For example, popular author Jodi Picoult is published by Allen & Unwin in Australia, but by Hachette in the UK and Atria in the USA.
However, there are moves afoot to take some of these rights away from us. The moves are being led by booksellers, particularly Dymocks
Dymocks wants an open market. They wants to take away the right of Australian authors to transact their rights in different markets. Their argument is driven by the profit motive of course. Dymocks claims the wholesale price of books is cheaper in the United States through competition. And there is undoubtedly more competition in the US in the book industry than there is in Australia. The US book market is more than 10 times the size of Australia. Dymocks also claims books are expensive in Australia because the Australian publishing industry is artificially protected from competition.
But the US is by no means an open market. Nor should it be. Both the United States and Australia are separate copyright territories, and books are licensed into each territory by their rightsholders. Few Australian books receive much attention in the US. The Australian market is far more competitive than the US market because Australian books have to compete with those from the US and the UK. Under our law as it currently stands, all books published outside Australia must be made available in Australia within 30 days of their publication, or the rightsholder loses their exclusive licence to publish the book in Australia.
Dymocks is pushing hard to destroy Australia as a distinct publishing territory. In their argument, they ignore the fact that the US and UK are closed markets. They also ignore the fact that book prices in open market territories such as New Zealand and Singapore are equal to or greater than those in so-called closed markets.
Their fallacious argument is designed merely to increase Dymock’s profit margins, not to make books cheaper. Dymocks could make book prices cheaper in their stores overnight, if that was their real interest. How? Dymocks receives a minimum 40% discount on the Recommended Retail Price (RRP) on books it buys from publishers so they have nearly half the price of the book to play with in -- and often more when they negotiate bigger discounts. We don’t know how much of the 40% of the price of a book is Dymocks profit And it’s not as if bookselling is a risky business. Their purchases from publishers are on a sale or return basis. What they haven’t moved off the floor after six weeks gets sent back to the publisher for credit.
In contrast, life is bit tougher for the publisher, and much more so for the poor author. When a book is sold by Dymocks, the publisher gets about 12% (at least ABS statistics from 2004, the most recently available, show that) and the author generally receives 10%.
What’s clear is as authors we need to stand up and be counted – counted as a successful industry, counted for what we add to our culture and counted as opposing any changes to our current system. I urge you all to make your voices heard to the Productivity Commission. Detail are on the ASA website – www.asauthors.org

Friday, December 5, 2008

New Day Dawning: History of Sydney Gay Mardi Gras

The Pride History group has been working hard at documenting Sydney’s Gay, Lesbian and Transgender History with a number of publications. Their most recent, New Day Dawning, is a handsome documentary of the early years of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
The text has been written by Gavin Harris, John Witte and Ken Davis who, like me, were part of the original 1978 Mardi Gras. The book also makes liberal use of quotes from other Mardi Gras participants.
For an old-timer like me, this book is a welcome record of times past. It is refreshing to reflect on the changes that have been achieved in 30 years. That seems a long time, but change never happens as fast as we would like. The frustrations we felt back then are still around to some degree, but we are no longer criminals. Many of us, including myself, are respectable members of the middle classes, happily contributing in our various ways to a society that has found a place for us.
The writers of this book don’t try to offer too much for readers. The chapters are short, informative bites — pacy and interesting. They will be of interest to younger readers, too. Many of the younger gays and lesbians I know are keen to know more about the history of the liberation movement and this book will provide them with accessible information about a time before many of them were born.
But the book is especially valuable for the many photographs. The cover features a Jenny Templin photo the late, lamented Doris Fish at her tackiest. The back has a William Yang photo of a quartet of gays wearing tee-shirts spelling out POOF. I wasn’t, but I could have been one of them.
I looked closely at all the other photos in the book hoping to see myself, but while I recognise the scenes, I must have stayed just out of range of the lenses. Perhaps I was busy having fun.
Some of the wonderful posters from the early days of Mardi Gras are reproduced in glorious colour on the inside front covers. Click on the title of this blog entry for details of how to obtain the book or write to: Pride History Group, GPO Box 415 Sydney NSW 2001.