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.

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