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La république des lettres

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Book review. Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing

La république des lettres —

David Carter and Anne Galligan (ed.). Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2007, xv + 416 pp. Paperback. ISBN: 978 0 7022 3469 9.

Given that publishing studies are slowly emerging on Australian university curricula, it is no wonder that critical material on the subject is scarce, to put it bluntly. Before 2001, scholars and students alike could only access academic sources on the book industry such as narrow-focussed government and industry reports which were mostly published from the 1990s onwards – the latest being Jeremy Fischer’s Current Publishing Practice: An Australian Report (Sydney: ASA, 2005). In 2001, the University of Queensland Press started to show a growing interest in publishing, as exemplified by the release of A History of the Book in Australia 1891-1945: A National Culture in a Colonised Market, followed by Richard Nile’s well-informed monograph entitled The Making of the Australian Literary Imagination (2002) and the second volume of A History of the Book in Australia 1946-2005: Paper Empires (2005).

Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing is thus not only a welcome addition to this cluster of studies but also a timely appraisal of the Australian publishing industry which, more than being a riddle, is riddled with paradoxes. First, we are told “that book publishers in Australia produce more income than music and theatre production and performing arts festivals combined” (1), a most startling observation when we repeatedly hear people in the book trade pleading poverty. Second, we cannot say Australia lives up to her reputation of being a nation of voracious readers when publishers are driven to take scant risk and published literary novels are fewer in numbers than, say, 10 or 15 years ago. Third, publishers and writers alike crave for opening up to new international markets while they strongly support Australia’s protectionist territorial copyright regime. Fourth, it is not uncommon that authors who strive after making a living out of their skills end up eking out a living on derivative income provided by Public Lending Right, Educational Lending Right and the Copyright Agency Limited.

Making Books comprises three uneven sections detailed as follows: 8 contributions in “Industry dynamics”, 4 in “The industry and new technologies” and 11 chapters in “Industry sectors and genre publishing”. The final pages are filled with appendices, a glossary, notes and an index. A chronology of the major landmarks would have come in handy to get a bird eye’s view of the major issues discussed even though the back cover provides the top four broad lines of argument: “Is the Australian publishing industry floundering or flourishing? What is the future of the book? Has lifestyle replaced literary publishing? Have new technologies revolutionised the nature of the industry?” But the monograph itself does not seem to bring any clear or definite answers – all the more as there is no roundup conclusion.

In this most informative collection of articles, contributors provide hard-to-find data and figures on the book trade which, traditionally, only publishers are privy to. Making Books assesses how globalisation has impacted on the book industry: the cannibalisation of independent publishers, the glamorisation of books, the recourse to protectionist laws like the 30 and 90-day-rules, the new book selling strategies such as using just-in-time methods and sales-tracking systems, to mention a few. All these reforms turn out to be a double edge sword: though they have contributed to a sounder knowledge of the market and to an even greater professionalization of the book trade, the sudden leap Australian publishing has taken over the last thirty odd years has spawned angst-ridden concerns that points to an ailing industry.

There is no questioning the research quality of this reader-friendly volume, and no doubt that contributors know their subject like a book, but some pithy turns of phrase insidiously morph into provocative statements. Former managing director of University of New South Wales Press Robin Derricourt contends that “Arguably, there is no scholarly book (‘academic monograph’) publishing industry in Australia. Australian academics turn to overseas publishers to publish their specialist monographs and (sometimes via local distributors) to supply their libraries with their reference needs.” (225) To be sure scholarly book publishing is on the wane in Australia and most university presses (MUP, UNSWP, UQP, UWAP, etc.) are cutting down on their academic monograph production. Most releases are now heavily subsidized and are sometimes only made possible through requesting the author to provide matching funds. As it happens, Derricourt’s press asks for $5,000 – a disguised form of vanity publishing, some would say. But more than just taking stock, why not try and analyse why scholarly book publishing is in dire straits?

While it can be argued that some academics tend to write monographs for their peers rather than for students, there also seems to be no Australian nationwide policy devised to back up what is to be considered national heritage in print. If a body like the Australia Council could indirectly reward monograph writers and publishers by donating funds to all libraries in Australia to systematically purchase any commendable book published in the field of Australian Studies (when the print run for such studies is generally 500 copies), there could be well over 50 copies of a specific title held in the various libraries scattered throughout the country (quite a realistic figure given that there are 39 universities, 6 State Libraries, 1 National Library and heaps of local ones). This minimum of 50 books in Australia will ensure that monograph authors are eligible for PLR along with ELR and will be a first step towards rewarding their painstaking efforts. What is more, these monographs, which help mentoring students, will only meet their targeted readership once they have been set on the compulsory reading list of senior high schools and tertiary institutions.

Knowledge does not come cheap in many ways and so it is not uncommon for students to pay over $140 for their textbooks. The odds are that students enrolled in economics see this kind of purchase as a worthwhile investment to read high-quality research and data gathered over many years; and it is to be hoped that students in other fields feel just the same, but – alas! – there is little room for optimism. What is worse, not everybody benefits from funding programs and prizes attached with a tidy sum, particularly those who undertake independent research and authors unaffiliated to universities or working on the margins of academia. So if monograph writers cannot bank on royalties or prizes to break even, are they expected to become philanthropists? The injustice is all the ranker that less esteemed and less demanding publications allow their authors to make money hand over fist. If this becomes a sore point, I feel that there will come a time when Australian academics will no longer be able to turn to overseas publishers to see their intellectual efforts in print.

But to get back to the subject, I confess that little has been left out of this comprehensive study – though the 2006 Wraith Picket hoax is a glaring omission. David Carter and Anne Galligan will surely take post-2007 publishing issues into account before Making Books is reprinted. The editors will probably tackle the more recent ventures such as micropublishing which Antoni Jach defines as “an act of optimism – to bring words out into the light of day rather than remaining in the bottom drawer” (quoted in Simon Caterson, “From little ventures small wonders emerge”, The Age, 24 January 2009, A2, p.27 and online), along with the current ongoing heated debate on the jeopardizing of territorial rights, a protectionist regulation writers such as Peter Carey vocally champion. Far from closing the book on the publishing industry, Making Books helps readers to have an inkling of what is going on behind the scenes. Hats off to the editors and their contributors for this remarkable study which has found a cosy home on my bookshelves.

Jean-François Vernay is the author of Water From the Moon: Illusion and Reality in the Works of Australian Novelist Christopher Koch (2007), the first monograph on an Australian writer to be accepted and published through Cambria Press – a New York-based commercial publisher asking for no matching funds. This critically well-acclaimed scholarly book is currently held in 19 Australian libraries.

Book review. Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing

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