Overland readers may recall the catch-cry: ‘publish or perish’. Currently, new problems are making publication difficult. Threats include the appearance of a new Goliath, ‘the digital age’ of ‘multi media’;  the excluding cult of  authorial celebrity; chain bookshops bankrupt in both senses, financially, and in their misguided efforts to follow supermarkets;  writers’ centres offering  mirages of ready paths to the redemption of easy publication.  Doom-sayers predict books themselves will perish. The media endlessly recycles discussion of all these problems; but to no purpose. The recent repetitive debate about cheaper books was noisy but left no group better off.

The latest bad news is  that, apparently, the library of the University of New South Wales is disposing of large collections of books and journals  under the pressure of increasing costs and a consequent change-over to  more use of online access which is cheaper and favoured by students.  So it may be that even the role of libraries as conservers and custodians of books, may be under challenge, that the barbarians are inside the gates

Promotion by giving away books is a desperate ploy, showing a lack of faith in them, as they are not relatively expensive, compared with the cost of a meal (for instance).  Moreover, except for some popularisation in the nineteenth century, imaginative literature has remained a minority pursuit and should be treated as such; efforts aimed at popularisation are misleading and counter-productive. Publishers and bookshops in the UK recently organised a mass distribution of free books (some by Nobel prize-winners) called ‘World Book Night’ to encourage more reading. This move was reported as titillating rather than informative.  Bob Carr expressed interest as a director of Dymocks, and sundry academics unconnected with the book trade commented briefly. There was no informed analysis by any Australian practising booksellers and publishers, conveying the very real desperation of independent booksellers who, I am told, are suffering their worst plight for some 30 years.

Rodney Hall offered one of his backlisted titles free online, after finding himself for the first time in thirty years without a backlist. However, he argues that authors had in the end to help themselves: ‘we must each find our way and fight for the survival of our work as best we may’.

Subscription publishing, an aid to authors in the past, goes back a long time following on from private patronage in the seventeenth century when rich and often titled persons took an author under their wing and underwrote publication of their work. As recently as the early nineteenth cnetury,  contemporary poetry volumes, especially those with expectations of limited circulation, were pre-subscribed by friends, sympathisers and contemporary poetry lovers so that expenses of publication by small, specialised and independent presses would be  covered in advance.  Volumes by Henry Kendall, for instance, were published by subscription, with Henry Parkes, himself a poet, ordering fifty copies in the 1880s.

A recent initiative of reviving subscription publishing, through an online series called Press On is due to the efforts of Phillip Edmonds and Michael Wilding.  Edmonds, the co-managing editor of Wet Ink, previously edited Contempa magazine and helped to found Contempa publications.  Wilding, a prolific author, has been influential as editor and publisher since the 1960s. He was a co-editor of Tabloid Story, and co-publisher of Wild and Woolley.

The first successful series of Press On, launched in 2010, included three novels, at an inclusive subscription price of $60.00 (with orders available online at that address). It comprised the following novels.

Wishart’s Quest by Peter Corris takes his well known private-eye, Cliff Hardy, to New England, NSW., then further afield to the Philippines and S. E. Asia and eventually to Sydney in a search for origins.

The story involves a Vietnam war deserter and a complicated cover up. It is the kind of suspenseful, well made crime story for which Corris is noted.

Phillip Edmond’s Leaving home with Henry is a refreshing version of the ongoing search for the ‘real’ Australia, contrasting contemporary life with the past of Henry Lawson’s time. A researcher on the Lawson papers at the NLA finds himself with a ‘resurrected’ Henry as a car passenger on a wide-ranging tour of Eastern Australia in a narrative skilfully blending fable, fantasy and ‘road’ novels. Edmonds combines a lightness of touch with a reflective seriousness. The ‘iconographic writer Lawson is taken on a tour of ‘iconographic ‘ places – Mudgee, Tamworth, New England, Nimbin, Byron Bay, the Gold Coast and finally Sydney, to which Lawson hankers to return. There are intervening stops in the ‘outback’, the desert,  and country towns in four states, all stimulating different perspectives.

Wilding’s Prisoner of Mount Warning is another new departure for this inventive writer who for some years now has used fictional forms to explore dramatic changes of ‘the literary life’ of the recent past and the present, combining wild comedy with underlying seriousness. In this work he returns to revalue the heady times of the so-called counter-culture revolution of the 1960s in which he himself was a   notable figure. In the novel an earnest student researching the underground press becomes a threat to the powers-that-be who have manipulated these outlets. Accordingly the student is under surveillance. He is clandestinely pursued from Sydney to the NSW North coast, with its vestiges of the alternative life. Here he is forced into sex slavery and kept subdued by a diet of mushrooms

The second series of Press On includes novels by Inez Baranay, Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor Jordan and Peter Corris. Future authors are: Victoria Thompson, James Murray, Garry Disher and Morris Lurie, The series has proved successful, selling partly by word-of-mouth, as some volumes of contemporary poetry have done. The Press On series will in future be published by Australian Scholarly Publishing of Melbourne.

Laurie Hergenhan

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. ‘writers’ centres offering mirages of ready paths to the redemption of easy publication.’ – bwahahaha. But it would appear there is some hope – press on! Thanks for the info.

  2. Neither hope, nor belief in one’s writing, neither dogged and persistent promotion are effective where sales are concerned. Raising awareness of one’s books is useful to an obvious point, but awareness alone is not enough. I am aware of thousands of books, but I do not buy them. I wish someone would ask me why – as an author I am a book buyer. A very selective one. My opinions and habits are worth knowing.

    And I understand readers’ purchasing behaviour, in a limited way. The interface between author and reader is evolving into a more direct one, with publishers (and agents especially) starting to re-think their role in all this. Pressing on without a strategy is foolish – subscription publishing seems like a great idea but requires authors to have faith and fork out in advance for something without a track record, going only on the names (or at least one in the group) of the authors offered. This means newbies must ride on the shirttails of established writers. How many are willing to lend their names to untried writers? And for how long?

    Each writer must press on and create a readership: a formula or recipe for how to do this is futile to devise. All authors are different and audiences are fickle. I am glad this article mentions an author’s ‘work’ rather than ‘books’, because the objects in which work is contained can change rather rapidly and technology is showing us that the next few years are going to be very interesting to authors who want to press on, but rely on publishers who do not know how to address the markets they know are there.

    Publication has never been easier – it takes a week of getting to know the medium and an afternoon to format and upload. But the ‘build it and they will come’ concept does not apply to books, of course. The tsunami of self-published books is so enormous (there are over 6 million books on Amazon alone, a large proportion of which are SP)that it’s no surprise readers resort to household names and return to the classics.

    It’s neither publication, nor promotion, nor quality that are the problems – it’s really the stamina to endure and outlast this fuzzy interim stage and find a method of creating one’s own audience.

    Neither hope nor belief in one’s writing can help – they are also fuzzy abstracts that befuddle. Finding a patron who endorses your work is not likely to work for long either.

    It’s as confoundingly annoying as it always was – but now many many more people are confounded.

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