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.