Type
Article
Category
Writing

Small presses and free markets

Caroline Hamilton is a research fellow in the Department of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne, and has also worked as a freelance writer and editor. Her latest book One Man Zeitgeist: Dave Eggers, Publishing and Publicity is published by Continuum. We spoke to Caroline about her article ‘Sympathy for the devil?’ which is featured the latest edition of Overland.

What interested you about writing on small publishers and the free market for Overland?

I’m currently working on a three year research project at the University of Melbourne that is examining how small publishers (in particular those in Melbourne) are responding to, and working with, all the recent changes brought about by digital media: things like social networking, digital downloads, global distribution and so on.

One thing I discovered doing this work was that many younger small publishers were very serious about their work as much more than just a hobby, they had business objectives that also related to their personal principles. This struck me as something quite different to our standard image of the small publisher.

You say that, ‘The publishing industry, like so many of the creative industries, has struggled to match market realities with personal values.’ But this doesn’t seem to be the case with small publishers. How have small publishers managed to protect their cultural production from the negative effects of the free market?

Well, the crucial thing here is that small publishers are (and have always been) very different from their larger counterparts. The things that are problematic for large publishers today are less of a concern for small publishers – it’s a matter of economies of scale, in reverse. That’s one of the things this essay addresses, those factors that have made small publishers succeed even while large operations are struggling in an unstable economy.

It’s worth pointing out here too, that when the word ‘economy’ is mentioned everyone immediately thinks of finance, but of course there are other forms of economy (as the essay explains) and in the world of traditional publishing it’s not just the financial economy that is presently unstable. Many of the business principles large publishing houses once relied upon as ‘fact’ have been thrown off balance recently: think for instance about the consequences of increased use of online book retailers, the growth of e-readers, the broader cultural shift towards reading on the internet and so on.

Small publishers haven’t necessarily developed better responses to these new challenges, they have simply been able to take advantage of the fact that their size protects them from losing too much. Effectively, small publishers can still take risks, larger publishers need to think twice about the bottom line. This shouldn’t be taken as a suggestion that small publishers don’t struggle when it comes to money, however.

You also mention that small press publishers benefit from something called ‘the economy of favours’, which basically refers to the practice of small publishers helping each other out. Does this kind of camaraderie keep the independent publishing scene thriving?

Undoubtedly, without the economy of favours small publishing would be all the poorer. I think it’s important, however, to use caution with words like ‘independent publishing scene’. One very interesting thing I discovered talking to small publishers in Melbourne is that, while many people involved in this type of publishing know each other and often help each other out, they are working very hard to dispel the idea that small publishing is ‘just a scene’ – perhaps unsatisfied with the way in which this makes their endeavours seem exclusionary or like a fashion trend. As you say, small publishing is thriving because more and more people feel like this is something they can get involved in. But, if anything, it’s becoming less and less ‘a scene’ and more broad and diverse. Which to my mind can only be a good thing.

What are you working on at the moment?

Right now I’m completing work on a project examining the Future of the Bookshop. I’ve just finished studying several small booksellers to see how they are using the limitations of their size to the best advantage: curating stock according to particular tastes, acting as local meeting places, mixing old with new. It’s fascinating, when you look back to the early origins of bookselling, to discover that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Readers have always turned to bookstores in search of a home away from home, for instance.

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