Printer problems: what remains of our printing industry and why it matters

If you don’t work in publishing, you might not have caught the news halfway through last year that the last two major book printing companies in Australia have become one. Opus’Ovato, while not technically forming a monopoly (as Ovato was in liquidation when the acquisition occurred), has left Australian publishers with really only one option if they want to print large runs of commercial books domestically.

The Australian book publishing industry exists on a relatively small scale compared to its US and UK counterparts and, as with a number of industries, suffers a level of precarity because of the geographic isolation of the economy. The recent merger paired with the industry’s isolation present a number of problems, from rising costs, to delays, to, in extreme cases, changes in content.

The first thing to mention is that printing is important. Really important. More important than you’re thinking. At their best, printers are an integrated section of the book publishing industry, staffed by highly skilled professionals passionate and understanding of what it is exactly they’re doing on a cultural level.

In A Bite of the Apple, influential feminist publisher Lennie Goodings describes how her career in book production was essentially made by the generosity of printers, willing to teach her how to make a book. At their worst, poor printing outcomes become an impediment to careers. Part of what plagued author Helen DeWitt’s career for well over a decade was a typesetting issue, her novel, The Last Samurai, containing too many non-English scripts.

Australia’s domestic book printing industry used to be robust, consisting of a variety of firms of varying sizes. In what’s now a vaguely discomforting bill reading for an extension of the Book Bounty Act in 1986, ALP member Bob Chynoweth described the Australian printing industry as ‘highly skilled and is equally fragmented’ and that he would ‘hate to see it all controlled in a few hands.’ Sorry Bob. The ‘book bounty’ program, and its removal in 1996, is fundamental to how the Australian book publishing industry has become so precarious in the twenty-first century.

The book bounty was a piece of legislation, in place from 1969 to 1996, which subsidised domestic printing of books to the tune of anywhere between 25 and 7.5 per cent of production cost over the lifetime of the legislation. The program was intended to encourage publishers to domestically produce books, and so insulate the industry from foreign competition and preserve domestic jobs. The legislation worked, and propped up the printing industry, helping publishers to deliver on the short time frames the industry inherently operates under.

When the bounty was removed, in 1996, the gradual decline of the domestic printing industry began, continuing until there was only one major firm left. While the Opus and Ovato merger might not be the death knell of the whole market, it’s certainly something close to it. A single firm market in the arts fosters precarity, it then thrusts that precarity onto other facets of the arts sector.

Speaking with publishers at several firms, an image emerged of an industry in flux. Each mentioned the impact of the merger, citing major delays, with one publisher calling the merger ‘sudden and messy.’ Further, some publishers mentioned they were subject to significant increases in Opus’ prices which they were essentially unable to negotiate because ‘outside the Opus group, there are few options for 1c trade printing in Australia’ (1c being black and white). Interestingly, larger firms mentioned that they hadn’t seen rises in costs beyond some paper cost increases.

This is indicative of the precarity of a single firm market—that a corporate matter at the one major firm can disrupt the operations of the entire domestic book publishing industry. And further, that smaller firms are made more vulnerable, robbed of a significant method of exerting their bargaining power: the ability to walk away from the table.

The obvious question is why publishers can’t utilise international printers? The reality is, most already do. China has invested much more capital in their domestic printing industry than Australia and as such many Australian publishers print their 4c (full colour) titles there. However, international shipping means increased costs and extensions to already tight schedules (which are even more stringent for 1c titles). Further, the feasibility of moving 1c titles overseas is further mired, according to one publisher at a major firm, by China’s new system of more direct censorship. Printing is now overseen by officials, objectional material is rejected and is subject to suggested changes, which results in censored content and worsening production timelines.

Alarmingly, the printing system we find ourselves with is already exacting its own indirect form of censorship. One publisher mentioned that the increases in costs are changing ‘the type of books [they] publish and how [they] publish them.’

This may help explain the trend towards what Australian bookseller Natalie Latter describes as ‘an unsustainable churn of books for certain holidays that people will read once and then throw away.’

Australia used to be uniquely positioned to ensure publishers had flexibility in their choices of what to publish. A 1996 report on the book bounty program outlines how the Australian printing industry had a tradition of outperforming international competition on small print runs, and predicted that the reduction in cost of digital printing methods would further exacerbate this. Of course, this didn’t come about. The removal of the book bounty saw to that. International firms became more competitive and, bolstered by state investment, seem close to winning out in the long run. Eventuating in restrictions on what Australian publishers can produce and, therefore, the books Australian audiences see themselves reflected in.

The abandonment of the book bounty program and its ramifications are indicative of two fundamental aspects of the state’s relationship to art. Firstly, support needs to exist in a more multifaceted manner than simply giving funding directly to arts organisations. It makes clear that the material conditions of markets peripheral to the arts have bearing on their output. And secondly, when we see funding cut, even for a minor, seemingly rather inconsequential program, the long-term ramifications may be disastrous.

Moving forward, we cannot simply advocate for the reintroduction of the book bounty program. Primarily, because there are no longer enough active firms to match the market diversity the program was initially successful in achieving—but also because a more comprehensive approach to the mechanisms of the Australian book publishing industry is necessary. There are a number of failure points along the industry’s supply chain—from the single-firm printing market, to freight across the Nullarbor—which require complicated infrastructural support.

The ramification of the removal of the book bounty program is a microcosm of the complexity of the arts industry. The arts are reliant not just on direct support but on strong, well-funded infrastructure. If we want a thriving arts industry in this country we need to actively engage with organisations and individuals at every point of the supply chain of arts industries, from conception to provision. And while there is no inherent need for the infrastructure used to be domestic, when there are prohibitions on the utilisation of international capital, it falls to the state to pick up the slack to ensure the quality of art remains uncompromised.


Image by Alex Zaj

Savannah Hollis

Savannah Hollis is a writer and editor living in Naarm. She edits works ranging from literary fiction to picture books, and, in 2022, she was shortlisted for the Australian Book Review's Calibre Essay Prize. She has read at Midsumma Festival, written for Melbourne Fashion Festival, and in 2021 she was awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship to work on her first novel.

More by Savannah Hollis ›

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

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *