When they come to save books, what will they save?

Tony Abbott’s decision last December to invite Richard Flanagan up to the dais to jointly receive the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction alongside the judges’ choice of Steven Carroll made for great comedy. Les Murray, one of the over-ruled judges, and some other literary folk, didn’t find much humour in it.1 But it was Flanagan, who has refused prizes before, who capped the evening by giving away his half-share of the $80,000 prize money to support asylum seekers.2 There were laughs all round as Flanagan poked Abbott right in his admiring eye.

As James English points out, literary prizes work best when they are the object of controversy.3 The best things that ever happened to the Miles Franklin Award were Frank Moorhouse’s unshiftable sadness at being ruled out of contention in 1993, the crazy decision to award it to Helen Demidenko in 19944 and the judges’ apparent failure to remember that women existed in 2010, right when women writers around the country were carefully toting up the gender breakdown.

The aesthetic and cultural issues that prizes bring forth become particularly vexed when you add government to the mix, as we do in Australia, where around $1.5 million goes out the door each year in government literary prizes.5 But while prizes are the visible Kardashian rump of our literary funding policies, the rest of it passes by without much interest or comment. The messy but comprehensive system of literary regulation and management – think of copyright law, libraries, writers’ grants, writers’ centres and so on – only occasionally bubbles into the public mind, such as during the long but doomed fight to keep the GST off books in 1999.6

I mention all this because, at his awards, the Prime Minister made a much more important announcement for the future of Australian literature. The details are sketchy, but the government has committed to forming and funding ‘a new Book Council of Australia to promote Australian writing nationally and internationally and [to] encourage and promote reading’.7 Symbolism and flag-waving for admirable Australian books and writers is one thing, but a dedicated mechanism for systematic policy action is potentially the most significant government initiative in the literary domain since the formation of the Literature Board (out of the ashes of the Commonwealth Literary Fund) in 1973.8

But it is not yet clear what this body will do, who will run it or how it will undertake its work. Is this an industry body – as the book industry seems to want? Or is it a cultural body that will foreground and support the kind of social and political work that literature is understood as undertaking? In literary policy, culture has lost out to economics before – but are the fates of culture and industry here unavoidably entwined?

The genesis

The Book Council idea has a number of parents, the most important of whom seems to be Louise Adler, CEO and publisher-in-chief of Melbourne University Press. In both 2011 and 2013, Adler served on committees contributing to two significant industry reports, both of which advocated for the establishment of a new body.

The Book Industry Strategy Group Report makes nineteen ‘industry’ recommendations (about GST, postage, lending rights and so on) and two ‘cultural’ ones: to double the budget of the Literature Board to $9 million and to establish a ‘National Book Council’. The Book Council would complement the Literature Board and lever private investment. The government noted the recommendation to increase funding for the Literature Board (and $2 million in new funds did follow in 2013–14) but rejected the idea of the council. The idea was ‘a dissipation of resources and effort’,9 the government found, as the Australia Council and the Australian Business Arts Foundation (now Creative Arts Partnerships) already act in the literary realm.

Instead, the government supported the establishment of a Book Industry Collaborative Council (BICC) to ‘continue collaboration within the book industry supply chain to address those challenges that were best approached through cooperation within the industry’.10 The final report of BICC landed on the desk of Industry Minister Kim Carr in September 2013, during the dying days of the Rudd 2.0 government. The BICC report resurrected the idea of ‘an industry body, entitled the Book Industry Council of Australia (BICA)’, and even announced its establishment, ‘to take effect immediately on an interim basis’.11 This didn’t happen, and Carr instead announced the imminent establishment of a Book Industry Innovation Council (BIIC). But this didn’t happen either, with plans for BIIC falling under the wheels as the federal election was called.

Inertia followed as incoming Arts Minister George Brandis wrestled with – or perhaps didn’t wrestle with – an industry report made to a previous government. But in December 2014, Adler explained to the Sydney Morning Herald that she and others eventually ‘went to Brandis’ and the government subsequently announced the Book Council of Australia. Adler then said she knew ‘no more about plans for the council or its funding’.12

The government eventually announced that the money would come from a $2 million cut to the Australia Council. The cuts wouldn’t be specific to the literature budget, which is now a floating figure anyway, but would be applied across all funds for individuals and small to medium organisations.13 So far that is all that seems to be known.

Coordination of literary policy

The world would be duller without ironies, and the current government is certainly not short on supply. While the Book Council proposal responds productively to long-held concerns about the fate of the local industry, its arrival comes in the same year that the Abbott government finished the previous government’s work of restructuring the Literature Board out of existence,14 of withdrawing the new funds the Gillard government had allocated to the Australia Council in 2012 (of which about $2 million had flowed to literature)15 and of axing the $1.6 million-a-year Get Reading program.16

As Ian Fleming said, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action. But perhaps the most positive way to understand these mixed and contradictory manoeuvres is as part of a history of uncoordinated or disconnected policy.

Literature and books are fundamental to representative forms of culture, to simple recreation, to literacy and education, to citizen formation and to the public political sphere. Printed books have been with us for more than 500 years and so were the object of some of the earliest forms of cultural policy (namely copyright) and some of the newest. Accordingly, literary policy happens in a number of policy realms simultaneously (including arts, education and industry) but is rarely coordinated in, say, the way film policy has come to be under the remit of Screen Australia. For literature, there has been no turn to whole-of-government policy-making – that is to say, the style of cross-departmental policy-making that partly characterises the ambitions of Australian governments at all levels over the last decade and a half.

Despite the absence of policy coordination, there have been significant changes over the past two decades. We’ve seen government-funded literary awards supplant literary grants as the centrepiece of state support for individual writers. We’ve seen the rise of city-based policy-making, such as in Melbourne, which is now classified as a UNESCO City of Literature. We’ve seen the reform of the defamation code, the building of a literary infrastructure, the coming and going of export initiatives, book industry stats packages, reading initiatives, and the rise and rise of funded literary festivals and events.17

All of this has happened during two decades in which the modes of literary production, circulation and consumption have changed more significantly than at any time since the early 1700s. Back then, as constitutional monarchy emerged in Great Britain, copyright laws enshrined literary publications as economically exploitable properties which privileged authors’ (and publishers’) economic and civic interests over those of their readers and of the state. In a rejection of Hobbes’ conception of the ideal terms for the social contract – whereby the sovereign would decide what books would and wouldn’t be published – the 1710 Statute of Anne removed the sovereign’s hand from the literary domain. The statute released capital’s and democracy’s Promethean energies into the literary sphere and changed publishing and authorship into genuinely commercial practices. By the close of the eighteenth century, print was the ascendant form of culture and, in the nineteenth century, literature and literacy were fundamental to efforts to create a citizenry for the industrialising, bourgeois democratic state. Literature and the book were baked in.

By the early twenty-first century, technological shocks to the supply chain (the rise of the digital book and competing forms of digital culture in globalised culture markets) forced the book industry in Australia to do something that it has tended to do poorly: collaborate in the development of industry policy. The major industry groups – the Australian Society of Authors, the Australian Booksellers Association, the Australian Publishers Association and the library bodies – have not always played nice with each other, and sometimes have been direct antagonists. Overall, they have been mediocre advocates for themselves – caught on the tines of competing messages about the economic and cultural value of books.

For many, including many in industry and in government, publishing is understood as a free-market private enterprise. Arguments for the value of government assistance or partial regulation sound like arguments for market failure. This is despite a long history of quite ordinary government intervention in the supply-and-demand chain – think, for instance, of the university presses, which were really the first publishing houses, and library acquisition budgets. There have been half a dozen or so parliamentary and government inquiries into the book industry since 1970 – often focused on the question of trade protection – but it is only the massive shocks of the past decade that have successfully forced industry and government together to collaborate in industry planning.18

If the book industry has struggled to see itself as a domain for policy action, as well as to successfully advocate for that action, the same is true within the more specific boundaries of the literary sphere. Since 1970, and at a pace after 1990, there has been a multiplication of the participant numbers and of the types of intermediaries in the literary sphere: creative writing programs, writers’ centres, festivals, independent publishers, digital forms of literature and so on. From about 2000, the Literature Board, in keeping with the increasingly industry-based approach of the Australia Council, began to identify key organisations and the component parts of the literary infrastructure. Again, there were complications. The relationships between the Australian Society of Authors, the Australian Writers’ Guild and the much more popular networks of writers’ centres has never really been sorted out. And the sector itself has rarely come together to think about how it might speak for itself and for literature.19

Instead, the writers’ centres, festivals, magazines, small publishers and industry bodies all came to the Literature Board as lonely beggars. They have hesitated to conceive of themselves as an interrelated set of organisations that constitute the institution or institutions of Australian literature. And they have hesitated to articulate and negotiate a clearer and more productive set of relationships with all layers of government. If they acted together in a less apologetic way, if they foregrounded their value rather than their needs, the literary sector might more effectively negotiate policy development on the basis of their public benefits.

Essentially, since the demise of Tom Shapcott’s National Book Council (NBC) in the 1997, no organisation or constellation of organisations has spoken for literature – although there was an attempt in 2010 with the establishment of Writing Australia, a peak body for writers’ centres. The old NBC rarely did an effective job as a policy advocate, and, maybe fortunately, Writing Australia self-destructed within two years. But the net result has been that, despite the growth of Australian literature over a forty-year period, and despite the increasing intricacy of its infrastructure, it is relatively mute and ineffective as a political or institutional entity.

A move from culture to industry

If one accepts that advocacy and policy-making for literature and books has been haphazard, then the Book Council of Australia sounds like a great idea. It might begin to address the identified issues around the future of bookshops, publishing houses, author incomes, reading levels and the threats to local culture from globalisation. But one way of understanding the limits of the proposed council is to note how little the two industry reports in 2011 and 2013 (which might be taken as a representation of the mindset of likely council participants) make of the cultural value of books. The reports mostly assert the economic threats to the book industry rather than arguing the cultural value and potential of the industry and of the allied literary sector (which of course includes elements both within and outside the book sector).

Maybe this is just the book and literary sectors talking the language of government. Adler and several of the BICC members are literary figures, or at least friends of literature. But if we step back we can see a continuation of the long drift of cultural policy arguments towards cultural industry policy. This drift started in 1976 with an Industry Assistance Commission report20 (only a year after the formation of the Australia Council) and hasn’t stopped since. Advocacy for the economic value of the arts has been enormously effective, but such a discourse does tend to occlude cultural arguments, leaving the cupboard bare when they are needed. This then only further accelerates the drift toward industry solutions.

A complementary set of cultural arguments around the value of literature and the kind of work it does needs to be advanced, defended and refreshed. Contemporary university literature departments have worked hard to interrogate their own and others’ longstanding assumptions around literary values, revealing them, as Rita Felski puts it, as a set of ‘generalities, conjectures, and speculative claims’21 leaving us ‘sorely in need of more cogent and compelling justifications’.22

But if the literary left sometimes hesitates to defend literary value, the right might be more alert to its radical potential. It is possible to view the 2014 demise of the Literature Board within the Australia Council structure, the cutting of the Get Reading program and the shift of resources from individual grants to an industry-based Book Council as a series of ideological gestures. Perhaps the right more readily comprehend the radical political potential of literature and then seek to undermine this aspect. Thus, book culture is still supported, but its more radical end is blunted by the shift in resources away from a semi-autonomous arts body that is seen as captured by left-wing or progressive interests. In reality, I suspect these gestures are more haphazard than ideological.

Where to from here?

I suggest a way forward is to maintain a watching brief on the objects and structure of the new council. The council needs to be welcomed, but the risk of capture by industry interests at the neglect of cultural interests needs to be monitored. Some publishers don’t care what gets published or where it comes from as long as the money is coming in. But at the same time, to undercut industrial interests might be to falsely see them as opposed to cultural or political ones. The cultural and political potential of literary activity is partly tethered to the wider health of the book industry. We need a certain scale to our book industry in order for it to realise its radical and cultural potential.

There is a need to carefully articulate the disparate policy outcomes that we seek through governmental engagement, such as cultural and oppositional debate, educated citizens, and sophisticated resources of social and cultural knowledge, as well as cash turnover and jobs. We then need to make visible and discuss more seriously the complex system of policy levers that operate to pursue these goals. And, of course, we need to monitor the effectiveness of this loose policy system.

My own preferred mechanism for this work would be to embrace the demise of the Literature Board and to radically expand the remit of the proposed Book Council. If culture and industry are fused together, as in the screen industry, they might be better served by a single government agency that oversees the myriad aspects of book and literary policy and that can attend to both its cultural and industrial dimensions. This seems unlikely under a Liberal government. Conservative governments have tended to see the Literature Board as a leftist cabal. I suspect that a new council that emphasises industry and reading among children can be presented as the government’s commitment to literature when in reality it might be something subtly different – the government’s commitment to the book industry. The cut to the Australia Council to create the Book Council might be the clearest sign of this mode of thinking. It would probably better suit a conservative government to leave a reduced literary program under the auspices of the Australia Council, while supporting an industry and reading focus through the proposed Book Council.

One last unclear question is whether the new Book Council will be a committee inside government or some kind of statutory authority at some distance from ministerial control, or an NGO funded but somewhat silenced by government through its contractual relationship with it, or a genuine industry body. My own feeling is that the best arrangement would be the creation of a statutory authority along the lines of Screen Australia under an Act with clear objectives and reporting structures. But that this should be mirrored by an unfunded industry or sector body that represents all book and literary interests: writers, agents, publishers, editors, booksellers, e-tailers, libraries, training providers, readers, festivals and so on.

There is need for a body that speaks for the sector. Such a combination would allow for wide-ranging policy-making within government, but would also provide a site outside of it for coordinated critique of government and coordinated facilitation of industry policy and action. What I am advocating would require legislation and so it may be a step too far, but there may be other models where government and the sector establish bodies with an overview of sector development.

Literary activity in all its forms – the book, its mutations and its successors, and the public life of these objects – are undeniably important cultural and intellectual technologies and expressions. But the policy work around how we use them in everyday life, in education and in solving social, political and economic problems needs greater recognition and care. Let’s hope the potential of the Book Council to undertake this work is realised with both the industrial and cultural elements in mind.

    1. Helen Davidson, ‘Row over Tony Abbott’s “Nasty” Intervention to Split Literary Prize’, The Guardian, 11 December 2014.
    2. Rachael Brown, ‘Richard Flanagan Shares PM’s Literary Award Win; Gives Away Prize Money’, ABC News, 9 December 2014.
    3. James F English, The Economy of Prestige, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2005.
    4. Harry P Heseltine, The Most Glittering Prize: The Miles Franklin Literary Award 1957–1998, Permanent and School of Language, Literature and Communication, University College, UNSW, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, 2001.
    5. Melanie Tait, ‘The Culture of Prize Giving’ [podcast] on Radio National: Weekend Arts, 13 April 2013.
    6. Stuart Glover, ‘Publishing and the State’, in Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing, University of QLD Press, St Lucia, 2007, p. 82.
    7. ‘Government Announces $6m Funding for New Book Council of Australia, to Come from Australia Council Funding’, Books+Publishing, 15 December 2014.
    8. Thomas W Shapcott, The Literature Board, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1988.
    9. Australian Government, The Book Industry Strategy Group Report, Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, Canberra, 2012, p. 23.
    10. Book Industry Collaborative Council, Book Industry Collaborative Council Final Report, 2013, p. 10.
    11. ibid p.16.
    12. Susan Wyndham, ‘Government Give and Take to the Struggling Book Industry’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December 2014.
    13. ibid.
    14. Parliament of Australia, Australia Council Bill, 2013.
    15. Anne Maria Nicholson, ‘Budget 2014: Government Grants to Artists and Filmmakers Slashed’, ABC News, 14 May 2014.
    16. ‘Get Reading! Defunded’, Books+Publishing, 14 May 2014.
    17. Laura Kostanski and Guy Puzey, ‘A Tale of Two Cities of Literature: Toponymic Identity and the Promotion of Edinburgh and Melbourne in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network’, in Joan Tort i Donada & Montserrat Montagut i Montagut (eds.) Els noms en la vida quotidiana: Actes del XXIV Congrés Internacional d’ICOS sobre Ciències Onomàstiques, Vol. Annex, Secció 6, Departament de Cultura, Generalitat de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2014.
    18. Among others, there was a Tariff Industry report in 19486, a Federal Government inquiry into the publishing industry convened in 1948, A Tariff Board report on printing in 1973, an Industry Assistance Commission (IAC) report on printing in 1978, an IAC report on the publishing industry in 1979, Prices Surveillance Authority reports on book prices parallel imports in 1989 and 1995, an IAC report on Book production in 1992, an Industry Commission report on Book Printing in 1996, a Productivity Commission report on copyright and parallel importation of books in 2009, and a general report on competition in 2015.
    19. I report this from my own participation as a visiting peer in Literature Board discussions throughout the period 2000–2010.
    20. Industries Assistance Commission, Assistance to the Performing Arts, AGPS, Canberra, 1976.
    21. Rita Felski, Uses of Literature, Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2008.
    22. ibid.

Stuart Glover

Stuart Glover lectures at the University of Queensland. He was founding director of Brisbane Writers Festival, founding chairperson of the Queensland Literary Awards, and member of the now defunct Literature Board of the Australia Council.

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