A sketch of the book industry might situate publishing as an intermediate step in the chain that carries the book from author to reader. In fact, publishers are more dynamic figures in the whole process than such a view allows. Publishers and publishing houses are the most powerful group in the industry. Some publishing houses are geared to the mass market book while others focus on books with a more limited readership market. What the author-reader view ignores is the push-pull of competition and co-operation between publishers and its effect on the book industry.
The Australian Book Publishers Association (ABPA) is a microcosm of these particular tensions. For example, in the ABPA publishers are both business rivals and business colleagues. As competitors in the market place, they are in rivalry for a fixed sum from the customer and a fixed amount of book shop space. However despite this rivalry, publishers form a united front in the ABPA. Since the late 1960s the ABPA has been a strong professional body in the book industry, principally safeguarding and furthering the interests of its members. Thus, for example, the ABPA runs conferences and seminars designed to upgrade professional standards in publishing. It also lobbies governments and others over such matters as territorial copyright. Currently there are over 50 members of the ABPA, with fees set on the basis of the overall volume of a publisher or company. Despite its cohesiveness, there are nevertheless different forces at work within the ABPA. One such tension exists around differences between indigenous publishers and the publishing arms of multinationals (see below). The former group broke away in the 1970s to form an independent lobby group of their own, the Independent Australian Book Publishers Association. Although the differences were resolved in 1982 such that the members rejoined the ABPA, this group still has different (privately expressed) positions on issues from the ABPA. The territorial copyright issue exercised the passions of publishers such as Penguin and Collins who were branch plants of English publishers. On the other hand the matter had little relevance for indigenous publishers such as Lloyd O'Neill and Greenhouse. Similarly the matter of a public library quota on Australian publications was of vital concern to indigenous publishers but not so important to the other group. There are also groupings within the ABPA in terms of big and small publishers. The former, for example, tend to occupy the more senior positions in the Association and to be relatively unconcerned, for example, about the problem of booksellers being tardy about paying bills.
Despite these factions, the ABPA is a remarkably harmonious and cohesive body. Michael Webster, publisher of the trade magazine Australian Bookseller and Publisher, described it as follows:
There are no formal factions at all. But there certainly are allegiances. The reason there isn't is because the ABPA is seen to be so professional. The benefits of belonging to it far outweigh the disadvantages. The extraordinary difference between the ABA (Australian Bookseller's Association) and the ABPA is that although the ABPA are a group of people who are in bitter competition for a declining dollar, they would kill each other in the marketplace. Yet within the Association, they are so willing to give their time.
There is a general distrust and suspicion of publishers on the part of many writers. Their paranoia is not without foundation. Ric Sissons of the small left-wing publishing house Pluto Press (established in Australia in 1984 with the blessings of its English parent but without any capital from that parent) admitted at a NSW Library Association Conference in 1986 that in less sober moments most publishers consider authors to be the bane of their lives and that, if they could, they would prefer to publish without them.
This is not completely the case. Serious authors, particularly if they are fiction authors and especially if they sell well (as, for example, Peter Carey does in Australia for the University of Queensland Press) are lionised not just by the media but also by their publisher. Interviewed whilst still at Penguin in 1987, publisher Brian Johns and publishing editor Jackie Youll, for example, spoke of their policy of giving their fiction authors about half of their royalties in advance of a forthcoming book. A publisher can also cast a benevolent beam in the direction of the author in the shape of an advance against author royalties instead of having to wait until the run has been sold. The advance is in effect an interest-free loan to an author. In other words, the modern person of letters still can enjoy a form of patronage and publishers are not quite as wicked to authors as authors and publishers might have us believe.
Nevertheless the neglect that authors sometimes suffer at the hands of publishers is real enough although it occurs for structural not personal reasons. Publishers can acquire book manuscripts from several sources including different authors. Authors on the other hand often have surprisingly few publishers to choose from. This applies not only to the new unpublished author but also to well-known authors. The case of Donald Horne and his book The Great Museum is a good example of how a well-known author can find him or herself at the mercy of publishers. But it is also an example of how an author and a publisher can develop a special relationship. Ric Sissons who published The Great Museum outlined the case as follows:
When we came here, Donald approached us after being turned down by nearly every Australian publisher. Which I found astonishing, especially as he is such as eminent author. Australian companies here didn't see that they could sell enough copies, nor did they feel they had the UK connection to reach the market. So we printed 5,000 copies and split the run between the UK and Australia. And we've just about sold the 2,500 here which is OK because it is a book about European monuments and museums. And they've reprinted it in the UK. It's a book which otherwise wouldn't have seen the light of day. It was a very worthwhile book to have done. And it put a very significant local writer on our list. It's been very good for us to have a person of that stature on our list early on. He came back with The Public Culture and basically he sees Pluto now as his non-fiction publisher. His autobiography continues to be published by Penguin and he continues to put the big projects to others such as Readers Digest. But with his serious non-fiction books that you would expect to sell about 3,000 copies of then he regards Pluto as his publisher.
The case of The Great Museum is an interesting one, demonstrating as it does that even an experienced author can have difficulty finding a publisher who is prepared to publish a particular book. However at times the shoe can be on the other foot. Although the University of Queensland Press had been Peter Carey's first publisher, UQP lost Carey. When Carey had an international reputation, UQP had to assiduously court the author. Laurie Muller who had taken over from Frank Thompson as general manager of the Press in 1983 explained how UQP decided to go to this author on bended knee:
We had published Peter's first two books, The Fat Man in History and War Crimes, quite successfully. He had more of the cult market than the general. I came here in 1983 and there was no Peter Carey anymore. And I thought: Christ. The things that I thought that UQP had, like Peter Carey and David Malouf, were not in existence. So we had to trail our coat to the UK, negotiate with his British agent and with Faber to get Illywhacker back. And we paid very good money for it. We took a hell of a financial gamble, given the state of our finances. And it was for both hardback and paperback. It was a pretty strong blow we struck in defence for ourselves.
Clearly it was the promise of future works that led UQP to go after Peter Carey. And in the case of Pluto, the positive feeling that developed between Pluto and Donald Horne over The Great Museum helped bring about their ongoing relationship.
In both these cases we are talking about continuing rather than one-off authors. The one-off author has one book inside them. S/he is far more likely to be the bane of a publisher's life. Whatever experience and expertise the author and publisher accumulate from doing a book is never retapped because the author never writes another book. The one-off author also presents particular difficulties from a business point of view. Ian Templeman, manager of both the Fremantle Arts Centre and of the Fremantle Arts Centre Press before his separation from the Centre in 1989, mentioned that about 75% of the books published by Fremantle are one-offs, written by authors who have one book inside them. The most notable and commercially successful of Fremantle's one-off titles was Albert Facey's autobiography A Fortunate Life. The book needed a lot of editing - in this it was typical of the one-off book. Of course this investment paid off handsomely in the case of the Facey book. But except for the Facey book and to a lesser extent Sally Morgan's My Place, Marion Campbell's novel Lines of Flight and Paddy Roe, Krim Benterrak and Stephen Muecke's Reading the Country, Fremantle's publications have not sold extensively. Both Morgan and Campbell have since become continuing authors for Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
The one-off author is, therefore, a relatively expensive proposition as far as a publisher is concerned. The publisher may have to do a lot of nurturing work, including editing, on the manuscript such a writer brings. Sometimes these gambles will pay off and will help sustain the expense of editing other books.
However the problem for the publishing industry with a book like Facey's is that its success was completely unexpected and unpredictable. One publisher even described it as a polyanna. A Fortunate Life's success suggests that the book buying public is more elastic and quixotic than publishers believe. It was a polyanna precisely because its success contained no general lessons for publishers.
Far better then, for the publisher, is the steady author who has written several books and probably has several more ahead. For one thing, such an author will need less nurturing and editing therefore proving to be more economical. In addition the publisher can also be reasonably confident of good sales in the future with an author who has had reasonable sales in the past. Thus, UQP wanted the Australian rights to Peter Carey's writings Oscar and Lucinda not so much because he had published The Fat Man in History with the company in the early 1970s but rather because of the more recent critical and commercial success of Illywhacker. Carey joined UQP's stable of Australian fiction writers, which included Kate Grenville, the late Olga Masters, Janette Turner Hospital and Thea Astley.
An author joins a publisher's stable by virtue of signing a book contract that includes an agreement to offer their next book to that publisher. In some ways this is akin to a footballer signing a contract to join a football club. Although there is no formal agreement, in practice there tends to be a no-poaching agreement between houses. Speaking to me before her company was swallowed up by Penguin, Diane Gribble of McPhee Gribble said that although there were authors that she and her partner Hilary McPhee would like to publish, because of this unwritten agreement they did not go after other publishers' authors. But authors do change publishers. There is a degree of poaching despite the conventions. There is also the publisher-hopper, the author who is not particularly identified with any one publisher but has published with many. In addition an experienced author may approach a publisher to have them. Diane Gribble gave the example of Tim Winton:
Tim Winton, for example. His first two books were published by Allen and Unwin. But I really think the reason he changed publishers was because we were a more suitable publisher. I mean I'm sure Allen and Unwin did his first two books extremely well. I'm sure nobody had any reason to be unhappy with them. But they're not really set up to be fiction publishers.
An author may change houses because a sympathetic publisher has moved. There are many instances of this in American publishing, particularly when an editor changes houses, taking his or her writers along too. A recent example of this occurred in Australia. While he was at Nelson's, Robert Sessions had published artist Graeme Base's first book, My Grandma Lived in Gooliguulch. Sessions and Base had discussed another book of animal illustrations for children and Nelson's had contracted this book (which would eventually be published under the title Animalia). Base was keen to work with Sessions. Thus when Sessions set up as an independent publisher under his own name, Sessions bought out Nelson's contract and reacquired the book. It was subsequently published as a Viking Kestrel book in association with Robert Sessions in 1986.
Despite these movements, there is a good deal of stability across the publishing industry. Authors remain with publishing houses much as footballers stay with clubs. Thus, for example, most of Bob Connell's recent books have been published by Allen and Unwin, Ross Fitzgerald has published all his books about Queensland with UQP, while Humphrey McQueen is a Penguin author. The same thing applies to fiction. Peter Corris, for example, has published all his recent novels and short stories with Allen and Unwin while Helen Garner published with McPhee Gribble.
What I have written so far presupposes one kind of writer, the serious dedicated writer, known or unknown, who provides a manuscript to the publisher. The publisher receives the manuscript, edits it and negotiates whatever other changes are deemed necessary. The published work subsequently appears and readers read it, review it, study it and so on. However this is only one kind of authorship and one kind of relationship between the different elements of author, publisher and reader.
The Lonely Planet publishing house with headquarters in Melbourne and an office in California operates with a different concept of author. The house specialises in a particular kind of book, namely travel books for the independent traveler. Lonely Planet has a particular relationship with its readers and, through its newsletter, invites them to write to the company about its travel books, where necessary correcting and updating the information in the books. The best letters win some free books for their writer as well as publication in the newsletter. Thus when a writer (or an in-house editor) comes to revise a book for a new edition, there will be a pool of new information available and this will be incorporated in the new edition.
If the line between writer and reader is blurred here, elsewhere it is the line between writer and publisher that often disappears. Sometimes an outside writer will write a book based on their travels in a particular place but often a book is written (or revised) in-house. After all the founder of the company, Tony Wheeler, began the company to publish a book he had written and he still, from time to time, will write or revise a book.
Perhaps Lonely Planet is an extreme example but it helps make the point, one that is perhaps clearer in the field of educational publishing, that there are many ways that a book can come about. The single author is only one of several kinds of agency that can produce a manuscript. Even where a writer and publisher stick to their traditional roles, publishers can play a more active part in the gestation of a manuscript than simply one of sitting back and waiting for manuscripts to come in. Thus Brian Johns (when at Penguin), John Iremonger (at Hale and Iremonger, then at Allen and Unwin and now at Melbourne University Press), and Hilary McPhee and Diane Gribble have all acquired reputations across the industry for working their network of contacts. As Diane Gribble put it:
Hilary had written a book with Patricia [Edgar] in the early 1970s called Media She. She'd actually first published a book with Patricia called One To Five in Australia which she had written with Tom Roper and other people about pre-school education in Australia. Then Hilary and Patricia wrote Media She together. So that when Patricia finally ended up with something to do with publishing, it was to us that she came. We'd seen her over the years. I mean she was the kind of person we'd have the occasional gasbag lunch with where we'd reorganise the world. That's been very important to us, it's kind of tendrils out into the community. It's very important for publishers. We've always worked the community, our own community very hard. I don't mean necessarily physically. We don't go out with a big chequebook or a big contract in our pocket. We go out and talk to people.
Over and above this activity of creating and cultivating a network of possible sources for both ideas and manuscripts, publishers often play a creative role with an author in turning a piece of writing into a publishable manuscript. John Iremonger offered a good illustration of the creative effort that Allen and Unwin put into the Jill Matthews' book Good and Mad Women. The manuscript first came to Iremonger as a PhD thesis, highly praised by Hugh Stretton, one of its markers. Iremonger who was skeptical of Stretton's judgement, had a good look at the manuscript and thought it needed further work. Matthews tried to revise it as a book, but, after a time, became bogged down. Iremonger brought in an editor and from then on it was a three way process of tearing apart the manuscript and rebuilding it. Eventually the effort paid off and the book was published. The book was both a critical and a commercial success.
If a publisher can frequently be drawn into the creative process of rewriting and restructuring a manuscript for publication, then the logical extension of this kind of situation is one where the publisher is also an author. While this is uncommon, it does happen in a variety of ways in different sectors of trade publishing. Jennifer Rowe began 'back writing' (as she described it) at Hamlyn's and continued at Angus and Robertson in the 1970s and 1980s. This writing usually consisted of anonymously providing the text, for example, of a book on photography or a cook book. Inventing stories for her young daughter, she decided to write down some of these and under the name Emily Rodder (her grandmother's name). Angus and Robertson accepted the first story whereupon Rowe revealed the author's identity to the head of publishing, Richard Walsh. She subsequently published two more children's books under the name of Emily Rodder with Angus and Robertson. Later she wrote a murder mystery Grim Pickings under her own name. Rowe decided to send it to Allen and Unwin, Peter Corris' publishers, both because it was embarrassing to be her own publisher and because Angus and Robertson did not publish this kind of fiction.
Rowe's experience although not universal is representative enough of a tendency within publishing whereby the publisher for one reason or another becomes an author. Thus, for example, mass market book packager Daniel O'Keefe (who, like Rowe, began in publishing at Paul Hamlyn in the late 1960s) wrote a cheese book Richard Whitcombe's Book of Cheese for his own company. He then recycled the material he had researched in a cheese column he wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald for four and a half years again under the pseudonym of Richard Whitcombe in a second book, Richard Whitcombe's Cheese Board.
If there is a gravitational pull of publishers towards writing in mass market publishing there is a similar pull towards the quality end of trade publishing. Grim Pickings is an instance of this. An even better example is the career of former publisher John Hooker. Hooker was publishing manager of Penguin until 1978. After a short time at Collins, he left to devote himself to full-time writing. His books include The Bush Soldiers; Brekky, Dinner and Tea and Standing Orders. Finally, to complicate the picture a little further, one might mention Bruce Pascoe, publisher of Australian Short Stories. Pascoe was an author of short stories who set up his own publishing house when he was dissatisfied with the deals various publishers offered to him as editor of the stories. In an effort to offer his contributors a better deal, he set up his own publishing house. Subsequently he found he was unable to give enough time to his own writings because of his commitments as a publisher.
If authors invariably have relations with publishers, the favour is not necessarily returned. Publishers do acquire many of their manuscripts from authors but they also acquire them in other ways. As already noted Lonely Planet includes reader material in its subsequent editions of a book, the book very possibly being compiled by an in-house editor. A new book may also be a repackaging of an old book and here an old, long-established company such as Angus and Robertson (founded in 1887) is in a strong position, having as it does a very extensive backlist. Jennifer Rowe explained this further:
There are various ways you get books. One, you just get them through the post, which is unsolicited manuscripts. For those we have outside readers who read in the three areas of children, general and poetry. The second way you can get things is by someone in the company just picking up an idea - let's do a book about X or Y. Again that could be me. It's supposed to be me a lot of the time. It could be one of the senior acquisitions editors. Or it could be any of the editors on the staff, the office boy, the woman who makes the tea. It could be anyone at all. Everyone is encouraged, the design department, the reps. What we need is a book on so and so. It's then mine and the acquisitions editor's responsibility to find a suitable author. The third way is by taking books that have been published by other publishers overseas, by going to book fairs, by looking through Publishers' Weekly, by using the contacts you have already because you've dealt with them before. It's mostly non-fiction - we don't for example buy in novels very much. Mostly it will be something like a diet cook book such as Fit For Life where we took the British Commonwealth rights for an American book which we then adapt to our market. We've just sold 100,000 copies of that book in hardback. So they do, in fact, involve work, they don't involve just buying them. I suppose there might be one a month of these. And sometimes it's just finding old books that may be ours or somebody else's that by turning around and repackaging slightly we can turn into something else. That is, to use a very cliched kind of example, you might decide that ... you could pull out of A.B. Patterson all his poems about horses. And you could do an anthology with horse pictures in it. You could do that although it probably wouldn't go all that well. Or you could say: 'that book I've just found in the Mitchell Library would be a lovely book if we dressed it up and put a pretty cover on it.' For example, Mary Gilmore's Old Days Old Ways. It was in our Australian Classics Series. It was just sitting there. Somebody on staff - the contract manager - drew my attention to the fact that it was a really lovely read - all these things about women's lives in those days that you didn't often hear about. I read it and I thought it was so charming. We did it and it now has a whole new lease of life. Because it was repackaged to direct it into the hands of the people who might want buy it. We might suddenly say - well look we've got these two novels by Peter Kocan, The Treatment and The Cure. Perhaps we should put them into one volume so that it looks to people like a different way of looking at it. And when kids want to read it in schools it will be in one easy volume. So you are always playing with what you've got and with what other people have got. You might be wanting to do it in a completely different way. As well as taking in new things. And you're supposed to keep a very fresh eye on everything you are doing. The acquisitions editors are all the time going through projects and thinking up projects. And I'd say that most of our really big sellers are not submitted manuscripts but are from in-house ideas.
However, buying local rights, acquiring new manuscripts or repackaging material from the back list are all relatively slow ways to build up a house's list. When I spoke to Jennifer Rowe in 1986, Angus and Robertson's international parent company, Rupert Murdoch's News International had holdings in the British based publisher William Collins as well as holdings in the American publishing house Bay Books. News International could have integrated these various interests in book publishing, thus giving Angus and Robertson access to large British and American lists. However for a time at least the company showed no interest in giving these publishing companies a bonanza of new titles. Meantime Penguin has moved in this direction. Penguin's parent company, Pearson International, bought British publishers Michael Joseph and Hamish Hamilton and American publisher Viking in 1986, thus considerably expanding Penguin's hardback list. Such an acquisition meant that Penguin Australia became a major distributor of hardback books in the Australian market. In turn Penguin Australia have also bought the publisher Lloyd O'Neill as well as Nelson Australia. Almost overnight the company considerably expanded the number of books both on its back list as well as in its overall monthly production schedule. Where once upon a time it might have taken a decade or more to build this size list (and therefore a significant share of the market), having a parent company with the necessary resources means the process can be bypassed. Almost overnight Penguin became a significant publisher of hardbacks.
Up to this point, I have examined publishing mostly in terms of author/publisher relations. However publishing houses are themselves complex social entities composed of people who don't always see eye to eye. Various differences might be stressed but there is one overriding one - between publishing as a commercial activity and publishing as a cultural activity. It helps explain how the house conceives itself and what it is doing. This split seems to be a principal one and in turn it helps explain some others.
Take for example the division along gender lines in publishing houses. While it is by no means universal, women in publishing generally work in the editorial side of the company while men work in sales and marketing. 1 Women very often rise to senior positions on the publishing side of publishing companies but it is rare for them to occupy senior executive positions. For example, Jennifer Rowe and Susan Ryan have both been head of publishing at their respective companies, Angus and Robertson and Penguin (both incidentally succeeded males in these positions) nevertheless the chief executive position in their respective organizations still remained with a male. In turn this sexual division of labour helps to consolidate the culture/commerce split in publishing houses.
As a culture industry publishing, and especially trade publishing, has its own particular milieu or outlook. Michael Webster, publisher of the Australian Bookseller and Publisher, outlined the way that a particular ideology informed the business and the style of publishing:
Generally speaking people produce a product and put it on the market with fairly low expectations and take a punt. Publishing is the ultimate entrepreneurial activity. And every single book is a new capital venture. People talk about the entrepreneurs, the Alan Bonds, who buy breweries, but every time you publish something you are looking at a whole new market. And this model of the person who buys books just doesn't exist. ... Publishers don't quite know why they are doing as well as they are. Their greatest strength is their greatest weakness. You can't be in this business for money. You can make a very nice living but the very wealthy ... If you look at who's made money out of books, you can count it on one hand. There are very few. There are people on good salaries but Publishers ... it's a very interesting thing, don't have big houses. They are very modest people. Trevor Glover [former managing director of Penguin Australia] is the most powerful publisher in Australia yet he comes across as a gentle man who likes books. Which he is. He is a gentle man who likes books. That's why he's in publishing. But as well as Trevor Glover, there is Lloyd O'Neill who is an absolutely pragmatic publisher who doesn't read creative Australian fiction but he has a strong commitment to non-fiction. He's one of the wise men of the book trade. He's a real bookman in the sense of loving well produced books, fiction or non-fiction. I don't think he puts a greater value on one above the other. If it's a good solid road map of Australia and it's the best of its genre then he will be pleased with it. Whereas Brian Johns [then publishing director of Penguin] would have a completely different perception. He would be on about getting a creative thought to the public in as cheap a form as possible. And accessible as possible. He's also right.
There are certainly enough spokespeople for the quality end of general publishing, the end that Webster saw Brian Johns articulating when at Penguin. This quality end is what might be called high culture and brings together both the prestige of literary culture and academic culture. And in turn, galvanising this, is the romantic ideology of artistic creation, that sees a sacredness in this kind of creation that makes it and its participants superior to other social activities and groups. Many in the book trade are ideologues for this cultural face of publishing. Bruce Pascoe put it as follows:
It's a labour of love in that we would have been better off if we'd used that money to buy old houses in Fitzroy, paint them and sell them again three weeks later. People make very handsome sums out of that. But it would bore me to tears because I have enough trouble to get up the enthusiasm to paint my own place, let alone someone else's. But I love books. It's a pleasure to be involved with them. You have no idea the thrill we get, for instance, out of producing a book like Australian Short Stories with Albert Tucker's painting of Joy Hesser on the front cover. To be involved with that and to be the producer of it is an extraordinary privilege. And in Australia I suppose we're lucky in that people with no capital like ourselves can do that. We can decide when we will use an Albert Tucker painting on a collection of stories that include Barry Dickins, Elizabeth Jolley, and others. I think it's an extraordinary privilege.
Book publishing has certainly got higher prestige than some other areas of the culture industry have. Most publishers, even including those at the mass market end of trade publishing, seem mindful of the high cultural dimension of books and publishing. Laurie Muller of UQP described his house as an energetic, culturally sensitive publisher. While Norm Rowe, then an acquisitions editor at Angus and Robertson, mentioned what he called former publishing director Richard Walsh's 'larrikin list', a list that included books with a 'cultural cachet' as well as books such as Athol Moffat's A Quarter to Midnight. In Rowe's view this 'larrikin' list was partly designed to maintain the cultural reputation of Angus and Robertson. However, there is little money to be made from the high culture end of publishing. The Australian market is too small. Thus quality publishing is a risky business and one, not surprisingly, that larger publishers mostly try to avoid - although there are certain exceptions to this discussed below. Instead, quality publishing is mostly left to the small houses such as University of Queensland Press, Hale and Iremonger and Fremantle Arts Centre Press. Their concentration on the culturally prestigious is partly by choice but also because they lack the distribution machine that would allow them to compete with larger publishers for bigger markets. McPhee Gribble was representative here. Diane Gribble remarked to me that the company's list had 'integrity' and was 'unpolluted by unnecessary and commercial titles'. At the same time, though, they were financially vulnerable because there was only a small market for the high culture fiction they published. To save themselves from going under, McPhee Gribble made an arrangement whereby they become a publishing satellite of Penguin although 'the future of the imprint' was guaranteed. (Penguin acquired the company's list in November 1989 and McPhee remained as publisher of the imprint; Gribble left to start up a new non-fiction imprint).
This partnership merely formalised a structural link between some of the smaller houses in the publishing industry and the larger houses. The structural function of the smaller houses, especially those mentioned here, is to conduct a kind of cultural research and development on behalf of the larger companies. Laurie Muller spoke of this phenomenon in relation to Peter Carey, the process whereby an author may be first published by a small house. This is a form of talent spotting and will bring an author to the attention of the larger companies. The small press often acts as a sieve or conduit for new authors. In this case UQP in effect helped bring Carey to the attention of larger international houses such as Faber and Picador. These literary books, whether they are fiction, autobiography or history, are hard to market precisely because it is usually difficult to identify their readership. By contrast, educational books are produced in the light of clear knowledge of their intended audience and market. Indeed small publishers were instrumental in the 1970s in publishing women's writings and opening up a market for feminist books, a market that large publishers would later embrace.
If small and large is one division across publishing, another more fundamental one is that between culture and commerce. Once upon a time publishing was thought to be an apt profession for 'gentlemen'. And even today publishing is still characterised by a sharper split between the activity as a cultural mission and as a commercial undertaking. One can crudely range different houses across a spectrum with a mass market publisher such as Kevin Weldon at one end and a company such as UQP or McPhee Gribble at the other. Certainly Weldon had a sharp sense of the stronger cultural pulls operating in some houses:
The whole industry is boring and worn out. They all get so besotted by their special place in history by being a bookseller or being an editor in books. They're really psyched out about their important role. It's precious. 'By Gawd, I'm the chosen few'. Where do we see window displays now? Why can't we see something in a store to excite us? Is that bad? Does it make the book any less exciting to read? I see people take over a bookshop. They have fresh ideas. They put effort into it. They're not too tainted and they really ... And suddenly it's not too long before they became precious about what the books are and what kinds of books they are going to have.
Despite Weldon's mockery of the serious, cultural end of the book trade, the positions are not nearly as simple or as exclusive as they might first appear. Weldon after all was the publisher of the Bicentennial history, Australians: A Historical Library, while a more cultural house like UQP looks for commercial successes, both literary (Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda) and more popular (Adrian McGregor's King Wally and Wally and the Broncos). In other words the urge to culture as well as the pull to commerce can co-exist within a publishing house. Norm Rowe for example saw such forces at work within Angus and Robertson in 1986/87 - on the one hand figures such as the fiction editor Phillipe Tangury and himself (publishing a serious current affairs list) and those elsewhere in the company who admired Kevin Weldon and felt that high volume sales were the way to go. Rowe's own publishing hero was John Iremonger: 'top-class, strong, stringent, intellectual material, no compromises, no shit, no catering to idiots'. Yet ironically Iremonger would not agree to be typed so easily and was more pragmatic:
It's a commercial enterprise. Too much attention is given to matters of taste and not enough to matters of entrepreneurial skills. The corrective, of course, is always to go to a remainder bookshop. Because there you can see all the mistakes. The other way to learn a lot about publishing is to talk to others, such as book reps. If you spoke to either of our two Sydney book reps you might well get another picture. But it would be grounded in their having to browbeat booksellers.
Iremonger stresses book publishing as a commercial enterprise, yet the books he has been associated with are usually regarded as belonging to the 'cultural' and 'quality' end of the market. Indeed his move from Allen and Unwin to Melbourne University Press will surely not see MUP being taken 'down market' - if anything the reverse. Clearly the culture/commerce divide is an uneasy one marking at times a high culture/popular culture divide - at other times a 'commercial' versus a 'taste' orientation. It may be best then to understand Iremonger here as stressing the importance of a commercial orientation within whatever market segment of book publishing that a publisher is operating within in. And clearly different market segments require different kinds of commercial strategies. In the quality fiction and non-fiction markets various kinds of financial support - both governmental and private - can be critical to a publisher making a profit. Thus the Australian Film Commission has provided subsidies to the payment of editorial, production costs, and author's fees for Australian cinema and TV titles; the Literature Board of the Australia Council has supported the publication of plays, poetry and quality fiction; 2 various Universities and professional associations have assisted with the publication costs of scholarly books; and private support has, at times, been critical to the subsidisation of books on ethnic communities, histories of business, mining, and secondary schools, and quality coffee table books such as George Seddon and David Ravine's excellent A City and its Setting for Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
But such financial support has not only been critical to the quality cultural end of the publishing market. It has also been critical to the mass market, particularly but not exclusively the mass produced coffee table book. Although I have tended to stress book publishing as a private market it should be stressed that non-market factors of publication support stretch across the industry with commercial publication strategies being shaped in not insignificant ways by such public and private patronage. The significant 'distortion' within the Australian publishing 'market place' produced by such patronage requires further research.
Australian publishing is an offshoot of foreign publishing houses, mostly British, establishing Australian distribution agencies which later began local publishing programs. The 1970s and 1980s have seen the arrival of other firms, takeovers of local publishers by multinationals (for example, Jacaranda by John Wiley of New York), and the absorption of local branch plants into large multinational conglomerates (Penguin UK and Australia into Pearson International). As mentioned above, it was fears about the domination of these houses in local publishing that led to a temporary split in the ABPA and the formation of a breakaway group - the Australian Independent Book Association. Fears about the effects of this takeover trend have split opinion amongst industry analysts. For example Helen Wilson has voiced worries that this overseas domination is leading to a situation where manuscripts with specifically local issues and themes are likely to be rejected by publishers with overseas connections. 3 On the other hand, Eric de Groenberg suggests that the Australian book market had been relatively fixed in size since the early 1970s and that a process of import substitution has been in progress. In this situation overseas companies had been Australianising themselves in order to protect their existing market position. 4 Valerie Haye agrees that the arrival of multinationals has been beneficial; in that they have increasingly not only distributed overseas books but have also increasingly published Australian books. 5 In the industry itself, especially among those who work for a multinational publisher, there seemed to be more agreement with the de Groenberg/Haye view. Certainly Brian Stonier, one of the founders of Sun Books and later, managing director of Macmillan Australia saw it this way. He saw the difference between ownership and control as important here:
The Americans [multinational publishers] are particularly bad at making all the publishing decisions overseas. That's why no American publisher has ever made an Australian publishing decision because they send all their manuscripts to the US and all the editorial work is done overseas. This is good for a company like ours which has total control in Australia. I don't think any of the Americans have editorial independence. Most of the other [British] companies have it in Australia - Oxford, Longman Cheshire, Macmillan, all have publishing here. So the question of control versus ownership is a really major one when talking about publishing companies. Macmillan is 100% owned overseas but all the profits from the business are retained in Australia except for the minimum distribution we are required to make under the requirements of the income tax act. So we have to return a minimum dividend to the UK for tax purposes but all other profits are retained here and the total editorial and management control is here.
However not every one in the industry would agree with this kind of claim of local autonomy for the Australian branch of a multinational publisher. Bruce Pascoe of Australian Short Stories hinted at rows over editorial control between a parent and offspring. Robert Sessions too spoke of a more public quarrel and upheaval between Penguin UK and Penguin Australia that occurred in the late 1970s:
Whatever the articulated reasons for this, it was about dependence and independence. The Australian company was doing extremely well. So well that one year we remitted profits of such a high order that it actually kept the English company going that year. And the English company didn't like the tail wagging the dog. We were regarded as a pack of colonial cowboys who were not toeing the corporate line and were doing far too well for our own good. Getting pretty arrogant with it. They came out in force and decided to cut us down to size. It couldn't happen now. But in those days it was very much an autocratic British publisher who didn't like seeing an Australian company being so successful and didn't know what to do about it.
Sessions went on to note that Penguin was now part of Pearson International and this had meant a more stable environment for the company. An Australian subsidiary of a multinational book publisher (or any other industry for that matter) will be given a good deal of local control and little interference provided the local branch is profitable. Or perhaps local workers need to believe this. In 1987 when I interviewed Jennifer Rowe as the then publishing manager at Angus and Robertson she mentioned that she had never met Rupert Murdoch, owner of the parent group News International, nor indeed had she suffered any interference from the parent company. That changed in 1989 (Rowe had left by then to follow her former boss Richard Walsh to Kerry Packer's publishing interests, where she picked up the editorship of the Australian Women's Weekly). News International had decided by then to reorganise its book publishing interests (these included ownership of Angus and Robertson, Bay Books and Gordon and Gotch, as well as an interest in Collins). In April that year twelve members of Angus and Robertson including the publisher were sacked as part of this process of reorganisation and rationalisation. Something of this same uncertainty and lack of autonomy between the Australian publishing house and its multinational parents showed up elsewhere in this research. Part of the initiative for the formation of the small Australian publisher/packager McPhee Gribble came from the well-paid but frustrating position that Hilary McPhee found herself in when she worked as a publisher at Heinemann Australia. As her one-time business partner Diane Gribble told it, McPhee left because of the frustration of having to clear editorial decisions with the London office. Working in a small indigenous house did not present those kinds of problems. It does, however, present other problems.
Cash flow is a problem for a small publisher. It is by no means just restricted to the smaller company, but a larger company has a steady income from its back list so it can afford to be more financially patient when it puts a new title on the market. The smaller company on the other hand generally needs faster sales. But cash flow only points up what is a larger problem for the small indigenous houses - distribution. Sometimes a publisher may have such limited print runs that it is not economically feasible to distribute the books to a retail outlet. Thus Impacts Publications, publisher of a series of socially oriented books, such as Community Participation, Growing in the City, and Medium Density Housing Kit, sells by mail order only. Australian Short Stories have larger print runs and like several other small publishers use the services of independent distributors.
The tensions between independent distributors and small publishers are clearly evident in the following remarks by Bruce Pascoe:
Our newsagency distribution now is Network who are pretty good. Then there's Bookchain. That comprises Tower in New South Wales who are very good, and Reed Books themselves, Pickwick in WA who are improving all the time. We gave away **** in South Australia because they were hopeless. Picked up with Bookwise over there who are a lot better. And **** in Victoria who go from being terrific to hopeless. Sometimes you're good but when you're bad, you're bloody horrible. The quality is all over the place. Sometimes they just don't get it out. You then have to go and help them physically put it in cars. This varies. If they're doing the Bob Ansett book for instance, a hardback book and they know that it is all their Christmases rolled into one. They are going to sell thousands of these - which they did - then they'll forget all about everyone else. Well they're in it to distribute books and make a dollar. You can understand that if they have a big run like this - and that is their aim - then they have to get this big book out. Otherwise they are not going to get another big book. I suppose they can only carry little books like ours if they have those big books. It's also an animal that eats itself because if they keep doing big books then they'll keep getting lots more big books and eventually they won't have room for the little books like ours.
Outside of independent distributors, publishers often use the distribution machine of other publishers. And of course it is usually the case that the publisher with the extensive and efficient distribution is a large multinational while the publisher using these facilities is a small, indigenous publisher. Thus for example Fremantle Arts Centre Press, after it won the New South Wales Premier's Award for Albert Facey's A Fortunate Life, turned to Penguin to distribute what became a best-seller. Later Fremantle joined with Hale and Iremonger in Sydney in a reciprocal arrangement whereby they agreed to distribute each other's books in their own areas. Fremantle and University of Qld Press (for its non-fiction) now use Penguin as a distributor. However because they are both major publishers of Australian fiction, UQP prefers to distribute its fiction through Allen and Unwin.
Something further of the dilemmas of the small publisher in relation to distribution was outlined by Sylvia Hale of Hale and Iremonger:
Our books are not the easiest ones to sell. They are directed at the serious market. So we cannot go to the very large distributors who will tend to, say, put them into the Too Hard Basket. They might flash it around. But they really won't, I feel, go out of their way to promote it to the best of all possible advantage. With smaller distributors I think they, to survive, have to take on so many different lists that again one's books, if they don't automatically walk off the shelves and sell themselves are hard to sell. What we found we needed was (a) a sales force who were prepared to read the books and (b) prepared to sympathise with what we were on about, and (c) were actively prepared to go out and tell the bookshops 'Look it can't be all sale and return, it can't be all mass market - there are a few intelligent thinking people out there who do want to read.' I must say I feel we have been successful in doing that.
Distribution is one part of the business side of publishing but there are others. One problem a new publisher faces is whether to adopt a mixed publishing profile or to specialise in a particular kind of book or market. Specialisation has both advantages and drawbacks. Specialising - particularly in a kind of book that a larger publisher is unlikely to handle - may be a way of establishing a niche in the market but it is after all very dependent on being able to find that market.
The most strikingly successful specialist publisher in Australia is the Melbourne-based Lonely Planet. Tony Wheeler and his wife Wendy began Lonely Planet as a part time activity in 1973 and on a full time basis in 1975. The publishing venture grew out of their own interest in independent travel and gave rise to a particular kind of travel book (for example South East Asia on a Shoestring). Their enquiries are often generated by word of mouth leading either to mail order sales or else sales in the travel section of larger bookshop. Lonely Planet also targets particular markets. For example a lot of their early sales were achieved in Australia with travel books that covered Asia and the Pacific. Lonely Planet had begun a series on each country on the South American continent, a program that was particularly designed for the North American market.
It is usually the larger publisher who can afford not to specialise, although of course even here there would be certain kinds of books such a publisher would not publish. Penguin Australia, for example, does not publish books of poetry. Nevertheless most of the larger publishing houses develop a mix of different kinds of lists so they have several strengths rather than just one. A mix rather than a specialisation helps spread the business risk. One familiar profile among British companies in Australia, companies such as Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Nelson and Heinemann, is to publish in both educational and general or trade publishing. Another strategy, one pursued by Penguin and Allen and Unwin among others, is to publish general books which find their way onto university and college curricula. In this way these houses might be said to have an educational market although they do not publish textbooks as such. Angus and Robertson had also published for both markets but sold off their educational lists. Similarly in 1987 Nelson decided to concentrate its energies on educational publishing and sold its general lists to Penguin. Even though Angus and Robertson is now in general book publishing only, it is not unusual in having an internal mix of titles, some of which are mass market books while others, such as, say, an original volume of poetry, will only have a minority market. But as Jennifer Rowe, then publishing director of Angus and Robertson pointed out, the mass market book will help subsidise the more literary title. Brian Johns, then at Penguin, expanded on this idea of an overall mix inside one kind of publishing:
In my view I need a broad list because Penguin had a broad list. My view solidly is that you need to have the range to, hopefully, convince most people that when they see that black-suited gentleman or the orange spine, that there's possibly a book in there for them. That's one of the reasons. The other thing is that I think it's terrific to have as broadly based an audience as possible. Some publishers say 'we know our readers and we'll publish into that market'. My view has always been from day one that we need a very broadly based market to be effective. It's exciting. It's commercially sounder. And it disciplines you. I'd very much prefer to travel down the highway than one of the sidestreets because if you travel down the highway, you learn a lot more on the way.
As I suggested above, even generalist houses specialise. The mix of titles is always finite such that publishers come to be defined through the lists of titles they publish. John Iremonger, interviewed whilst publisher at Allen and Unwin, mentioned various kinds of books he published including 'how to books', small business and business studies, military studies, and womens studies among others. These in effect add up to his publishing program and thus, when confronted with a proposal for a new book, he can decide quickly whether or not a book will fit his program. Sally Milner speaking as founder and editor of Greenhouse Publications (it was taken over by Australian Consolidated Press 1987 and later sold to Penguin in 1989 6 ) put the matter in a nutshell by suggesting that a list and a publishing program reflected its publisher:
A list reflects the interests of the person or persons who create it. I don't think I could publish just one kind of book. For example Lonely Planet just publish travel books. They love travel. And that's fine - it reflects their interest. Hilary and Di (McPhee Gribble) publish fiction and that obviously reflects their more intellectual interests than I have. I think the list very much reflects the person of the people. We (at Greenhouse) are interested in all sorts of things.
Thomas Nelson's Barney Rivers in 1987 gave an indication of how his company was then shaping its trade book publishing program. Nelson had decided to expand its biography list but not to publish adult fiction. Nelson's decided on the latter move not least because it had no one on staff it thought capable of evaluating fiction. Thus Nelson were looking for biographies and when they were offered a biography of Christina Stead they had no hesitation in accepting it. It fitted the list they were developing. On the other hand Angus and Robertson have a different publishing profile from that of Allen and Unwin. The house describes itself as specialising in Australiana, natural science, fiction, poetry and children's books.
In this sense publishing is a form of gambling. Every decision to publish a new book is an uncertain investment that may or may not payoff. There are from time to time unexpected and overwhelming successes, such as A Fortunate Life. There have also been many failures. As Barney Rivers put it: 'a publisher likes to forget those, hoping to learn from the mistake and do better in the future'. Of course, depending on what is in a publisher's backlist, one house may be better placed to ride out vicissitudes in current publishing than another. The backlist is like a series of old bets which have not only been successful in the past but continue to provide a return in the present. Larger houses are more favourably placed than a smaller house. Their backlist will help generate the funds to publish a range of new books and the probable success of at least some of those new books ensures that the backlist will be profitable in the future. Nevertheless publishing is a financially risky business. Brian Stonier, interviewed as publishing director of Macmillan and formerly an accountant, went further and described publishing as a bad financial business to be in:
If you want to make money for a business, don't set up an inventory based business (that's publishing). Don't choose a fashionable product (at least half of publishing is a fashion, a trend, a conscious thing, very often a trendy thing). We've learnt that trendy publishing is disastrous because by the time you have the book out, the trend has petered out. Don't choose a product with a short shelf life. Don't choose a business that requires large capital investment. Don't enter a market that will swallow you up. Publishing and book selling break all of those rules for success.
Given these risks, why do publishers stay in this area? There are three answers to such a question. It is partly the inertia of old habits. It is partly the cultural attraction of publishing as against other industries. A feeling that books matter in ways that other commercially produced products do not. But publishers are also caught up by the excitement of the 'gamble'. Publishers as different as Kevin Weldon, John Curtain and John Iremonger all spoke of the challenge of making the figures work. But Jennifer Rowe put it most succinctly:
The Quarter to Midnight book was quoted in just about every newspaper, at least in Sydney, for weeks and weeks. That was really successful. Successful in money terms because it was a successful book. But it was obvious at $14.95 it was not a big dollar earner in that sense. But it gave everyone here a lot of satisfaction. It raised our profile in that area which we were very happy about. In fact I think I can honestly say that it gives us as much pleasure to sell out our 4,000 copies of a little children's novel in three weeks and be able to paperback as it does for us to be able to do a big thing. It's because of the challenge of getting it right. It doesn't matter what it is. It's just good to get it right. It's fun. That's what makes it fun - getting it right.
Getting the figures right and making the figures work is a matter of juggling several different elements rather than just one. It is particularly a matter of price but also a matter of the size of print runs, profit margins, marketing and intended audience and possible sources of subsidy, among other things. And beyond that there are questions of the estimated life expectancy of the book in question, the expected volume to be warehoused and how long it might be held there, whether to sell a certain amount as specials or indeed to remainder the book and clear warehouse price. Each of these elements require an article in themselves and I will limit myself to one - price. 7 Book prices are seen in the trade as being highly sensitive so that an increase in price will result in a drop in the number of copies sold. (Travel books are a possible exception. Tony Wheeler felt that after paying for an international air fare, a traveler is not likely to quibble over a $5 difference in the price of a travel book.) If prices are kept low publishers are caught in a situation where they have to print a large number of new titles in order to generate a reasonable profit. Trevor Glover explained how the margins brought this about:
The revenue you get from an individual project is too small to justify market research. Market research costs a fortune and books earn peanuts. You can work it out on the back of an envelope. You do 10,000 copies of a $10 book; that's $100,000, of that 40% goes to the booksellers and that leaves 60%, $10,000 goes to the authors so you are back to $50,000, $20,000 goes to the printer and you're back to $30,000. These are rough figures. Then your overheads are running at 34%. You end up by making, if you're lucky, $5,000 net profit before tax on a 10,000 copy run.
Given these sometimes very small profit margins, it is necessary for companies such as Angus and Robertson and Penguin to print more than 150 new titles a year. There are few alternatives. The strategy of printing offshore began in 1964 and today most houses print in Asia. Thus there is little or no reduction to be had in printing costs. The one possibility for expanding profits seems to be in export sales. De Groenberg in his report says that the Australian market in books was stagnant with little expansion anticipated so that it was only through exports that there was likely to be any growth.
However, not all books (and therefore publishers) lend themselves so easily to export. They may be too local in their content or have only a small public. Thus many indigenous publishers and even Australian branches of multinationals are too specialised in their lists to expect much from overseas sales. Even Weldon himself, a publisher who has mostly specialised in mass market books, found himself in this position in relation to both The Macquarie Australian Dictionary and Australians: A Historical Library (The Bicentennial History).
Marketing is a crucial difference between publishing houses. A publisher such as McPhee Gribble had a good deal of editorial expertise, but it had fewer resources in the area of marketing. This left it in a weak position to get its books distributed and sold. Here the multinationals are in a strong position because historically their marketing/distribution expertise developed early as a means of distributing the books coming from head office. John Iremonger emphasised this point in speaking about the structure of Allen and Unwin in Australia. The company had only Iremonger and Patrick Gallagher, the managing director, working in the editorial department but has most of its personnel working in production and marketing. Iremonger pointed out that this pyramid structure was the reverse of that employed in the older university presses (most of which went out of business in the 1970s and early 1980s) which tended to employ most personnel in the editorial department and to have little in the way of a sales team. But a large marketing operation is also a consequence of publishing a lot of new titles. Allen and Unwin for example were publishing 120 new titles a year by the mid-1980s. Trevor Glover of Penguin also oversaw a large number of new titles each year (over 160) but pointed out that Penguin had to recently build up its marketing force in connection with this greatly expanded volume of production:
Life has changed dramatically in ten years. Again Penguin is not exceptional in this. Ten years ago, 80% of our turnover came from the backlist and 20% came from the frontlist. And that was in part why the marketing department they had here was so small. We were publishing very few Australian books. And what generates the need for a publicity department more than anything is having authors present that you can field around. Now it's 40% from the front list and 60% from the backlist. To sell so many books on the frontlist means you have to run to stand still. It's much harder selling new books. They all need promoting. Backlists - you just sit back and the orders come in.
This emphasis on marketing is a structural component of the book industry and not one that anyone is entirely happy with. As we shall see below, booksellers are caught in a situation where too many books are competing for too little bookshelf space and customer purchase. Neither are publishers happy with the situation. As John Kerr put it: 'trees are dying for no reason'. All are recognising the same phenomenon of oversupply but no individual is able to overcome the problem. Instead publishers, booksellers and customers alike grapple with the tendency as best they can.
In this article I have been concerned to sketch some of the external and internal relationships and dynamics of publishing houses in general books. Why distinctions exist between large and small houses and between multinational branch plants and indigenous publishers is an important indicator of whether or not the company is vertically integrated. In turn the extent to which a publisher has a responsive and efficient distributing mechanism will determine such things as its size, financial assets, the extent of specialisation and expertise among its staff, its ability to attract and hold authors and, of course, its ability to reach its readers. But as I have suggested in passing, the term 'publishing house' also disguises differences between the size and nature of companies. At one end of the scale there is a company such as Impacts Publications which consists of its owner and sole employee, Ron Perlgut, a company with little capital, small book runs and relatively expensive books. At the other there is a company such as Penguin with an editorial and marketing division of over 30 people, an output of over 150 titles a year as well as the most efficient and elaborate book distribution system in Australia. This machine distributes a host of company titles as well as those of the British parent company. These differences of size have important consequences for the internal dynamics of companies and this has been the other emphasis of this article.
For their assistance in the preparation of this article I would like to thank Noela McKay, Tom O'Regan and Toby Miller.
1. For an invaluable discussion of this gender divide and its effects upon the role and status of the editorial function within publishing houses see Lee White, 'The Role and Status of the Book Editor in Australia', MA Thesis, Murdoch University, 1986. This important work deserves to be better known.
2. In 1989/90 direct Literature Board subsidy to book publishing accounted for 10% of its budget of $3.8million. The success of the Board since its establishment is often found in the rise from 18 books of fiction published in 1972 to the 250 published in 1987. See Tom Dusevic, 'Book Market Debate Ignores the Importance of Australian Readers', Australian Financial Review, 4/10/1989, p. 14.
3. Helen Wilson, 'Australia and the International Publishing Industry' in E. Wheelwright and K. Buckley (eds) Communications and the Media in Australia (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1987), pp. 117-137.
4. Eric de Groenberg, The Business of Books (London: Hutchinson, 1980).
5. Valerie Haye, 'The Impact of Foreign Ownership on Australian publishing in the 1970s', MA Thesis, La Trobe, 1981.
6. For a very good discussion of Milner's experience under Australian Consolidated Press and her later separation from the company to start up her own publishing company Sally Milner Publishing see William Fraser, 'Under Cover', Good Weekend Magazine, Sydney Morning Herald, 25/11/1989, pp. 55-63.
7. It should be noted that the Commonwealth Government's Book Bounty undergirded these commercial calculations by publishers across the board. Since the bounty was not a 'variable' from publication to publication (except for very small print runs which did not meet the required number threshold) it did not tend to be raised as a significant issue by publishers.
New: 20 December, 1995 | Now: 15 March, 2015