Sunday, 31 August 2014

Independent Publishing: Where Next?

By Emily Tatti

When I studied creative writing, my teachers all said the same thing: given the choice, they would prefer to sign with an independent publisher, even if it wasn’t the most lucrative option. Why?

Because independent publishers consider editing the most important thing they do, and unlike the big conglomerates, they only publish 40 or 50 Aussie titles a year, so they have the ability to nurture local talent.

Scribe, Text and Black Inc. are three of the most recognisable independent publishing houses in Australia. When their respective publishers – Henry Rosenbloom, Michael Heyward and Chris Feik – sat down with author Sophie Cunningham, it was to discuss how they plan to survive in the future, given the volatile publishing landscape.

All three houses were established before Book Depository and Amazon did their damage on the book industry (before the Internet was a consideration, even) and they have had to adapt during the last decade by shifting into overseas markets, pursuing international rights for their authors and building commercial imprints.

As an aspiring writer, I found this session especially informative, because I’m so hell bent on finishing a manuscript I haven't even begun to consider these broader issues yet, but I think it’s important to understand the realities faced by publishing companies, given the affect these have on authors trying to break into the market.

All three publishers were candid about how grim it is out there for debut authors, though this can depend on whether the work is fiction or non-fiction. Henry Rosenbloom even had some stats on hand to illustrate this point, and they were disheartening to hear as a fiction writer. In Australia, the value of fiction slipped from $26 million in 2012 to $15 million in 2013, while non-fiction only slipped from $29 million to $26 million in the same period.

Literary fiction is struggling the most, because unfortunately it’s very hard to sell. According to Rosenbloom, if Scribe manages to sell 3,000 copies of a debut literary novel, this is considered a success. Years ago, they would sell upwards of 8,000 copies. As you can imagine, this elicited an audible gasp from the audience.

Michael Heyward even admitted that he is worried about Text’s growing dependence on its fiction list because non-fiction is a more reliable seller, though that’s not to say it isn’t fraught with its own issues as our reading attitudes shift. Because of the Internet, we have less of a desire to read serious investigative non-fiction – the kind that changes how we think about things. But we are drawn to voice-driven non-fiction, such as Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, and he believes this will soon become the most popular form of non-fiction.

In their final remarks, the panellists considered what we can expect to see from the publishing world in the years to come. Rosenbloom believes government intervention could be the only way to stop Amazon from destroying the publishing eco-system completely. Feik was quick to warn aspiring publishers against starting up a new company without some serious financial backing (and even then, he said, you should be prepared to lose money). A far more positive Heyward seemed excited about the unknown possibilities digital publishing could open up down the line.

Despite the air of negativity, all three remained confident that their companies would survive, as they have for the last three decades. After attending this session, and hearing how passionate they are about the future of the Australian publishing industry, I have no doubt they will.

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