Umm, excuse me ABC, don’t mean to be rude, but WE publish Australian sci-fi!

 

An article published recently by the ABC caught the attention of some of us at Odyssey. It’s about sci-fi’s representation by the Australian publishing industry, (you can find it here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-09/australian-science-fiction-authors-let-down-by-local-publishers/8336308). Sarah L’Estrange writes that sadly Australian sci-fi authors often feel they’re “let down” by local publishes, and find they have to look overseas to get published. It outlines how difficult it can be as a sci-fi author and paints a pretty bleak picture for those trying to get published.

While the article is focused mainly on the big publishers and their refusal to represent authors, it’s tackling the issue of sci-fi publishing in Australia as a whole, and reading it from a small press perspective a little voice in my head kept asking, “what about us? What about all the small publishers?”

My question was briefly answered. L’Estrange writes that authors often “resort to self-publishing – or go to smaller publishers.” It seems a little harsh to suggest that small publishers are a “resort” rather than a choice, but it’s okay, we’ll just assume it wasn’t meant like that. I held back the tears (just).

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But secondly, the mention small press does get is only very brief, the article then moving straight into looking at the young adult market. The actual influence and role of small press in publishing Australian sci-fi is left unknown. It seems silly to simply skirt over all the “smaller publishers” who might well be the very answer to the genre’s publishing issues.

In response I wanted to write about the contribution that small press can and does bring, and from an interns perspective, the role I think Odyssey plays in publishing Australian sci-fi.

Like many small publishers, Odyssey specialises in specific types of literature. Small press fills the niches that larger publishers can ignore, sci-fi, as we’ve seen being one of them. Odyssey looks to publish works that are about adventures, far away places and new ideas. So one such genre that Oydssey tends to specialise in is, you got it, sci-fi. It’s our thang.

And as part of my work as an intern I look through the submissions. My mission, if I chose to accept it (I do), is to discover new, original and exciting stories; to find sci-fi that we can publish. So while large publishers may be hesitant to publish Australian sci-fi, small publishers like Odyssey actively seek it.

Moreover, not only does small press look to publish the genre, it takes a vested and educated interest in it. Because small press is so specialised, the genres it publishes are specialties of the staff, they cater to that genre.

For example, part of the work Odyssey and their author’s engage in is attending and organising stands at relevant events. There’s a surprising amount of events on all the time, throughout the country, that encourage like-minded people to come together and talk about sci-fi. Odyssey has a Facebook group where everyone involved can post about such events. At least a couple times a week a new event is posted and suggested, an event where authors and publishers alike can attend, an event where they can network, engage with fans and promote their work. This engagement with the sci-fi community allows for better publicity and impact. Put simply, it means better sales.

Small press that specialise in their genre bring to authors a knowledge of, and genuine engagement with, that genre. Moreover, small press bring a fierce passion that major publishing houses cannot so easily boast. They may have more twitter followers, but do they even go to Gamma.Con?

Another massive advantage that independent press can offer to sci-fi authors is the ability to be very closely involved with the publication of their work, every step of the way. Well small press offers that to authors of any genre, but arguably with something like sci-fi where the concept, the world, the characters are so unique and original  it is even more important that the creator of the novel can be involved as much as possible to make sure that the final product is how the author envisioned it; that the cover art, the formatting, the language conveys exactly what it was meant to.

Perhaps small press is often overlooked because it exists in a different space to larger publishing firms, having a more small scale approach. But what it brings to author’s wanting to publish their sci-fi novels is a specialty in that genre, a keen interest in their area, skills and understanding of the sci-fi industry, and an inclusive publishing experience. Perhaps when the article mentioned above referred to small press as a last “resort”, what it really meant was a rescue. Small publishers, like the super heroes they are, are rescuing underrepresented Australian sci-fi authors one novel at a time.

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Redundant Editing?

This blog has an overwhelming preoccupation with book editing. For many, that’s the image of an editor that springs to mind when you hear the word. But for others, the vision can be that of the harried newspaper editor, a la Spiderman’s John Jonah Jameson Jr.

However, the endurance of that vision must be called into question. As we move deeper into the digital age, print newspapers are seeing circulation rates plummet, as consumers increasingly look to the screen for their news.

The result is that newspaper companies have been forced to slash jobs. What is interesting is that these have overwhelmingly been from editorial departments.

On 24th November, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that News Corp, Australia’s largest newspaper and media company, was to axe 55 jobs, all from editorial.

Traditionally, editors, particularly copy-editors, provided vital support to the newspaper publication process. Their job was primarily about being a second pair of eyes to review the article before it was printed. Editors oversaw corrections to spelling and grammar, fact checking, and changing sentences that may have left the newspaper liable to defamation or other legal issues.

With the cuts to editorial, these jobs are being consolidated into the ever-expanding role of the journalist. Increasingly, the onus is on these individuals to not only write, but also to find their own stories and edit them. The journalism process has changed to facilitate even more rapid news reports, by having articles immediately uploaded to the web, then subsequently incorporated into print.

This has significant implications for newspaper quality. As we all know, the benefits of having someone else review your writing are substantial. Most of us quickly grow familiar with our own work, making it more difficult to spot mistakes, or places where improvement is needed.

Inevitably, things slip through the cracks. Editors Victoria demonstrated how a lack of editorial review contributes to even the simplest mistakes, when they posted a photo of the Herald Sun’s December 2 front page. In a blatant typo, the newspaper proclaimed the year to be 2105, transporting its readers 90 years into the future simply through a disordering of the number keys.

Herald Sun

It was a very simple mistake. How many times have any of us hit the wrong keys as we whiz through a document? But this easy fix made it all the way through editorial and print, to appear on shelves across the country. I have to ask, if the Herald Sun had been given adequate editorial support, would this error have still slipped through the cracks? I consider that unlikely.

Many people, those in control of staffing decisions across News Corp and Fairfax in particular it seems, consider the role of an editor to be superfluous – desirable, not necessary. After all, anyone can proofread, right? While I won’t comment on the average person’s ability to fix their own grammatical issues (Youtube comments section anyone?) editors provide a level of quality control that our newspapers are currently floundering without.

Those in charge may think that axing editorial staff is the most efficient way to cut costs and have the waning print newspaper format survive in the digital age. I can assure them that it isn’t. The increased production of poor quality work that we see when the position of editor is devalued will only accelerate the decline of the medium, as consumers search for a medium that can at least get the date right.

A Matter of Unparalleled Import

Last week, the Government announced it would support a recommendation to remove the Parallel Importation Restrictions (PIRs) that are applied to books by the Copyright Act, last proposed by the Productivity Commission in 2009. This is a serious issue for anyone interested in the book industry, as PIRs are a vital financial foundation of Australian publishing. As the Productivity Commission stated in their 2009 report,

“Parallel Import Restrictions (PIRs) provide territorial protection for the publication of many books in Australia, preventing booksellers from sourcing cheaper or better value-for-money editions of those titles from world markets.”

The report goes on to suggest that PIRs place upward pressure on book prices to the benefit of publishers and authors and detriment of consumers. What it does not state are the benefits to the consumer from the PIR regime, namely access to a higher quality product and greater opportunity to read and discover local authors.

Certain commentators have been dismissive of these benefits and the affect of PIR on them. They have argued that the removal of PIRs will have virtually no effect, as the industry is much stronger and competitive than it claims, or should become so as an effect of the changes. They haven’t offered any real evidence to these claims.

One complainant has even objected to the use of colourful language, to which I say: This is the business of words, why would they not be used for effect? And distinctions of the colour of the language aside, the result of this recommendation would be disastrous, so let’s not waste time critiquing the semantics.

If we must discuss the language, then let’s talk about the buzzword that all economic reform in this country now hinges upon: innovation. Let’s be clear, destroying territorial copyright is not innovative, it’s destructive. For this economy to succeed through innovation, it’s about making Australian product and industry innovative, not “innovating” policy to allow world markets to crowd Australian book producers out. That’s not the creation of competition. It’s the end of competition.

The Australian publishing industry is a diverse and competitive place. The proof of this is in the success of Independent Publishing, which is thriving in this country, in large part due to innovation. To hollow out the value of the market by flooding it with cheap international titles will destroy the conditions by which this innovation and competition is possible.

Why invest in local books when the risk of a return is made even more untenable? We already function as an extremely high-risk industry, and all this policy does is diminish the reward.

As a result of of removing PIRs, investment in Australian publishing and writing will be down, which means jobs will be cut and the voices of many local authors will not be heard here or overseas.

So how do we address this and stop it from occurring?

I had considered an open letter to the Prime Minister and Treasurer, but respected authors Richard Flanagan, Peter Carey and Tom Keneally beat me to it. Their letter was fantastic and covered many of the same areas I wanted to cover. But I absolutely wanted to reiterate some of those concerns and add my voice to this debate, because without vocal opposition, this policy could very well come to pass.

The Australian publishing industry employs some 20,000 people, and is worth around $2 billion. Territorial copyright is a pivotal financial plank of the industry. One of the counter arguments to this is that most of this money is made by Australian branches of multinational companies. But this naively ignores the various economic and cultural benefits that those companies bring to the Australian publishing industry. To see the vacuum that could be created by diminishing this input, one only needs to look to New Zealand.

One thing that these recommendations don’t seem to understand is this: Booksellers cannot compete with Amazon on price. The removal of PIRs may bring a temporary breath of cool air to booksellers, allowing them to drop prices, but they know as we all do, that Amazon cannot be beaten in a price war and nor should we want that. Not only would it signal the further deterioration of the perceived value of the book, it would diminish us as a book industry.

It’s a flight of fantasy that books cost too much. In Australia, the standard price of a paperback has dropped by around 20% since 2009. This fact alone shows that the Harper recommendation doesn’t understand or comprehend the mechanics of this industry. Yes, PIRs may place upward pressure on book prices, but local competition, as well as competition with overseas online retailers, places downward pressure on book prices. Competition from online retailers is not going to decrease in the future, so if anything the PIRs are vital to sustaining some upward pressure to keep publishing both profitable and able to employ the 20,000 or so people that it does.

I’d like to ask the Government this: if they are intent on removing PIRs on books, then they should first commission a review of the Book Industry by a panel that understands that this stunning practice of culture and commerce is an altogether different beast. As it stands, the removal of PIRs for the reasons stated in the recommendation is shortsighted and based on a poor understanding of the economics of the book trade. In short, it’s moronic.

I’d love to fight with people in the comments. I love doing that. So please, have a crack.

As a wrap I would suggest the following for further reading on the subject (not all of which I agree with):

Black Inc. and Hachette: how the removal of PIR will affect our business, from Books + Publishing

The Productivity Commission Report on Copyright Restrictions on the Parallel Importation of Books

Jason Ensor, Read it and weep: the book trade needs more than parallel import restrictions at The Conversation

A resurrected debate with the same old dead language, Peter Donoughue Pub Date Critical

 

The Forgotten Readers

We’ve all been inside one. For many, including myself, our love of reading was grown and cultivated in a building absolutely bursting with books. You could stroll through the seemingly endless rows of towering shelves, trying to find that perfect book. Especially as children, libraries seem to house never-ending possibilities for reading. Across the country, indeed, across the world, libraries are institutions that open their doors to thousands of avid readers every day.

Whilst the library is the main source of reading material for numerous individuals, it is a commonly overlooked vehicle for increasing promotion and awareness of your book. This is largely because many don’t consider an institution that buys one copy of a book and then lends it to as many people as possible an opportunity for substantial profit.

However, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that there are far more opportunities for promotion than first meets the eye.

It has been suggested that libraries purchase as much as 12% of all books sold in Australia. Although many towns no longer have bookstores, especially rural ones, many of them still have a library, or have access to a travelling library – yes, those still exist! All these libraries need to be stocked, and librarians are always looking for new and interesting titles to attract readers to their shelves.

The fact that libraries only buy one copy of a book, and are therefore not worth spending time marketing to, is a common argument. However, not only is this not always true, even when it is, that’s no reason to discount the library. School libraries in particular are known for ordering class sets (usually around 30 copies) of books they are interested in acquiring. If a book proves popular, libraries may buy multiple copies in order to cater to demand.

But even if they only buy one copy, that copy is one more sale you didn’t have yesterday. In a 2011-2012 report, Australian Public Library Statistics recorded 1,505 public libraries across the country. If every library in Australia bought only one copy, that’s still a significant sales count.

Additionally, the report noted that there were approximately 9 million visits to libraries every month. Consider the exposure that one book could get if it was seen 9 million times a month. Nowhere but a library will you have that kind of potential for people to see a book, and quite often pick it up and read it. If they love it, not only do you have a loyal reader, but they’re very likely to spread the word to all their friends, who can easily access your book from their library.

For the small press author, libraries, especially your local library, can be a great support in getting your book talked about. Many regularly host events with authors, including talks and signings. Others may also support the idea of launching your book right there in the library. Events like these not only open up more opportunities for sales, but also make sure your book is exposed in a place that has regular and dedicated traffic – and they ALL read books!

As many libraries purchase largely through library vendors, this can limit the opportunity for small press and self-published authors to get their books on the shelves. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance. Local libraries in particular love supporting authors who reside nearby. And once the word spreads about books that are popular, other libraries may begin to show interest.

Nowhere else in the world can you regularly attract such a concentrated group of readers as you can in a library. Those who are focused on the bottom line in the short term can dismiss those non-paying individuals who grip tightly to their library card. However, increasing the number of people who see and read your book is never a bad thing, in the long term it will contribute to an increase in sales. Especially if those library patrons are all as impatient as I am and, when faced with their desired book being on loan, goes out and buys their own copy because they cannot bear to wait. The book industry forgets about library patrons at their peril.

Gold-Plated Nothings: Celebrity Books in the Literary World

After a dose of political intrigue, international news and the unsolicited opinions of numerous journalists, my surreptitious lurking in the entertainment section revealed an interesting piece of news. Comedian Amy Shumer has landed a book deal, with an advance suspected to be around $8 million dollars. I almost fell off my chair. As a young editor working for a small press, that kind of money around an advance is still awe-inspiring. But as I thought about it more, it increasingly began to disturb me.

Before we go any further though, I want to make it clear that this is not a rant about Amy. I’m a huge fan of her work, and she can make me laugh harder than I thought possible. But her work is as a comedian, in stand-up, television, and film. What she isn’t, is an author.

We can be pedantic all we want about what the term author means. If whether all you have to do to be an author is write something, or if all it takes to be considered one is to be published. But the increasing rise of celebrity ‘authors’ bodes ill for the rest of the literary industry, as they take away from those who wish to write more than just a recap of their lives and their endearing, charming, hilarious or heartbreaking thoughts.

Books published by celebrities usually constitute autobiography, memoir, or collection of thoughts and essays. There’s the occasional cookbook of lifestyle guide, and British celebrity Katie Price, also known as Jordan, has written a novel. For the most part, these books fail to add much to the literary landscape, and rely on our cultural fascination with the lives of celebrities. The quality of the writing varies greatly, the story is often much the same – young aspiring star walks the hard road to achieve their dreams, and examines the struggle with being rich, famous and adored.

By all means, worship a star if you want to. Go see their movies, hang off their television interviews, and buy the products they endorse with that winning smile. But what do their books really add to that? More of the same things you see in their films, their stand-up, their interviews. They may be entertaining reads for those obsessed with their favourite celebrity, but as books, they often fail the test of time, and become one time reads to collect dust on your bookshelves.

And these books are doing a significant amount of dust collecting. In The New York Times bestseller list from this week alone, almost half of the top twenty are written by some celebrity, whether they be from the comedic, film or political persuasion.

With such solid represent in the bestseller lists, we can see why publishers are so keen to embrace these books, and why Amy has been given such a huge advance. No doubt her book will make it a number of times over. But it displays a worrying trend of pursuing financial gain to the detriment of literary quality.

In an increasingly risk-averse market, the booming celebrity book industry produces numerous carbon copy memoirs that make bank for their publishers, and their authors. But this takes the time and energy away from less well known authors, as they work to produce original and painstakingly crafted works, only to have them rejected because they won’t sell the same way the glittering, celebrity endorsed hardbacks will.

When the bestseller lists indicate a particular trend, naturally publishers are going to jump on as quickly as possible, ever thinking about that bottom line. The only solution for those who wish to patron higher quality literature is to of course, stop buying celebrity books. But in a society obsessed with the minute movements of celebrities, I don’t see that happening any time soon. The cost is, and will always be, the smaller authors, those who haven’t yet got the money, the influence or the fame behind them to push a book like a celebrity can.

The Shelving Game

In some of our marketing blog posts, you would have heard Brendan or I talk about the need for small publishers to look at alternative ways of selling and advertising books, other than bookstores. What you small press aficionados may have already noticed in your search for the perfect indie novel is that you will rarely find a small press book on the gleaming shelves of a shiny bookstore, particularly if that bookstore is a chain.

You may have bemoaned this fact as you drag your feet away from the rows and rows of choices, back to Book Depository, Amazon, or even the publisher or author’s own website to find what you’re looking for. It’s definitely a pain, but many people don’t generally question why. What is it about the organisation of bookstores that prevent small press from getting a real foothold?

Start by thinking about your favourite bookstore. Picture it in your mind. Whoa! There’s SO MANY BOOKS. I always find it a bit overwhelming when I walk into a bookstore. There’s a multitude of choices, and that’s the reason very few people are still brave enough to venture into one with me.

But step back for a moment. That choice that we’re all confronted with, those who own the bookstore are confronted with that decision on a far larger scale when they are considering how to stock their store. Those seemingly endless shelves hold only a small fraction of all the possible books a store could stock. There is so much choice; bookstores need to find a way of cutting through them all.

Obviously, part of what they decide to stock is based on demand. If five customers a day come in and want a particular book, then it makes sense to start getting a few on the shelves. Customers are notoriously impatient people, and will be far more satisfied with their experience if they don’t have to wait a couple of days for their book to be ordered in.

But another key part of the decision making process are distributors. These are companies that act like sales executives for books, and liaise with bookstores to get books on shelves. They often provide promotional material for bookstores, and have large selections that sellers can choose from.

Like everything else in this world, they cost money. Often a lot of it. Therefore, those with the most books to sell, and who usually publish books in high demand, have the most to gain from a distributor. If you’ve only published one book, or even only ten, the cost of a distributor will be far more prohibitive. So once again, we have a means for accessing consumers dominated by the large publishing houses.

If you aren’t with a distributor, your chances of getting on the shelves are much lower. Distributors are respected companies, and the fact that they accept a book, author, or publisher into their repertoire is a vote of confidence. A distributor with a nice shiny catalogue will always be considered more respectable than an author who can’t afford such resources off the bat, but is still passionate about what they have produced.

Unfortunately, getting your book into a bookstore isn’t as simple as just sending them a bunch of copies. It involves a complex mix of ordering, permission, returns policies and sales figures. Distributors can smooth this process, which is why they are an important part of getting a book on the shelves. But small press are often left out as big companies and bestsellers take the place of lesser-known books. The fact that small publishers have such difficulty getting into bookstores is often something that prevents their growth, as you can’t make sales if no one sees your product. It’s unfortunate that, although it seems like we have so much choice in a bookstore, the decision on whether to read small press books or not has already been made for us.

if you’re keen to explore what small press has to offer, think about exploring the websites of small publishing houses. Odyssey conducts sales through its own website, as well as on Amazon and Book Depository, as do most other small presses.

Little Books, not a Little Book Council

As an intern beginning my career in publishing, I’m worried about the recent announcement for the Book Council of Australia. I think the idea of a book council is great. We should have a unified group that represents every facet of this industry and that is dedicated to achieving great things for literature in our culture. An organisation that can function as an independent champion for publishers (and the various professions involved in the back end), booksellers, writers and readers.

Unfortunately, it would seem that’s not what the Book Council will be. It will be an advisory board to the Arts Ministry instead, aimed at fostering a culture of reading (because that doesn’t exist apparently). In other words, it will be rather toothless. It also won’t represent large swathes of the industry and it won’t make up for the huge cuts to funding for literary projects which have occurred over the past two years.

This concerns me because I love the little books. The books that may go unmade due to a lack of funding. Books that aren’t commercial enough, or won’t get taken on because no one has ever heard of their debut author. These are the people, and the books, that I worry about. It’s already exceedingly difficult for these books to emerge, and these changes to the way literature is funded, and the way literature is championed, in this country won’t make it any easier. If the Book Council were an independent body, it would have more scope to fight for funding for the literary arts and hence for the little books.

At a time where debut and midlist authors are doing it especially tough, this is not the path I want to see taken.

When I say little books, I’m not intending that in a way that is diminishing of those books. It’s simply a fact, in a broader context, that these books are little in terms of their footprint in a commercial, or marketable, sense. That doesn’t make them less important, simply less known.

And here is the problem. There are so many wonderful books out there that may never get the attention they deserve, and reducing the opportunities for those books to come into existence is not the solution. Perhaps if the Book Council of Australia’s mission was to build more diversity into our reading culture, than it might represent something more worthwhile. In its current form, though, it seems to simply be there to advise the Arts Minister on how we can continue without change. This is a shame.

A good story is a good story, and it should not be limited by the fiscal position of its writer, or editor, or cover designer, or publisher. In fact, the most interesting and unique stories are often those that come from nothing. But they should not be left to return to nothing.

I would like a Book Council of Australia with a vision that is more than this. Represents more than this, and achieves more than this.