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The role of small presses


Small local publishers play an increasingly importantand too often under recognisedrole in Australia’s book trade. According to Nielsen BookScan figures released at the Small Press Network’s 2016 Independent Publishers Conference, small Australian presses accounted for almost 15 per cent of retail trade book sales in 2014/15.

While it is true that large publishers dominate fiction, especially mass market, BookScan data also shows that nonfiction is small publishers’ strength: in the past five years nonfiction accounted for 66 per cent of small publisher sales, compared to 46 per cent for all publishers.

Literary fiction is another strength for small, independent publishers. It is the small Australian presses, overwhelmingly, that take risks with new authors, ground-breaking works, and seemingly non-commercial material. Not only are they taking commercial and artistic risks, but they are producing works of the highest quality. Books from small presses have dominated many award lists nationally and internationally for years. The 2016 long list for the Miles Franklin Award, for example, has more than half of its nominations published by members of the Small Press NetworkScribe, Wakefield Press, Text, Transit Lounge and UQP. Last year’s Stella was won by Affirm’s The Strays, and four of the six shortlisted titles shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize are from independent Australian publishers.

Because small presses often find it hard to get their books into discount and department stores, they rely on chains and especially independent booksellers for their success. We are fortunate that independent booksellers account for roughly 30 per cent of the trade retail market in Australia, compared to the UK or United States where the indie sector has struggled to survive against big box retailers and online suppliers.

Independent booksellers are the natural partners for small presses; booksellers value the creativity, innovation and risks taken by local publishers, and provide an outlet for their books. But while booksellers may appreciate small publishers’ products, the reality of a bookseller’s life means it is often difficult for them to keep up with the latest offerings from a myriad of small players; too often booksellers don’t have the time for small presses.

If independent booksellers were able to allocate more time to small presses, I am confident their efforts would be rewarded. Small presses have so much to offer because of the breadth and variety of their publications. Where risk-averse companies too often fear to tread, there on the edge of the publishing world the independent presses can be found, not only the Scribes, Texts and Affirms mentioned above, but also publishers such as Xoum, Exisle, Seashell, Black Inc., Murray, 4 Ingredients and many more, all of whose titles are in the 2015 Top 20 small press bestseller lists, with sales between 7000 and 40,000 copies each.

Small presses: a point of difference, new audiences

Depth of specialisation is also a feature of so many small presses. People with a passion for their chosen subjects are publishing books with a level of expertise that make them the leaders in their fields. One only has to look at the genre section on the Small Press Network website ( members/) to have this view reinforced.

This becomes apparent when looking at nonfiction sales by category where, according to Bookscan, small/independent presses are over represented in a number of key areas. They not only outsell ‘all publishers’ sales over the Top 10 sales categories (73 per cent vs 71 per cent) but do so also in history and military, politics and government, as well as ‘general interest’. Not to be considering titles offered by small local publishers of nonfiction is to miss sales opportunitiessomething booksellers can ill afford to do.

Stocking titles by small publishers can provide booksellers a key point of difference and set them apart from their larger competitors. These books often can’t be found in bigger stores and they bring customers into bookshops, searching for a title they’ve heard or read about.

Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker is one example. Published by Duffy and Snellgrove in 2000, it could only be found in independent bookstores. The book sold more than 75,000 copies with a number of translations. It well and truly repaid the publisher and stores that stocked it. A film adaption of the book was released in 2015 with Kate Winslet as the lead actress. The film tie-in edition of the novel has sold more than 90,000 copies and 20,000 ebooks, and has been sold into 16 new territories. So while the trade may well be frontlist driven, the value of backlist titles from small publishers should never be overlooked.

Small presses can be a catalyst for new types of customers to engage with your book store. They can bring with them the communities that they publish for; when their books are available in book stores these communities will follow, and create new customers for you.

The relationship between booksellers and small presses is central to our vibrant literary culture. Often published first by small presses, then acknowledged nationally, Australian writers are being recognised and respected overseas more than ever. As Peter Carey, Richard Flanagan and Tom Kenneally said in an open letter to Malcolm Turnbull, ‘Australian writing is Australia’s greatest cultural success story’.

It is a good news story, but it could be better because the nature of the book trade can often work against small publishers. There are 1156 publishers producing two to five books a year in Australia; 170 are creating six to 10 books a year, and just 24 publishers deliver 51 to 100 books annually, according to Thorpe-Bowker data. It is a safe assumption that the smaller the number of books published, the smaller the marketing and promotional budget will be for these works. Unfortunately, all too often these books disappear without a trace, much to the disappointment of their authors and publishers.

The MUBA: finding good books in the wild

The large number of new titles released each year (over 20,000 ISBNs were issued in Australia in 2014 by Thorpe-Bowker) makes it very difficult for booksellers to discover new works they may want to stock. Nicholas Jose, writing in the Sydney Review of Books, says of Harriet Chandler (published by its author Moya Costello): ‘Harriet Chandler didn’t make it onto the list of best novels of 2015 as far as I know. That may be because it was published in 2014, when it didn’t make the list either, or because its author calls it a “novella” ... At any rate, its appearance escaped notice, like some shy bush animal.’

Its invisibility is linked to the fact that it did not have a major publisher. Writes Jose: Harriet Chandler defies the conventions of authorship, among them the idea that a literary work springs fully formed from its creator’s genius, without sources or habitat. Costello’s protagonist is generated from the love interest in Murray Bail’s 1987 novel Holden’s Performance, an earlier Harriet Chandler who is the same but different. That’s enough to scare a mainstream publisher.’

This is our loss, Jose assures his readers: ‘How can it be, then, that this brilliant, beautiful book has slipped through the net? ... Costello never writes a sentence that isn’t interesting. She is unafraid of asymmetry and fracture. On every page are passages to mark and remember, language that appeals ... I discovered that it existed when the author visited Adelaide for a symposium on experimental writing and had a few copies to sell at a reading. But I could not put it down ...’

In an effort to get notice for outstanding books published by small presses, the Small Press Network set up the Most Under-rated Book Award the MUBA. The award has been going for four years and appears to be succeeding in bringing wider recognition to exceptional works that have flown under the radar. Barry Scott, publisher at Transit Lounge and the winner of the third MUBA, said of the award:

‘I was in a hot, dusty and very polluted town in Orissa, India, when I received the news that Jane Rawson’s debut novel A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists had won the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award 2014. It seemed a fitting place to get the good news about a novel that paints such a wonderful portrait of a future Melbourne on the environmental brink. It was a positive turn in the story of a novel that seemed to have silently slipped by readers and had been misunderstood by some reviewers.

‘Transit Lounge has had titles that have been shortlisted for or won Premiers’ Awards and have only sold a handful more copies. This hasn’t been the case with the MUBA. Print sales have more than tripled for A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists since it won the award, it has also developed a growing ebook readership, and its author is a forthcoming guest at Melbourne and other writers’ festivals. There is also overseas rights interest. But most importantly Jane Rawson finally has the readership she and her imaginative debut novel deserve.’

In addition to holding the Independent Publishers Conference each you (this year from 9 to 12 November in Melbourne), the Small Press Network works to address common challenges all small presses are familiar with, as well as giving this sector of the industry a voice in the broader community. Two issues come to mind. The first is how best to let booksellers know what’s being published. To address this SPN has member catalogues on its website as well as new title information from its 100-plus members as it is released, thus providing busy booksellers with a direct and useful source of information.

The second issue is distribution, which impacts all small, emerging publishers. The large distributors are unable to take on any additional small lists (no matter how good their titles) and the smaller regional distributors, while doing an admirable job in most cases, simply can’t do justice to all the good books and new publishers entering the market. SPN is working on developing different models of distribution, drawing on the experiences of similar small press membership organisations in the UK and USA.

Finally, SPN hopes you find this year’s ABA Conference worthwhile and invites you to drop by its stand to see a range of titles published by its energetic members.

Annie Hall is publisher at Threekookaburras and a member of the Small Press Network Board. The article was written for the Australian Booksellers' Association 2016 conference.