Category Archives: Book launches

Let’s hear it for libraries

This week, not for the first time, I was a beneficiary (with many others) of excellent support from a local public library.

Too often we tend to undervalue these institutions. We all know, of course, that public libraries provide resources to serve the general information needs of their citizens. We assume that any literate society has plenty of them. We may be aware that free lending libraries in Australia date back to the mid-19th century. Since then they have become part of our taken-for-granted social environment.

It’s easy, if we don’t give the matter much thought, to regard them merely as storage facilities for printed publications, electronic data and archival materials. But along with those basic functions and various other valuable services, they also give direct support to writers and readers.

The example foremost in my mind is the generosity of the South Perth Library in regularly organising events that bring together an author and a crowd of potential readers to celebrate a new book.

A couple of evenings ago it was my turn (once again) to have a novel launched in that congenial setting. It was part of the Library’s “Words with Wine” series. A large audience listened to local history librarian Anthony Styan interview me about The Madwoman’s Coat, my fifth work of historical fiction. His subtle and stimulating questions ensured that our conversation flowed well. Afterwards a good number of attendees lined up to buy copies of my book.

I’m grateful to Anthony, epitome of the Ideal Reader; to Tamara Lampard, the Events Officer, who did a great job of arranging the whole show; and to the dozens of people who came along to hear about (and purchase) The Madwoman’s Coat. On such occasions, all the hard slog of creating a book seems wonderfully worthwhile.

“Go to another place”: artistry, insanity and more

The Madwoman’s Coat, my fifth historical novel, is now officially released! (There will be a launch event later in the month — details at the end of this post.)

For an author, publication brings  elation — but also sheer relief that something so long in the making has at last found its way into print. Creating a novel is a protracted and painstaking process. Sentence by sentence, it’s all hard labour!  I can feelingly echo the words of Graham Swift, author of Waterland: “Novels, in my experience, are slow in coming and once I’ve begun one I know I may have years of work ahead of me.”

While I hope this new book will appeal to any reader who has enjoyed my previous stories, it differs from them in some respects. For one thing, its action is seen almost entirely through the eyes of women. Female characters figure importantly in all of my novels, but until now they haven’t dominated the narrative point of view. How risky is this method for a male writer?

Advocates of identity politics argue that fiction based directly on an author’s personal experience is the only legitimate kind — that if one tries to convey an imagined perspective of someone very different from oneself, the writing may become inauthentic and potentially offensive. I readily acknowledge the sensitivities involved in such matters. Certainly some stories are “not mine to tell.” But where should we draw the line? If we think it’s inappropriate for a writer to enter imaginatively into the mind of anyone whose gender, ethnic background or other personal circumstances are unlike the writer’s, are we missing the very point of fiction?

To quote Graham Swift again:

The whole appeal, the whole challenge and reward of fiction, lies in its liberation from personal fact. The very least we should expect of it is that it will, to use the common phrase, ‘take us out of ourselves,’ take us out of the place we normally and sometimes narrowly inhabit.

For a writer of historical fiction, many potential challenges may be at least as hazardous as imagining the experiences of people whose gender or race differ from one’s own; e.g. —

  • I wasn’t alive in 1897, when The Madwoman’s Coat opens in Fremantle; so how can I know what it was like to live there at that time?
  • I haven’t lived in Staffordshire or Wiltshire, where other parts of the story are set; so how can I render them authentically?
  • Any artistry I could plausibly claim to possess is not of the kind practised by people at the heart of my story; so how can I depict their work with any confidence?
  • Though I may be a bit crazy at times, I haven’t (yet) been locked up in an institution for people deemed insane, as some characters in this novel are, so how can I hope to convey genuine insights into their plight?

I’m sure readers of The Madwoman’s Coat will be scrutinizing the story with many such questions in mind. But I take comfort from the words of Irish novelist Colum McCann:

Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Risk yourself. This opens up the world. Go to another place.

The book will be launched at a “Words with Wine” event at the South Perth Library (corner Sandgate and South streets) on the evening of Wednesday 31st March. All comers welcome but registration is necessary as numbers are constrained by social distancing requirements. To register, click here.

More than a quaint ritual

A quaint old cultural ritual, a remnant from the days when books emerged less often and seemed correspondingly more significant? A bit of ego massage for the author? A custom that is disappearing anyway because its cost is no longer justified by the sales generated?

Previously I’ve posted some thoughts about ceremonial book launches, noting that even authors themselves are not unanimous about the value of these events. David Malouf (so successful that he can afford to be dismissive) shrugs them off as merely “exercises in vanity,” while Miriam Cosic regards them as a vanishing species, “one of the silent casualties of shrinking profits and digital publishing.”

Paul Genoni delivering his speech to launch A Thousand Tongues

Having had my new novel A Thousand Tongues launched at a cheerful event yesterday, I incline towards the more optimistic opinion that this traditional way of celebrating a book’s birth can still create ripples of publicity that reaffirm collectively the worth of literary creativity for readers as well as for writers and publishers.

Anyway, I enjoyed myself thoroughly and the crowd that filled Mattie Furphy House apparently did so too. I’m grateful to all who contributed to the afternoon’s success, especially  to Dr Paul Genoni for his eloquent appreciative speech (a version of which will later be published as a review), to my publisher Framework Press for all its support (particular thanks to Indeira William), to the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA) for the use of its lovely heritage-listed venue, and to Olivia for a great sales job.

And by the way… I’m delighted that Amanda Curtin generously invited me to write a piece about my novel as a guest on her website. She posted it there today and you can read it here.

Not dead yet

Predictions about the demise of the ‘Book Launch’ ritual may have been unduly pessimistic. Nearly three years ago, in one of my first blog posts, I referred to an article in the ASA magazine Australian Author by Miriam Cosic, who saw book launches as an endangered species, ‘one of the silent casualties of shrinking profits and digital publishing,’ and remarked that publishers and even some writers doubted their value.

But since then this traditional way of celebrating the issue of a new title seems to have had a comeback, at least here in Perth, especially for publications by small presses. Last year’s launch event for my novel The Mind’s Own Place brought together a cheerful crowd and resulted in a good number of sales on the night, thanks in large measure to the efforts of UWA Publishing stalwarts Terri-ann White and Charlotte Guest.

And in the last week I’ve attended two very successful launch events organised by other Perth-based publishers.


Andrew at his book launch (Centre for Stories, Northbridge)

Margaret River Press has made its first venture into poetry with the release of Andrew Taylor’s 16th selection, Impossible Preludes: Poems 2008-2014. Fellow-poet Dennis Haskell launched the book eloquently at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge, and it was a thoroughly pleasant occasion. I’ve known Andrew well and admired his poetry for more than forty years. I reviewed one of his early books way back in 1973, co-founded with him in 1975 the still-running Adelaide institution known as Friendly Street Poets, co-edited an anthology with him in 1978, and so on… It’s been a long association, beginning when we were appointed simultaneously to junior academic positions in Adelaide and continuing when we both moved (separately) to senior academic positions in Perth more than 20 years later. We’ve kept in contact with each other’s writing. So I was delighted to be present for last week’s celebration of his new book. It contains many beautiful lyrics – often witty, sometimes poignant, always with an unforced conversational directness.


Dave at his launch (Buffalo Club, Freo). Note the buffalo headgear behind the author.

A couple of evenings ago I went along to another lively launch: David Whish-Wilson’s third crime novel, Old Scores, published by Fremantle Press. My friendship with Dave doesn’t have such a long history. His non-fiction book Perth attracted my respectful attention in 2014, and then we met last year when he accepted my invitation to join a panel of respondents following my public lecture as the 2015 Battye Memorial Fellow. Soon afterwards we were both guests of the Kimberley Writers Festival, and now we’ve become followers of each other’s work. Old Scores, which evokes the notoriously bad mad corrupt days of Perth and Fremantle in the early 1980s, was launched in an amusing speech by tyro parliamentarian Josh Wilson (a writer himself). The venue was a tradition-soaked Freo watering hole, The Buffalo Club. I’m glad to see that this novel features again the private investigator Frank Swann, who was at the centre of Dave’s previous novel Zero at the Bone, a fast-moving, gripping, tough-as-nails story that gave me plenty of enjoyment.

Good luck to these books, and to their authors – and long life to the launching ritual!



That's not a launch...

That’s not a launch…

Last night my new novel The Mind’s Own Place was the occasion for a very pleasant celebration in the Lawrence Wilson Gallery under the auspices of Perth’s WinterArts Festival.

I’m grateful to a goodly contingent of friends for attending, to my publisher UWAP (especially to Terri-ann White and Charlotte Guest) for hosting the cheerful evening, and to fellow-novelist Brenda Walker for her generous words of praise in launching the book (you can read her speech here).

About 18 months ago I posted some thoughts about book launches, noting that even authors themselves aren’t unanimous about the value of these events. I quoted the sceptical David Malouf (so successful that he can afford to be dismissive), who shrugs them off as as “exercises in vanity,” and Miriam Cosic who says they’re an endangered species – “one of the silent casualties of shrinking profits and digital publishing.”  

It’s understandable that some will see such events as expensively indulgent, seldom covering the cost of catering etc. Naturally I incline towards the more optimistic opinion that, though book sales on the night may be modest, old-style celebratory launches can still create ripples of publicity from which the book will benefit.

Anyway, I enjoyed myself immensely and the assembled company seemed to do so as well. And yes, a decent number of books were sold and signed. Heartfelt thanks to all who contributed to the evening’s success.

TMOP crowd

T H I S is a launch !!

Signature, brand and authorship

signaturesWe’re all familiar with book-signing rituals, sometimes staged in conjunction with readings or launchings and sometimes sponsored by bookshops. They serve to promote sales, since the buyer of a book tends to attach special value to a copy signed by the author. Often the signature accompanies a personal inscription, even if the author has never seen the buyer before – ‘To [Did you say Daisy or Maisy?], best wishes…’ Embarrassment can follow – most notoriously when, at a book signing in Sydney in 1964, British writer Monica Dickens was handed a copy by a woman who muttered in a broad Strine accent what Dickens assumed was her name. The author signed the book To Emma Chisit, only to discover – as newspapers gleefully reported – that the woman had just been asking ‘How much is it?’ (No no, that’s not my moniker, Monica…)

But what exactly does an author’s autograph signify? John Frow’s recent book The Practice of Value: Essays on Literature in Cultural Studies (UWAP) includes a chapter on ‘Signature and Brand.’ Among other points, Frow argues that an authorial signature ‘has become intrinsic both to aesthetic and to market value.’ So when I scrawl my autograph on one of my publications, this action symbolises the fact that the book belongs simultaneously to two ‘regimes of value’ (Frow’s term): artistry and commerce.

I interpret this to mean that, having originated as an individual creation, a book is then taken over by mechanisms that reproduce and distribute it in large quantities. In the process of being replicated it becomes a mass-produced commodity, and so an autographed copy is seen as rendering it more personal again, restoring something of an individual-writer-to-individual-reader relationship.

By the way, Wikipedia told me something I hadn’t known about book signing: that it’s no longer confined to printed copies. ‘The growing popularity of ebooks and ereading devices’, says the Wikipedia article, ‘has inspired the development of software – such as Authorgraph (formerly known as Kindlegraph and renamed to reflect its expansion to include all ereading platforms) and Autography (for iOS devices) – that allows authors to digitally personalise ebooks by including autographs, dedications, and photographs, and to provide such personalisation remotely as well as at in-person book signings.’ I confess that I can’t see much point in an electronically signed copy.

A brand, Frow argues, is a signature’s corporate counterpart. What they have in common is the power of a named identity. Amplified by market mechanisms, an author’s personal name can offer brand recognition – something like a trademark, assuring prospective consumers that a particular book will provide the same quality of reading experience as previous products issued under this same person’s name. Frow remarks:

Books by the small number of established or emergent celebrity authors are the subject of intensive advertising and promotional campaigns which centrally involve the marketing of the persona of the author in chat and talkback shows, book signings, festival appearances and literary lunches.

Where does this leave writers who aren’t celebrities but are still urged to develop and spruik an ‘authorial brand’? It may seem simple enough: just formulate and promulgate a succinct summary of the kind of thing you write. But a powerfully attractive brand would need to offer a lot more than that. Requirements for becoming a star would ideally include glamour, notoriety, influential advocates, major prizes, cross-media prominence, and fabulously generous multiple-book contracts with instant translation rights in many languages etc etc. (Sigh.)

Meanwhile, what about the possibility of devising an exceptionally ornate way of inscribing your name, so that immense crowds of book-buyers will queue up for the sheer privilege of seeing you autograph their copies with the flamboyant curlicues of your famous signature?

The disappearing book launch

UntitledIn the latest issue of the ASA magazine Australian Author, Miriam Cosic writes about book launches as an endangered species – ‘one of the silent casualties of shrinking profits and digital publishing.’ Even among authors themselves, she remarks, there are divided opinions about the value of these events. For the mercilessly honest David Malouf they are merely ‘exercises in vanity’; for some others they still serve a useful marketing function.

I remember with pleasant nostalgia (and more than a smidgin of vanity) a few occasions when books of mine have been ceremonially launched on the waters of what I imagined could be an expectant world of receptive readers. They include the time when Elizabeth Jolley did the honours for my slim volume of poems The Shifting Shore, adopting her usual benignly vague persona to say kind chatty things about it. And then there was a memorable event when Hon. John Dawkins, the controversial former government minister who transformed this country’s university sector, generously launched my Higher Education of Education for Hire?  and I basked in his praise of it as:


‘…a refreshingly readable book: the author’s love of language is evident throughout the work. There is a minimum of jargon and a total absence of pomposity… Here we have an extraordinarily balanced approach, and in fact Prof Reid makes a case for balance, for getting the right kinds of tension working within the university – and between the university and the community, between the university and the workplace, between the university and business, between the university and government… What we can see in this remarkably thoughtful book is the essence of what a university education is about.’


And ‘remarkably thoughtful’ is how I’d describe the speech that Prof Brenton Doecke gave about my novel That Untravelled World on the occasion of its release at the 2012 national conference of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. It’s forgivable to feel gratified when you hear someone talk insightfully about a book you’ve written. I particularly appreciated Brenton’s emphasis on ‘the way the mystery of Nellie’s disappearance folds into an account of Australia prior to the First World War and then the between-the-wars period’ so that ‘the poetic evocation of scenes around Perth and moments in Harry’s journey through life’ become ‘woven into this larger narrative.’ You can read his comments in full here.


I’m sometimes asked to speak at the launch of someone else’s publication. When it’s a large multi-author work of literary history and criticism the task can be demanding, as I found when launching The Cambridge History of Australian Literature, a 600-page opus judiciously edited by the admirable Peter Pierce, which assembles chapters by more than a score of scholarly contributors. My  speech then appeared (with only minor changes) as a review in the e-journal Transnational Literature. You can read it here.

Old-style celebratory launches still happen, and can create a buzz of excitement around a new book. I enjoyed the party that UWAP put on a few months ago for Amanda Curtin’s fine new novel Elemental, with Janet Holmes à Court as the launcher.  There was a lively crowd at this event, as you can see from images on Amanda’s website here:

In the future most writers may have to do their own launching – even if it takes the simple internalised form of a hopeful benison within the book itself! Precedents for this go back at least as far as Edmund Spenser, whose Shepheardes Calender (1579) carried a dedicatory poem beginning ‘Go, little Book; thyself present / As Child whose Parent is unkent…’ But closer, no doubt, to the mood of our own times is the ‘Envoi’ in which Ezra Pound mocked such traditional launching gestures; Pound’s pastiche opens with the sardonic line ‘Go, dumb-born book…’