Category Archives: Book trade

A pleasant antiviral activity

Wondering how to cope with the impact of COVID19? Troubled by the prospect of spending more time (by choice or necessity) in germ-avoidance isolation? Here’s a pleasant antiviral activity that you can enjoy:  reading!

While you’re still able to go shopping, stock up right now with a batch of new books. Your local bookstore isn’t likely to be dangerously crowded, so just make a quick visit, grab a generous armful of literary works, and take those thousands of pages of well-crafted words home with you for company. Then, before the dire moment comes (next week?) when normal social interaction shuts down, you’ll be well equipped to engage with vicarious relationships, imaginary journeys and stimulating ideas without leaving the safe cocoon of home.

You’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve helped to keep the book industry afloat during this period of economic stress.

I’ve just followed my advice by buying a swag of fiction titles from a new little bookshop nearby, which is worthy of particular support because it has only recently opened its doors — right at the time when COVID19 is beginning to threaten many small businesses.

This brave indie venture is Typeface Books, located in the Ardross Street “village” in the Perth suburb of Applecross. Its shelves carry a good range of quality publications (well, it stocks my novels!), and it deserves to attract plenty of customers. Check out its website here.

Wherever you get your books from, you can of course choose whether to read things that take your mind off COVID19 altogether or things that help you to confront it. If it’s the latter, you have no shortage of reading material;  it could include Albert Camus’ The Plague, David Herlihy’s The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, and Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders. Or you might turn to the global best-seller Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, in which Yuval Noah Harari argues (among other provocations) that humans are on the verge of becoming superhuman because in the last few decades we have managed to curb all three things that have previously held us back:  not only famine and war but also plague! “Epidemics are a far smaller threat to human health today than in previous millennia,” Harari says. Will he need to issue a revised edition?

The other ABR: an Adelaide story

If an institution celebrates its 40-year anniversary, you might well think it began four decades ago. In the case of a major arts periodical, the Australian Book Review, you’d be wrong.

The Melbourne-based ABR has been proclaiming a Fortieth Birthday to commemorate its 1978 starting point, but that date actually marks only the resumption of a publishing history inaugurated in Adelaide, the magazine’s home for thirteen years until 1974. The original ABR deserves respect as a noteworthy production, distinctly local in tone but national in importance. Its role in promoting and evaluating Australian publications was innovative, if sometimes quirky.

In 1961, when the first ABR issue appeared, few people could have sensed that South Australia was a place where literary enterprise would soon thrive. The state’s cultural climate exuded no more than a faint whiff of impending change. The everlasting Sir Thomas Playford, having held office since before World War 2, was about to be elected Premier for an eighth successive term of economistic and parochial government. Though the Adelaide Festival and Writers’ Week had got under way the previous year, the burgeoning of the arts under Don Dunstan still lay ahead.

Yet over the next five years several Adelaide-based activities, propelled by Max Harris in collaboration with Geoffrey Dutton and Rosemary Wighton, brought an exhilarating vitality to Australia’s literary scene and publishing industry. Mary Martin’s Bookshop, after ownership passed to Harris, created a new business model and international outlook for bookselling, which quickly spread to the eastern states. In those days, Kerryn Goldsworthy aptly recalls, MMB seemed ‘one of Adelaide’s few real gateways to the great world.’

While MMB required much time and effort, Harris found further outlets for his immense energy during this period. He started his weekly ‘Browsing’ column in The Australian newspaper, which would continue for 27 years and generate three book-length selections. He worked with Penguin Books on developing Australian titles, including The Literature of Australia, a highly successful critical handbook which Dutton edited and to which Harris contributed a chapter. Wanting a livelier Australian list of their own, Harris and Dutton then partnered with Brian Stonier to establish Sun Books, an eclectic paperback imprint featuring brilliant new work like Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance. The quarterly Australian Letters, co-edited by Harris and Dutton, had begun earlier but came into its own in this period. And through the advocacy of this same pair of impresarios, the Union Theatre successfully staged three experimental plays by Patrick White that the Adelaide Festival had disdained. But it was the Harris-led ABR venture that, arguably, had the broadest influence.

While Adelaide hasn’t forgotten Max Harris, even now he is mostly associated with the youthful turbulence of his 1940s Angry Penguins phase and the Ern Malley hoax in particular. For a capacious account of Harris’s prodigiously extensive achievements as trenchant critic, versatile poet, bold editor, entrepreneurial publisher, unorthodox bookseller, gadfly journalist and much else, we are indebted to Betty Snowden’s definitive biography, which should be better known.

Harris’s founding and sustaining of the ABR, supported by Dutton and Wighton, merits special tribute. I remember with affection the magazine’s heyday. Though my own involvement was peripheral, as a regular reviewer I dealt directly with its editors and warmly appreciated its ethos.

My contributions were not remarkable for critical acumen, but their nature illustrates a significant aspect of the ABR phenomenon. During the magazine’s last few Adelaide years, I reviewed scores of miscellaneous titles at Max’s behest, gathering armfuls of them together for each instalment in a series of longish essays. All were New Zealand books! Why give them so much attention in a publication nominally devoted to Australian publishing? Because, like MMB, the ABR was cosmopolitan in spirit. Harris and his co-editor Wighton had the aim of not only reviewing almost everything newly published in this country but also including brief notices of many books from overseas. Impossibly ambitious, but they gave it a really good crack.

As a juvenile Kiwi recently arrived in Adelaide, I’d been browsing one day in MMB and got chatting with the genial Max about my prospective research project comparing Australian and New Zealand fiction in their social contexts. ‘Ah!’ said Max. ‘Well then, I hereby appoint you as our New Zealand editor!’ Thereafter I reviewed whatever happened to come into the magazine’s postbox from across the Tasman: not only literary work but also books on topics as diverse as ornithology, visual arts, criminal sociology and Maori culture. These I supplemented by titles I solicited myself. Max and Rosemary gave me a free hand.

I was conscious that my apprentice reviews were appearing in distinguished company, including Strehlow on anthropology, Bannon on trade unions, Shapcott on poetry, Semmler on fiction, Petty on cartooning, and Harris himself on Sidney Nolan, or on book design, or on the ‘blind self-righteousness’ of Governor-General Hasluck’s speeches. I was conscious, too, that while material under review might have a foreign source the magazine’s main readership was Australian. So I’d try occasionally to show what was distinctive about a chosen NZ book by juxtaposing it with a comparable Australian book – to consider, for instance, how some Janet Frame novel resembled and differed from one of Patrick White’s.

The Adelaide provenance of the ABR remained unmistakable. Harris had a keen eye for local matters that could potently dramatise issues of larger concern, such as censorship. He didn’t hesitate to print in full a dissenting judgment by Chief Justice John Bray, running to well over 100,000 words, on the appeal against an injunction prohibiting any South Australian performance of the musical Oh Calcutta! Still, readers would often encounter exotic items as well: an article on Prague’s political and cultural scene in 1970, for instance, or a witty piece by Dutton on some curious tome picked up in a Bucharest bookshop.

In 1971 the magazine moved from monthly to quarterly publication. This partly reflected commercial trends: for one thing, advertising space was becoming harder to sell. It probably indicated also that Harris was beginning to wilt under the demands of the production process. Misprints and other errors crept in. The 1972 correspondence column carried complaints and corrigenda from publishers, one stern letter being addressed ‘Dear Max the Lax.’ Meanwhile, as Dunstan’s wave of reforms gathered momentum in South Australia and Whitlam’s federal government came to power, the whole cultural and political environment was being transformed.

Adelaide’s ABR expired a couple of years later, only to be revived elsewhere after a four-year interval. This 1978 rebirth is what the Melbourne-based ABR is now celebrating. May the magazine continue to prosper! – but let’s not forget its earlier incarnation.




Help to repel an assault on Australian writing

IMG_4888Since its inception more than half a century ago  the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) has gained very substantial benefits for this country’s writers, and so for readers of Australian literature as well. Right now its efforts are more crucially important than ever, because Australian writing is under heavy assault.

As its current slogan proclaims, the acronym ASA could just as well stand for the range of services that this organisation offers to literary practitioners: Advocacy/Support/Advice.

Fair copyright licence provisions and public lending right legislation are among its most impressive and tangible achievements.

I’ve written appreciatively about the ASA in a previous post. At this moment it’s in the spotlight as it valiantly fights the good fight against potentially disastrous measures proposed by the Productivity Commission, particularly a recommendation to remove existing restrictions on parallel importation of books. Anyone who cares about the future of Australian writing should take heed – and take action!

(In what follows I’ve abridged a statement sent recently to ASA members by its CEO, Juliet Rogers. I do so with her permission and in my capacity as an ASA Board Director.)

On Friday 23 September the Productivity Commission will deliver to the Commonwealth Government its final report on Intellectual Property Arrangements. It is unlikely to change the recommendations of its draft report, which would have these drastic effects:

The ASA is working with the Australian Publishers Association to submit to the government within the next few weeks a joint petition protesting against these changes . Although it already contains more than 16,000 signatures, there’s an urgent need to add as many signatories as possible so that politicians with the power to influence this decision receive a strong message.

Some loyal readers of Australian books are still not aware of what’s at stake. If you’re in that category, please go to the information links highlighted above – and then consider sending a letter to your Member of Parliament and a State Senator expressing your concerns.

Some Australian writers haven’t yet signed the ASA petition. If you’re in that category, please do so without delay by following this link. And if you’re not a member of the Australian Society of Authors, NOW is a very good time to join this vital organisation.

ASA colour logo

By the way, if you live in or near Perth you may like to attend an event on Thursday 15 September at the State Library of WA Theatre, 6-8 pm: Juliet Rogers, CEO of the ASA, will talk about ‘The Business of Writing.’ This overview of current challenges, hazards and opportunities for writers is sponsored by WritingWA – a great example of the kind of partnership in which both WritingWA and the ASA have excelled. It’s a free event, open to all, but registration is required.



Books: a shrinking shelf life?

IMG_3991Books are getting more and more like loaves of bread.

Bakers and bread-sellers ply their trade in an increasingly crowded market, where all sorts of shops offer all sorts of of doughy products in larger quantities than ever before. Compounding their challenge is the fact that bread soon goes too stale to attract consumers, so unsold loaves must be removed from the retailer’s shelf within a day or two of baking.

With books, too, the clear trend is for a greater number to be published each year, while the turnover rate accelerates and the number being bought decreases. (Actually there may have been a recent pause in the pattern of declining unit sales, but they are still well down from their peak.)  So although a particular new book may seem, at least to its fond author, the best thing since sliced bread, its shelf life is likely to be just as pathetically brief. Book industry figures for publication and sales tell a discouraging story.

In 2014 (the most recent stats I’ve found) nearly 21,000 books of various kinds were published in Australia alone. That’s 400 each week! Though only a small proportion of these came from serious publishers producing multiple titles and using regular distribution channels, there’s no doubt that every link in the book chain from authors to readers is being overwhelmed by a glut.

A gigantic avalanche of loaves tumbling from bakery shelves? More like a publication tsunami. Taking a Darwinian view, you might think this swelling, swirling flood isn’t such a bad thing. Many books will sink, OK;  but won’t the fittest still swim and survive?

It’s probably not so simple. Saturation of the book market makes it harder and harder for a diverse range of fine new books, even work by highly accomplished writers, to get reviewed on the diminishing literary pages of major media. Similarly there’s such intense competition for a place on other publicity platforms, like gigs at literary festivals, that many potentially important titles won’t get a look-in. More often than ever before, a marketing ploy can eclipse merit.

Sure, a few will be fortunate enough to receive a fanfare of awards and acclaim, yet the welcoming moment will quickly be forgotten as another huge dumping wave of publications arrives, then another and another. Most authors learn to be grateful if they just avoid drowning.

We’ve all heard the sardonic forecast, attributed to Andy Warhol, that in the future everyone will be famous – for 15 minutes each. Will this soon be the fate of even the most celebrated authors of the most successful books?

Against that sombre background, against the odds, it’s an occasion for rejoicing when a book shows some durability. There’s a special pleasure in seeing any of one’s publlications reissued after a lapse of years. I’m delighted that two of my critical studies will have their shelf life prolonged, decades after their first appearance. Narrative Exchanges, a work of literary theory that came out in 1992, has a new lease of life in the series ‘Routledge Revivals’, and I’ve just heard that my book on English teaching, The Making of Literature: Texts, Contexts and Classroom Practices, is soon to be made available in digital form 32 years after its print debut. The publisher, AATE (Australian Association for the Teaching of English), tells me the book is continuing to generate ‘quite a bit of interest’ internationally. Its reappearance will be timely, as I’ve been invited to give keynote addresses on topics related to this book’s themes at forthcoming conferences of English teachers both at the state level (ETAWA, in Perth this May) and national level (AATE, in Adelaide in July).

My bad timing: the book’s demise & the blogger’s shame

I haven’t timed things well. Or so it seems.


Here I am dedicating myself to the writing of fiction (and to ancillary indulgences such as this blog on reading and writing) – just at the very moment in history when the book trade is going up in flames.

There are many Jeremiahs prophesying doom. One such is Colin Robinson, whose article ‘The loneliness of the long-distance reader’ has just appeared in The New York Times. He cites several gloomy trends. They include a worsening of sales figures, a decimation of independent bookshops, a diminution of reviewing space in newspapers and magazines, a contraction of public library funding, and a reduction of publishing budgets (directly affecting author’s advances, editorial input, marketing efforts, etc.).

That’s not the whole story, of course. There has been a huge boom in on-line informal reviewing sites such as GoodReads, and while purists may complain that a forum for slapdash opinions by hobby readers is no substitute for carefully considered and carefully written reviewing by expert literary critics, there is surely much to welcome in the opening up of freely exchanged views.

You can read Robinson’s article in full here.

He doesn’t suggest a remedy. And as he himself has recently ventured into the world of publishing with open eyes, perhaps he doesn’t really believe it’s necessary to find a remedy. He doesn’t say so outright, but the implicit point of his article may simply be that other publishers will have to change rapidly if they are going to survive.


This etching – Sono Leggibile (I am readable) by Francesco Campanoni – hangs on my wall. Could that be me in a precarious posture on the third shelf from the top?

Presumably he has a lot of confidence in the business model adopted by OR Books, the publishing firm that he co-owns, which is basically an e-book and print-on-demand operation, selling directly to the reader and avoiding the costs of excess print runs, storage etc.

Whether a new business model for publication and distribution will be enough to save the day for serious writers and readers isn’t yet clear to me. Are there any encouraging thoughts out there in the ether? Hello? Hello?

But wait – there is something you can do about it, you know, and every individual effort counts. You can buy my books!

What – you’ve bought them already? Good, good, but there’s no limit to the number you’re permitted to purchase. So solve all your gift problems for the year with one bold gesture…

Thank you! You’ve just made a writer, a publisher, and a bookseller happier – and simultaneously prolonged the lifespan of literary culture as we know it. As they say in the classics, it will be accounted unto you for righteousness.

If you’re feeling a shudder of disgust at the way in which a meditation on My Bad Timing has turned into a crude piece of spruiking for my own books, be assured that the lapse pains me too. Perhaps I should re-title this post My Bad Manners.

There may be a few bloggers who never twitch with embarrassment at the self-absorbed and self-promotional tone that usually suffuse websites like this one. But for my part I confess to blushing at the utterly immodest tone of what I find myself writing. Why then do I do it? 


An excuse, admittedly feeble, for this shameful side of blogging is that the book trade’s languishing condition (summarised above) leaves little alternative. The admonitory voice in one’s head keeps saying ‘Most successful writers are flogging their books by blogging their hearts out, so if you want your sales to match theirs you’ll have to market yourself just as relentlessly as they do, distasteful though this may be for someone with a sensibility as exquisitely refined as yours.’