Category Archives: Publishing

Manuscripts then and now

For any writer there are few experiences as satisfying as the transformation of one’s manuscript into the finality of a published book. When at last the precious assemblage of thousands of mulled-over sentences emerges into print publication, a surge of pride mixes with huge relief at the culmination of a long and laborious process.

“Manuscript,” of course, literally means handwritten. Although it’s seldom the case these days that producing a manuscript (conventionally abbreviated “ms”) is a matter of putting pen to paper in the way that authors did for centuries, in its modern usage the term is no misnomer. For while a computer now does the work of converting what we compose into a readable form, we still use our fingers to tap out every word.

But imagine how much more painstaking – and how final – the production of a manuscript used to be before the mid-15th century, when Gutenberg perfected the art of printing with movable type. Until that revolutionary technology appeared, there was virtually no distinction between a manuscript and a publication. Books were entirely written by hand, each copy being unique even if it was transcribing something already written.

From the 8th-century Codex Amiatinus (discussed by Hamel): Ezra writing beside his bookshelves.

I’ve just finished reading Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Penguin, 2018), a wonderfully detailed account of a dozen outstanding medieval books. Hamel invites us “to accompany the author on a private journey to see, handle and interview some of the finest illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.” Its chapters are framed as celebrity interviews with famous documents that are inaccessible to most people. “It is easier to meet the Pope or the President of the United States,” Hamel remarks, “than it is to touch the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry.” So under Hamel’s expert scholarly guidance we visit each beautifully decorative ms in its particular archival setting, questioning it about its often complicated physical production, historical significance, changing ownership and serendipitous survival.

Hamel is the perfect companion, not only a brilliant palaeographer but also a warmly witty writer with a gift for lucid exposition and lively narrative. “The life of every ms,” he says, like that of every person, is different, and all have stories to divulge.” Mss he discusses at length range from the 6th-century Gospels of St Augustine (belonging to an era when a new Christian literacy was emerging from the collapse of Ancient Rome) to the 16th-century Spinola Hours (a gorgeously illustrated work, embodying a culture of high Renaissance luxury).

As I read his book, it occurred to me that some of my own earliest “publications” were childish versions of the kind of production that de Hamel celebrates. Hand-written and hand-illustrated, co-authored with one of my primary school classmates, they testify to the immense pleasure that the physical making of a book can yield.

Looking at them now, I recognise how tritely formulaic they are, how full of verbal and visual stereotypes. But those home-made thrillers were also amateur in a better sense: we loved the process of putting them together ourselves. Nostalgically I salute here The Valley of the Headhunters, Pioneers of Space, The Creeps of Crumbly Castle and our other humble latter-day examples of the art of the illustrated manuscript.

Though we produced those little books of our own accord and primarily for our own enjoyment, they did reach a wider audience: an indulgent teacher read them aloud to our school class. In this respect, too, our publication method echoed what had been normal practice in the Middle Ages, when the literate few gave voice to words on the page for the benefit of groups of listeners.

Did any readers of this blog have similar childhood experiences of hand-producing books?

Hard times for Australian writers

For years the right of Australian authors to receive fair payment for their work has been safeguarded by copyright law. But proposed changes, pushed by the Productivity Commission and reinforced by lobbyists for large organisations and big technology companies such as Google, will severely diminish these copyright protections.

The Australian Government is currently considering the Productivity Commission’s recommendations for change. If adopted they would be ruinous to literary creativity in this country. (For more information, click here.) Preserving copyright protections is vital not only for individual authors but also for the millions of readers who care about keeping Australian stories alive.

This threat to copyright comes at a time when the income of those who write books is already meagre and declining. A recent national survey of Australian authors found that their average annual earnings from all writing-related sources (royalties, copyright, fees for talks etc.) amounted to a miserable $12,900. The book market is overcrowded with new titles: more and more books are getting published, with shorter and shorter shelf lives and less and less publicity backing, while fewer and fewer people are buying what we produce.

So it’s timely that WritingWA, the peak support body for literary creators in Western Australia, will hold a two-day ‘Writing and Publishing Sector Forum’ on 31 July and 1 August at the City of Perth Library and History Centre, 573 Hay Street, Perth. There will be sessions on the publisher-to-bookshop supply chain, on self-publishing, on copyright and ‘fair use,’ on the recent state government review of writing and publishing in WA, and several other topics. My own invited presentation will be on authors’ incomes and pay rates. Program details and ticketing arrangements here.

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.



Releasing a new novel


When we say a book is released we mean of course that it has become publicly available – but release also carries a sense of being set free after a (sometimes long) period of confinement. Prisoners who’ve served their sentence get released. Pent-up emotions can be released. A “lock-up”, a closed briefing session, precedes the release of a government’s budget.

Yesterday my new novel The Mind’s Own Place  officially emerged at last into the marketplace, and so I feel elation, yes – but also some empathy with two of its main characters, who get transported to the Swan River Colony as convicts and eventually gain their “ticket of leave” (the first step towards conditional freedom).


After their periods of incarceration – first in England, awaiting transportation; then on the voyage out; and finally behind the grim walls of the “Convict Establishment” (Fremantle Prison) – to be set at liberty again must have felt exhilarating.

My book, too, has been cooped up for what seems a very long while since its completion, awaiting this scheduled release. Now, like those discharged inmates, it must make its way in the world, hoping for a good reception but knowing that a ticket of leave can’t guarantee this.

There will be a celebratory launch, with the usual book signings etc., on 15 July. For details of that event and others coming up, click here. For information about the book on my publisher’s website, click here. For an interview-based article on it in The West Australian, click here.

Inventing Literary Classics

Attention quiz-masters! Can you name the innovative book designer and printer who was the very first to publish a series of portable classics? Clue: he died exactly half a millennium ago.

In my recent post What is a Literary Classic? I mentioned several influential sets of books re-issued with a “classic” publication branding – Penguin Classics, Signet Classics, Virago Modern Classics, Classic Comics and so on. This kind of designation gives books a certain status – not an unquestionable status, but one that does carry some weight with most readers, at least subliminally.


Aldine publishing device, from the Great Hall ceiling, Library of Congress

Well, the idea of producing a publication series that makes classic texts available in a convenient format is far from new. It goes back to a period only a few decades after Gutenberg’s introduction  of movable type to Europe. The process of inventing literary classics followed closely on the invention of the printing press.

The entrepreneurial Renaissance humanist who deserves the credit for inventing literary classics was Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), whose Aldine Press in Venice not only devised various innovations in typography (e.g. italics and semi-colons) but also created for the first time a series of inexpensive pocket editions of texts from Greek and Roman antiquity (Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, Herodotus, Virgil, Ovid, Cicero…) along with Italian poetic masterpieces by writers such as Dante and Petrarch. An extraordinary accomplishment!

Portable, fairly compact – but those Aldine Press books didn’t look cheap. A great deal of care and professional expertise went into their design and production.


From Rylands Library copy of the Aldine Virgil (1501)

Fonts were selected for their aesthetic appeal, and sometimes created in-house. Several modern typefaces derive from those commissioned by Aldus and cut by his employee Francesco Griffo – among them  Bembo, named after one of his contemporaries, the Italian literary scholar Pietro Bembo, whose work Aldus published. (I was delighted to discover the origin of Bembo, an elegant font used for two of my novels – That Untravelled World and the one forthcoming soon, The Mind’s Own Place.)

What’s more, elaborate and colourful illustrations often accompanied the printed text, as in this pictured example: a page from the Aldine Press edition of Virgil’s works. It was the first publication to use italic type, and the first in octavo format.

The significance of Aldus Manutius’s place in cultural history goes beyond his enterprising and skilful work as a book designer and printer. He was an admirable scholarly teacher, epitomising the Renaissance spirit – and in fact his reason for setting up a printing house was that he saw a need for students to have access to classic texts in a convenient format.

Alberto Manguel remarks in his book A History of Reading that Aldus’s home in Venice became a gathering point for eminent humanists from all over Europe, such as the Dutch luminary Erasmus. Together these men would discuss what classic titles should be printed and which manuscripts were the most reliable sources. Manguel records this moving final tribute:

When Aldus died in 1515, the humanists who attended his funeral erected all around his coffin, like erudite sentinels, the books he had so lovingly chosen to print.

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.’