A Pox on Your House, Angus & Robertson

August 30, 2007 at 3:14 am (Uncategorized)

I’ve been rather slow getting up to speed on the latest sorry indication that publishing in Australia is really little more than a mug’s game. I only found out last week about Angus & Robertson’s unbelievable new mandate to publishers, but as this article shows, it’s been in the news since early August. I don’t really know how I missed this, especially as it’s so important, and so relevant to my own increasingly improbable future career.

This major bookstore chain, one of the biggest in Australia, recently sent letters out to publishers saying, in essence, that they have to pay for shelf space in A & R stores if their book list is not profitable enough. Like I said the other day: money, money, money. Pathetic. So in effect, this means something soooo utterly moronic, something straight from the Cult of Acquisitive like The Secret, can get the window display and prime sales points throughout the store, but something intellectually, culturally, creatively valuable from a small Australian publisher – the article’s example is Tower Books’ Carpentaria – has to somehow find additional funds for the privilege of actually getting their hard won title – already a minor miracle just for finding its way into print – into the store at all.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRGHHHHHHHHH.

I feel like thumping something, I really do. As if small publishers and impoverished imprints in this country aren’t doing it tough enough already. As if we don’t already virtually ignore emerging young Australian writers. And the saddest thing is, as if we don’t really need, urgently, to hear what they have to say. Maybe it should be a two word anthem. Not just money, then. How about Dumb Money? Yes, that’s better. That’s much more accurate. Dumb Money. That’s us.

I think I can safely say Australia produces some of the worst commercial television in the Western World. And now it looks like the same dross is going to be promoted in book form in one of our largest bookstore chains. It’s apparently just not profitable enough for A & R to stock smaller, independent titles anymore. They’re just going to focus on their bottom line.

Well, that’s great. I’m never going to set foot inside another A & R store for as long as I live, and I hope other people feel the same way. Let’s boycott the bastards. Even if they roll back this incredibly cynical and in many cases crippling cash demand to the publishers most threatened by this move, I doubt I’ll ever feel the same way about A & R again. As far as I’m concerned, they can go to hell, and take their often terrible Top Ten list with them.

It reminds me of the great article in the Review section of The Weekend Australian, August 25-26. Hazel Rowley, Christina Stead’s biographer, turned in the very thought-provoking piece ‘The Mocking Country.’ The very first line is this:

Why aren’t Australians proud of the writers and artists who have sprung from our soil?

Well, Hazel, I would say there are several reasons. Most of us aren’t taught very much, if any Australian literature in school. Most of us are never encouraged to develop an appetite for our own stories. Many of us make book purchases based on recommendations and reviews, and in so many cases, including bookstore displays, it’s not Australian literature you’ll find being pushed. And then there’s roadblocks like A & R. Small houses have a hell of a time getting new Australian authors out there. They produce limited print runs, there’s usually no advertising and marketing budget, and reviews can be hard to secure. It’s very competitive – lots of titles coming out around the world, and not a lot of coverage in column inches dedicated to covering them. This is true even for the major publishers, so spare a thought for the little guys who can only be doing it for love, because it sure isn’t for money. So, in effect, what happens is that the already diminishing emerging author market contracts even further. Australians aren’t proud of the writers and artists who spring from our soil, Hazel, because they don’t know who they are. Case in point: as I was raging to Llew last night about A & R, and pushing Hazel Rowley’s article onto him as he tried in vain to get a good night’s sleep, he said wearily “Who’s Christina Stead?”

As a nation, we’re rather ignorant of our literary past. And we’re well on track to remain ignorant of our literary future, because at this rate, there won’t be one. Think of the tree falling in the woods. If a story is left in an empty room, has it still been told?

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