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Why publish stuff which no one reads?

David Musgrave 10 August 2013

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I thought that heading might catch your eye. People outside of the poetry world often express surprise that I devote such a large amount of my time to publishing poetry which, they often say, nobody reads. This isn't actually true. Last calendar year Puncher & Wattmann published twelve books (three works of fiction, one biography and eight books of poetry) and as of September this year it will have published eleven books (one anthology, one memoir and nine collections of poetry) with ten more titles to come before the year is out. Compared with the sales of a Jodi Picoult or a J K Rowling our sales are very modest, but they are growing each year. Last calendar year we sold more books than ever and this year we will sell even more.

Poetry is an important part of the press, but not the only part - we're publishing more literary fiction than ever, and in early 2014 we will be releasing the novels Out of Print by Julian Croft and Slush-Pile by Ian Shadwell. A small but growing press like Puncher & Wattmann has to be prepared for the long haul, and to build its readership slowly but steadily. I'm always amazed at how popular poetry readings at the Sydney Writers festival are: every one that I have been involved in has been full to capacity, and I am sure that this is not because I happen to be part of it. The thing about poetry, and interesting writing in general, is that if you present it to a captive audience, they will find it very interesting and engage with it. It's just that in this day and age it is very difficult for the average reader to seek out new and interesting work apart from the small number of titles which are pushed through the mainstream press, largely by multinational publishers. Even people with a lot of time on their hands, retirees who are interested in reading literature, often don't know what is worth reading because reviews don't necessarily help them (even if they do appear in the newspapers) when there might be, say ten books of poetry or literary fiction to choose from in any given month, and they might only really want to read one or two. That's why small presses, those that hang around for decades, are extremely important for literary culture in this country.

The list of a good small press represents the considered sensibility of its publisher and editors and, if successful, acts as a shortcut for the interested person who doesn't actively participate in the literary 'scenes' to quickly find a book which they can be reasonably certain they will find interesting. When I started reading Australian poetry, Hale & Iremonger and UQP were the two presses whose titles I bought the most. Now the terrain has changed, but many of the poets published then (I'm talking nearly a quarter of a century ago) are now important figures in the literary landscape. And while their sales might still be modest compared to the latest airport twaddle, our literary culture would be all the poorer for their absence.

This is why I'm reasonably upbeat about devoting so much time and effort to building up a press of books which, I am told from time to time, hardly anyone reads. Forget the prizes and the reviews and the fifteen minutes of fame which capture our attention in the present - time is the best way to sort out the wheat from the chaff, and one of the best methods we have for doing this is the institution of the small press. Together with their cousins, the small journals, they are the lifeblood of our literary culture. It's just a shame that the media don't quite get it yet (note to self - I really must write to Jennifer Byrne and point out how misleading the title of her show on ABC TV is: it shouldn't be called The Book Show, but the Non-Poetry Multinational Publisher Product Show).

It always makes me laugh when I meet people who consider themselves to be highly literate and yet they haven't read a single book of Australian poetry in the last year. The joke is on them, not us.

1. Lorne Johnson

Well said, David. God bless the small presses. And I agree with you about Jennifer Byrne. Her show is so bloody tedious. Looking forward to Carol Jenkins’ new volume. ‘Fishing in the Devonian’ is one of the most kaleidoscopic, original and fascinating Aussie poetry volumes in recent memory. Also hanging out for Anthony Lawrence’s newie. What a poet he is. ‘Welfare…’ was creepy, haunting, almost hard to get through; no one has published anything like that before. On another note, I’m glad your ‘Coastline’ won the NPP last year - a vivid, accessible, poignant poem. Peace n light, Lorne, Bundanoon, NSW.

2. Anne

“... time is the best way to sort out the wheat from the chaff”
Yes! Especially considering “the near absence of genuine criticism” of Australian poetry (to quote your recent paper on reading for pleasure, reading for writing and reading for publication, http://goo.gl/OfDPfl )

3. davidmusgrave@icloud.com

Thanks Lorne. Carol Jenkins’ new book should be launched in October. We’ll put the news of it on the site. Anthony’s new book Signal Flare is due by the end of September - I just finished typesetting it today. It’s got some exciting new work in it, in different directions to his previous work.

4. Michael Sharkey

Hi, David. Couldn’t agree more about the paltry media reception and promotion of poetry by Australian authors. Bookshops outside major cities corroborate the woeful tale. The sole independent bookshop in my area has shut down, though not before selling off stock at $3 and $5 per copy — mostly fiction, and collected and selected poems of contemporary or major twentieth-century American and British authors, but sadly, lots of Australian as well, including writers published by small presses also. This situation — death of independent sellers, abandonment of the hard-copy sales to franchises of multinationals — is dire on all counts: lack of exposure os small press productions to wider readership, disappearance of royalties for authors, negligible or absent media coverage. Re ABC coverage: shameful situation; ‘Poetica’ aside, ‘cultural’ programs appear to be vehicles for self-regarding celebrity announcers making patronising comments to and about authors, for the sake of cheap laughs — if they’re not actually behaving insultingly: that’s ‘entertainment’? No wonder we turn to the internet for some sense that there is a poetic culture in Australia. No wonder that some of us have also given up on weekend papers and the ABR, in favour of more intelligent reviews like Martin Duwell’s extended surveys of single authors — while we long for such mature reviews as some overseas poets get in the TLS, NYRB and LRB. By the bye—it’s a pathetic that your own novel, Glissando, hasn’t had the press and honours it deserves. Unprovoked, several people has told me they think it’s wonderful. So do I.

5. davidmusgrave@icloud.com

Gee thanks for the comments on Glissando, The Bear in Mind. It had such a difficult birth (it was written fifteen years ago and could not get published until Sleepers took it on) that I sort of didn’t expect much. The literary awards for fiction tend to be conservative (in that they tend to shortlist already established names), and I have noticed that comic or satirical novels rarely get up. It’s sort of an unspoken rule that novels dealing with serious issues in a serious way are more worthy than those dealing with serious issues in a non serious (or serio-comic) way, as Glissando does. Look at how David Foster has been treated.  I’m just glad it is out there.

Martin Duwell’s essays are indeed worth reading, but unfortunately he is just one critic - we need several like him, with a spectrum of tastes and sensibilities to form a truly representative body of critical opinion. I have read some good critics lately - the most considered, I think, was Michelle Borzi’s recent review published online in Southerly’s Long Paddock. I hope she writes more reviews. What distresses me most about our current poetry culture is that self-promotion and networking seems to count for more than the actual quality of the work.

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