Why publish stuff which no one reads?


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.