The printed word was once an unhurried, graceful creature. The production of a book – those paper and glue things – was a necessarily protracted process. But slow-moving animals make easy prey.
Now, words fly fast, with screen-based writing hacking into traditional literary markets as both a competitor for attention and as a provider of new content and form. E-books and competing electronic formats – for so long just an alarming spectre over the horizon – are very real, and they have landed.
It is in the face of this traditional publishing horror show that Melbourne is being proclaimed the epicentre of a new age of Australian letters, with the last half-decade seeing a surge in small and independent publishing. Publishers such as Text (Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy), Scribe (Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself) and Black Inc. (The Best Australian Stories/Essays/Poems) have consolidated their front-running positions and been joined by a block of new kids, exemplified by firebrands, Sleepers (Steven Amsterdam's Things We Didn't See Coming). This freshening of the blood has been further hurried by the rise of stand-alone publications, including the hotbright literary journals, The Lifted Brow and Kill Your Darlings.
The claim of Melbourne as the nation’s small print capital is one semi-formalised by the establishment of the Wheeler Centre, a sensitively-renovated wing of the State Library, proposed as a physical base for the city’s literary ventures. It houses key organisations including the Victorian Writers’ Centre, Express Media, the Australian Poetry Centre and the rapidly expanding Small Press Underground Networking Community (SPUNC).
The Centre curates an impressive programme of events, from the black-tie and bubbly Premier’s Literary Awards and the annual Deakin Lectures, to regular public seminars, book readings, forums, and book and magazine launches. Meeting rooms and workshop spaces are shared by residents and external writers and organisations - a deliberate move to foster a sense of collaboration.
Considering the role of this new focal point, Sleepers’ Louise Swinn is enthusiastic. “The Wheeler Centre being a hub means we all know where things happen: events, our meetings, a place to gather. I already can't remember what we did before it, as both a venue and an organisation. It's brilliant.”
This band of small publishers face a media-saturated public and the task of establishing a sustainable model remains an acute challenge; whether to mimic the mainstream publishers’ modes of operation or to beat a new path is a question SPUNC’s Laurie Steed has duly considered. “The biggest mistake an independent publisher can make is to try to make a big book that competes with mainstream titles,” he says. “The very strength of small publishers relies on their ability to make books they are passionate about. This passion – for life, for literature – often translates into well-written, professionally produced books that reach an audience because they dare to do something different.”
Ronnie Scott is at the helm of one such publication, the young and provocative journal, The Lifted Brow. Considering what it takes to keep the enterprise afloat, Scott begins with the raw numbers. “It's incredibly tough, almost impossible, to sell more than 1,000 copies of a journal. I think if you're going to breach that ... the best idea is to broaden the idea of what a lit journal can be – go online, go into art and design and music, go into live events, go into magazine territory.”
The Melbourne sun rises on an ambitious crop of such publications, and along with historically-renowned literary centres such as Berlin and Edinburgh, the city has been designated a UNESCO City of Literature, bringing it within a broad international initiative to establish creative, cooperative publishing networks. However, it is the close relationship between local producers that is having the most immediate effect.
“Oh god, yeah,” Swinn is quick to respond to the question of team spirit. “There's loads of camaraderie. We're stronger with each other. There's not much commercial interest when it comes to such small presses such as Sleepers, so it would be foolish to be competitive when we could be helping each other.”
There is a palpable sense of excitement and optimism exhibited by the majority of independent publishers, and governmental green lights such as the Wheeler Centre provide sympathetic mechanisms of support. Head of Programming, Michael Williams takes stock of the Centre’s achievements thus far. “Across the year we've averaged about four or five events a week to consistently big, consistently happy, consistently intelligent audiences. There's a huge appetite out there for people to be part of a public conversation around books, writing and ideas. We're very proud that the Wheeler Centre has already become a home for many of these conversations.”
The effect of viable e-based forms of publishing and distribution on small publishers is one issue of much debate. Some insiders are claiming the end of days, while others see the independent sector as being in a unique position to adapt quickly to a still-stabilising proposition. A sign of this, SPUNC is glad to have won government funding for its Digital Publishing Project, which will allow its members to have their titles digitised and made available for sale on an eBookstore run, initially, by independent retailer Readings.
Competition, a tightening economy and wholesale changes to the structure of the industry see Melbourne’s small publishers existing through a decisive period. Which factors will be critical to its evolution and survival have yet to be proved, but Williams has a sense of what may allow the scene to prosper.
“As long as they continue to make publishing choices based on a strong sense of engagement with their readers, they'll survive. Thanks to our small and independent publishing scene, I believe it would be impossible for a talented new writer in Australia to remain unpublished for long. Smaller publishers and publications will not just survive in this environment, they will be integral in allowing the wider publishing scene to prosper.”