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The Return of Print?: Contemporary Australian Publishing

Post-Digital Publishing

An Introduction


For a decade now, popular accounts of changes in the book industry have tended to recapitulate uncritically Clayton Christensen’s account of so-called ‘disruptive innovation’ (21–42). Examples of this tendency abound: in 2012, The Guardian published an article entitled ‘Ebooks: The Giant Disruption’ (Filloux) while, even as late as 2015, Digital Book World could publish an article whose headline claimed that ‘Publishing’s Digital Disruption Hasn’t Even Started’ (Cuddy). In Australia, there has been plenty of evidence to support the notion that the publishing industry is undergoing great changes—one needs only to consider the 2011 collapse of REDGroup Retail (owners of Borders and Angus & Robertson) or the 2013 merger of Penguin and Random House. Alongside such large-scale industrial shifts, there are other significant changes in the way that books are produced, mediated and received: readers have access to public forums (via social media like Twitter and social reading sites like Goodreads) to express their views, self-published authors working in commercial genres find pathways to success outside of mainstream publishers (Levey), and new digital platforms, such as The Sydney Review of Books, seek to re-establish highbrow book discourse (while literary reviewing in newspapers continues to shrink) within what Simone Murray has recently termed the ‘Digital Literary Sphere’ (331–39).

And yet, for all of these changes, the core functions of contemporary book publishing remain remarkably similar to those it possessed throughout the twentieth century. Publishers work to source potentially profitable manuscripts, function as banks who take on upfront risk (such as author advances, printing, and file-formatting costs), edit and market them to increase their chances of finding a favourable reception, and ultimately disseminate these works to booksellers—whether bricks and mortar or online—who then sell them to the public. While forecasts several years ago predicted that ebooks would rapidly overtake print (Greenfield), many reports have argued that ebooks’ growth in market share has been slowing since 2013 (Digital Book World). Moreover, younger readers overwhelmingly appear to prefer print—which suggests that predictions of an entirely digital book industry are overstated (Bellis). From a practical standpoint, print has remained the industry’s core business, and most publishers now have well-established in-house practices for producing and selling ebooks in ways that are generally profitable.

Instead of experiencing ‘innovative disruption’, the contemporary publishing industry seems to be caught between constant digital change and business paradigms that are still, at heart, entirely traditional. In this regard, contemporary publishing might be best thought of as a ‘post-digital’ mediascape. Here, the term post-digital does not describe literary culture after the digital, but rather refers to the ‘messy and paradoxical condition … after digital technology revolutions’ in which ‘old’ and ‘new’ media have been blurred (Pold et al.). As a post-digital phenomenon, contemporary publishing is neither straightforwardly old or new, disrupted or stable, but in a state of constant flux, shifting between old and new media practices in paradoxical ways that simultaneously reinforce and undermine aspects of traditional print culture. Indeed, the common use of digital technology to deliver print books (through Amazon or the Book Depository) represents precisely this blending of forms, in which digital technology both disrupts and supports the centrality of the codex as a form.

Although no scholars in the collection apply the specific term ‘post-digital’, many of the investigations within consider issues that—in addressing both new media and traditional publishing structures—reflect an inherently post-digital outlook. In ‘General Fiction, Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction Publishing 2000–13’, David Carter revisits and revises previous research he’s done on publishing trends in Australian fiction. He notes that his more recent research suggests that the ‘decline’ in literary publishing noted by Mark Davis and others is less clear given recent results, which suggest that Australian literary production can vary wildly from year to year. He also identifies a developing body of novels that sit between the traditional categories of literary and genre fiction, and constitute a significant percentage of Australia’s output of book-length fiction.

Sarah Couper’s ‘Bookish Girls: Gender and Leadership in Australian Trade Publishing’ provides an excellent analysis of the gender breakdown of leadership positions in the industry—a timely intervention that resonates with the work on gendered representation in book reviews done by the annual Stella Prize count. Here, Couper notes a correlation between the size of publishing firms and the percentage of women employed in leadership positions: the smaller the firm, the more likely that women will be placed in leadership roles. Indeed, while publishing remains a female-dominated industry, leadership positions in large firms are still mostly held by men.

Mark Davis’s ‘The Changing Literary Ecology’ considers recent scholarly interventions that have sought to argue for literature’s central role in supporting democratic modes of governance, and then goes on to examine how the digital dissemination of and discourse around books affects their relationship to open or democratic paradigms. In particular, he demonstrates how data collected by ebook retailers—which is then fed back to authors to assist them in creating books that will reflect popular tastes—may have populist intentions but can produce exclusionary results. He concludes with a reflection on the power of literature in a time of neoliberalism.

In ‘Women, Akubras and Ereaders: Romance Fiction and Australian Publishing’, Beth Driscoll, Lisa Fletcher and Kim Wilkins provide an overview and analysis of Rural Romance or ‘RuRo’ publishing. As their analysis attests, RuRo is not only one of the most significant commercial areas for contemporary publishing but an interesting and diverse field unto itself. This presents a significant first foray into an area of publishing and a foundational study sure to influence further research in this burgeoning area.

Tracy O’Shaughnessy’s ‘Deckchairs and Life Rafts: Australian Trade Publishing’s Perfect Storm’ uses BookScan data to offer an analysis of the years 2011–13, which, following the demise of RED Group Retail, constituted a particularly difficult commercial environment for the local industry. O’Shaughnessy’s insightful analysis examines the effects of this industrial downturn on authors, publishers and other parts of the supply chain.

In ‘How to Read a Big Book: The Critical Reception of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites in the Context of Contemporary Trade Book Marketing’, Critic Watch (a moniker used by Dr Ben Etherington for an eponymous column in the Sydney Review of Books) performs an analysis of book reviews and book marketing in relation to Kent’s breakthrough debut novel. In particular, he notes that the marketing in relation to the book appears to have had relatively little influence on its reviews.

Emmett Stinson’s ‘Small Publishers and the Miles Franklin Award’ examines the lack of success that small publishers have had in being nominated for or winning the Miles Franklin. Stinson examines the reasons behind what is arguably an under-representation of small publishers and argues that this has negative effects on small publishers’ public visibility and the diversity of literary prize-winners.

Sybil Nolan’s ‘The Transition to Book: Problems of Narrative Structure in Journalists’ Manuscripts’ identifies an interesting trend in Australian publishing—the increased output of book-length manuscripts by Australian journalists. In particular, she notes how rhetorical aspects of journalism training can make the transition to writing books quite difficult; Nolan uses discourse analysis to illustrate her claims.

Anne Richards’s ‘Coming Out: Reframing the Public Face of Publishing’ presents an extended response to the persistent narrative that the publishing industry is dying. She examines different national book cultures and uses methods of analysis derived from business studies to argue that publishers’ passion for their work provides a decisive commercial advantage that could ensure the longer-term security of the industry.

As John Thompson has noted, book publishing, despite being one of the oldest sectors of the creative industries, has also remained one of the least studied (vi). Certainly, publishing studies has become a far more established area in Australia, with a variety of monographs and edited collections on the topic appearing over the last decade, as well as an annual academic day as part of the national Independent Publishing Conference. The scholarly investigations in this book seek to extend this analysis of what continues to be one of Australia’s most important and dynamic cultural industries.

Works Cited

Bellis, Rich. ‘Young Readers Say No Thanks to Enhanced E-Reading.’ Digital Book World. F+W Media, Inc., 27 Mar. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

Christensen, Clayton, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson. Disrupting Class, Expanded Edition: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. 21–42.

Cuddy, Gareth. ‘Publishing’s Digital Disruption Hasn’t Even Started.’ Digital Book World. F+W Media, Inc., 23 Apr. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

Digital Book World. ‘New AAP Figures Show Ebook Growth Mostly Flat.’ Digital Book World. F+W Media, Inc., 10 Jun. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2016 <>.

Filloux, Frédéric. ‘Ebooks: The Giant Disruption.’ The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 27 Feb. 2012. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

Greenfield, Jeremy. ‘Ebook Growth Slows to Single Digits in U.S. in 2013.’ Digital Book World. F+W Media, Inc., 1 Apr. 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

Levey, Nick. ‘Post-Press Literature: Self-Published Authors in the Literary Field.’ Post45 2 Feb. 2016.

Murray, Simone. ‘Charting the Digital Literary Sphere.’ Contemporary Literature 56.2 (2015): 311–39.

Pold, Søren Bro and Christian Ulrik Andersen. ‘Post-Digital Books and Disruptive Literary Machines.’ Formules/Revue Des Creations Formelles (2014).

Thompson, John B. Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010. vi.

The Return of Print?: Contemporary Australian Publishing

   by Aaron Mannion and Emmett Stinson