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The Return of Print?: Contemporary Australian Publishing

CHAPTER SEVEN

Small Publishers and the Miles Franklin Award

EMMETT STINSON

In a recent essay, I compared the literary output of all Australian large publishers with that of eight prominent small publishers in the year 2012. In so doing, I noted that the major publishing houses produced only 27 works of book-length literary fiction in that year, while the eight smaller presses generated 73 literary titles, comprising 40 book-length works of fiction and 33 collections of poetry (Stinson). This research indicates that Australian small publishers are now the primary mediators of Australian literature, given that they publish the vast majority of new Australian literary titles; indeed, the total literary output of Australian small presses is almost certainly much larger than my limited survey suggests, since there are more than a hundred members of the Small Press Network, the industry peak body for Australian independent presses. Examining the catalogues of all of these presses would likely yield an even larger number of literary titles.

This state of affairs represents a decisive shift from earlier decades, when many of the large publishers carried extensive lists of local literary work, as Mark Davis has argued (120). But, in 2012, each of the seven (now six) large publishers—Random House, Penguin, Allen & Unwin, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Hachette—only produced an average of 3.86 local literary titles per year. Indeed, several scholars, such as Mark Davis (120), David Carter (239) and Katherine Bode (85), have noted a decline in literary publishing at the major publishing houses over the last several decades. It appears, however, that this decline at the major houses has been supplemented by a new productivity among small publishers and independent publishers in the literary realm.

But this shift in the mediation of literary works has not necessarily been particularly visible to anyone other than those intimately familiar with the dynamics of the Australian publishing industry. Indeed, consumers—except for certain readers of genre fiction—generally do not pay a great deal of attention to either publishers or imprints. The average book buyer might struggle to name any publisher beyond the most well-known international houses, such as the now-merged Penguin and Random House. Part of the reason for consumers’ ignorance of these matters is that publishers have traditionally promoted their individual authors as brands, instead of developing their own name recognition with the public, as John B. Thompson has noted (211–19). But, if public ignorance of these facts is understandable, what’s potentially more concerning is the question of whether or not Australian literary culture has registered these changes at the level of praxis.

Indeed, there have been some developments that reflect small publishers’ increasingly dominant position in Australian literary production. The creation of the Small Press Network in 2007 and the institution of its annual publishing conference in 2011, for example, demonstrate that small publishers have sought to organise, network and advocate on their own behalf outside of existing industry bodies, such as the Australian Publishers Association. Authors and industry professionals from small presses are also regularly involved with events at the major writers festivals and at literary hubs, such as the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas in Melbourne. But, in these situations, small publishers are effectively accommodated within already existing literary institutional structures, which are fundamentally unaltered. To put it simply, while small publishers have a larger presence in Australian literary culture, the fact that they are now the most significant mediators of Australian literature has not resulted in substantial institutional change. The various literary institutions that support, promote and foster communities around literary works still employ models that reflect an older mode of literary production, which is primarily mediated by large and internationally owned Australian publishers. As a result, there is a disjuncture between the way that Australian literary works are produced and brought to market and the way that this same culture is received, shaped and symbolically recognised. I will argue that this disjuncture is most evident in relation to the institution of literary prizes in Australia, in general, and the Miles Franklin Award, in particular.

Although the Miles Franklin arguably remains Australia’s most significant literary award (despite the recent creation of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards), the composition of its longlists, shortlists and prize-winners, as I will argue, reflects an obsolete mode of Australian literary production. This disjuncture in the Miles Franklin’s symbolic recognition of literary works matters because of the key role that prizes play in literary culture. As Thompson argues, book prizes are particularly important for regulating the reception of ‘literary fiction and serious non-fiction’ in two different ways: on one hand, book prizes add ‘symbolic value to every individual and organization associated with the book—to the author, above all, but also to the agent and the publishing house’; on the other hand, they create enormous potential economic value (277). According to Thompson, titles shortlisted for the Man Booker prize might sell 25,000 extra copies, while winning titles might sell as many as 200,000 extra copies (277). This economic boost is particularly important for literary publishing, since high-prestige literary works, as Davis has argued, are often not particularly profitable in their own right (126). When Beth Driscoll rightly argues that literary prizes ‘are some of the most powerful literary institutions in contemporary culture’ (150), she may, if anything, be understating the case.

The aura that is conferred on prize-winning and commended works profoundly shapes their reception. This is increasingly true even of works by debut authors in Australia, since a variety of prizes—such as the Vogel and various state awards for unpublished manuscripts—can affect how these works are received both by readers and publishers. Sam Cooney, for example, recently reflected on the awarding of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript to Miles Allinson’s Fever of Animals by saying, ‘I was stoked for the manuscript to win the award because I knew it would mean that publishers would read it not as they might have one day (as an unsolicited submission, probably offhandedly) but instead as a book-in-waiting.’ As Cooney suggests here, judges are aware that prize-winning titles accrue symbolic capital in a way that influences reception among other cultural intermediaries, as well as the general public. This serves to illustrate James English’s claim that prizes facilitate ‘cultural “market transactions”’ by enabling a ‘collective project of value production’ (26). Prizes, for better or worse, are one of the chief mechanisms by which the literary field establishes notions of literary value.

The importance of winning a prize is, however, linked to that prize’s own symbolic capital within the field, and the reality is, as English notes, that it is ‘nearly impossible for a newer prize to supersede an older one that has begun to be recognized as the “Nobel” of its subfield’ (63). Major prizes exert a disproportionate effect on the way that cultural products within a given field are valued. It is for this reason that the Miles Franklin Award—either despite or because of the controversy it has generated over the years—continues to be an important reflection of the way that the Australian literary field values itself. What I want to suggest, however, is that the provenance of the books that are longlisted, shortlisted and that ultimately win the Miles Franklin suggests that the prize’s notion of literary value is disconnected from the realities of contemporary literary production. To put it more simply, the Miles Franklin Award disproportionately rewards novels published by large publishers, despite the fact that small publishers are now the primary mediators of Australian literature.

I have surveyed the longlists, shortlists and winners of the Miles Franklin Award since the year 2000 to examine the number of small press titles that have been recognised by the prize in the twenty-first century. There are a few complications with this data since Miles Franklin longlists were only made public starting in the year 2005, and—as I will discuss later—it is not currently possible to examine the list of submitted titles. Nonetheless, this data shows that small press titles are still drastically under-represented in relation to the proportion of literary titles that they produce. Of the 113 titles that have been longlisted since 2005, 31 were small press titles—accounting for 26.7% of all longlisted works. Of the 83 works shortlisted since the year 2000, 16 were small press titles—accounting for 19.2% of all shortlisted works. Of the 17 winning titles since 2000 (there were two winners that year), only three have been small press titles—accounting for only 17.6% of all of winners of the Miles Franklin Award.

While this data demonstrates that small press works are recognised and commended by the Miles Franklin Award, this consideration is not reflective of the fact that small presses produce the majority of literary novels in Australia. Simply based on the number of novels produced by small presses, one would expect that small press works would represent just over half of longlisted, shortlisted and winning works. But small press works represent only a quarter of longlisted titles. Of equal concern is the downward trend that appears across the levels of commendation: while 26.7% of longlisted works are small press books, this drops to 19.2% for the shortlists and to 17.6% for winning works. In other words, as the degree of symbolic recognition being bestowed by the Miles Franklin increases, the likelihood of a small press work being selected decreases.

What this suggests is that the provenance of works—in particular, which publisher produces them—has a major effect on the likelihood of winning a literary award. More specifically, works published by small presses are far less likely to be recognised in any way by the Miles Franklin. This is underscored by the fact that the vast majority of commended small press titles are published by a few small presses with particularly strong reputations as literary publishers. The stand-out, in this regard, is Text Publishing, which has had twelve works longlisted for the Miles Franklin. University of Queensland Press and Giramondo have also had six and five works, respectively, on the longlist. These three presses account for 21 of the 31 small press titles that have been longlisted since 2005. Only two other small publishers—Fremantle Press with three listings, and Scribe with two—have had works commended more than once in this span. There are also many well-regarded small publishers, such as Melbourne’s Sleepers Publishing, which have never had a work commended by the Miles Franklin. What this suggests is that, unless authors publish with a large publishing house or one of the three highly respected small houses, there is virtually no chance that their books will be symbolically recognised by the Miles Franklin.

This state of affairs simultaneously reflects and complicates the notion of literary symbolic value that Pierre Bourdieu describes in The Rules of Art, which, as Beth Driscoll has noted, posits two rival ‘poles’ of production: an autonomous, avant-garde ‘pole’ with high symbolic capital, and a heteronymous, commercial ‘pole’ with high economic capital (12). In Bourdieu’s account, avant-garde authors with high symbolic capital traditionally align themselves with ‘a small publisher … thereby contributing to the upsurge of a field of publishers homologous with that of writers’ (67). There continue to be some instances of this in Australia. Not only would Text appear to represent one such publisher, but also, all five of Giramondo’s Miles Franklin commendations (and its lone win) have been related to books written by either Alexis Wright or Brian Castro. Here, the alliance between a high-status publisher and two high-status authors seems to exemplify the mutually reinforcing relationship that Bourdieu imagines. But the reality is that the majority of works that are recognised by the Miles Franklin are actually produced by the large commercial publishers. This suggests a complex mixture between commercial capital and symbolic capital within the structure of the award, which Driscoll has described as constitutive of middlebrow literary cultures (151). Ultimately, I will argue that it is literary awards’ reliance on the mixture of commerce and prestige that effectively disadvantages small publishers.

Before making this claim, however, it is important to address two other material factors that may also influence small publishers’ recognition by the Miles Franklin. For one, the Miles Franklin, like most literary awards, charges an entry fee to underwrite its administrative costs. While the current fee of $75 does not seem significant, such fees become considerably more expensive when multiplied across titles and, indeed, across the many other literary awards. These fees, taken in aggregate, can discourage submissions from publishers who lack capital reserves; in a recent polemical article about prizes in the Sydney Review of Books, Giramondo founder Ivor Indyk complained about ‘the thousands of dollars in entry fees I have to pay each year to support the administration of prizes’. For small publishers, entering titles for every significant award may be prohibitive, or, at the very least, present an opportunity cost. The result is that, while small publishers may produce the majority of Australian literary works, it does not follow that they comprise the majority of entrants to the Miles Franklin Award. At present, the Miles Franklin does not disclose which titles have been entered, so it is impossible to know if the results are skewed by entry costs. If it is the case that small publishers are not submitting in adequate numbers, however, then it would seem there would be scope for the prize’s administrators to re-examine their fee structure.

Another possible reason for the under-representation of small publishers lies in the claim that works of significant literary merit are mostly published by large Australian publishers; under this view, small publishers’ work—although of a greater quantity—cannot compare in quality with that of the large publishing houses. There are elements of truth to this assertion; certainly it is the case that most established Australian writers, who are also saleable commodities, are published by large houses, which can offer larger advances and better distribution for their works. A brief review of recent winners would appear to confirm that established authors of this kind are more likely to win the Miles Franklin than debut authors or those with a low public profile. But it is also increasingly the case that well-known Australian authors are published by smaller presses. Giramondo not only publishes Alexis Wright and Brian Castro, as I mentioned earlier, but has also been largely responsible for the late-career resurgence of Gerald Murnane. Amanda Lohrey’s last two books have been brought out by Melbourne independent publisher Black Inc. Text Publishing has a large stable of such authors, most notably Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee. Moreover, it is no longer the case (if it ever was) that large publishers seek out works based on their literary merit; as Mark Davis has argued, decisions made by large publishers increasingly reflect an entirely commercial logic, backed by point-of-sale data provided by Nielsen BookScan (125–26). In point of fact, small publishers are far more likely to publish a book based on its literary qualities rather than its market potential; this is so because small publishers typically have low overheads, fewer employees and are generally motivated by non-economic notions of value, as Aaron Mannion and Amy Espeseth have argued (74). Given this, you would expect that a literary award, such as the Miles Franklin, which claims to recognise ‘the novel of the highest literary merit that presents Australian life in any of its phases’ would, in fact, disproportionately commend small press works that are not concerned with either public appeal or success in the market—but this is not the case.

While small presses may be put at a disadvantage by entry fees and the fact that established authors are frequently lured to larger houses, I want to suggest that the Miles Franklin’s privileging of large publishers’ titles derives from an inherent dynamic within the cultural positioning of literary prizes. Here, I am indebted to Beth Driscoll’s view of literary prizes as primarily middlebrow institutions that are ‘reader-oriented, commercial, reverent towards elite culture and reliant on cultural intermediaries’ (120). Of key interest here is literary prizes’ mixture of commercial imperatives and ‘elite’ culture. Driscoll is right to note that literary awards are not simply commercial entities and that such imperatives do not ‘brutally impose’ their ‘logics on the world of art’; on the contrary, Driscoll convincingly argues that awards, as middlebrow institutions, combine ‘respect for culture with entrepreneurialism’ (131). Driscoll sums up the intermingling of these values in middlebrow literary prizes by noting that the combination of ‘credibility and sales’ comprises ‘the ultimate middlebrow dream’ (151).

While I am in no way suggesting that the Miles Franklin, as an institution, actively discriminates against small press titles, I nonetheless want to suggest that the convergence of ‘credibility and sales’ effectively offers an advantage to large publishers, which are best placed both to accumulate a list of prestigious authors and to sell books in large volumes. In this sense, I would suggest that the inherent sensibilities cultivated by literary prizes produce a climate in which it is generally undesirable for lesser-known titles without obvious commercial appeal to win with any regularity (although, as Driscoll notes, an occasional win by this kind of work creates the media controversy that such prizes covet). Put more simply, literary prizes are, by their nature, less hospitable to small presses, which—although they may possess stores of symbolic capital—rarely have sufficient stores of economic capital. The result is that small press works are less likely to be commended by ‘premier’ awards like the Miles Franklin, since they are not ideally placed at the cultural nexus between prestige and commercial success.

This state of affairs, however, seems problematic given that small presses play an increasingly central role in mediating literary culture, even though they are less likely to be symbolically recognised by valuing institutions. Although it may not be a matter of life-and-death, it does speak to a significant disconnect in Australian literary culture between the ways that works of literature are produced and the ways that they are institutionally valued, mediated, and, indeed, promoted to the larger public. In the long run, institutions like the Miles Franklin produce a set of winners and (de facto) losers that are only tenuously linked to the material realities of Australian literary production. If nothing else, it is worth rigorously questioning if this is either the best or even the least-worst state of affairs. Given the massive changes that have occurred among the mediators of literary production, is it not reasonable to advocate for a similar shift within the institutions that mediate and value literary culture?

Works Cited

Bode, Katherine. Reading by Numbers: Recalibrating the Literary Field. London: Anthem Press, 2012.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Trans. Susan Emanuel. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1996.

Carter, David. ‘Boom, Bust, or Business as Usual? Literary Fiction Publishing.’ Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing. Eds. David Carter and Anne Galligan. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 2007. 231–46.

Cooney, Sam. ‘Review of Fever of Animals by Miles Allinson.’ Readings. Readings, 27 Aug. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <http://www.readings.com.au/review/fever-of-animals-by-miles-allinson>.

Davis, Mark. ‘The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing.’ Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing. Eds. David Carter and Anne Galligan. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 2007. 116–31.

Driscoll, Beth. The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century. London: Pan Macmillan, 2014.

English, James. The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005.

Indyk, Ivor. ‘The Cult of the Middlebrow.’ Sydney Review of Books. Writing and Society Research Centre, The University of Western Sydney, 4 Sept. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/4-september-2015-literary-prizes/>.

Mannion, Aaron and Amy Espeseth. ‘Small Press Social Entrepreneurship.’ By the Book? Contemporary Publishing in Australia. Ed. Emmett Stinson. Clayton, Vic: Monash UP, 2013.

Stinson, Emmett. ‘Small Publishers and the Emerging Network of Australian Literary Prosumption.’ Australian Humanities Review. Association for the Study of Australian Literature, Apr/May 2016. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

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

The Return of Print?: Contemporary Australian Publishing

   by Aaron Mannion and Emmett Stinson