Feature: Independent publishing

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Published:  March 23, 2012
Sam West
Feature: Independent publishing

Depending on who you listen to, the publishing industry is either doomed or getting healthier. We have a chat to some of Australia’s leading independent publishers to find out where the industry is headed.

The other day I walked past the space where my local Borders used to be and had a moment of silence. I spent hours in there as a kid reading in corners and sampling CDs (remember those?) with big squishy headphones. Now, it’s just an empty shell: a giant dusty, retail space that no one who knows the internet exists will ever be stupid enough to rent.

Borders is more than just another failed business. Before Borders managed to globalise the written word, reading was the only form of entertainment left without a multiplex. In that sense, it was perhaps the monument to the power of retail franchising: the physical manifestation of a process of global media and publishing consolidation that has been happening for over half a century. Now it’s gone and the game is changing in a big way.

Blockbusters doesn’t mean as much as it used to and these days even Rupert Murdoch is haemorrhaging money (News Corp. lost $7 billion in just four days in July last year). Ebooks and iPads are booming and publishers are stepping up the scramble to work out how best to harness the technology, with varying degrees of success. While others have been discovering that fully embracing the strengths of paper – tactility, collectability, durability – is the way forward. Two things are certain though: first, more so than ever before, getting ahead doesn’t require the support of a globalised publishing brand and, second, there has never been less room in the marketplace for rubbish content. With this in mind, I chat to some of Australia’s leading independent publishers to find out how they’re navigating the new frontier.

First up, I talk to probably Australia’s most tuned-in independent publishing person. Since 2009, Zoe Dattner has been the general manager of SPUNC (Small Press Underground Networking Community), a representative body that counts most of the country’s respected indie publishers as members. SPUNC exists to give Australian writing that strays from the mainstream every opportunity to be heard. Dattner also runs her own imprint called Sleepers, which publishes about four great titles a year. I ask her about the general state of our publishing scene at the moment.

SPUNC represents most of Australia's independent publishers.

“Ten years ago, if I’d asked you to name an Australian publishing house, you probably would have struggled – perhaps come up with Allen and Unwin. If I’d asked you to name an Australian author, you’d have scratched your head for names other than Peter Carey, Tim Winton and David Malouf. Name a literary journal? It’s possible you wouldn’t know any at all, certainly not Australian ones. Independent publishing in Australia has changed all that, almost single-handedly. Anyone culturally invested in this country, whether a little or a lot, will be able to give those questions a lot more answers today. We value these authors and publishers in a way we never have before, and there aren’t many places in the world that can echo that.”

But does the industry’s strength mean it’s actually becoming easier to make money, considering cultural interests seem to be splintering off into a million different directions at the moment?

“Making money will never be easy, which is just as well because publishers are rarely concerned with making money alone. Let us assume for a moment that cultural interests have always been incredibly diverse, splintering off into a million different directions (relatively). What makes it seem like we are experiencing more opinions, thoughts and ideas than ever now is technology, which is allowing us to amplify these voices relatively easily, through online news reporting, blogging, conferences, social networking etc. The ‘market’ in which all these forms of expression sit is burgeoning. The way in which we relate to money and how we measure success is changing. Will publishing ever be highly lucrative? Will we all suddenly value the written word as we do film and sport, and pay weekly amounts to have access to it via a mobile device? We shall see. But I do believe that published content is becoming more valuable, yes.”

Any tips? “I’m a publisher, so I’m a massive advocate for the editorial purpose. If you’re considering self-publishing, have you thoroughly checked out Australia’s small press sector? We have hundreds of small publishers, there’s bound to be one that’s right for your manuscript. Self-publishing is a difficult road, even with the opportunities presented by digital publishing. I just read a statistic today that something like 95 percent of the books on Amazon sell fewer than 100 copies. So don’t hang your hat on the handful of Amazon self- publishing success stories.”

Zines currently stocked at Sticky Institute, including the iconic YOU zine.

Someone who isn’t necessarily interested in the editorial process is Thomas Blatchford. He’s a zine-maker and volunteer at the Sticky Institute, Melbourne’s (and maybe the world’s) only artist-run shop dedicated solely to zines. There are no editorial decisions at Sticky. The rule is if it’s definitely a zine, they’ll sell it and in the zine community DIY expression on paper is the only rule. I ask him to what does he attribute the rise of zines and the Sticky Institute?

“The zine ‘scene’ and the DIY aesthetic most associated with current self-publishing is heavily indebted to punk fanzines, and later Riot Grrrl fanzines, that depended on the form to spread the word about music the mainstream simply wouldn’t touch. Having said that, even though there are a few great punk zines about, very few of the titles we stock now are about any sort of music at all.”

What makes a great zine? “The best zines are definitely those that you know would not have got published anywhere else, for whatever reason. The one that always springs to mind is Ladybeard, a zine about a girl’s reaction to suddenly growing facial hair and how it affected her (and now his) life. It’s the sort of subject that, if it were put out as, say, an article in a magazine, or some sort of self-help guide in Dymocks, it would be about how to get rid of the hair; i.e. immediately assuming that it’s something freakish and bad. But instead, it’s a celebration of the transgender community that is honest and charming and engaging without being sensationalised.”

Any tips? “Get on with it! A lot of people seem to think there is some sort of secret rule to self-publishing. Zine-making is an easy thing to get into because of its inherent lack of professionalism, but still people seem intimidated by it for some reason.”

From DIY to boutique, next I have a chat with Patrick Pittman, who edits Dumbo Feather, one of most beautifully put together paper publications you’re likely to come across. Dumbo Feather is the antithesis of a glossy celebrity mag. Instead of screaming two-sentence gossip about the Kardashians, it’s found a niche of around 30,000 readers worldwide by finding ‘people worth knowing’ – across enterprise, education, science, sports politics and the arts – and getting them to tell their stories in immaculately laid-out 20-page profiles. Pittman recently took over from founder Kate Bezar while she concentrates on raising her first child. I ask him what new strategies he’s implementing to ensure Dumbo Feather’s continued success.

With a readership of 30,000 people Dumbo Feather shows firsthand the benefits of self publishing.

“We’ve looked at really getting the magazine out to the right retailers, building individual relationships with them and getting them in the mindset that they can restock the magazine like they restock a book, so the places where it’s traditionally sold out are kept in supply. That’s really helped with sales. The model for newsagencies is really changing right now and I think a lot of them are realising that niche publications like ours have a much more important role in their futures. We’ve also been looking at carefully growing distribution in both Europe and North America. The idea is not necessarily to print more, but to sell more, and sell more efficiently.”

How does Dumbo Feather go about finding the right balance between being relatively expensive to design and remaining profitable? “We are always tinkering with it,” says Pittman. “We did a complete redesign last year, where we visually reinvented the magazine pretty much entirely. I’m also lucky enough to have an incredible art director in Stuart Geddes, who’s a real innovator and has done really quite radical things in the past like Is Not Magazine. I think the interesting thing has been how you take some of those really unconventional elements that subvert expectations and turn them into something that still works as an overall magazine.

“Also the one thing we’re really pushing and questioning is, as people stop buying the everyday throwaway magazines and the ones they do buy are ones they want to be beautiful physical artefacts, what can we do to make it more so that way? Obviously we have the sumptuous, beautiful recycled paper stock and things, but where do we go from there?

We’re always asking those questions. How can we do better with it? How can we make that experience of holding that magazine in your hand more special? That’s something I find whenever I hand the magazine to somebody who hasn’t heard of it and they get that physical sensation of it, they understand it immediately. It’s much easier than if I’m describing it to them or showing them pdfs of articles and that kind of thing. And particularly when we do move towards tablet publication, and we are working on existing in all of those forms at the moment, the physical artefact still needs its own special place.”

Australian author Wayne Macauley's new book, The Cook, was also independently published by Text Publishing.

Finally, I chat to Scribe Publishing’s Henry Rosenbloom. Since founding Scribe in 1976, Rosenbloom has managed to keep it fiercely independent. In the process, he’s taken a gamble on some of Australia’s most successful titles, such as Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram and recent bestseller Norman Doidge MD’s The Brain that Changes Itself.
I ask him how Scribe is finding the move to ebooks, which titles are selling and which aren’t?

“Over a period of time, we’ve simply signed up with all the major ebook sellers and developed an ebook program that simultaneously releases new books in ebook form.

“In terms of what’s selling, it’s really too early to know because it’s really only relatively recently that the big players have been getting local ebook content. It has been said in America that the most popular ebooks have come from particular genres. They’ve talked about women’s commercial fiction and romantic fiction in particular; in other words, books that tend to be for pleasure and for instant consumption. The kind of book we’re kind of well-known for, what I call serious non-fiction, has tended to sell not as strongly in America.”

Any tips? “You’ve really got to back your own instincts and judgment, and you need to, as it were, have the courage of your convictions. You’ll always make mistakes when you’re a trade publisher, but if you’ve got this skill, you’ll just have to trust that the successes will outweigh the mistakes. If you feel very strongly and enthusiastic about a particular book, then act on it, don’t be bashful.”

After having spoken to Dattner, Blatchford, Pittman and Rosenbloom, it’s apparent that there’s no sure-fire strategy for tackling the rapid change of the industry. Tablet or paper, big readership or small, the most important thing is to put something out there that the public needs. As the commercial establishment lose more control over what gets published, opportunities are opening up everywhere and the optimism is palpable. It also seems there’s still no substitute for having the ‘courage of your convictions’ and striving to just get it done.

From desktop magazine.

Images are copyright by Mishy Lane – mishylane.com.

One Response

  1. Great insight from Zoe! We definitely find that independent publishing is such a challenge especially financially but since we’ve started we’ve found that the rewards come from the most unexpected places.

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