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A simple way to make Australian books unputdownable

Mark Twain once complained that a report of his death was exaggerated. Although there are some who bemoan the demise, or at least diminution, of Australian Literature – and in terms of the teaching resources allocated to the field there is apparently some substance to that complaint – in publishing right now there seems to be a flourishing going on.

It wasn’t so long ago that Australian literature was being spoken about as though it was on life support, ignored by the media and neglected in the universities. It was once even suggested by a prominent author that because our literature is relatively young there is no such thing as an Australian literary classic.

In contrast to those countries where the national literature is taken seriously, most people in Australia don’t seem to care much one way or the other. But telling our own stories in our own voice does matter a great deal to those who do care.

Like any cultural enterprise struggling in the age of digital copying and free online content, publishing is an industry under pressure – understandably so also given the relatively small market in Australia for local books and traditionally tight margins in all forms of publishing. As an enthusiastic importer of cultural product from the dominant anglophone cultures of the US and UK, Australia has a smaller audience for local creative endeavour than the overall population size would otherwise indicate.

There is a readership for Australian books that goes beyond the latest publishing sensation or literary prize winner.

And yet despite the difficulties, many new editions of old and recent literary works and popular fiction are currently available in print or soon will be, indicating that there is a readership for Australian books that goes beyond the latest publishing sensation or literary prize winner.

It is worth remembering that a substantial amount of Oz Lit has never gone out of print, or at least not for long. A prime example is Colleen McCullough’s epic outback saga The Thorn Birds, which has never been revived simply because it has never faded, and the book remains the biggest selling novel by an Australian author at over 30 million copies shifted worldwide.

The high-profile Text Classics series has gone from strength to strength with 100 titles now on offer, bringing back authors as varied and rewarding as Watkin Tench and Amy Witting, and there is much else going on. The Australian-owned Allen & Unwin is about to relaunch nearly 30 books by Morris West, reputedly the biggest selling Australian author ever. At the other end of scale in terms of sales figures, Melbourne-based Grattan Street Press has just produced an impressive and authoritative new scholarly edition of John Lang’s 1855 colonial classic The Forger’s Wife, the first novel published by an Australian-born author.

The effort to keep Australian writing alive beyond the standard publishing cycle is also being led by independent outfit Xoum under the expert guidance of Rod Morrison, who previously handled works by “everyone from Kylie Tennant to Miles Franklin to Henry Lawson to Banjo Paterson” while working with the A&R Classics series as a young publisher.

As part of its program of reissues, Xoum is bringing back over 100 titles by the king of pulp Carter Brown as well as releasing several of Robert Dessaix‘s fiction and non-fiction, books, crime fiction by Malla Nunn and true crime by Gail Bell, historical fiction by Anthony O’Neill and popular history by Gavin Souter.

“We strongly feel the industry’s ‘short termism’ is hugely detrimental and that we’re all guilty of undercooking and over-publishing” – Rod Morrison.

According to Morrison, when it comes to reissues it is the smaller houses that may in some ways have an advantage over larger commercial publishers. Since moving on from A&R Classics almost two decades ago and eventually co-founding his own publishing company, Morrison says he witnessed in the late 1990s how “inevitably corporate pressures overcame any wet, sentimental notions of cultural heritage. Some argue it’s simply too much to expect a multinational to coddle and cosset unprofitable lists — if they go bust everyone loses, right? — so it’s down to the deranged, irresponsible or megalomaniacal to keep the faith and continue acquiring, editing, proofreading, typesetting, foreword-procuring, printing, warehousing and distributing our literary artefacts.”

Morrison nevertheless believes that the success of the Text Classics series and other such endeavours shows that with the right knowledge and handling, forgotten literary jewels can be made to sparkle once more. “I am regularly surprised at how many seminal Australian works are left to gather dust. At Xoum we strongly feel the industry’s ‘short termism’ is hugely detrimental and that we’re all guilty of undercooking and over-publishing – some are worse than others. It takes such a monumental amount of effort to get a single book up and running it’s insane to just give up on it if Bookscan’s three-month sell-through isn’t quite up to snuff.”

As with the honest appreciation of any art, Morrison says publishers need to be guided by what they themselves genuinely admire and believe to be important. “The point is no one has a monopoly on heritage protection and there are great people in houses big and small doing their best to keep these stories relevant and alive. We reissue stuff we love and we hope others will love it too. We make very little money out of it, but we’re small and agile enough that we can afford to take a punt.”

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Disclaimer: Simon Caterson contributed introductions to the Text Classics editions of Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab and Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune.

Main image: Rachel Ward and Richard Chamberlain in the 1983 American TV adaptation of The Thorn Birds

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