Independent Australian Publishers and the Acquisition of Books

By Poland, Louise | Journal of Australian Studies, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Independent Australian Publishers and the Acquisition of Books


Poland, Louise, Journal of Australian Studies


There are over 130 independent Australian publishing houses.(1) The term `Australian-owned' refers to companies with more than 50 per cent Australian ownership, while `independent' does not exclude those publishers that are subsidised or funded by Australian institutions.(2) The Australian Publishers Association (APA) has 143 members of which approximately 80 per cent are small book publishers.(3) Small publishers are defined by the APA as those with a turnover of under $2 million; almost all of these are Australian-owned.(4) Indeed, the majority of Australian publishing houses are small independent publishers.

Australia's medium to large independent publishing houses comprise companies such as Allen & Unwin, Lonely Planet, Lothian, Universal Books, Melbourne University Press, University of Queensland Press and ABC Books, some of which in recent years have positioned themselves to compete with multinational firms. For example, Allen & Unwin -- now `Australia's largest independent publisher'(5) -- reorientated itself to compete internationally by changing the market's perception of the company. By local and international standards, however, for small independent publishers, publishing and surviving is a risky enough business.

If there is one issue upon which there is general agreement among independent Australian publishers, it is that `life as an independent is tough'.(6) `I think we're poor and we're always battling',(7) says Ray Coffey (Fremantle Arts Centre Press), of independent Australian publishers. Rhonda Black, previously publisher at Hale & Iremonger, emphasises the pressure on small publishers to remain economically afloat: `In a small company it's important that you have no absolute duds. You can't afford to have any books that don't cover costs and contribute at least something to cover overheads'.(8) Susan Hawthorne (Spinifex Press), underscores the bottom line: `The critical thing is that you survive. None of the other things can happen if you don't'.(9)

Even for independent Australian publishers that are in growth phases, `other critical junctures will come up'.(10) Firstly, it may be difficult for independent publishing houses to survive in Australia's mature market -- `one that will be hard to grow'.(11) Secondly, a classic difficulty for a successful publisher is retaining its original character while expanding into new areas. Thirdly, changes of personnel have proved difficult for many independent companies.(12)

Commissioning and developing a list

The publisher or commissioning editor(13) is the entrepreneur of the publishing house. Commissioning editors `both receive ideas and gather ideas'.(14) The work requires risk-taking, imagination and vision and an eye for the market. There are a number of ways in which the independent publisher acquires books, as Allen & Unwin's Paul Donovan explains:

   Using the old parlance, a commissioning editor is one who commissions
   books, whether that book has been received through an agent, through the
   slush pile of through the editor's damn good idea ... of an author comes to
   you with a project and you shape it. You take it on and you shape it to the
   market you think is best. Or you have author relationships anyway so there
   are always ongoing discussions with ... authors ... Or you have books
   presented to you by agents; or you have books presented to you by overseas
   packagers.(15)

Increasingly, Donovan claims, lists will be supplemented by buying books from international publishers. Eighty-five per cent of Allen & Unwin's titles ate commissioned within Australia with the remainder acquired from overseas publishers of packagers.(16)

Over time the publisher develops, a list that gives the company its own style and identity and which keeps it afloat economically. The publisher is the public persona of the publishing house, building and maintaining relationships with authors, negotiating contracts and rights (including international rights), managing budgets, overseeing editorial and production processes and developing the marketing plan. …

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