Australian Literary and Scholarly Publishing in Its International Context

By Wilding, Michael | Australian Literary Studies, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Australian Literary and Scholarly Publishing in Its International Context


Wilding, Michael, Australian Literary Studies


`Darkness' may seem an inapposite word for an epoch in which global communication is instantaneous and continuous. But sinister things are happening. More and more of the organs of communication are falling into fewer and fewer hands. The battle for the audiencedollar to finance the networks is becoming so intense that the talents of the communicators are being suborned to serve the lowest common denominators of the audience. The power to impose a darkness of the intellect and call it light, is now an immediate fact. Because it exists, it can and will be used. Maybe we simple folk will have to do as the old Romans did -- keep a gaggle of geese to warn us of the invaders.

(Morris West, A View from the Ridge 81)

AUSTRALIAN publishing has always been dominated by foreign interests, but the concentration of foreign ownership has surely never been higher than today. At various times Australian owned publishers have been established, but one by one they have been acquired by larger, overseas organisations that have no particular local allegiances. Angus & Robertson and Bay Books were acquired by HarperCollins; McPhee Gribble was acquired by Penguin and F.W. Cheshire by Longman, both part of the Pearson group; Jacaranda was acquired by Wiley; Sun Books was acquired by Macmillan; D.W. Thorpe and Rigby were acquired by Reed; Craftsman House and Paper Bark were acquired by Gordon and Breach; and Kangaroo Press was acquired by Simon & Schuster. Most of the other independent publishers active in the 1970s and 1980s have now closed down, been taken over and absorbed, or effectively ceased literary publishing -- ANZ books, Australasian Book Society, Alternative Publishing Co-operative, E.J. Dwyer, John Ferguson, Goldstar, Outback Press, Greenhouse, Ure Smith, Second Back Row Press, Left Book Club, Wentworth Press, Wild & Woolley, Widescope, Wren. ANU Press, La Trobe University Press and Sydney University Press have all closed down. A handful of local operations involved in literary or scholarly publishing survives, notably University of Queensland Press, Text, Hale & Iremonger, and Hyland House. There are some with specialist programmes, like Currency Press (drama) and Spinifex and Sybylla Feminist Press (feminist and women's writing), or with strong regional connections, like Fremantle Arts Centre Press in Western Australia and Wakefield Press in South Australia. Allen & Unwin mutated into an Australian company after a management buy-out when HarperCoilins acquired the parent British operation. New houses have appeared -- Brandl & Schlesinger, Duffy & Snellgrove, Abbott Bentley. And there is a scattering of small presses. But the major part of Australian publishing is done by the local branches of the big transnational corporations.

From the 1970s onwards there has been some governmental support for publishing from the Australia Council's Literature Board (now Literature Fund). But a quarter of a century of funding has failed to establish a healthy, independent local industry. Consistently the Literature Board refused to do anything about distribution. At a point when independent distributors were being absorbed by transnational publishers and when new small and independent presses could find no access to efficient distribution, the literature board did nothing. It held inquiries, but offered no support. Publication subsidies were dispensed, publicity money splashed around, but a national distribution policy for all that funded writing was never drawn up. Moreover, the Literature Board always insisted on giving money readily to transnational publishers -- unlike the Canada Council which restricted funds to Canadian companies. In Canada today there is a thriving publishing industry of independent publishers, together with a host of dynamic small presses. But Australian governmental policy seemed to be one of collaboration with the transnationals rather than of trying to confront or mitigate their destructive effects. …

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