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2006-12, 352, Book Reviews, Colin Steele, History

Review Article: The Book in Australia*

Review Article: The Book in Australia

Colin Steele

Paper Empires. A History of the Book in Australia 1946-2005.

Edited by Craig Munro and Robyn Sheahan-Bright. (University of Queensland Press 2005). 430pp. $45.00My Life in Print By Michael Zifcak. (Lothian). 210pp. $45

(* Originally published in the Canberra Times. Reproduced with permission.)

GLOBAL FORCES and technologies increasingly impinge on the worlds of Australian bookselling and publishing, in ways that might make the 1970s and 1980s, as described in Paper Empires, seem like a golden age.

Paper Empires, edited by Craig Munro and Robyn Sheahan-Bright, has the ambitious goal to cover “the history of the book in Australia” from 1946-2005. Sixty-seven contributors in 81 essays and case studies make “extensive use of oral history, and memoir, taking core samples from the different strata of book production, selling and reading”. Michael Zifcak’s autobiography My Life in Print details his long and successful career with Collins Booksellers and his involvement in the promotion of Australian publishing and writing.

Munro is a distinguished former publishing manager at University of Queensland Press, while Sheahan-Bright writes regularly on children’s literature, Australian fiction and publishing history. They acknowledge that Paper Empires “took rather longer to complete than originally anticipated” and this certainly shows in overall cohesion and balance.

The editors might have considered providing a lengthy overview article to link the varied pieces together. This is not to say that Paper Empires is not a gold mine of Australian book history, but the whole ends up as something of a bookish ‘turducken’. Short pieces are ‘stuffed’ alongside one another with not enough room to expand. The historical memoirs and oral history slices comprise the valuable core of Paper Empires, highlighting the influence of key figures such as Beatrice Davis, George Ferguson, Andrew Fabinyi, Sam Ure-Smith, Brian Clouston, Tony Wheeler, Terry Herbert, and Lloyd O’Neill.

The editors wryly note that “Australia remains a happy hunting ground for the big global producers” from the US and UK. Michael Webster outlines, in ‘Into the Global Era’, the dominance of Penguin, Random, HarperCollins, Allen and Unwin, Hodder Headline (now Hachette) and Simon and Schuster which comprised nearly 70% of the Australian publishing market in 2004. Zifcak’s publisher Lothian was sold in December 2005 to Time Warner, directly ending 118 years of Lothian family involvement in the Australian publishing industry. This reflects the growing international trends of multinational publisher dominance at the one end of the market and niche small local publishers at the other.

Penguin, which straddles both local and international output, features throughout the text of Paper Empires. Jeremy Lewis in his 2005 biography of Penguin founder Allen Lane detailed the opening of Penguin Australia in a tin shed in 1946 and the tensions in being both an international and an Australian publisher. When the first group of Australian Penguins were published in March 1963, the familiar penguin on the cover was garlanded with boomerangs. This led Patrick White to harangue Geoffrey Dutton with the phrase, “get rid of those f——— boomerangs”!

Mark Davis in the May-June issue of Australian Bookseller and Publisher notes that the “cultural nationalism” of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, reflected in Paper Empires, has diminished significantly in terms of literary fiction output. Davis in a separate piece, ‘On the Decline of the Literary Publishing Paradigm’, highlights “declining editing standards, changes in literary taste, the rise of marketing departments, changing leisure patterns, the advent of Nielsen BookScan; all have been blamed for Australian publishers’ declining emphasis on literary fiction”.

Genre fiction is one aspect of Australian publishing, however, which has boomed in recent years, but Ian Morrison’s case study on pulp fiction fails to reflect this. A brief textual nod to Peter Corris for crime fiction and the Quentaris Chronicles for fantasy is hardly sufficient to cover the contemporary scene. One of the problems for contributors, however, is clearly the short space allocated to them and what seems to have been a considerable time lag in some cases between submission and publication.

Anne Galligan’s essay ‘ Publishers On-line’ thus only has references to the 1990s and is seriously outdated both for trade and academic digital publishing. The two and a half page essay on the ‘Role of National and State libraries’ by Cathrine Harboe-Ree has the text indicating her “own library” as the State Library of Victoria, which she left several years ago. Children’s books fare better in coverage, reflecting the large market for Australian bookselling and publishing. Mark Macleod covers the work of the Children’s Book Council, while publisher segments include Scholastic Australia, Omnibus and Penguin.

Munro and Sheahan-Bright indicate that Australian book publishing divides into two almost equal parts: trade publishing and educational publishing. Lisl Hungsberg, Manager of the ANU Co-op Bookshop, notes her sales are roughly 53-47 in favour of the textbook end of the market. Brian Clouston, celebrated in the essay on Jacaranda Press, is well known in Canberra for his Clouston and Hall/Academic Remainders in Fyshwick— itself almost a symbolic graveyard for many academic publishing aspirations. Clouston’s typically grounded reply to the question of how publishers can produce successful textbooks: “You ask around until you find out who are the ‘gun teachers’ and you approach them to write the textbook. It helps if they are on the syllabus committee”!

Michael Zifcak contributes a brief study for Paper Empires on Collins Booksellers. His text ends, however, in 2000 with only a two line addenda indicating the 2005 financial collapse of Collins with no reasons offered as to why this occurred. The preceding lines had ended with Collins being cited as one of the top 500 companies in Australia! Following the collapse of the company in April 2005, the 31 franchise stores regrouped, but no Collins shops remain in Canberra, for example.

Zifcak’s own autobiography My Life in Print is decidedly a tale of two parts. The first shorter section is a fascinating account of Zifcak’s early years in the small Czechoslovakian town of Dobsina and how the family first survived the Nazi occupation and then the Communist putsch of 1948.Zifcak escaped the latter to arrive in Australia in 1950. The second part of My Life in Print recounts, perhaps too modestly, his major role in the development of Collins, which became Australia’s largest privately owned bookseller, and his involvement with the Australian booktrade and literary bodies. Zifcak’s account is surprisingly flat and he may be too much of a “European gentleman” to bring to life the personalities and struggles of the times, nor does he provide the analytical detail of the academic book historian.

In 1951 Zifcak began working for Harry Slamen, the legendary owner of Collins Book Depot in Melbourne. Slamen’s widow recalls Slamen’s early career in the 1920s, “whenever we went to dinner somewhere he would look through their book cases and ask if he could borrow one”, so he could learn the book buying tastes of the reading public! None of this would now be needed as Nielsen BookScan provides publishers and bookshops with comprehensive sales data, with a consequent dramatic effect on stock and sales in mainstream bookshops.

Shona Martyn, Publishing Director at HarperCollins, has been quoted in The Australian that realistically publishers only have one month to promote a new novel and get “some market traction”. In the same article Dawn Cohen laments that “a baby born during the bubonic plague … had more chance of celebrating its first birthday than a new Australian novel published today”! Bookshops, like publishers, thus face interesting challenges from technologies and societal changes.

It has been suggested that part of the Collins demise was due to the arrival of Borders stores, particularly in Sydney, as well as by heavy discounting of books elsewhere in shopping centre malls where most of the Collins outlets were located. In the UK, Borders has had phenomenal growth with six new superstores opening in the last year. Borders have also established a strong presence in Australia.In the UK, one in five Tesco customers now buy heavily discounted books in Tesco supermarkets. Such discounting of lead titles, combined with Amazon discounting and free posting, have dramatically affected independent bookshops in the UK, with over 50 independent bookshops going out of business already in 2006.

Independent booksellers in Canberra have already had to withstand severe competition at the bestseller end of the market, and also from very early remaindering of titles by major Australian publishers, as can be evidenced weekly in Canberra bookshops, such as Canty’s in Fyshwick and Book Passion in Belconnen. It has been said that a genuine booklover cannot be indifferent to where books are sold but where does bibliophilic loyalty begin and end when family budgets get stretched?Independent booksellers necessarily focus on quality of service and personal attention to the customer. Meredith Wright, the owner of Daltons in Civic, and a former Collins manager at Woden Plaza, says “nothing can replace the personal service of an independent bookseller”, a sentiment echoed by Gayle Lovett, owner of Gaslight Books in Fyshwick. Excellent locations also help, such as Paperchain have in Manuka and Berkelouw’s in Paddington and Leichhardt (Sydney).

Just as the English provincial music hall empires collapsed in the 1950s with the advent of television, so the twentieth century ‘Paper Empires’ of Australian bookselling and publishing will be affected in the twenty-first. About 70% of internet users in Australia currently go to overseas websites for information on books with consequent sales leakage. HarperCollins global CEO Jane Friedman says in the latest issue of Australian Bookseller and Publisher that “Booksellers better get with it because it’s happening”, that is the impact of technology and the Net generation.

The back cover blurb for Paper Empires asks “Will Australia’s once-booming book industry be replaced by e-publishing?” This reflects a common misconception about e-publishing. Most of the world’s publishers now have original content in digital form, from which physical books are produced, and, if not, POD (Print on Demand) outlets are proliferating.

In April this year, the World Bank Bookstore in Washington installed the ‘Espresso Book Machine’ which provides books on demand at a rate of twenty different bound titles an hour. More than 30 million books were downloaded in one month recently as part of the World eBook Fair. The book will not die, rather it will be supplemented by new forms of access and content linkages, so that ‘digital empires’ can prevail in the twenty-first century.

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