12th May, 2023

Introducing industry research: “A sacred duty” by Jodie Lea Martire Part 2

In her Masters research thesis, Jodie Lea Martire explores the strategies small presses have long been using to diversify the publishing industry, turning this into the basis of a roadmap for the broader Australian publishing industry to follow in their footsteps. 

The first instalment of this SPN publication collated the publishing strategies used by publishers and their authors’ responses to them into one expansive table. You can download it from the SPN website.         

This is an extract from the the second instalment, and offers a review of the academic and industry literature on micro- and small presses (MSPs), writers of difference (WODs), and the relationship between under-represented writers and their publishers. It also sets out the key theories Martire used in her research. This literature review has been updated with a few key publications which have appeared since Martire’s thesis was submitted. The full article for Part 2 is available for download.

“A sacred duty”: How Australian micro- and small presses publish and promote silenced and under-represented writers – and what their authors think about the process

Part 2: Literature review on micro- and small presses and under-represented writers

Micro- and small presses

MSPs are considered a vital part of any publishing ecosystem. They have historically had a “catalytic effect on Australian literary culture”, they enrich the nation’s representation abroad through significant foreign-rights sales, and have earned high symbolic capital through their disproportionate number of prize winners (Carey, 2019; Galligan, 2007, p. 40; Stinson, 2019; Sullivan, 2018). They are lauded for their editorial passion, commitment and belief (Thompson, 2012); their role as “the home for adventurous publishing” (Coronel, 2013, p. 28); and their status as a beloved “cultural essential” (Henderson, 1984). MSPs champion local content (Freeth, 2007) and their nimble structures allow them to experiment in a digitally transformed publishing landscape (Driscoll & Mannion, 2016). Galligan notes that smaller presses conduct “a kind of cultural research and development for the industry, and often [act] as ‘a sieve or conduit for new authors’” (Galligan, 2007, p. 40, citing Moran, 1990, p. 131), which is related to their commitment—almost universally praised—to creating publishing avenues for silenced, neglected and under-represented writers (Denholm, 1991; Harker & Farr, 2015; Marlow, 2016). In their introduction to a recent collection on the contemporary small press, editors Georgina Colby, Kaja Marcewska and Leigh Wilson (2020) note that in addition, “the small press makes visible both the multiple processes and the tensions which construct and shape the literary in the contemporary [because] small presses themselves are so keen to make visible issues around class, challenges to racism and the aims of feminist politics” (p. 6,7). 

An early profile of independent Australian presses (mostly MSPs) provides a useful summary of publishers’ survival strategies (Poland, 1999b). Independent presses work at the frontier, are highly cooperative with each other and industry bodies, and select a specialist publishing niche. They take risks, publish at the quality end of the spectrum (with a focus on midlist and backlist titles, rather than new releases), and have a strong commitment to new and Indigenous writing. All of this, plus a valuation of culture over commerce, are strongly driven by the presses’ ideology and principles, which then infuse small and independent presses’ brand and marketing strategies (Michael, 2019). The driving force of a press’ principles is also highlighted in studies of Australian feminist presses (Poland, 2007; Weber, 2019), which existed for feminists to own their own media, avoid censorship and participate in social movements. 

Australian MSPs have been the subject of considerable study in the last decade or so, but little or no attention has been paid to publishing motivations or voice1 in relation to small-press practices. Three significant industry studies produced specific data on MSPs, but no related questions were posed (Hollier, 2008; Lee et al., 2009; Throsby et al., 2018). Several studies have explored MSPs’ relationships with specific genres: poetry, crime, romance, fantasy, sci-fi and avant-garde fiction (Carruthers, 2017; Driscoll et al., 2016; Driscoll et al., 2018; Golding, 2011; MacCarter, 2012). These, however, centred on which press publishes each genre and how many titles they issue. They document an overall increase in MSPs’ genre-based importance, without focusing on how creators are chosen and promoted. 

1 Voice in italics refers to the formulation in Couldry (2010). See Theory below.

Other Australian studies have focused on the mutually beneficial relationships between small publishing houses and genre communities. Wilkins (2019, p. 2) believes fantasy fans operate as a vibrant “research-and-development space for the literature [they consume]”, while Stinson (2016) examines the active “prosumer” (proactive consumer) bond between literary fiction and its readership. Both highlight methods which voice-publishers could implement to drive acquisition (crowdfunding or selecting unusual genres like novellas) or promotion (innovative formats like two-ended tête-bêche books), but these suggestions function primarily for a press’s habitual audience and may only be of limited use in disseminating voice to a broader readership. 

The most-relevant small-press studies have been conducted by Ramdarshan Bold (2015, 2016) in the North and Midlands of England and in the Pacific Northwest of North America, respectively. In her interviews with 15 US and Canadian MSPs, and with 12 British MSPs, Ramdarshan Bold asked whether they believed they could “help to promote and preserve regional cultures and identities” and “maintain diversity in cultural output”. Both cohorts focused on niche or regional work, placed a very high value on their relationships with authors, and actively acquired work by underrepresented creators. These publishing environments provide valuable evidence for MSPs’ almost-default commitment to voice: “There was an overwhelming consensus that all independent publishers—no matter where they were based and what size of company they were—played an important role in protecting and making visible non-mainstream work” (Ramdarshan Bold, 2015, p. 46). The studies don’t detail specific problems or strategies related to publishing WODs, but they offer broader survival strategies: establish and maintain regional, literary and industry networks; seek opportunities in new technologies; and work actively to promote both brand and writers in social media and international circles. 

One important study examined how five Australian publishers (including smaller and socially committed presses) publish writers with educational and class disadvantages (Butler, 2019). Four of the five had an explicit commitment to publishing excluded writers, yet few opportunities for mentoring, programs and prizes were offered to any except Indigenous writers. For the 40% of Australians who can’t read well enough to enjoy a standard novel (p. 36), participation in publishing—and through it, the public sphere—can be impossible without employing ghostwriters or co-writers. 

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