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 Spinifex Press and Wild Dingo Press, and their authors’ responses to them, into one expansive table. You can download it from the SPN website.
The second instalment shared a literature 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.
This is an extract from the third instalment, which shares the results of this piece of research. What did the two presses have to say about the Australian publishing industry, and their own processes to increase the range, volume and styles of WODs in our book trade? And how did their authors judge their presses’ efforts, and what suggestions can they offer the Australian bibliosphere? The full article for Part 3 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 3: What small-press publishers and their under-represented authors say about working with each other
Results and discussion
My research aimed to elucidate the publishing strategies used by Spinifex and Wild Dingo to publish and promote under-represented writers, to learn how those authors assessed their presses’ performance, and to discover authors’ suggestions for the industry.
Principles and/as praxis
It would be impossible to overstate the strength of the two presses’ motivations or the degree of alignment between principles and practice, and how this relates to them strategically publishing silenced voices. Both Spinifex and WDP, like the presses in Ramdarshan Bold’s studies, are driven by passion; this also directs manuscript selection (Poland, 1999a). Catherine Lewis (WDP) publishes because “It’s my passion to give voice to the disenfranchised and the disempowered and those who would be silenced. It’s 100% that; it always has been.”
Producing a book
is a big project … You’re cutting down trees, you’re using up lots of energy, not only in terms of electricity/power to make the book, but … intellectual energy … high expectations. A book is not just a sausage … it needs to be sort of sacralised … Publishing is like a sacred duty.(Lewis)
Independents can’t say they do it solely for the money. … If they can just break even, that’s terrific. If they can make money out of it, that’s a bonus because it means they can expand. And you can bet your bottom dollar they won’t buy a bigger house or an expensive car, they’ll churn it back into publishing—and that’s the sign of the passion that underpins independent publishing.(Lewis)
For Susan Hawthorne, co-publisher of Spinifex, “one of our ways of deciding whether we really want to publish a book is that we feel passionately about it … Because there’s no point spending all this time on a book you don’t feel passionate about”. In addition, the manuscript must fit the press’ principles. Spinifex co-publisher Renate Klein states,
It’s really important for us that our political views as radical lesbian feminists inform our publishing … we wanted Spinifex to be an international publishing house of international women’s voices, and … we certainly wanted to have as many different voices as we could find from women around the world.(Klein)
But Spinifex would not publish, “whoever the author is, a white woman or a black woman or an Indigenous woman” (Klein), anything supporting pornography, prostitution, surrogacy, environmental vandalism, genetically-modified plants/food or right-wing views; or denigrating lesbians, gays or mothers.
To choose manuscripts, Susan Hawthorne said, “we think, ‘So, what is this writer saying? What new experience or voice or perspective is she bringing that is not really available in the main market?’” Spinifex aims for innovation in fiction and poetry and controversy in non-fiction that will create public discussion: “We definitely believe in social change, that people can change, men can change. And so we really hope that our books actually contribute to social change” (Klein).
Principles influence more than acquisition strategies. This seems almost a truism, but I don’t believe the vital relationship between principles and individual publishing strategies has been addressed in the scholarly publishing literature. For Klein, Spinifex started with aims and principles that then guided their evolving publishing strategies. These led Spinifex and WDP to:
- Place primacy on their relationships with staff, freelancers, designers, typesetters and printers;
- Establish and cultivate a wealth of collaborations and inherently political networks with industry groups (Australian Publishers Association [APA], Small Press Network [SPN] and International Alliance of Independent Publishers [IAIP]); political, activist or academic allies (individuals and organisations), networks and media; and social or cultural communities and groups;
- Give all authors (not just “big” ones) the final say on the text and (for Spinifex) the cover of their books, to the point of not publishing a book unless the author approves;
- Take risks and stay flexible in order to achieve their publishing goals (e.g., Spinifex publishing a man’s book on radical feminism); and
- Make un-commercial decisions to ensure their titles reach the right market (e.g., cut-rate sales at refugee conferences, discounted rights sales to publishers in the Global South).
And finally, both Spinifex and WDP emphasised their strong, sincere connections with all or nearly all of their authors, over the many years of their association. Lewis stated that, with her authors, “it’s a much more intense relationship” than it would be for most publishers,
it goes on for years. So … Najaf [Mazari, the subject of Lewis’ first book in 2008] and his family and I are as close as family. Before we got locked down again [in 2020 Covid lockdowns], we’d share a meal at our place and if we’re not having a meal at our place, it will be at his place. And that is the way it is for virtually all my writers.(Lewis)
So stronger community but higher stakes?(JLM)
Exactly. … if, for any reason there’s a loss of trust, that’s very complicated.(Lewis)
Lewis stressed that trust issues are particularly important in “the nature of [working with] disenfranchised voices”. Her refugee and immigrant authors come from non–English speaking background (NESB) communities, have sometimes emigrated from countries experiencing conflict or social breakdown (where trust is hard earned) and often have had little or no knowledge or experience of Australian business/publishing norms. In order to prevent misunderstandings or unrealistic expectations about timelines, readership and royalties, Lewis takes pains to communicate simply, clearly and frequently with her authors (through an interpreter if needed).
Both presses’ commitment to communicating well with their writers demonstrates not only their commitment to promoting voice externally, but to enabling voice in their own internal practices.