9th November, 2020

The Small Press Network Interviews: Sarah Cannon, Monash University Publishing

While some children might dismiss their parents’ advice, Sarah Cannon from Monash University Publishing could not have agreed with hers more. ‘My grandparents were writers and my parents were writers, and my Dad (writer and historian Michael Cannon) said, “If you want to get into publishing, the best thing to do is get a job in a bookshop or as a sales rep for a publisher.”’ And he was right.

After completing her arts and science degree at Monash University in the early 90s, Cannon took advantage of what she described as ‘the luxury of seeing where life would take her’ and travelled the world. She lived in Crete for some time, before deciding to return to Melbourne where she managed a bookshop for three years. ‘Then Cambridge University Press came knocking. I hadn’t thought academic publishing would be my calling, butI have never regretted it,’ she said.

Cannon went on to become the senior marketing manager there for eight years before the genesis of Monash University Publishing. ‘We started out as an e-press, headed by Michele Sabto with Joanne Mullins, Neil Dickson and I. We published a handful of journals and books that were more academic and not really aimed at a general reader, and therefore not suitable to sell in bookshops. Then precisely ten years ago Nathan Hollier started with us, and we launched Monash University Publishing,’ she said.

I sat down to chat with Sarah Cannon about some of Monash’s greatest achievements, how they’ve responded to COVID-19’s disruption of the publishing industry and what the future holds for the university press. But first, what about her Dad’s advice …

Interview by Gladys Serugga, 2020 Associate Producer

Gladys Serugga: I have heard this before—if you want to get into publishing you should start as a bookseller. Why do you think that is?

Sarah Cannon: If you start straight off in publishing, it is generally in a particular field and with a ‘type’ of publisher. That can be great, and it gives you a viewpoint, but working in a bookshop lets you see what happens after a book is published or about to hit the shelves. You see how a person who’s trying to sell your book reacts, and you get a wide range of different publishers (trade, kids’ books, academic books, non-fiction). So, you get a good overview of what’s happening and I think it does make you realise, being in a bookshop—do I want to stay in the book trade as in a bookseller or as a publisher? Both are fantastic and I am so glad I had the chance to experience the two.

GS: What surprised you about working in a bookshop?

SC: I remember the first shock of hearing this thing called ‘sale or return’. It didn’t occur to me that if a book didn’t sell, you could return it to the publisher within a certain time and ‘get your money back’. I thought it was incredible, and I don’t know of many other industries that do that. It does illustrate the pressure of both publishers and booksellers to trust their instincts about what they think (hope?) is going to sell for their market and audience. It is a difficult industry to be in and be successful. But there are a lot of people doing well, which is great.

GS: Now to Monash, tell us some of your biggest changes at Monash University Publishing in the last ten years?

SC: We’ve grown to a tightknit team of five people, of which four are part-time. Nathan Hollier is now heading Melbourne University Press, but we’re delighted to have ex-University of Queensland Press boss Greg Bain as acting director. He started a year ago, and I think he thought he would be working for a month or two (to fill in) and then COVID happened, so we still have Greg. Lucky us, we say!

Compared to those days (when we started out), we now publish 20 to 25 books a year. They are well designed, available in print, as e-books, and usually open access after a certain time. They’re sold in bookshops and distributed around the world.

Many of our books have been shortlisted or winners of major awards including the Prime Minister’s Literary Award and National Biography Award, which has been pretty exciting stuff. Last year we had 75 author events, numerous interviews and over 100 reviews in journals and newspapers around the world. So this has really boosted our name in the book trade and media, which in turn has enhanced the reputation of Monash University itself. Pleasing for all!

GS: Speaking of manageability, how does Monash manage both its scholarly and commercial missions?

SC: In terms of the commercial side, it’s all about getting our books out ‘there’. To enhance the reputation and name of Monash University is what we are and what we do. Our charter also states that ‘Monash University has a bold ambition; to build on its reputation as a trusted source of balanced information and to inform, influence and inspire public discourse. We seek to engage with the wider community in promoting discussion and debate on contemporary issues through our publications in a wide range of disciplines.’

Monash University’s Vice Chancellor Professor Margaret Gardner has been extremely supportive of our team and totally understands the need for a reputable university press.

GS: What are your future goals at Monash in the next ten years?

SC: The continuation of what we have been doing in the last couple of years – to create an entityof great value. To strengthen our name in Australia – within and outside the university, academia, the booktrade, and to do that internationally too.. We have distributors in the UK and in the US, and there is more potential in South East and South Asia.

We’re also aiming to publish more, successful, books for the general reader.

GS: And lastly, what was something published by Monash that has particularly stuck out to you?

SC: There have been many, but my immediate thought is a book that we published a couple of years ago called Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964. The book stands out for a couple of reasons: it’s a beautiful book, it won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for non-fiction (which was well-deserved), it sold well, and you couldn’t get lovelier authors to work with. Gotta feel good about all that!

GS: I know I said lastly beforebut (very lastly) what do you consider a beautiful book?

SC: Something that is nice to hold, to smell, the production is good, and (wait for it) one that has a good story to tell . That’s what I want on my (groaning) bookshelves.

We’re so glad to have Monash University Publishing as a member of Small Press Network. To hear more from them and many others, be sure to grab your tickets to this year’s SPN Independent Publishing Conference held entirely online. Tickets can be found here: trybooking.com/BMBCB.

We will be raising a glass to celebrate Monash UP’s 10th birthday at the conference’s Friday (virtual) drinks. Free, but please RSVP by registering at https://www.trybooking.com/book/sessions?eid=668617&ses=2049288


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