‘Defend yourself!’ This was Penguin Australia’s Ben Ball’s (good natured) instruction to me after he described the relationship between UK and Australian publishing during a panel discussion about rights and territories.
Before I went to Adelaide as part of the Visiting International Publishers Programme, I knew that we UK editors almost always bought Australian rights. I knew that this had an impact on my working life, whether that was adding thousands of copies to a print run, receiving an enthusiastic email from Miranda at Allen & Unwin (our Australian distributor), or having to be aware of a key date in August when a boat would set sail from the UK full of our Christmas titles. But what was the impact on Australian writing and publishing in general? That, I confess, I hadn’t really considered.
My first answer to Ben’s challenge was that – though I have always worked in London publishing – I’m not actually British. I was born in Canada and grew up in America, so I wasn’t the right person to mount a defence. Some people laughed but I knew this wasn’t enough of an answer.
My second answer was to honestly outline my ambivalence towards the subject. Is it fair or sensible or environmentally sustainable or good for literature that so many books sold in Australian bookshops are acquired, edited, printed and shipped from the UK? It’s a hard question.
Being in Australia gave me the invaluable opportunity to meet an incredible range of Australian editors, agents, rights people, Council staff, festival organisers, writers, booksellers and literature enthusiasts. But I realised that the current rights and territory situation means that there are probably fewer of these people employed in the greater publishing industry in Australia than there should be, given the size of the population. And more employed in the UK than we might otherwise have. This was something that I hadn’t thought about before. And that’s before you get to the tough choices Australian writers face in terms of getting a local or a UK-based publisher.
On the other hand it’s not simply a one-way street. Allen & Unwin are now the majority shareholders of the British publisher Atlantic. Scribe, another great Australian independent publisher, has set up a UK office. Faber sells Australian books in the UK on behalf of Allen & Unwin through the Independent Alliance. And Penguin, Ben’s employer, is a multi-national company based in London and New York, with a German majority shareholder (Bertlesmann). Publishing is increasingly global, increasingly about partnerships, increasingly complicated in terms of rights and territory.
So – I’ve dodged giving a definite answer again (sorry, Ben). But I definitely come away from the trip impressed by the vibrancy, diversity and enthusiasm of the Australian publishing industry, despite the specific Australian challenges of rights and territories, and the challenges of selling books that publishers are facing worldwide.
Maybe it was just the sun, the new friends I made, and the delicious local wine, but it felt like there was a lot of optimism and excitement around in addition to the frustration about rights and territory. Many publishers I met said without hesitation that they’d had a great Christmas. Hundreds of readers attended Adelaide Writers’ Week (and I was lucky enough to see Elizabeth Gilbert, David Vann and Christos Tsiolkas in between our meetings), which is held outside in a beautiful park – and is completely free. And the independent booksellers I visited (which make up a third of the market – mind-blowing for a UK editor to hear) were outstanding. I came away from the trip envious and admiring of Australian publishing – and of course hugely grateful to the Australia Council for inviting me.
Sarah Savitt is the Editor at Faber & Faber