The effects of globalization and the digital revolution on the Australian literary field have undeniably been significant, if unequal, across the different spheres of production, distribution and reception. According to one industry commentator, Australian trade publishing has recently faced a ‘perfect storm’ (O’Shaughnessy 2016, p. 89), and in the words of the most recent large-scale report:
It has been a difficult period for the industry and the contributory factors to its structural transformation are well known. They include the development of technology that has enabled digital publishing, distribution and retailing; secure e-commerce systems; the entry of disruptive players including Amazon, Google and Apple; the introduction of hand-held reading platforms and devices; changes in the bricks and mortar retailing sector; and the rise of online and social media as important channels for promoting books.
(Zwar 2016, p. 1)
Yet the publishing industry and the broader field of books and reading also show a surprising level of stability or continuity. This chapter will argue that these recent agents of change need to be understood in the context of the long history of transnationalism in Australian publishing and bookselling and their equally longstanding commercialism. While the impacts of online bookselling and e-readers have been relatively sudden and transformative, they have largely been absorbed within existing industry structures; and while digital technologies have given publishers and booksellers new access to book consumers, as well as providing new opportunities for consumers to access books, it is difficult to see any sudden ‘increasing commercialization’ in the field.
Similarly, in the policy domain, we see both change and recurrence. While there has been a relative decline of ‘nationing’ discourses in providing the key rationales for government intervention in the literary field since the 1980s, the foregrounding of economic rather than cultural imperatives extends back at least as far as the national cultural policy Creative Nation
in 1994. And if Creative Nation
was largely silent about the national literature, this silence was in part
because the notion of subsidizing literature’s producers, both publishers and individual writers, was already well established in Australia Council programs. While government and associated reports have focused on the book publishing industry, discursive appeals to forms of ‘national story-telling’ and cultural value have never disappeared. If the cultural grounds for subsidy
have been weakened within the cultural industries paradigm, literature has been the subject of a new kind of validation as one domain among others of creativity and entertainment, a legitimate object of investment
The sections below analyse the Australian literary field since the early 1990s, drawing parallel chronologies of developments in policy, publishing, digital technologies, bookselling, and the role of literary agents and writers festivals. The domestic literary field is framed by its location within a transnational publishing industry and book market. While the big players in international publishing and bookselling are as global and globalizing as any large-scale media organization – we need only mention Amazon or the Bertelsmann-Pearson-owned Penguin Random House – the Anglophone publishing industry and book market are more accurately represented through the notion of transnationalism rather than globalization. ‘Transnationalism’ better captures the way that domestic markets and national policy settings, not least those governing copyright, shape the flow of books and authors across national borders and the local operations of ‘global’ players.
The Australia Council’s 1996–97 annual report began as follows: ‘Australia is a culturally rich nation and artists are central to our sense of national identity and the way we are perceived by the world’ (Commonwealth of Australia 1997, p. 7). By contrast, in 2015–16, the first full reporting year following the implementation of the Council’s new Strategic Plan, the predominant discourse is that of investment: the Council’s purpose is ‘to champion and invest in Australian arts’ (Australia Council 2016, p. 13). While the Chair could still refer to ‘our unique collective identity’ (p. 5), defined most prominently by Indigenous and immigrant cultures, the report is organized less around ideas of a national culture than ‘investment in the arts to support and build a vibrant arts ecology’ (p. 13). These statements occurred in the context of the Council’s reformed structure in which grants for writers, publishers, literary magazines or other literary projects are part of the general mix of ‘grants program and initiative funding’ rather than within a specific literary portfolio primarily driven by and responsive to the sector itself. Literature still does well in this part of the Council’s programs, attracting 12.3 per cent of grant dollars in 2015–16, just behind the visual arts and music but just ahead of theatre (p. 24). However, literature is not granted the same status as the major arts companies or institutions: at 2.7 per cent of total Council funding (its lowest percentage over the previous five years), it lags far behind symphony orchestras, theatre, opera, dance and the visual arts.
Literature and the book industry have long been viewed through the lenses of both economic and cultural policy, from the establishment of the Commonwealth
Literary Fund (CLF) in 1908 to the regular Tariff Board enquiries considering duties on imported books and magazines. Literature was the earliest target of national cultural policy through the CLF, especially from 1939–40, when it began supporting universities offering lectures in Australian literature (Butterss 2015). Its status was confirmed with the Literature Board, a key part of the Australia Council from its foundation in 1972 until a major restructure in 2013. Over the intervening decades, the policy situation for literature was relatively stable, if periodically controversial, based primarily on grants for individual writers and publishers, with more than half of the Board’s budget dedicated to funding individual writers (Stevens 2004, p. 11). The Board also developed international programs supporting overseas tours and residencies for Australian writers, funding offshore magazines to publish Australian writing, engaging overseas publicists to promote Australian work in foreign markets and assisting exhibitions of Australian books overseas (Stevens 2004, pp. 18–26).
Creative Nation (Commonwealth of Australia 1994) did nothing to disturb or enhance this situation. It records the history of subsidy, and by noting increases in sales and book exports, it implies a connection between Commonwealth support and the industry’s expansion, but no overt claims about literature’s role in the national culture are made. Literature is mentioned as a source of content and ‘entrepreneurial skills’ for the development of multimedia platforms, but otherwise it is not given any privileged role in terms of national culture or artistic excellence. It is assumed, rather, within a creative industries model and ‘backgrounded’ through broader notions of creative expression, heritage and multimedia potential. As Stuart Glover (2005, p. 103) argued, Creative Nation was poised ‘between market deregulation and cultural protectionism’, its ‘economic imperatives … balanced against a commitment to nation-building’.
The Labor Party’s next iteration of national cultural policy, Creative Australia (Commonwealth of Australia 2013), said even less about literature. It defined ‘writing and publishing’ as one of the domains covered by the report, but says little about them. With the change of government in September 2013, Creative Australia was shelved. In any case, as cultural economist David Throsby shows, new initiatives were concentrated in ‘state of the industry’ reports rather than cultural policy (Throsby 2017, pp. 3–12).
All told, of the almost 20 reports pertaining to publishing, authorship or reading that we have identified from 1994 onwards, five analyse the publishing industry and five others survey reading. The word ‘book’ appears in the titles of nine of these reports; ‘literature’ or ‘literary’ appears in three only, all of which were connected to the Australia Council.
But although economic discourses have become prominent in cultural policy documents, it would be misleading to pose a simple opposition between concerns with the industry or marketplace and appeals to Australian culture. Industry reports have made an impressive case for the cultural significance of the book industry; cultural policy, in turn, acknowledges the economic significance of the industry; and books and writing continue to be supported through Australia Council programs. Literature’s role in ‘nation branding’ has long been present in
Council objectives; however, it would appear that its role in such activities is perceived to be a modest one, hence, in part, literature’s small slice of the Council’s overall budget.
The then Labor government had resisted the Productivity Commission’s 2009 recommendation that existing parallel importation restrictions on books be lifted; but in acknowledging the challenges the book trade faced it established the Book Industry Strategy Group (BISG) to review the industry.1
The BISG, in turn, recommended the establishment of a Book Industry Collaborative Council (BICC). Despite reporting to the Department of Industry, the BICC’s extensive report, submitted in June 2013, a month after Creative Australia
, ‘recognized that the book industry’s claim on the attention of government lay primarily in its cultural role’ (Throsby 2017, p. 8). A separate section on ‘The Book Industry and Australian Culture’ linked books to new media, highlighting cultural, civic and economic values equally:
Books stimulate debate and informed discussion of public issues in Australia and beyond, and are a primary vehicle for the production and dissemination of Australian content across all genres … Australian stories are the bedrock of our culture. Australian books reflect who we are as a nation, where we’ve been and where we are going.
(BICC 2013, p. 47)
Indeed, this industry report is more overt about national cultural claims than either Creative Nation or Creative Australia. It also deliberately opens out to include graphic novels, popular fiction and emerging digital genres such as e-poetry. It does not use the term ‘literature’, but gives books, story-telling and literary creativity a broad role in Australian culture, in the civic sphere, in new media contexts and in producing intellectual property and economic benefits.
Outside the new strategy for the Australia Council, there has been little policy activity in recent years. The history of what might have been the final major development of the period, the Book Council of Australia (BCA), is indicative of policy indecision. Announced in September 2015, the proposed new body soon found itself in disorder, not least because it was to be funded controversially by AU$6 million pulled from the Australia Council. By December, plans for the BCA had been shelved. Nonetheless, its terms of reference, like the BICC report, embraced a mixed ‘ecology’ of national, civic, industry and commercial imperatives with a dash of nation-branding: ‘Australian literature is vital to our cultural and intellectual life. Australian writers are ambassadors for our stories and experiences, reflecting the diverse and exceptional creativity of the nation’ (Ministry for the Arts 2015).
In these new formulations of literature’s place within an arts ecology, it’s possible to see the basis for a robust cultural policy and an innovative sense of books and writing in a new media landscape. What is much harder to see in the short-to-medium term is any political investment in new policy developments at the national level. The function of the Parliamentary Friends of Australian Books and
Writers, launched in September 2017, remains to be seen. It aims to create a forum for Members of Parliament and Senators ‘to meet and interact’ with publishing industry representatives (Parliament of Australia 2017).