Books from the Present for the Future

What would a Melbourne-based feminist publisher have in common with a small publishing house in Yerevan, Armenia? They might have different ambitions, different markets and different challenges, writes Susan Hawthorne, but both believe in the importance of a flourishing independent press.

Photo: Rich Grundy (CC BY 2.0)

Is free trade good for free expression? As an independent publisher, the rhetoric of free trade makes me uneasy and I’m not the only one. At an international meeting of independent publishers I attended in Istanbul in June, there was a lot of intense discussion around the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The meeting was a conference of the English-language network of the International Alliance of Independent Publishers. Also attending were regional publishers from Armenia, Iran, Bulgaria and Turkey. At the end of the meeting, we released a joint statement:

‘The English Language Network recommends that the International Alliance of Independent Publishers takes a stand against free trade agreements, specifically the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and investment Partnership because they limit the sovereign rights of any national government to subsidise or support cultural activities, including book publishing in their home country.’

We are a diverse group of people with a range of publishing interests, from feminist to academic and social sciences, and we are publishing in sometimes vastly different circumstances. But we share a stance on the importance of robust local and independent publishing. Indeed, as I write in my manifesto, Bibliodiversity, ‘small and independent publishers will go on publishing risky, innovative and long-lasting books out of passion for literature’. 

The local scene

Independent publishing in Australia is relatively healthy with publishers such as Text, Black Inc and Spinifex having a significant profile in the market. One of our challenges, however, is that books from the US and the UK have a tendency to trump locally published books. The other downside for Australian publishers is the size of the domestic market. A niche market such as feminist publishing in the US is the size of the entire domestic market in Australia. That makes selling books internationally a priority for Australian independent publishers, whatever their niche.

The irony of book-burning after the era of Soviet repression was not lost on the other former Eastern European publishers.

Language

Other countries have very different challenges. India, for example, is a massive market, but it is one in which there are more than 20 official languages. Ritu Menon of New Delhi publisher Women Unlimited noted at the conference that publishing in regional languages is subsidised by state governments keen to promote regional linguistic health, but publishing in English is not subsidised. This means that independent publishers seeking national distribution of books in English need to find other sources of support apart from government.

Similarly, South Africa has 11 official languages, with Afrikaans and English the dominant publishing languages. Bridget Impey of Jacana Media in Johannesburg has lamented the fact that black African writers do not have ready access to the world of publishing and that there is ‘a long way to go before the publishing industry truly reflects our demographics’.

Differences in language make things complicated in Armenia, too. Western Armenian, which is spoken by most diasporic Armenians, is not widely used domestically; Eastern Armenian is the official language inside Armenia. At the conference, translator Ariadna Grigoryan explained that this poses all sorts of challenges. The two languages use different alphabets.

Eastern Europe

The Soviet Union collapsed more than 20 years ago, but independent publishers are still feeling the after-effects. At the meeting, a translator from Armenia gave a presentation on the local industry. She explained that in the immediate post-Soviet years, there was only one hour of electricity per week in Armenia. This resulted in many families burning books from their personal collections for heat. The irony of book-burning after Soviet repression was not lost on the other former Eastern European publishers.

In Bulgaria, bookstores almost went out of existence entirely for ten years between 1990 and 2000. The industry is still recovering. The tax on books in Bulgaria is 20%, pricing many would-be readers out of the market, too. And efforts to combat distribution challenges in Bulgaria serve large – rather than niche and activist – publishers. A Book Stock Exchange has been set up on the outskirts of the capital, Sofia, to facilitate the sale of books directly from publisher to bookseller. This works for large publishers who can afford a full-time employee to attend the exchange, but not for small publishers with only one or two people on staff.

Censorship

Publishing books in Iran is a bureaucratic obstacle course and, according to an Iranian publisher present at the conference, not for the faint-hearted. This publisher (who can’t be named) attempted an explanation of the convoluted licensing system required by the Iranian Government: only licensed publishers can apply for licences to publish books and every individual book requires two licences – one before printing and one afterwards. The government licensing system is completely lacking in transparency and it can take anywhere from two months to several years for a book to pass through the process. The planned output of a publishing house can be thrown into disarray or cancelled at any time. And trade sanctions against Iran have caused the price of paper to rise to costs that are prohibitive for many independents.

Publishing books in Iran is a bureaucratic obstacle course and, according to an Iranian publisher present at the conference, not for the faint-hearted.

Digital publishing

Different countries and territories have had very different responses to the advent of digital publishing. In the USA, UK and Australia, independents have almost no choice but to offer books in digital forms. In other countries, linguistic diversity means fragmented markets and a lack of resources make it hard to convert. India and South Africa have been surprisingly slow in offering digital products to consumers. In spite of India being a favoured country for digital conversions, for publishers within India where print production remains low cost, independents at this meeting said it is not worth investing the time and money in digital. In Turkey, as in many other places, book piracy is a huge problem that is expensive to pursue.

Bibliodiversity

In spite of all the differences, many of the publishers in this group work together and co-publish books in English. For example, Spinifex has worked with publishers in India, South Africa, USA, UK and Turkey. In 2008 we worked with Turkish publisher Metis Books on the Australian release of the memoir My Grandmother by the Turkish lawyer and activist Fethiye Çetin. The book tells the history – a contentious history in Turkey – of the Armenian genocide of 1915. The author discovered her grandmother was neither Turkish nor Muslim but Armenian Christian. Çetin was a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2010 and drew large audiences to Turkish-language and translated sessions under the sponsorship of PEN Melbourne.

The International Alliance of Independent Publishers takes the idea of bibliodiversity as central to its objectives and encourages all publisher members to contribute to cultural diversity. Through my work as a member of the Alliance, at last year’s Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, I argued for a policy of ‘fair speech’ to make heard a multiplicity of voices and guarantee bibliodiversity. All of us are interested in social justice, which is the impetus for making the joint statement about free trade agreements.

For these Alliance publishers their work is intrinsically tied up with political activism. Each publisher brings her or his local circumstances to the table and, as with My Grandmother, we often find shared interests whether it be social justice in the Middle East, ecological activism in India and Australia, or fictional and poetic responses to global issues. Independence is what drives our passion for telling unheard stories. They are books from the present for the future.

 

Portrait of Susan Hawthorne

Susan Hawthorne is a poet, novelist, publisher, aerialist, political activist and author. She is co-founder of the independent feminist press, Spinifex.

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