At home with Terri-ann White

Terri-ann White is the founder of Upswell Publishing, a new publishing imprint in Australia.

Between 2006 and 2020 she was Director and Publisher at UWA Publishing from 2006. In that time published around 450 books, including works of fiction, poetry and narrative non-fiction.

Prior to this, she founded and directed a cross-disciplinary research centre at UWA, taught literature and writing in universities, was a bookseller for 16 years, and organised festivals.

At home with Terri-ann White


ASTRID: Welcome back to The Garret, Terri-Ann.

TERRI-ANN: Thank you so much, Astrid. I'm delighted to be here.

ASTRID: Now, first up, very real and very sincere congratulations. You have launched Upswell, a new independent publisher in Australia. That is music to my ears because that means more choice for writers and whatever stories that get put into print. Well done.

TERRI-ANN: Thank you so much. I do feel quite liberated after the tough time that I had in the last year and a half, but I feel like I can do precisely what I've always wanted to do as a reader into being a publisher with my own rules, that I only want to publish books that I love.

ASTRID: That is such a beautiful statement. Now, The Garret has an audience mostly of writers and writers not only need to know how to write and market their work, but also how to publish. Even though I have spoken to hundreds of writers at this point, the final parts of the actual publishing process still allude me. Now, you just mentioned that you had a tough time and you weren't referring to COVID then, Terri-ann. Before we get into Upswell, can I ask for your very skilled and experienced insight into the publishing industry? I guess my particular question is about publishing houses that are associated with universities and there are quite a few in Australia, quite a few who have had a bad couple of years.

TERRI-ANN: I'd like to start by saying that my colleagues at University of Queensland press are doing the exact opposite at the moment. The way that they are just powering through the kind of generative work of finding authors or staying with authors over the long haul and publishing book after book and focusing very strongly on First Nations writing in a way that everything was set up to do, but reaping the rewards of just an amazing list of books. Yeah, things are tough in university presses and in large part that's because of the fact that things are really tough in universities. So in many respects, university presses, at a certain point in tough times, can be seen as an add-on. I mean, I'd completely dispute that. I think that they are at the core of universities because universities are all about research and teaching and being in a community more or less. They don't kind of state the community connection, but by their very nature, they're community-based receptacles of thought and extension, extending thinking into people's lives.

So it is very disappointing that the university presses are a bit weakened, but if you look at the larger scheme of what's happening in universities themselves, I think that's the really critical moment of worrying about our future in Australia because they're being wound back, and that's a political or ideological movement, and I don't know how we quite recover because we had a very robust and effective, productive university system in Australia until quite recently.

ASTRID: I work in the university sector. I work at RMIT on the vocational side and it is traumatic what is happening to our institutions, including their publishing houses, but to the institutions themselves. So let's move from publishing through university presses to the broader suite of publishing. There are big publishing houses, Penguin Random House, Pan Macmillan, Hachette, they are international players. We also have smaller publishing firms here, Affirm, Black Ink, Text Publishing. I know Upswell has a distribution deal with Black Ink and then Penguin Random House. I would love to know how that works because I feel like I should, as a reader and person who loves writers, know how these things work. But dare I ask Terri, before we go into those specifics, can you talk to us about what COVID has done to the traditional publishing houses that we have in Australia?

TERRI-ANN: Given that I've been sort of in a solitary space in my own house for the last year since I finished at UWA and I've had very few opportunities to talk to my colleagues across the country, I think what it's done is focused down very usefully what a publishing house can do with its community of readers. So I think there's been quite a lot of work done, and sometimes it might be unwittingly that people don't quite know what it is they're doing except surviving, but I just feel like there's much more recognition from readers about what's coming out, even though ... Unfortunately, our biggest problem is that too much is published every week, every month, and there is just too much volume arriving into the traditional receptacle, which is the book shop, and then into the way that each book is kind of made visible to readers.

ASTRID: Can we just go back to the idea of too many books being published? I know what you mean, but it took me a long time to get over but all stories and all stories should be published and they can never be too many books. In one sense, that is true, but in a publishing and marketing sense, in a market the size of Australia, it is possible to have too many books. So can you break that down for the listener?

TERRI-ANN: I completely agree with you that every story is important or most stories are important, but for me, and this has been my mantra from the start of my publishing career, which was about 15 years ago. Before that I'd been a bookseller, I'd been a writer, I'd been a person who made books by compiling or curating volumes of writers into one book. But my mantra is a book isn't a book unless somebody reads it, unless it has a readership. Because if that doesn't happen, then it's a brilliant idea or it's an ordinary idea or it's a private pursuit. But it's so important that books that take enormous resources, in the first place, from the writer often walking away from a decent standard of living to be able to do that, walking away from casual wages or a salary. So sometimes books take 10 years to write.

Then what happens when it's taken up by a publisher is just another level of intense resource. The resourcing of all of its production, both the cost and the effort of making it a print book or an ebook or both, and then taking it out into the world, into a market, through marketing, through publicity. There are so many people involved in this singular act, and then there is the expectation of the author that sits there and can be crushed. I've been through that experience both as a writer and, for some years, as a publisher. When people have particular expectations of what a market is and what a readership is and then it's just blown out of the water by the reality of it's hard to sell a book.

So for that reason, I think ... Oh, I don't know. I seriously think that if we could be slightly more discerning about how many books we put out as a culture and part of that is working out strategies that of course take money and more effort, but strategies to bring more readers to what we're involved in. So the sense of a program of developing good readers for works that are Australian, it's not that they reflect us, but they are part of our experience of living at this time in this place.

ASTRID: I am a reader. I am not a writer or a publisher, but I am a reader and I am continually dismayed. Terri-ann, at the number of books that I get sent, because the publishers do send me books, that all look the same or feel the same. I know I'm not going to read any of them because they kind of are marketed the same, have the same blurb, have the same concept behind them, are supposed to fit into the same place on a bookshelf in a bookstore. It breaks my heart a little bit because the fact that those books were published, and I'm not saying they're bad books, but the fact that they were published means they're not going to most likely earn back their loyalty. That author probably won't get another book contract, or at least won't get a good book contract, and those writers will never be developed to find an audience to maintain a viable career. It is a horrible part of the industry.

Having said that though, Terri-ann, you are just launching your own publishing house, Upswell, and that means that you see an opportunity and opportunities are a good thing for the industry. So tell me about the gap that you see and how Upswell is going to fill it.

TERRI-ANN: Look, I'm interested in books that ... I mean, I'm not very interested in trends, but just put it out there. I'm interested in books that ... I'm interested in the sentence more than I am in any attention to plot or to character or to what goes on in a memoir, which is to witness one's own experience of, generally speaking, these days, but memoirs used to be written by old men and now they're largely written by young women and they're about witnessing the way that this society works and how people operate within it, whether they are able-bodied or not, whether they've had a traumatic experience or not. It's about breaking open human lived experience, and there's nothing whatsoever wrong with that. But sometimes I wish that those writers were given a bit longer to develop a craft and to think through what it is that their book is going to do, that it has to be more than the instantaneous we understand now.

It's a book, it's not a lecture or an op-ed piece or a short story. So a book carries a huge amount of potential, expectation and, I don't know, power. So I mourn the experience when young writers are given a lot of support and enthusiasm to write a particular kind of book, but quite possibly not enough time to develop the ideas of the book that are more than one-dimensional. So I'm always concerned about the timeliness and the preparedness that writers are given in an age where trends are really powerful. I want to buck the trend. I want to publish old writers, deeply experienced writers and brand new writers, whether they're 21 or 81, and get those distinctive voices.

ASTRID: That is absolutely a beautiful thing for a publisher to say, Terri-ann. Thank you. I think everybody in the writing publishing industry is aware of some really big royalties and contracts being given publicly to women who are probably not ready to tell their story, and now those women are on deadline and I just feel a lot of pain thinking about those kinds of things when large publishing houses are following trends and not really developing the writer and the person behind the really important story that needs to be told. Can you tell us about the first three books that you'll be publishing through Upswell?

TERRI-ANN: Yes I'd love to.

ASTRID: And why you chose them.

TERRI-ANN: The first book, which is my first book of narrative nonfiction, is written by a very good friend of mine. Again, it doesn't matter, I don't think. If author and publisher know each other well, it can look sometimes like it's too close a relationship, but it can equally be utterly professional and generative. So Belinda Probert is an old friend of mine, and she's been speaking for years about the themes that she brings out in this book, Imaginative, Possession, Learning to Live in the Antipodes, and it's all about how you find your place as a migrant into a new transplanted country and how you understand landscape, how you understand ... I mean, she uses in the centre of this book the experience of being a gardener and trying to understand more about this continent through gardening and doing it on a larger scale than a backyard garden.

But what she does most beautifully is read. She read really deeply and largely contemporary writers about Australia from the areas of history and archaeology, anthropology, fiction, and First Nations knowledge. She takes them on her journey through this book across the continent and around Melbourne and Perth. She wrote the book that she'd been talking about for some time in the long Melbourne lockdown of last year. She committed herself to writing a thousand words a day and it's what she did. She sent them to me and a book resulted, a book kind of developed in her hands. It's a really beautiful book and largely because it takes us through all of the explorations that she makes about being in this place. So that's where that book came from.

The second book by Monique Truong, who is a Brooklyn based Vietnamese-American writer, who I met in 2002. I had lunch with her in New York City in preparation for her coming to the Perth Writer's Festival in 2003, with her first novel, The Book of Salt, that many people in Australia have read. I think after she'd been in Perth she then went to Sydney and did some performances. But she wrote to me after I made a social media announcement in December about Upswell and my intentions, and this was obviously when I had one book under my belt, Belinda's book and she simply said, ‘The rationale that you gave for Upswell made my heart sing, made me want to be part of the action’. She'd held on to all of the rights except North America for her third novel, which is called The Sweetest Fruits and she wanted to be part of my action. So in an incredible act of generosity gave me the rights to Australia and New Zealand, and then to the UK and to India to go down that pathway.

ASTRID: That is a beautiful vote of confidence in you and Upswell. Congratulations. That is a vote of confidence that is very, very meaningful. I want to go back to what you said about publishing a friend. The literary, writing, editing, publishing industry is small. I don't mean small in ideas. I don't mean small in ambition, but I do mean small in the number of people that are in it. Often we continually meet each other in different capacities over years, and so I don't think it's a problem. It's not friends giving an easy path to another friend. It is people who love words working together and I don't think you need to justify that at all, Terri-ann.

TERRI-ANN: Right. Well, I mean, it does give me the opportunity to say that I published about 450 books when I was at UWAP and a number of those authors have now become very close friends. So it is all about trust and it's about respect, but it's also about being in a very productive space together. So it's a complete joy. Can I tell you about the third book?

ASTRID: Please do.

TERRI-ANN: The third book is by John Hughes, the New south Wales based ... he's just moved out of Sydney and into the countryside, novelist and memoirist. This is the fifth book of his that I've published and the first, obviously for Upswell. A novel called The Dogs. Personally, I think it's his best book so far. He was shortlisted in the Miles Franklin last year with No One and this is an extraordinary kind of vivid story about end of life decisions and at its centre is a middle-aged man and his very old mother. In a characteristic way, John always has this movement between Europe and Australia. All of his settings always have some kind of Australian connection, even if they're based in or set in Europe. That reflects his own family experience as well.

I don't know, it sings this, this novel. It's so brilliant in the sense that it's a generational story across three generations and I just love it. It's kind of poignant and it's funny as well, and it's kind of light and wry and it's a ripper. I was so pleased that, not wasting any time, he pitched it to me or his agent pitched it to me within weeks of me making my announcement.

ASTRID: I want to say this again, Terri-ann, this is a delightful conversation to be having. You just said that an author shortlisted for the Miles Franklin previously pitched or had his agent pitch to you. You are demonstrating maybe what writers are looking for. It is someone who will pay attention to their story and how their story can make it out into the world and to find an audience, hopefully a lucrative audience.

TERRI-ANN: I don't know if you know Iain McCalman, who is a historian who's written an incredible book about the Great Barrier Reef. He's been published by Penguin and Scribner and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and he just wants to be published by me because it's face to face and we make the decisions together. Also, Kate Forsyth and Wendy Sharpe, the artist, have been working for three years on a book about the lifecycle of a woman. So it will be an illustrated book that will be quite complex to do. For that reason, I don't know if they'd asked ... or I don't know if Kate had asked her publishers in the past whether they'd be interested or not, but they couldn't find a way until they saw something that I'd, again, posted on social media about feminism. It will be out for Christmas next year.

ASTRID: Oh, congratulations again, Terri-ann, you are the keeper of stories. People trust you and that is just so beautiful. So you have just outlined a narrative nonfiction work, Imaginative Possession, and two novels, The Sweetest Fruits and The Dogs. They're all books, but non-fiction and fiction are little different in terms of how you find an audience or how you market them. How are you approaching taking Upswell and your list to the world?

TERRI-ANN: Well, I'm making good use of colleagues who I've known, again, for a long time who do crack publicity and move books and future books out into the world for ... There are now many more opportunities to talk about a book rather than just have reviews in mainstream media and mainstream media is shrinking its capacity every day. So that's still one thread, but we have podcasts and we have ... Social media, I have found, over the last 10 or so years is an incredibly effective way to get ideas out to potential residents and to be able to take a different pathway if books are in bookshops, but there are so many books ... For instance, readings has to change its front new releases every fortnight now, rather than every month, it says something about how many books we've got to compete against in that sense.

So from the start I used my favourite designer to build a cover design that I will use throughout so that they're distinctive in that way. They're not just all one-off covers and to use a new font within the book and to do kind of wacky or, I think, aesthetic things like not have indents for paragraphs, but to have blocks of paragraphs on the page. I think the whole thing looks pretty wonderful. I'm hoping that they kind of stand out. I'm also offering a subscription service so that people ... and I'm testing it out this year to see how it goes. So far it's going really wonderfully well, where people put their trust in me and they pay up and when the books come out, as each book arrives from back from the printer, I send out a copy of that book to the subscriber with a personalised letter or a letter from me that says why this book turns me on and a response from the author that sometimes is a bit wacky.

ASTRID: See, that's the original bookseller in you, giving a personal why to the person who is going to pick up and spend their time going into the world that that book creates. Upswell is a not-for-profit organisation. Can you tell me how that works? Because normally book selling is for profit and the large traditional publishers are certainly commercial enterprises who are looking to make money.

TERRI-ANN: Look, the main reason for going down the not-for-profit route is I'm no spring chicken. I'm well and truly middle-aged. I own my own house, which is a great luxury. I know that there isn't that much money to be made from books, frankly, and I wanted to give this my best shot. Also, having just revealed my advanced age, I'm the beneficiary of superannuation, and I'm using that to substitute a salary, but I'm also just keen to be able to talk to people who want to advance, like foundations and grant bodies who want to advance this sense of how important it is for us to build an audience, and to have writers who will still be in the culture in 50 or 100 years. Because I think that's a key thing when I go back and look at literary history and see how hard it is to read books from previous eras.

ASTRID: Will you bring back into print works that are really important but have fallen off the local bookshelves?

TERRI-ANN: Only if I love them. But yes, that is completely within my remit, as is picking up contemporary writers, announcing and supporting brand new writers. Also, because I've now done three of them, three of them are in the works, picking up books from other cultures and from other languages that have been translated. Because one thing that I don't like is when we get very parochial and back at UWA, I used to bring books that have been published elsewhere, either in English or in translation and sit them alongside the Australian books that I was publishing and it felt to me like it was opening up the world, that that was brilliant company and that they fed off each other, because I'm always thinking about the shape of the list rather than just the individual books.

ASTRID: That's a beautiful way to think about it. What you just said, Terri-ann, prompted me to think about Shokoofeh Azar and The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. Shokoofeh wrote her story in Farsi, and it was ignored until it was translated anonymous into English, and then it made it to the Stella shortlist and two years later, if I've got my years correct, it has now been shortlisted for the International Booker, again in the English translation, not the original Farsi. I often think about that, Terri-ann, because that work was almost not published in Australia and almost not distributed and a very small publisher, Wild Dingo Press, took it up and it was ignored by all the big ones. Yet now it's been an international list and I wonder what we are missing.

TERRI-ANN: Well, I don't think we're missing anything for as long as there are small publishers who are willing to hop in there, because that's not necessarily the work of large multinational, multi-billion-dollar companies. It may be, but each publisher has its own complexion and wriggle room for experimentation or for something that's diverse outside of the mainstream.

ASTRID: My final question to you is on behalf of writers who think they're at the stage where they're ready to pitch and to be published. What makes a story or what makes the individual writer appeal to you?

TERRI-ANN: I know this will sound trivial, but the first page is incredibly important. As Monique Truong uses as the epigraph to her book, an Emily Dickinson quote, ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant’. I want something that is not standard because none of us are standard. We all have this whole set of complexities that give us the eye to be able to make a story ones own, your own. So I'm just interested in people taking risks and I'm in a position to be able to take risks with them.

ASTRID: What perfect advice? Terri-ann, thank you so much for talking to me today and good luck with Upswell.

TERRI-ANN: Thank you, Astrid. That was wonderful.