Michael Heyward joined Text Publishing in 1992 and hasn't looked back. He is now Managing Editor, and remains heavily involved with the publishing process. Prior to his career at Text, Michael founded the literary magazine Scripsi with Peter Craven.
Text is an independent, Melbourne-based publisher of literary fiction and non-fiction. Text won the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) Small Publisher of the Year in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Text publishes Australian and international authors, including Graeme Simsion, Kate Grenville, John Marsden, Helen Garner, Tim Flannery, Geraldine Doogue, J.M. Coetzee, Toni Jordan and Nick Cave.
- Michael read widely as a child, including Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (and unexpectedly) Power without Glory by Frank Hardy. He credits these works with introducing him to the experience of being immersed in a fictional world.
- When studying at Melbourne University, Michael fell under the spell of the poetry of Basil Bunting (especially his poem ‘Briggflatts’), and even tracked him down in England to strike up a literary friendship.
- At Scripsi, Michael published the Monash Poets (Allan Wearne, Laurie Duggan and John A. Scott), as well as some of the early writing of Helen Garner. Looking back, Michael places Scripsi in the context of Meanjin, Overland and international magazines, such as The Paris Review.
- Michael explains the beginning of his long-term literary partnership with Tim Flannery, which started when the edited an edition of Watkin Tench’s writings (published as 1788).Michael feels Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at first contact were influenced by Watkin Tench.
- Text published Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, and Michael discusses how exceptional the manuscript was to read. For Michael, it was a similar experience to reading Stiff by Shane Maloney (one the first novels published at Text) and His Bloody Project by Grame Mcrae Burnet (and shortlisted for the Booker Prize).
- Michael explains his thoughts on the parallel importation of books debate in Australia, as well as the likely impact on writing and writers in Australia (and of course, readers in Australia).
- Finally, Michael admits to passing on Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Nic Brasch: Welcome to a special bonus episode of The Garret. The Garret podcast is a series of interviews with the best writers writing today. Today’s interview, however, is not with a writer but a publisher. Michael Heyward is an editor and publisher with Text Publishing. Text is one of Australia’s leading independent publishers. Michael’s story, which includes his thoughts on what it takes to get your book published, comes in a moment.
Thank you first to everyone who has listened to The Garret podcast. It has been a real thrill to see our community of writers and readers – everyone interested in the creative process – grow over the two seasons. I’d like to hear from you on our Facebook page, Garret Podcast. You’ll find all of our interviews and transcripts there.
Season 3 of The Garret podcast begins in the first week of June, and we have some great writers lined up including Sofie Laguna, Adrian McKinty, Ian McGuire and Christos Tsiolkas.
I recorded the interview with Michael Heyward at the State Library of Victoria, and I started by asking Michael about his childhood influences.
Michael Heyward: I read a lot. I read what little boys read in the late 1960s, so I read… I remember reading the William novels, I read all of the Billabong books, and then when I was a little older, maybe 13 or 14, I started to branch out with my reading, I can remember a summer reading Power without Glory by Frank Hardy…
Michael: … down at the beach. So, I read really widely and voraciously. My mother was… she inhaled books. She was an absolutely addicted reader and read compulsively many, many books a week. I have, ever since I was a little boy, I have loved the footy and remain a dyed in the wool Geelong footy fan. My mother made a rule I wasn’t allowed to listen to the football on a Saturday afternoon until I’d read a book, which I was very happy about.
Michael: So, I got to read a book and listen to the footy.
Nic: Have you read, did you go back and read, Power without Glory in your adult days?
Michael: No. I would love to re-read it. The book is in print, it’s one of those books that we thought about – if the rights were available, which they are not – for the Text Classics. But I remember that as a sort of compulsive reading experience.
Michael: You know, those experiences I think you have when you are starting to understand as a teenager what it means to read a book, and when you do find a book that you love and it becomes your entire world.
I’m no longer a Tolkien fan, but I can remember reading Lord of the Rings in three days. Like, not doing anything else at all, you know. So, and I think that is what we need to do for young people. It seems to me a terrible, terrible shame when young people don’t have this experience of what it means to be completely wrapped up in a book.
You know, that’s why we have huge reason to be grateful for J. K. Rowling, because so many kids got that experience of what it was to live in the parallel world of a book for 800 pages at a time.
Nic: Tell me about your entry into the publishing world. Is that something you wanted to do from a young age? I mean, did you want to be a writer, or did you just love reading? And how did you enter the publishing world?
Michael: Well firstly I had to escape from Ballarat.
Michael: That was mission number one.
Nic: It’s the coldest place on Earth.
Michael: And so, at the end of Year 12 I got into Melbourne Uni and was very keen to come to Melbourne. I had done sciences in secondary school, but I disappointed a lot of people by deciding that I had to do an Arts degree. I was… that was a very big decision. And so, got to Melbourne Uni, and as it turned out I had done Latin at school, and English Literature, and Latin turned out to be the things I really wanted to keep going with. I think probably as a student I knew, I knew it was books. I knew it was books in secondary school, but obviously you don’t know what it is. I don’t come from any kind of particularly literary background at all, though my parents were both – my father was a school teacher – and they were both very intent on their children reading.
Nic: And growing up in a family surrounded by books, I mean that’s the best, you know… Education in that respect.
Michael: There weren’t a lot of books in our house. My mother always read books from the library.
Michael: If I could reconstruct that bookshelf it would have resembled many bookshelves in Australian houses at that time, where you would have a handful of Australian books. You’d probably have an edition of Henry Lawson or something like that, there was the box set of Jane Austen, and there were sort of almanacs. But it certainly wasn’t a house stuffed with books at all. My parents weren’t book buyers, even though they were, especially my mother, as I say a book reader.
So, I knew it was books. I got to uni, I wasn’t going to be an academic or whatever, and the defining thing for me happened when I took Vincent Buckley’s poetry seminar at Melbourne University, which would have been in… towards the end of the 1970s, maybe 78 or 79. And Vin introduced us to the work of a Northumbrian poet named Basil Bunting, whose work I took a tremendous shine to, I thought he was an absolutely wonderful writer. I was by then, the context for all of that was discovering who it was amongst the Modernists that I really loved, and it was the school of Pound, especially, that I was interested in. Bunting was a strange British offshoot from the school of Pound. He knew Pound, he knew Eliot, he was born in 1900, he was part of that circle, he was a Quaker, he went to jail during the First World War because he refused to fight.
So, Bunting was still alive. His great poem, which was published in 1966, is called ‘Briggflats’. It’s a wonderful ode to the north of England, a love poem. And so, I decided that I had to go to England to meet this man.
Michael: And I got to London and went up to Newcastle. In Newcastle, there was – and he’s still there – a great publisher, a man named Neil Astley had started a company called Blood Axe Books, which was about publishing poetry. And he had just released a vinyl record of Bunting reading ‘Briggflats’. And so, with the kind of naiveté and stupidity and probably arrogance of the young, I knocked on the door of Neil Astely’s office and announced myself and said, ‘I’m here to meet Basil Bunting’.
Michael: And he didn’t blink an eye. He… We chatted, he must have decided that I wasn’t a serial killer, and he called Bunting for me, I remember. And Bunting said, ‘Send him out’. So, Bunting lived on a Council estate out of Newcastle, and I remember taking the bus out there, and we had a wonderful time. We got drunk together and talked for hours and hours. And I then went and travelled, and when I came back to England I went to see him again. And we corresponded for many years.
But the moral of that whole story was when I went to Blood Axe Books, I thought this would be a terrific thing to do with your life.
Michael: To be a publisher.
Nic: And just get drunk with poets.
Michael: And get drunk with poets. Absolutely. I mean, it’s the relationship with the writer that underpins everything, I think, in book publishing.
So, when I came back to Australia, one of the people whom I had met and spent a lot of time with in Vin’s seminar was Peter Craven. And so I told Peter that publishing was the thing, and we decided we were going to start a literary magazine, which we duly did, and the first issues were published in that year. So, the magazine I think started, Scripsi, started to be published in 1980, and we did that for – I mean, Peter did it for longer than I did – but I did it for almost ten years, and that was my apprenticeship in publishing.
Nic: Literary magazines have been a very important part of the Australian publishing and literature scene. What was it you were looking for…?
Nic: And has that changed?
Michael: So the magazines of the day, which had been around for a long time, were Meanjin and Overland. There were other literary magazines that were more of less based in English departments around the country. Scripsi, as it happened, was based for a time in the English department, and then we moved it to Ormand College, and it was housed there for a good while.
So, I think the… What we were looking for with Scripsi was first of all we wanted a magazine which would publish the exciting young writers whom we knew. Peter was ten years older than I am, and he had come out of Monash University, and there was the so-called Monash Poets, Allan Wearne, Laurie Duggan, John Scott and others. So, we published them. And then we published the writer we read. We published Helen Garner very early, she had published… Monkey Grip came out in 1977, so Helen was an exciting new talent on the scene.
And then there were the international writers whom we decided to publish. And I think that reflex to want to publish Australian writers alongside their international counterparts was something that the magazine became identified for.
I think what we said to each other was, ‘Well, if you walk into a bookstore in Australia you’re going to find lots and lots of really exciting books from overseas that you want to read, as well as Australian books that you want to read. So, why wouldn’t our magazine reflect that kind of impulse?’.
One of the things we learned really early on is that Australians are phenomenally good readers. They are very curious readers, consumption of books per capita is very high in this country, and I suppose, you know, one of the things I have learned by being a publisher is that there is an historical disconnect between our impulse to read, which is widespread and admirable and very impressive by any international standard, and our publishing, because historically – and this is not so much true anymore – but historically, we let others do our publishing for us. And so Australian writers always had to go to London, or they had to find publication outside of Australia. So, we wanted to buy back the farm, albeit that Scripsi was a tiny corner of the farm.
Nic: As a publisher now, how much note do you take of writers who are published for the first time in these literary journals? Do you read, you and your editors read and take note of up and coming writers?
Michael: Probably we should do it more than we do it. Yeah, we take note. I think the role of the literary magazine has changed. There are really lively magazines around today, and lots of them tend to have a presence online rather than in the printed form.
Michael: The history of the little magazines. The little magazine provided you, provided the reader who wanted to explore with opportunities that weren’t… that didn’t exist elsewhere, and the little magazines, and say is encapsulated historically in, for instance, The Paris Review, or in Australia Meanjin. I mean, Meanjin in the 1950s was, for instance, publishing Ezra Pound. The little magazine had a critical role in making available what would otherwise not be available. Now that we live in an online world, the little magazine can certainly – in the way we wanted to Scripsi to do – it can certainly bring writers together, I think that is a really important thing, and it can provide parameters for taste, and for an energy and a drive in a kind of writing.
But the days of the little magazine as the heroic venture are over to some extent, and that is simply because writers have so many more opportunities to publish than the literary magazine.
But you know, don’t get me wrong about this, little magazines are hugely important. And given that I have had, ended up being a publisher for all of this time, for me, as opposed to the meaning of the magazine for the writers, and I think the highest praise you could bestow on a magazine is that they have writers going, and I’m certain literary magazines can still do that today. But for me, Scripsi taught me how to do it. And the value was in teaching yourself how to do it. And how to do it wasn’t just getting drunk with writers – although publishing without getting drunk with writers would be terribly boring – but it was about talking to typesetters and talking to printers and talking to distributors, and talking to booksellers and getting to know every part of the process by which a book makes it’s way into a reader’s hands.
And I think there was… It’s hard to remember that literary culture, or the publishing culture of that time, but the domination of the big companies was even more absolute than it is now.
Michael: And, you know, the epicentres of publishing were more absolutely London and New York than they are now. And there was a feeling, I remember a feeling of generalised sort of hopelessness about publishing ventures which were independent in this country. And Scripsi – because no one made any money out of Scripsi ever – you know, we used to… I remember we paid Ian McEwan with a crate of wine at one point.
Michael: You know, it was always about what you could do on the smell of an oily rag.
Michael: We certainly weren’t paid doing the magazine for all those years. But the magazine taught us that we could get up and do it ourselves, and we didn’t have to check our taste in with others, we could decide what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it, and that was a really, really valuable lesson for book publishing.
Nic: Did that experience at Scripsi help you, that sort of getting your hands dirty, doing a bit of everything…
Michael: Yeah. Absolutely. You see, Scripsi, even though as a business model, you know, you’d want to put up a screen and shoot it… I mean, it was never a decent…
Nic: Like podcasts.
Michael: [Laughter] Possibly. It was, it was never a business. We were the proprietors of the magazine, and the proprietors were editors. That’s what we were. I mean, everything else was a function of being an editor.
So, I think when Di Gribble hired me to come to Text in the very very early days, in 1992, you know, she knew about the magazine, she knew the kind of thing we had done there. So, I think she did want was someone who was going to be a lively editor. From my point of view, it would be impossible for me to be a publisher without pressing all of the buttons and having my hands on all of the levers.
And we try and do that at Text. I mean, I think editors should be financially responsible for their books, and they should exercise their publishing imagination, so it’s not just about, ‘Well, now I’ve edited the book, and now we are going to hand it on to production, and then we’re going to hand it on to marketing and then onto publicity and all of that’. Editors should be the champions of the books that they publish, and that’s really important.
Michael: When I was starting to, you know, in the Scripsi days, and I was starting to think about Australian publishing, I think there was a general, a generalised feeling that editing was a rather unpleasant and possibly unreliable publishing task. You know, it was necessary that you had editors, but, really, wasn’t this just a financial burden on the process of publishing.
And by and large, the editorial culture was a freelance culture, so yes, you would have people who were publishers or editors inside companies, but editing got farmed out to freelancers to do. And I… when I spent two or three years in New York, and I remember coming back and I did do a tiny bit of freelance editing, and that’s very much like a sort of, sending your shirt out to be mended sort of operation, completely dissatisfying, really, because it breaks that chain of enthusiasm that runs all the way you know from the writer right through the house of which… the editor has to be the guarantor that that chain won’t get broken.
So, we have always wanted to be an editor centric company, and not to have ghettos were you’ve got editorial in one part of the house and you’ve got marketing and publicity and so on in other parts of the house. You know, we are very editorially driven, but that comes out of a belief that to edit a book well is to immeasurably enhance its commercial prospects.
Nic: What makes a writer easy to work with? What do you love about particular writers?
Michael: Almost all writers are great to work with. I suppose when a publishing company and a writer choose each other, they are selecting for a capacity to get on with each other and to work well together. I can’t imagine writers who didn’t want to get into the thick of the publishing process would want to come to Text, anyway.
Nic: Sure, sure.
Michael: So, we do tend to publish people who want to get – not all writers, but most writers – want to get involved in that.
You know, the relationship with the writer begins more or less with the editor, who is going to be the person who has driven the acquisition. They’re going to be the person running around the publishing company with photocopied pages waiving them in the air saying, ‘You’ve got to read this, this is fantastic’. And so, what is going to make that relationship work is the development of trust. Trust is the key thing, that the writer trusts the editor that their work is going to be in good hands at the publishing company, and that the editor trusts the writer’s capacity to surrender to that secret and exhilarating conversation which editorial should entail.
Nic: Are there particular issues that arise with writers that are particularly difficult, are there sort of common things that writers do that you go, ‘Oh, not again, we’re going to have to educate this writer…’
Michael: No, I don’t think so. I mean, every writer is different, every book is different, if something can happen in publishing it will happen.
Writers need to feel their way as well, I think writers generally feel, you know, an anxiety about how that relationship is going to work out. Occasionally that anxiety can be very destabilising for a writer. But look, writers are allowed to be neurotic, they’re allowed to be obsessive, they’re allowed to be irrational, all of those things. I often say to writers, ‘The impulse to garrotte your editor is completely legitimate, you just don’t act on it’.
Nic: [Laughter] Have you ever been surprised, particular surprised or delighted by a particular author or book that went far beyond – either sales or awards – than you expected? You know, maybe something like an editor said, ‘Ah, have a read of this’, and you looked at it read it and you said, ‘Yeah, that’s ok’, I mean, any of them taken you really by surprise?
Michael: Perhaps I’ll take the question back a step, which is, we’re often surprised when we work. There are seven editors at Text, and others have this experience too, and you have that intensive conversation, the actual conversation and then the conversation with pencil marks on the manuscript, and the writer takes the pages away to think about them and work on them, and we’re often surprised and exhilarated by what has happened to the manuscript. And that’s when the process works really well. It’s not a question of someone marking up your manuscript and then you either accept or reject what they’ve done, it should be something which drives… The editor can sit on the writer’s shoulder and help the writer go to those places where they’ve always wanted the manuscript to go to, but couldn’t quite find. I mean, it’s a Platonic Ideal: there is a perfect manuscript, and we are trying to get as near as we can to the possible shape of it.
The second part of your question, with books that you publish and then end up taking everybody by surprise, that’s a definitional thing about book publishing.
Nic: Right, yes. Of course.
Michael: You know, none of us would be in business if that didn’t happen. Almost the earliest experience I had of that was way back, so it would have been mid-1990s, Text was two of three years old, or my relationship with Text was two or three years old, Text was actually started in 1990. And I read – we didn’t publish it but I read – Tim Flannery’s book The Future Eaters, which is published by Reed, it’s now defunct in print.
I was incredibly impressed by this book, which is a deep history of Australia and New Zealand in terms of ecology, flora, fauna… And the book seemed to me to be completely internationally informed, and utterly unselfconscious in the way in which it took the centre of things to be here. And for someone like me, who had come up through a literary understanding of the world – the real world is always somewhere else, the real world is in Paris in 1930 or its in New York in 1950 or whatever – and here was Tim writing about our part of the world 20,000, 15,000, 10,000 years ago, and the real world was here. And yet there was nothing parochial about it, his approach was thoroughly international.
So, I read the book, very impressed. He quoted extensively in the book from the writings of Watkin Tench, who was Captain Lieutenant on the First Fleet. I was very impressed with these quotations from Tench. I certainly hadn’t read him, and I probably hadn’t heard of him, and I don’t think anyone I knew had heard of him either. So I went to the library and I found an edition of Tench. So, Tench published two books, one in 1792 from memory, and one in 1794.
The first one, which might have been a bit earlier, is sort of a travel guide, like it if you are setting out form Portsmouth to Sydney, this is where you are going to go, and make sure you buy some goats on the way and all the rest of it. It’s a shorter book.
The second book, which is longer, is this incredible account of his four years at Sydney Cove, and the books had never been republished, except in the late 1950s, when I think it was the University of Sydney did an edition under the very winning title of Sydney’s First Four Years.
So, I read that, and I was possessed, I was a man possessed at that point, every Australian should read this book, and I still believe that. And so, I wrote to Tim, who was still in his Dr Livingstone phase and was off in the wilds of Borneo or whatever discovering species, and these were before there were faxes and emails and all the rest of it, and I wrote to him and said I really wanted to do a paperback edition of Watkin Tench and asked whether he would want to edit the book. So, months later Tim finally got my letter and he wrote back and said he’d love to do it. And that actually, as it turned out, was the beginning of perhaps the longest publishing relationship, certainly one of the longest publishing relationships, that I’ve had. So we edited, we worked together on Tench, and Tim wrote an introduction, and we put the book together, gave it the title of 1788, and published it.
And our books were distributed by Penguin, and a very good friend who was the national sales manager at Penguin said to me, ‘Michael, why don’t you just take the money and throw it out the window. You’ve got a book that is 200 years old by an author no one has heard of edited by’ – because Tim was not then famous – ’edited by someone we don’t know about’. And I said, ‘Well, because I think we can make this book work’. And he said, ‘Well, we’ll have a bet’. I can’t remember whose idea the bet was, maybe it was mine, and the bet was if the book sold more than 1,500 copies – because our first printing was tiny, it was probably 2,000 or 1,500 – if it sold more than 1,500 copies he would take me out to lunch, and if it sold fewer then I would have to take him out to lunch.
So, Penny my wife who works with me at Text was in Readings bookstore in Carlton the weekend we published the book and she said, ‘I couldn’t get out the door because this guy had bought a copy of 1788 and started reading it and he was blocking the doorway, he wasn’t moving he was so absorbed’.
Michael: And we’ve now sold 50,000 copies of that book, plus. And more than that, the book is available, and people read it and bring it into their world view. And I mean, so for instance, you can’t imagine Kate Grenville’s – she would have read it anyway – but you can’t imagine Kate Grenville’s Secret River without Tench.
Michael: Inga Clendinnen wrote Dancing with Strangers partly because we’d sent her Tench. And see, Tench describes… He’s this dashing young man, sort of Boswell like figure, he’s incredibly entertaining and engrossed by where he is and what’s happening to him, and he’s a child of the Enlightenment, so however disastrous the Dispossession history was going to become, that’s not the story Tench tells, even though the elements, the preconditions of that are all being laid down around him. If you want to find out about these great Indigenous leaders Bennelong and Colby and so forth, you have to read Watkin Tench. And Tench even says somewhere, quite late in the book, you know, ‘A civilised fellow on Pall Mall is not more intelligent or sensitive than an Indian in the wilds of New South Wales’. And it’s very important. And I think Inga really brought this to bear in Dancing with Strangers, Inga Clendinnen, it’s very importance for us to… it’s an important strand of our history, I think.
Nic: When I’m talking to emerging writers, they often ponder whether they should follow trends or just write what they plan to write and what they want to write. As a publisher, are you seduced by trends, or so you just make the decisions totally by…
Michael: No, I have no idea what the trends are.
Michael: Except, you know, the ones that we set ourselves. That’s… No. I understand the question, and some publishers very successfully work like this, and particularly when they are publishing into areas which can be very precisely defined. So, there would be a certain type of publisher for who two years ago doing a colouring book would be very important and could be highly profitable. There are certain kinds of publishers for – very good and clever publishers – who publish for children and young adults, and try to identify what the latest trend is. But we are hopeless at that. What we look for is a voice. I’m asked this question a lot, but it’s voice. That’s what you look, for, and you know, it’s…
Writers I think, emerging writers, are now taught very well how to present their work to a publisher, but it’s probably healthy for them to hear that the publisher skips over the CV and the letter, and starts reading. And the proposal and all of that, because I want to know what the experience that the reader is going to have is, that’s the most important thing for me.
Nic: Do you take note of prizes, awards that people have won? I mean, how important are prizes and award for writers in your mind?
Michael: You take note, you take note of everything, but nothing in itself… There’s no, there’s no single silver bullet to publication. Just as anyone who wants to write knows how hard it is. Writing is really hard.
Michael: And it requires, I mean I try and tell everybody this in the publishing company, the manuscript that we are contemplating buying by an unknown writer has required a massive and irrational investment of time and energy and commitment and everything else on the writer’s part. So, if we are going to meet this writer’s needs, we have to make that same irrational commitment. We have to recognise it and acknowledge it.
It is very hard to write a good book. It is extraordinarily hard to keep writing them. So, what you want a publishing company to be, really, is a safe haven for writers. That’s not to say commercial principles don’t operate, they do, because an imprint that’s running out of money is of no use to any writers at all. But what you really want the company to be is a safety net for writers, so they understand there is an audience – this particular privileged early audience – for their work, and that’s where all the conversation can happen. But if I’m looking for one thing to begin with, or an editor is looking for, is a voice.
Nic: Are there common mistakes that emerging writers make when submitting stuff, other than probably submitting stuff too early?
Michael: I don’t know whether they do… I mean, writer needs to submit, and rejection is part and parcel of the publishing process. If your manuscript is rejected, it just means you haven’t found the right publisher for your book.
Nic: That’s a very polite answer.
Michael: I used to say, well I think it’s true. I mean, it may be the case, the chances are more likely than not, that your manuscript is no good. Most manuscripts are no good.
Michael: I used to say that Text was like, you know… The Chinese were loathed on the goldfields because after the rush had moved on to the next little plot over that hill, over that rocky rise, and you know there would be another mullock heap would rise, the Chinese would move into where the European miners had been, and they would sift through all of the clay and everything and they would find the gold that had been left behind. In the early days of Text we had no money at all, we were the Chinese on the goldfields. And the fact that a book had been rejected by other publishers meant nothing. The question is could we publish the book, could we identify something in this book that would speak to us where we felt we could find a readership for it.
As soon as I read a letter from an author or from an agent, which in the second paragraph tells me what a fantastic film the manuscript would make, I just immediately turn the page. That does nothing for me.
Nic: Sure, Graeme Simsion wrote that in his second paragraph.
Michael: No, Graeme just gave us the manuscript.
Michael: Graeme just gave us the manuscript. He hand-delivered the manuscript into Text, and we started reading. And I can remember the experience of reading that book.
The first novel we ever published was Stiff by Shane Maloney, and I vividly remember, ‘Right, I’m not doing anything else today, I’m going to finish reading this book’. And then, you know, and you get to a certain point in the manuscript and you are pleading with the writer not to mess it up, because it has been so fantastic so far.
And I remember with Rosie, starting to read and very quickly, within a few pages, thinking this was going to be something very special, ‘And right, no more phone calls, this is what I’m doing today.’
Nic: Ok, wow. So, you recognised it at that point.
Michael: It’s very difficult to describe what the sensation is of recognising a book that you know you want to publish, but it’s unmistakable. Absolutely unmistakeable, when you have it.
Nic: And rare, obviously.
Michael: And rare. And it’s galvanising. So, I had it probably most recently when the Booker Prize longlist was announced, I got hold of one of the books on it, which was His Bloody Project by Grame Mcrae Burnet. It was published by a tiny publisher in Glasgow called Saraband, and I started to read without much expectation that the book would be anything in particular, and I remember feeling – it’s almost like an electric current running through you – ‘this is something quite extraordinary’.
And then, what happens to the publisher because you’re not reading – you know, you’re not a person curled up on a beach reading a book and totally lost in that world – the whole time you’re reading you’re trying to work out how you can become the person who is going to publish this book. It is a physical sensation of extreme excitement and then focus and concentration about how we can land this fish, really. And we bought that book and, as it turns out Graeme’s first book, which is called The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau and is at least as good as His Bloody Project. We bought that within 72 hours…
Michael: … Of the list having being announced. So, it’s difficult to describe, but when it happens it is a total absorption in the book. Total.
Nic: How important to the Australian publishing industry and for writers obviously is the fight over the parallel importation?
Michael: It’s hugely important. It matters enormously, because it’s essentially rules of territorial copyright allow writers to enforce the contracts that they sign. So, if you take away that right by allowing editions of their work which are published elsewhere to come into Australia without any form of regulation at all, writers – because these books will earn much, much smaller royalties, if any royalties at all – writers will pay the price.
First of all, this whole debate arises out of a very legitimate concern, which was the case for a long time. The British for a long time owned this territory as a publishing territory, and they used it, quite blatantly, as a way of lowering their costs and minimising their publishing risks. And there was the so-called ‘Colonial edition’, and this situation lasted for a very long time. It lasted until well after the war.
As Australian publishing really began to emerge, I guess in the 60s and 70s, we started to recognise that territorial copyright mattered for Australian writers. But the British, the British would ship the books out, they would often not be available in Australia until months after they had been published elsewhere, and you had this situation where it was very difficult to get American books at all, and the British gouged on price.
So, books were far too expensive in this country. Something had to happen, and in 1990 it did with the introduction of the so-called ‘use it or lose it’ rule, the 30 day rule, which you know, has now been modified by consent to a much shorter period of time, which essentially said to the publisher, ‘We want the consumer to have access to the book at the same time as people elsewhere in the world’.
I think that is completely right. And because of that, it put, that law put downward pressure on price. That law also anticipated what was going to happen with Internet retail. So that law came into Australia in 1991, Amazon was founded in 1995, and in a way that law… Not in a way, the law was purpose-made for an Amazon world.
We are the luckiest generation of Australian readers that there has ever been. Any book that we want is available to us at the click of a mouse and the cheapest available price, from anywhere in the world.
Nic: And delivered to your door within 24 hours.
Michael: And delivered to your door and all the rest of it. But if we put a terrific tilt on the playing field, so the rules in Australia are different from the rules in our major trading partners in the US and the UK, which protect territorial copyright far more vigorously than we do, what you’re really saying is that it doesn’t matter whether Australia has writers, and doesn’t matter whether or not Australia has a publishing industry.
So, the whole theory of parallel importation makes perfect sense for a country without any writers or publishers.
We don’t understand yet in Australia, even though the evidence is there in our bookstores and in our consumption of books per capita, we don’t yet understand what literary talent we have in this country. And in my view, we lack the publishing infrastructure to adequately nurture and publish the talent that we have. If anything describes my time in this industry, it is of the growing acknowledgement that we have a job of work to do, and it’s not over yet.
So, from 1990, more or less when I entered the industry, apart from the other glory days at Scripsi, you’ve had the emergence of Allen and Unwin, a major independent publishing company, Text, Black Inc., Scribe, and so forth. We have a more diverse publishing environment than we used to have, and it is no longer an essential truth that if you are crazy enough to start an independent publishing company in Australia you are going to go broke. In other words, we have found room and opportunity to publish that the major publishers can’t take up. We can go to paces that they can’t go, and we can take risks that they can’t take.
If we were to have another ten publishing companies in Australia of the size of Text, for instance, you would have the effect of a literary revolution, because you would have a whole lot more people out there, editors and so forth, looking for books, looking for writers, talking to writers, telling writers ‘That’s not good enough, but actually you’re incredibly clever, go back and do it again’. That whole conversation would be amplified many times, and we would start to fulfil our potential.
Nic: The publishers you just names, they are all headed by people with immense passion for literature, for writers, for the Australian publishing scene. I meet lots of other people with the same, with similar passion. What stops them doing exactly that, why don’t we have ten, twelve publishers like that, because there is certainly other people with the passion and the drive, what stops us having that revolution?
Michael: I just think it’s going to take time. I mean, I’m possibly advantaged by the fact that I’m otherwise unemployable, and there are otherwise people who probably can do other things that are more immediately lucrative…
Nic: Well., most people like that in publishing are unemployable elsewhere.
Michael: … And they go and do it. But the instinct to go and start a publishing company is a thoroughly noble and laudable one, and should be acted on immediately that you have it.
I’d rather look on your question more positively, and to say that I would be happy to predict that in ten or twenty years time we will have more companies of this kind. The old models are definitely breaking down. Amazon has now created a million dollar business, billion dollar business I should say, with people who want to self-publish. I think that is a good thing.
Most writing is what the American poet Kenneth Koch called ‘psycho-degradable’. It’s not any good at all. But the impulse to write in a society that people have, that should be generalised. We want universal reading, we want everyone knowing how to read, and we want everyone knowing how to write. And if they want to write about whatever, they should do that.
Writing is the most democratic tool that we have, in that sense, and a society that doesn’t reward writing is, by definition, at the very best going to be authoritarian, and probably worse. So, how we treat our writers and how we discuss writing is critical to democracy in my view.
Nic: So, in your time as a publisher, Michael, is there anything that you’ve passed on that has been taken elsewhere and been a massive success, and you’ve gone, ‘Geez, I missed that’, and felt for a moment a pang of regret? There has probably been a number of them, but I don’t know if you want to…
Michael: Yeah, it’s inevitable.
Nic: Of course.
Michael: It’s central to the experience of being a publisher that you will, you will miss books that you wish you could have published. And there’s two ways to miss a book.
One is that it’s a book that you badly want to publish and, for whatever reason, the author chooses to go to another house, whether it’s for money or a different reason. And there have been some of those, and the wounds of those books, losing those books, never close. They seep forever. The pain, the pain, the bruise will always be there. And I’m not going to tell you what books they are, but I know exactly what books they are. And that is because the commitment to want to publish that book has been so complete, and we have been left standing alone at the aisle. So that pain is real.
And then there is the more kind of fractured pain, filtered pain, maybe even amused pain, of turning down books which go on to be a tremendous success. If we turn a book down because we are not the right publisher for it, and it becomes a huge success, I think that’s great. I don’t mind at all.
Every now and then we make a mistake, and we don’t offer for something that we should offer for, and that, I’m always kicking myself when that happens.
But if you are doing this for long enough, you will become the person who, for instance, turned down the opportunity to publish Stieg Larsson, as I did.