Michael Webster

Michael Webster has had a long and distinguished career in the Australian publishing industry, with roles as a publisher, academic, board member. He is a recipient of the George Robertson Award for services to the book industry.

Michael is the Chair of the Small Press Network and also serves on the board of Melbourne Writers Festival (where he was Chair between 2009 and 2017).

He previously served on the Foundation Committee that led to Melbourne becoming UNESCO’s second City of Literature. He was also a member of the literature board of the Australia Council in the 1980s, and the Chair of The Copyright Agency from 1999–2002, and an Adjunct Professor at RMIT University’s School of Media and Communication.

In 2000, Michael introduced Booktrack (now Nielsen Bookscan) and managed its integration into the Australian and New Zealand book trades, where it revolutionised the electronic data collection and analysis of sales.


Nic: Michael Webster has had a long and distinguished career in the publishing industry, and is the recipient of the George Robertson Award for Services to the Book Industry. He's been a publisher, academic, board member of the Melbourne Writers Festival and The Copyright Agency, and perhaps most importantly for today's chat, introduced Book Track (now Nielsen Book Scan) into the Australasian Marketplace. It revolutionised the electronic data collection and analysis of book sales. If you want to know what's selling or what isn't, he is the person to ask.
Michael, welcome to The Garret.
Michael: Thank you Nic, nice to be here.
Nic: Let's get straight into it. According to the latest figures, if I wanted to write a best seller, what would be my best bet? What should I write?
Michael: Well, probably at the moment it would be non-fiction in Australia. It might be about investing, personal investment, superannuation, given that The Barefoot Investor sold something over 10 million dollars worth of books last year.
Nic: Extraordinary, isn't it?
Michael: Extraordinary, yes.
Nic: Extraordinary. Was that a trend that you could see coming? According to the previous year, or…?
Michael: I think one of the great things about publishing is that there are trends of course, and it's great if you're leading the trend, but very rarely does that happen deliberately. You can catch a wave, of course, but we do know from the research in the industry that too many people catch the wave too late. And there is no better indication of that than the colouring books. Who would have thought that colouring books would take off and sell however million they sold and then stop. It is as if come December two years ago, everybody just said enough and it completely stopped, just as a number of publishers were reprinting. Well, there goes their margin.
Nic: Or getting into it. That's right. Absolutely. Do publishers use this sort of data to try and... Well, as an example, to detect trends early on?
Michael: Yes, I think the value of data, and in particular Nielsen Book Scan – which I mention not because of my involvement with it, it's actually now owned by the Nielsen Group, but because it's the only real research that exists – is that there are two main advantages.
One is that it tells you the actual price that books are selling at. So, what we do know is that chains and discount stores will sell 35 per cent, 40 per cent, below the recommended retail price. So, the recommended retail price in a sense is irrelevant: it is not how many copies of the recommended retail price, it's how many copies at whatever price it sold at.
Nic: Right. Okay.
Michael: That will also tell you where books are selling, so at it's simplest, while Book Scan will not split by title to say who's selling what, it does have the recommended retail price and the average selling price across the country.
I hope I'm expressing myself properly, that the closer the average selling price is to the recommended retail price, you can say that's selling in the independent sector.
Nic: Right. Okay.
Michael: The further way away from the recommended retail price, the more it's selling in Big W, K-mart and Target. You can divide the market simply by looking at the average selling price.
The other good thing, just to finish, is that where it is really important is that, given that... If you can imagine an editorial meeting. In the old days, as we say, enthusiastic publisher commissioning editor would go before the editorial board and bid for money, because that's in fact what you're doing in publishing. You want to get your title listed. Basically, it was about enthusiasm because nobody knew what sold what. Whereas now you can go and you can say, ‘This type of book sells at this sort of price in this sort of market’.
Nic: Right.
Michael: And while the accountants would still prefer actual facts, at least it's an indicator of what's happening.
Nic: Commercial-in-confidence issues aside, are you able to tell us or give us some indications as to how the data is collected? Is it randomised, is it 100 per cent accurate? How does it work?
Michael: The answer is that it's not confidential. We would never, or Book Scan would never, disclose where the data comes from, and never discloses individual source. But it's fair to say that in Australia, 100 per cent of the chains and discount stores contribute.
To mix A, B, C, Q, B, D around the country. That, with the department and discount stores for all intents and purposes, it is 100 per cent.
For the independent stores it is... I forget what the figure is, but say roughly about 200 stores, and then that is weighted by the statisticians, and at the end of each period, which may be quarterly or annually, that data is verified against publishers. So in other words, Nielsen goes back to Harper Collins or Text and says, ‘This is what we recorded you sold in the independent sector’. That is confidential information, and they say, ‘Yeah, that's about right’.
Nic: Okay. Alright.
Michael: So, week by week, because it's weighted, it may not be right. But over the cycle, it's pretty good. So, Nielsen would say that it represents about 90 per cent, over 90 per cent, of sales in Australia. The thing to always remember is that Neilsen really monitors the sale of print books in traditional book shop outlets.
Nic: Right.
Michael: Now, that may be a book store within Myer, or Target, or K-Mart, but it doesn't monitor the sale of cookbooks, that somebody like The Essential Ingredient, for example.
Nic: Okay.
Michael: And those sales can be substantial.
Nic: Sure.
Michael: So, again trying to fill the picture in, if you're in a publishing company where you sell a substantial number of your titles, let's say Food and Drink, to the non-traditional outlets, then you will know that Book Scan represents 80 per cent of your sales, because you're always selling 20 per cent out.
The great thing about the system is that it's absolutely consistent, and over the... Since 2003 there's a consistent pattern of when sales occur, and it's pretty obvious that ANZAC Day is military history, memoirs and biographies are Mother's Day...
Nic: That's right. Father's Day is sports biographies, yeah.
Michael: And then Christmas, it's cookbooks. Always cookbooks for Christmas.
Nic: Right, yes. Of course.
Michael: And everybody publishes cookbooks for Christmas because that's when people buy cookbooks. On the other hand, that's because everybody's publishing it. And the cleverness in publishing, I think, is to look at those patterns and decide to challenge them somewhat. And the classic case, I think, in Food and Drink, where Jamie Oliver's gonna come out and sell 200,000 every year… Who knows why. I buy one for my mother. That's Jamie Oliver, I must love my mother.
Nic: 15 minute cooking, who can argue with 15 minute meals?
Michael: When Four Ingredients decided to publish, in effect, a cookbook with no colour in January. The traditional thing in publishing in Australia was, ‘don't publish in January’.
Nic: Nothing in January.
Michael: That's when all the returns are going back! So, I think that's the fun of it. You look at the patterns and then you say, ‘I'll give it a go somewhere else, or I'm going to fight for a bit of space at Christmas with cookbooks’, for example.
Nic: Yes, yes. You're talking before about non-fiction, writing non-fiction. Is there a huge discrepancy between fiction sales and non-fiction sales in Australia?
Michael: I think the answer, it's roughly... Non-fiction sells particularly well in Australia. And that's Australian titles. In a sense, if you want to know what to publish in Australia that might sell, non-fiction is where you would start. And that's not to say you shouldn't publish a novel. It's not to say you shouldn't publish poetry. But the publisher's expectation of new fiction will generally be pretty low, because unless you've built a reputation, then it's very hard to sell a first novel.
Nic: Sure, absolutely.
Michael: Doesn't mean it won't sell. Of course, if it does sell well, and you then publish a second one you might be alright. So, I always say that there is no reason not to publish in any genre in Australia. It's just be realistic about what actually happens.
Nic: I guess last year, Jane Harper was a huge success story in the last couple of years, and even her second novel came out last year in 2017, and her first one seemed to sell an enormous amount more on the back of that as well.
Michael: I mean, we know that Liane Moriarty sells around the world.
Nic: Absolutely.
Michael: This is, I always think, the trouble in publishing, is that often the bigger the publisher, the more they're likely to forget that it actually is an entrepreneurial business. So the accountants say, this looks terrific, would you just publish bestsellers? Well...
Nic: That's right! [Laughter]
Michael: Oh, that we could.
Nic: Exactly, exactly. Let's have a look at 2017. What are some of the books that sold best? And maybe we can then detect some sort of patterns and...
Michael: Well, I do have some information here, so excuse the noise. I'm not going to go through all of this.
First of all, the overall market increased, although it only increased by 1 percent, but that's one percent on a larger increase. Now, it always needs qualifying in that during the year, some book sellers may stop publishing or, as has been the case this year, a new bookseller might come in. For example, I think it's fair to say that Australian Geographic, for example, decided to join the panel this year. It's what we call the panel. And in a sense, you would in theory discount this year's sales when you're matching last year's sales. But in the end, without being unkind to Australian Geographic, they're not significant sales. But with that qualification, the market increased.
In fact, I get quite tired of people saying that the book is dead, because if you think about it, print book sales are back.
Nic: Sure.
Michael: And they're increasing.
Nic: Sure.
Michael: In part, thanks very much to children's and young adult's. If you add to that electronic books, the market in fact is buoyant, is huge. And if you add to that imports of print books which don't get monitored, they might get picked up overseas, then the market is very strong. That's not to say it's not a terribly difficult business, because you have to remember there are about two million English language books available for sale in Australia.
Nic: It's an enormous amount for a small market.
Michael: Which is why when a publisher says, when they talk amongst themselves they point to each other and say, ‘Why don't you publish fewer books?’
Nic: Exactly.
Michael: Because I'm not going to...
Nic: Exactly.
Michael: And the market has got more and more difficult because, as with every other commodity, and particularly discretionary spending, it's more and more front list driven. So back list, that's books more than a year old, the sales are quite okay. But more and more the market wants the new book, and they want to know what's on the bestseller list, and then they want it.
Nic: Absolutely.
Michael: So, you get on this treadmill, and I think that that's not a good thing. You probably had people talking to you where they started off with the intention of publishing two or three books a year, really good books. And then they got a distributor, and the distributor said, ‘Look, it's no good you publishing two or three books a year, because we can't pull your book out twice a year. The bookseller's going to say, ‘We can't remember them’, so you have to publish at least twelve books a year’. Well, this is a treadmill. And then they say, ‘You're only doing twelve books a year, you better do 24 books a year’.
So, you find that a lot of the small publishers, and a lot of them increasingly are represented by the Small Press Network, with which I'm involved. One of their laments is that they're having to publish more and more to raise their profile, and…
Nic: It costs money to publish, because publishing involves not just the production of it, there's the marketing, there's the editing, there's the proofreading.
Michael: Absolutely. And then we have Sale or Return.
Nic: Exactly.
Michael: So you have an enthusiastic sales person, bless them, and they, in a sense, oversell their books into the market. And of course then it's really exciting. ‘My God, we've sold out the whole stock!’
Nic: Yes, according to the publisher, but…
Michael: According to the publisher. Then they can come back again. And that's when Book Scan really helps.
Nic: Yes. And a lot of people who are listening to this, a lot of emerging writers and readers may not have heard of the Sale or Return, because it's not something... it's almost unique to the book industry. Not many industries allow the retailer to send back what they don't sell.
Michael: Well not many industries, I have to say, there aren't very many other industries where the manufacturer – and in the end that's what we're talking about, this is a business, a manufacturing business – where the manufacturer sets the retail price. Most other industries, the manufacturer sells to the retailer and then says, ‘Get on with it’.
Nic: Whatever you want to sell it for, whatever every margin… that's right.
Michael: And that's part of the problem, and that's enabled retailers to build their businesses based on being a discounter. And then the publishers lament that, but they set the recommended retail price.
Nic: Yes, which is strange. And is that, it's not a purely Australian phenomenon, I mean, we've inherited it.
Michael: We've inherited it, yeah.
Nic: Is there any market you're aware of where that's not the case?
Michael: Well, in Europe it's even worse because you can't discount books. So the recommended price, the price is the price. And that is usually set by the publishers association, the booksellers association. I suspect in America they don't have a recommended retail price, but I don't know. It's a question on notice.
Nic: It's an interesting one, where we won't, but it seems like anti-competitive behaviour. In some countries, there'd be laws against what happens in Europe, certainly.
So, let's come back to some of the books that really sold well last year. We spoke about The Barefoot Investor's book, which just sold an enormous amount. Far more than the next on the list, and seemingly came out of nowhere. I don't know whether that means Australians have financial concerns or worries or issues, or what it says. But for some reason, it...
Michael: I think it partly does do that. And I think last year there was a lot of speculation around superannuation, and about the cost of housing, what you could do with superannuation and whether the stock market was going up or down. And so… With hindsight, you can say it was obvious that that would sell, but that's with hindsight. Now, what often happens of course is that, and I think The Barefoot Investor is a classic case where the author had a market anyway, because they gave lectures and they had a profile.
Nic: Media appearances, yeah.
Michael: And so in a sense, to publish a book into a market where you're already known… And I think this is increasingly happening with marketing, and I think one of the really interesting cases is a large publisher I know in Melbourne that is very much involved in Food and Drink, they actually help emerging chefs build a website, way before they've ever been heard of. They help them build a website, they help them build a profile. So eventually, if they become well known and they publish a book they've got a profile, they've got a market.
Nic: Wow.
Michael: And the other thing of course is great celebrities. Jimmy Barnes sold really well.
Nic: Extraordinary.
Michael: It's fair to say that of course Jimmy Barnes would sell really well. But I also think it's fair to say that not many people expected it to sell as well as it sold.
Nic: Sure, sure.
Michael: And that again is always the thing about publishing, you never quite know what's going to take off. Even if you put everything in place, it still may not work. It's the fun of it, I think.
Nic: Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, of course, perennial at the top.
Michael: Perennial. Jamie Oliver is always, every year, absolutely fantastic, predictable as anything.
Nic: You spoke before about the children and young adults market and the importance of that. How big and important is it?
Michael: Well, J. K. Rowling last year sold 23 million dollars worth of books, and if you think about her royalty...
Nic: And this is just in Australia?
Michael: This is just in Australia last year.
Nic: In Australia, goodness me, she hasn't picked up a pen.
Michael: It's extraordinary. And that was 560,000 copies of J. K. Rowling last year. What parent can deny their kid J. K. Rowling?
Nic: No, that's right. And I guess the beauty with children and young adult is, every two or three years you're sort of getting a new market, as kids get older. The 4 year olds of today, or the 4 year olds of today are going to start with Harry Potter in three, four years time. Rolling along.
Michael: And I don't have the figures here. I could get them to you, but I could tell you within the top 20 Australian children's books titles last year will be Mem Fox, because that's the book that grandparents grew up with, and they're buying it then for their kids.
Nic: That's right. Other notables. Where on the list does the first fiction title come? Both international and Australian, if we're looking. How far down the list do we have to go before we get to the ...
Michael: Well, if you look at fiction, is 22 per cent of the market. And it increased 1 percent last year. Nonfiction is 43 per cent of the market. And that's dominated predominantly by Australian titles. And then children’s and young adults...
Nic: So there's a separate category, totally.
Michael: It's a separate category. That's 29 per cent of the market.
Nic: Okay, so it is more than fiction, or all adult fiction.
Michael: Yeah. And in fact for the last few years, it's fair to say that children's and young adult, which is really interesting because young adult is where, generally speaking, the reader purchased the book. They may get the money from their parent, but you can't buy a book for a young adult and say, ‘You've got to read this’.
Nic: That's right.
Michael: So, here we've got a generation that is meant not to be readers, that in fact are readers. And they're readers of print books. So I take that as a very positive thing, but mind you I'm not running a book shop. And I'm not running a publishing house.
Nic: You made the distinction between print and eBooks. Just to go back to the collection of data, does Book Scan monitor, measure ebook sales?
Michael: The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that it does not release the figures. Nic: Right.
Michael: So, the figures at the moment are print book sales, monitored year on year from traditional booksellers, and you're able to model that. The reason for that is that the data has to be robust. It really has to be, in a sense, verifiable. With ebook sales, it's very difficult because you've got to work out… How do you get the sales in Australia of an Australian author from Amazon? Amazon knows that that sale is in Australia. Even the publisher here doesn't necessarily know it. So it's really hard to get. Until you can get international booksellers, particularly an Amazon of the world, providing geographical location of the purchaser at title level, you really can't release the data.
You can get a big company, without mentioning any, with a very large publishing company here, all their electronic sales are reported into the UK. The UK then divvies up the market. Now, I'm sure they don't divvy up the market by knowing. They probably say, ‘Australia represents 20 per cent of the market. You have 20% of these sales’.If you're releasing data every week, large publishing companies aren't going to jump when Nielsen says.
So, it's a terrific system, it's the best we've got, it's verifiable, and we do collect ebook data but we don't release it. We hope to next year.
Nic: And are you able to get an indication as to the growth of self-published books, and how much of the market self-publishing is starting to become a part of?
Michael: Yes. In fact, at the Small Press Network annual conference, which of course all emerging writers and publishers should attend, excuse the ad, we actually do an analysis of what we call sales by small publishers. The interesting thing is, what's the definition of small publisher? It's like the perennial question.
Nic: [Laughter]
Michael: What's the definition of a bestseller? And people will tell you that a bestseller is something that sells over 10,000 copies, something... In fact, I think the only definition of a bestseller is where it exceeds the publisher's expectation.
Nic: [Laughter]
Michael: Because if you do a work of fiction and you tell the author ‘We're going to print 2,000 copies, or 3,000 copies’, which might be the average in Australia. And it sells 3,500. That's a bestseller. But if you expect to sell 300,000 of Wilbur Smith as you do every year, and you only sell 290,000, it's not a bestseller. But, having said that, if you look at all Book Scan sales, it's analysed by the ISBN. And from the ISBN, because of the prefix, you know who the publisher is. And you also know every other category. The category, the price, the format, everything else, as you know. If you take out Allen and Unwin, Hardy Grant, probably Hinkler, and you say, and the rest are Australian small publishers – and I always think something like sales below ten million dollars a year, which to the ears of the very small publisher, seems huge.
Nic: Seems multinational.
Michael: But a lot of small publishers do sell, particularly if they're operating in the educational market, or they get into the schools market. That's quite possible. That doesn't necessarily mean they make any money. And you look there, then small publishers are over represented – and when I say small, I meant publishers that do one or two books a year – are overrepresented in non-fiction, and in particular categories. And that's normally because small and emerging publishers publish out of their personal interest to start off with. So if they're interested in bell ringing, they're likely to publish the definitive book on bell ringing in Australia. And there'll be enough people that are interested in bell ringing...
Nic: And if it exceeds their expectations, it's a bestseller! [Laughter]
Michael: And then they are over represented. I think the market is very positive for small presses. Not withstanding the fact you've got to generate the cash to do it, but with services like Lightning Source now, it's easier and easier to publish a title.
The big issue for small presses is, as it's always been, is distribution. The large publishers no longer want to take on small lists, because they've got so many of their own titles. And the small distributors... take somebody like Dennis Jones & Associates, who is based in Victoria and who I think does a terrific job for small presses. But he represents about 200 small publishers. And even he's limited to what he can... he's got to do the right thing by the publisher as well.
The biggest issue for small presses is to find someone who'll carry their books into the book shops. And that's always been a problem, and it continues to be a problem. It's not an insoluble problem, because things like Lightning Source – this is not really an ad for them except I think it's a terrific service they offer small presses – they can market books around the world, and bookshops can order directly from them. So distribution always was a problem and remains a problem.
Nic: So you see the Australian publishing industry in present as being sustainable, and continuing small growth?
Michael: Yeah, I think so. I've always been an optimist, as you know. Everybody says, ‘It's always doing well, but Amazon's arrived. And it may completely change the landscape’.
My... it's very much a personal view, is that it won't alter the landscape hugely. Number one, books are no longer the number one product for Amazon. People can buy books themselves, they don't necessarily have to go to Amazon.
Nic: Sure.
Michael: Booktopia is terrific. Buy from overseas if you want to. And I think book shops, particularly the independents, which is another great story in Australia because independents were wiped out in America and wiped out in the UK. But here they've always had about 30 per cent of the market, and they've retained 30 per cent of the market, because I think primarily because they decided that they were on a hiding to nothing if they started to discount. And what the independents have done – and we know from Readings and Paperback which I'm very familiar with, and Avenue and people like that – they hand sell. You actually go there to buy a book, you've read the book, and if they have to, they'll send you a second book. And that's what's sustained them.
Nic: Interestingly on that, I recently read the list of bestsellers from Readings for last year. I was surprised at how similar it was to the overall best, I thought it would be much more niche. But it was very… it had almost replicated the overall ones. I thought it was much closer than I thought.
Michael: You've got to remember that Readings, notwithstanding the fact that it presents itself as a really niche, independent... it's a chain store. Don't tell Mark I said that, but it's a chain store. And it sells across a number of markets, so of course it sells bestsellers.
Where independents are particularly strong, if you take the sales for the year and look at, if you were to take the sales from the year, say the top 100 titles, and look at the top 10 titles in any category, you would find with fiction, sales would be predominantly in department and discount stores and chain stores. Because it's priced, in a sense it's price led. If you look at 11 to 20, that's predominantly where the independents sell. It's not price sensitive, it's very niche, and increasingly – again I'm telling you what you already know Nic – but a number of publishers publish specifically for the independent market. That's not to say they don't sell anywhere else. But the cover design, the whole layout design, the marketing, the back cover blurb, is very much oriented towards the independent market. And they've segmented that, and the independent market has rewarded them, I think. That's why I'm optimistic.
Nic: You've been in the industry a long time, almost since the invention of the press. I'm wondering what are some of the more profound changes you've seen in the industry, the publishing industry in your long career.
Michael: I think there are a number. I think the advent of Book Scan was extraordinary, because prior to the introduction of Book Scan, which I have to say, in a way was only made possible because of the dreaded GST.
Nic: Yes. [Laughter]
Michael: Because for those who are listening to this who remember, prior to 2000 bookshops weren't really computerised. You go to a bookshop and buy a book and they'd write it in a book, and then they'd reorder. The implementation of the GST meant bookshops had to get an inventory management system. And if you've got an inventory management system, then you could have Book Scan, because what it does is it captures at point of sale, basically the ISBN, the actual price paid for it, and the quantity sold. That's all you need. And then it's all put into a big pot and sent to England.
So in a way, I would say that the introduction of the GST, because of what it led to – better inventory management, better distribution – it really brought book retailing into the 20th century, in a way. I think the success of The Copyright Agency, reprographic rights in this country, has been fantastic particularly for authors and publishers, but I think The Copyright Agency distributes more than a $100 million dollars a year now to authors and publishers. So you get any number of publishers, and we would both have anecdotal evidence of this, that more income goes to the author from reprographic rights than goes from sales of the book.
Nic: And certainly as a writer myself, I know that public lending rights and educational lending rights certainly make up more than…
Michael: Exactly, then you're selling copies.
Nic: Absolutely, and it's, you know. It helps sustain writing and the industry.
Michael: So, I think when people say the government doesn't support publishing, I tend, not as a partisan thing, I remind them about ELR, PLR. And The Copyright Agency in a sense is a government support, because it operates under an act of Parliament. So, I think they've been significant, and that's why I think the industry is correct to fight proposed changes with this so-called American fair dealing, because if you look at the Canadian experience, it absolutely hit the equivalent of The Copyright Agency, which hit authors' income.
Nic: I know many writers who without proper lending rights, educational lending rights, would not be able to write, would not be able to sustain a living.
Michael: And I think the third thing I would say, significant change, has been the introduction of the ability for everybody to publish a book. That's either self-publishing, doing it through the Amazons of the world, doing it through Lightning Source, it's really opened the market. In a way, that's a nightmare, because it's more books on the market.
Nic: Yeah, I was going to say, is that good or bad? [Laughter]
Michael: But if you think about the niches that are out there, where people... a number of Australian, I know for example, members of the Small Press Network – who I’d never heard of before I joined the Small Press Network – never heard of them. But when I ring them, they're very strong in particular niches. As I mentioned before, some of them dominate that niche, and they sell rights across the world. So they're doing very well.
Nic: That's right.
Michael: They keep quiet, no one's ever heard of them. But they're doing remarkably well. So I think they're the three big things I would say are significant.
Nic: Just for a second, just to go down a different path. You've served on the board of the Melbourne Writers' Festival, including being Chair of the festival. What role do such festivals play in this day and age? Are there too many of them? Are they readers' festivals, writers' festivals? There's a lot of discussion as to their role.
Michael: I'm still on the board of Melbourne Writer's Festival, so of course I say they're absolutely essential. I think they are. The brutally honest answer is, sometime I'm amazed at the number of people. You get 80,000 people at Melbourne Writers Festival. So often, they've actually read the book. There is this… people like to meet the author, in a way. Even though attending a writer's festival you don't necessarily meet the author.
I think writers festivals, I took the apostrophe out of Melbourne Writers Festival because it's actually not a writer's festival. It's a reader's festival. And it's as much about ideas. Most people want to know where did the idea come from, and why did you choose to execute the idea in the way that you did that led to me paying good money to hear you talk. And the answers are always varied. Sometimes it's serendipity, sometimes the book sat in the bottom drawer for years and all of a sudden... Often it is, ‘I couldn't find a publisher. I couldn't find an agent’, which is a real problem nowadays for people. There are too many books being published. And then finally, ‘I found a publisher’, either a new one, and the publisher took it on.
I had a classic case recently. A friend of mine is an amateur historian, and he's written a book, and I said I'd send it to a few publishers for him, which… don't tell him I said that. The first two said, ‘No, go away. There's not a market for it’. And then I thought, there's a small press in Melbourne. I'll just give them a call. Well, he's embraced it with enthusiasm. It'll probably win an award next year, actually.
Nic: Fantastic. That's brilliant.
Michael: You need this kind of assistance. So a lot of people attend the festivals to understand the industry, because I think we'd all agree around this table, it's very easy to write a book. Well, it's not very easy to write a book. But it's very easy to write a book. And people do it with no understanding of the industry. It's a business.
Nic: It is totally.
Michael: The business happens to be books. And I think that if you don't understand a contract, and if you don't understand copyright, there are any number of ways you can find out, from Writers Victoria, from the Small Press Network, from the Internet, and you should understand that.
Nic: Absolutely. Who've been the most perhaps surprising writers you've seen at a festival that maybe you didn't know much about them, but you just sat there and you were sort of blown away by them unexpectedly?
Michael: Well, that's about the personalities. The interesting thing I think about writers festivals is there is not... I'm stating the bleeding obvious. There is definitely not a correlation between a great author and a great public speaker.
Nic: That's for sure!
Michael: In fact, very often it's the exact opposite. We expect an author to sit and write a book in awkwardly snatched hours, in a garret, as it were, and then we expect them to go out and entertain the public. It's a big ask.
Nic: And one reason they're in the garret is because they don't want to do that, and they're not good at it.
Michael: That's exactly right. So that's one of the problems of getting published. The publisher now looks at what you've written and may love it, but they may also want you to be able to talk about it, because they want you at the writers festivals.
The answer would be, it depends on the demographic. A writers festival's audiences are movable feasts. In a way you can say the classic profile is Anglo-Saxon females, 50 to 70, who've been going to writers festivals for 30 years.
In fact, that's one of the big changes that all writers festivals, and Melbourne Writers Festival is no different, is how when those people drop off the perch, as it were, at some stage. How do you engage younger people? You do that by choosing the author. And you often do it by choosing someone who's not an author. I always remember where we had, many years ago we brought Joss Whedon, who...
Nic: Joss Whedon? Yeah, the screenwriter.
Michael: I remember it was an objective of Melbourne Writers Festival as it is, how can we change the demographic? How can we engage younger people? And the Director at the time rang and asked for authorisation to spend an unbudgeted amount, and I said who is it?
Nic: It would've been too, for Joss Whedon!
Michael: And he said Joss Whedon, and I said ‘Who the ... is Joss Whedon?’ And he said ‘That's a perfect response, Michael! The fact you've never heard of him is exactly what we want’. And Melbourne Writer's Festival sold, I forget what it was, 1,000 tickets in two hours on social media, and completely changed the demographic. People then said, is this what happens at a writers festival? It's not a festival of writers talking about writing.
The downside of that, in the social media world, is that younger people won't book ahead. There's so much on in Melbourne or Sydney or Adelaide or Perth, wherever the festival, is that why would you book ahead? Because there's ten things on in Melbourne every night. And so you don't know who's going to turn up, basically until the night, and that can provoke a little bit of anxiety. But we know that people want to be entertained, people want to be informed, and people want to know, they want to get inside the brain of the author. And writers festivals still do that, as well as ABC Radio. In fact, they still want the personal contact, even though most writers festivals now are podcast.
Nic: Of course.
Michael: In fact the other day I listened to a podcast from the north and I thought, this rotten interviewer's pinched my interview with this author! And it was me!
Nic: [Laughter] It's been a pleasure talking to you. It's been a pleasure. I'm going off now to write, I've decided, the definitive guide to bitcoin. I think that's going to be the 2018 The Barefoot Investor. I'm going to go off now and write the definitive guide to making money.
Michael: Where are you on the wave? You see, that's the...
Nic: Exactly, that's exactly right. You've got to catch that wave early.
Michael: You've got to catch the wave.
Nic: And I fear I've missed it. I fear bitcoin might not even exist at the end of the year.
Michael: Then again, it may take over all currency, and I don't understand what bitcoin ... I don't understand cryptocurrency.
Nic: No, I don't either. But that's a topic for another podcast. I was trying to understand it the other day, I've got no idea.
It's been a pleasure talking to you Michael. Thank you for your insights.
Michael: Thank you for having me.
Nic: Thank you for coming on The Garret.