Australian Print Poetry and the Small Press: Who’s Doing the Books?

By | 24 February 2012

Similar to the query I put to Susan Hawthorne, I asked GP’s director, Ivor Indyk, how difficult is it to sustain commercial viability in publishing poetry. Does commercialism come into the picture at all?

Indyk: Ironically, poetry is perhaps the most commercially viable genre of all for a literary publisher. This is not because poetry sells – of course it doesn’t, at least not in commercial quantities. But the books are inexpensive to print, print runs are small, there is a strong network of poets and poetry readers to make up for the lack of interest on the part of booksellers and the Literature Board has always been committed to subsidising the publication of poetry. You can’t make money on poetry books – but if you choose well, you won’t lose money either.

This assessment, too, bodes very well for printed poetry collections in Australia. The last ten of Indyk’s words above are a direct worm-hole from here right back to the three concerns I opened this article with. More importantly, they strongly hint at the answer to the question which beget them.

But I wanted to take a closer look here at Giramondo as an example case as it has published a considerable volume of poetry. I floated my opening question and its three concerns to Giramondo editor and poet, Fiona Wright. Her reply is further support that my devil’s advocate has shaky hooves and a flimsy trident to lean upon, but it doesn’t wholly ameliorate the proposition that the pool from which a small press draws its manuscripts is one that requires an ever-judicious set of bathers. Says Wright, ‘It’s true there isn’t much of a market for poetry books, but that’s becoming less of a problem now that digital printing is making much smaller print runs more cost effective – so while it’s still very hard to make a profit on poetry, it’s much less difficult to break even’.

Wright: It’s quality that we are after – and that we are consistently finding – so there’s no problem on that front at all. As far as creative writing programs are concerned, I don’t think they ‘create’ a glut of writers – the people who do the courses are writing already, the courses only help to professionalise them. I don’t think there can be such a thing as ‘too many’ small presses because they ensure diversity, and can unsettle the existing literary economy when they’re working well. Small presses are also terribly difficult and expensive things to run, which is why so many are short-lived, especially if they aren’t judicious in their selection of books for publication.

Print-on-demand and digital printing options continue to have a massive effect on the decisions and governance of small presses. Look out for further, in-depth discussions on this matter in upcoming pages of this publication.

On the other side of the continent in Western Australia, Fremantle Press also owns a sizeable and important poetry list. Its publishing pace of poetry titles has slowed in recent years, but what it has accomplished is an ample, engaging look into Australian poetics across the past 35 years. Its Indigenous Australian titles list, across all forms, is highly regarded internationally. Back in Victoria, the venerable Brandl & Schlesinger has been largely inactive on new poetry titles the past few years, but has a new one coming out this year and two recently published. Though small, its poetry list is of impeccable quality. It has secured outstanding distribution partners, which is a critical piece of a small press’s success.

In the middle of Australia, we have two established outfits: Ginninderra Press and Wakefield Press. Ginninderra grumpily prides itself on fostering an environment for voices that are struggling to get heard (and frankly, no matter what publisher a writer approaches, there are, at times, a clear source of reason for said struggles), and operates with this ethos, one of many in which publisher Stephen Matthews operates:

Matthews: [Ginninderra] uses economical formats to publish books of specialist interest and to market them directly to small target readerships. After collaborating with writers in the creative development of their ideas, GP can design and lay out manuscripts, devise and implement appropriate direct marketing strategies, then print and bind copies to order.

It’s an interesting approach – one in which it has produced well over a hundred poetry collections. Wakefield Press cast its nets farther and wider than any other small press in Australia, with a list so varied it’s hard to stumble upon just what its MO is, although it does have a clear interest in regional writers, histories and goings-on – a good thing – and has a number of titles worth checking out. Wakefield is very supportive of Adelaide’s poetry scene, publishing the Friendly Street Poets anthologies for many years now.

There are numerous small presses that have put out anywhere from one to ten poetry collections over the past decade – for whatever reason (again, good!) – but don’t position themselves as publishers of poetry first, foremost, second-most or even thirdly so. has two titles. Odyssey Books has one. Hybrid Publishers has nine titles, most of which are foreign translations. Ilura Press has one title, but also produces the Etchings journal. Spineless Wonders, along with Black Rider Press, is first to genuinely champion flash fiction, ergo prose formats with some upcoming titles. Green Olive Press has one title. Owl Publishing has eight titles focusing on writing of the Greek diaspora and is very much worth a look. Australian Scholarly Publishing has released eight poetry titles since 2005, and what the pace of production lacks here, the quality makes up the difference.

Interactive Press takes a pragmatic, developmental approach with its poets in guiding them and their collections into the digital space. Says IP founder David Reiter, ‘IP is a “multichannel” publisher, releasing titles in conventional print, print-on-demand (POD) and various e-book and multimedia formats as appropriate.’ I’m not convinced that IP has quite got its fingertips on the zenith of digital publishing if its website is any indication – which I don’t mean as a cheap shot – but it has been admirably publishing in this space for some time, pioneering its regard with poetry. It has compiled a sizeable print poetry list since 1994; titles from the past two years are especially worth your time.

The journal extempore, and the small press of same little-e name, has begun a modest schedule of publishing poetry collections – volumes that explore the intersection of jazz and poetry – instead of continuing with its literary magazine after 2012. It has released two titles to date. As a reader of the journal, I found the switch intriguing: was this on account of a change of heart? Alterations in available time to produce? Financial realities? Pray tell?

‘I guess the main factors were that a book-format anthology is more flexible to produce and easier to distribute,’ says Miriam Zolin, publisher of the journal and, now, a new line of books.

Zolin: We’re not locked into a timeframe and can put a project together when we have funding and resources. Funding for a once-off collection is easier to apply for. It fits more easily into the funding application format – maybe it’s easier for a funding body to get their head around. I also discovered – late in the day – that Neilsen Book Data doesn’t list journals and libraries are less likely to buy journals than they are to buy books. Already, with just two books under our belt, we’ve sold significant numbers to independent booksellers who found us via Neilsen. We’re selling consistently into libraries now. It makes an enormous difference.

As I mentioned earlier, there is an interest and engagement with poetry and its publication in Australia that ranges from major newspapers to the blizzard of activity I’ve just touched on to disgruntled billionaires making a statement in stone. And this is not lost on the general manager of SPUNC: The Small Press Network, Zoe Dattner. She notes, ‘Poetry has been enjoying a resurgence of late, being mentioned in awards shortlists around the country, alongside novels and literary non-fiction.’ Indeed, the recent announcement that poetry is to be included as its own category in the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards is outstanding news. One needn’t proselytize that a life lived without printed poetry is a lesser one – bereft of its elixirs applied by lyrical potentates or missing out on full-fare tickets to whisk across the firmament as seers – but it’s promising to have poetry get its due acknowledgement at this level.

‘What’s most notable about this development,’ Dattner continues, ‘is that all the poetry titles that appear in these lists are published by small publishers, toiling away for little financial reward, to bring you this form of literature that, while never lacking in poets to create it, was, for a time, seriously lacking in publishers to publish it.’ Dattner’s observation, if slightly at odds with Indyk’s, also speaks directly to the question and its three concerns I opened this article with.

How many lines is your answer? And in what typeface does it appear?

I would like to acknowledge and thank Penelope Goodes, Terri-ann White, Susan Hawthorne, Barry Scott, Ivor Indyk, Fiona Wright, Miriam Zolin, Zoe Dattner and Laurie Steed for their input on this article.

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