Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge
16 Mar 2011

Talk for Professional Historians’ Association of Victoria

Nathan Hollier -- Manager, Monash University Publishing

SPUNC was registered as an incorporated association in Victoria in 2006, following informal meetings between small and independent book and journal publishers initiated by Louise Swinn of Sleepers Publishing and Tom Doig of Voiceworks. Currently the SPUNC website lists 89 members. The membership ranges from very small – essentially ‘hobby’ – publishing operations to ‘major’ Australian independent publishers Text, Scribe, UQP, UWAP, Giramondo, Black Inc., and Arcade (who are becoming a major independent Australian publisher if they’re not already).

The official rationale for the organisation is ‘to advance the interests of the Australian small and independent publishing sector, and to facilitate co-operation between members of that sector’.

For me, at least, the primary motivation for helping to set up this organisation, putting it baldly, was to combat, through cooperation, market power and market failure, that resulted in an imbalanced publishing industry structure and a lack of genuine diversity. Because of our comparatively small size and low levels of capitalisation and (it should be admitted) experience in business management, we faced certain shared problems:

1. we generally couldn’t produce our products as cheaply as major publishing firms could;

2. we generally couldn’t advertise our products as prominently or effectively as major publishing firms could;

3. we couldn’t obtain high quality distribution and representation of our products to bookstores;

4. we often had difficulty in getting bookstores – especially chain bookstores – to stock our products, or to stock them as prominently as we’d like; and

5. we found it hard to get our texts reviewed and to receive mass media exposure.

The organisation, to its credit I believe, has maintained its commitment to diversity within the publishing sector. Even at the time we started, however, the nature and structure of the publishing business around the world were being transformed dramatically by a range of factors which have at their core, developments in digital technology.

Without going into these in any detail, in the last few years production costs have come down. While it may  not be cheap to acquire software capable of producing multiple file formats from a single workflow (e-book, html, pdf etc.), or to acquire your own software for selling electronic versions of your titles (and excluding people on the basis of whether they pay or not), the cost of producing print-ready (or what used to be? still is? called camera ready) copy for a printer today is a fraction of what it cost before the development of desktop publishing software.

Image manipulation – once the preserve of a handful of major companies who owned the very expensive and cumbersome equipment required for this work – can now, thanks to digital bits and bytes, be done by anyone who can afford Adobe Photoshop (and I suppose the time to develop expertise in the program: if oils ain’t oils, image manipulation is certainly not image manipulation).

Printing is also getting cheaper (and faster), mainly through technological development but also through increased international competition. And there are various companies that will, for a percentage, but only a percentage, make electronic versions of your titles available for the proliferating e-reader market, around the world (Kobo, Amazon, Google, Apple ...).

The world of advertising has of course been transformed. Traditional newspapers have been panicked (I don’t use the term lightly) by the drying up of advertising and classified revenue in the face of online advertising.

Rupert Murdoch has commenced restricting access to and selling his newspapers’ online content. As part of these new pressures on newspapers, it is worth noting, the books pages seem to be shrinking. Publishers, like other corporations, are focusing now on targeting their advertising to individuals, on using non-traditional advertising methods (such as consumer reviews) and on creating campaigns that might go ‘viral’ in various (new) forms of social media: Facebook, Twitter etc. (Arguably this new form of consumer demand is what drove the recent much-publicised collapse of the Red Group bookselling chain.)

In any case, and allowing for the need to obtain and disseminate metadata to ‘real’ and online bookshops, resellers and other content aggregators and indexers, if you want to publish your book online or in print, and then advertise it to the world, cost itself is now not the big problem you face.

Distributors are still reluctant to look at small publishers, regardless of the ‘quality’ of what they produce, but then physical distribution, like bookshops themselves (and arguably the entire retail sector) is facing new pressures, and online sales and sales opportunities are proliferating. Penguin has reportedly just gotten rid of its travelling sales reps. What need is there for these when, especially with a well-established brand like that behind you, you can send out new title information electronically? (I say this with some trepidation because, as Manager of Monash University Publishing, I’ve just signed up with a distributor – Footprint – who uses sales reps.)

It is still difficult, also, to obtain reviews and get much concentrated exposure to a ‘mass’ market (as a file pre-prep company executive said to me recently, the only times their Apple apps have done any good is when Apple has featured these), but exposure itself is now easy to obtain for your titles (or for anything else, really: some people argue that the notion of privacy is dead, and I can at least see where they’re coming from).

Of course none of this means that market or monopoly power, or the structural advantage and disadvantage that goes along with this, has disappeared. Instead of talking about the half a dozen multinational corporations that dominated the global industry ‘then’ (Transworld, Hachette-Livre, HarperCollins etc.), we’re now talking about a different half a dozen corporations that dominate the global industry (Apple, Google, Amazon, Ingram etc.). And we’re not seeing the arrival of some ‘level playing field’: the Chinese export-based print industry, for example, receives very significant tax concessions (not available to printers for the China market), the Indian-based file conversion companies are obviously benefiting from the cheap labour they have at their disposal, while – believe it or not (and I’m not sure I do: I need to check this) – in the US and UK it is illegal to buy a book printed outside of your home country. (Imagine what that policy would mean for Australian publishers, printers and consumers ...)

The point is though, that in its short existence, the industry environment in which SPUNC has operated has changed dramatically. One way SPUNC has responded to these changes has been through contributing to the development of software that can sell e-books (e-books) of its members’ titles from the e-stores of independent Australian retailers (Readings, who also helped develop this software, was the initial bookselling participant).

What is the effect of all this for history publishing, writing and reading, in the context of SPUNC?

Of the 89 current SPUNC members I counted twelve who might publish history (and a number of these were journals like Overland and Meanjin that would publish articles rather than books).

This comparatively low number of history publishers in the organisation is a reflection of at least two things: i. SPUNC has not as a rule attracted the localised and less urban-focused publishers of history around Australia, while institutional histories are often commissioned by one-time publishers such as a school or a corporation.

And ii. most academic historians want to be published by ... OUP or CUP or Ashgate or one of the presses of the ivy-league universities in the US, which tend not to value local history – history written primarily for local markets – or value it sufficiently, in my view.
Arcade is to be commended for its publishing of local histories.

I would say though that the democratising impact of the web (and the digital technology that it’s enabled by) on the production, dissemination and consumption of knowledge suggests a bright future for publishers of localised history (and, hopefully, for small and independent history publishers). As I’ve touched on, it seems clear that people increasingly want individualised products. Consider the increasing interest in and desire for genealogical knowledge and family histories, for example.

And speaking as a publisher, I’d like to give people these kinds of history, because I’ve long believed that what’s most valuable for people is not the highly generalised and abstracted social theory most valued within the academy, but the particular stories of their families and communities (on this see, most powerfully, Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory).

Can the economics of this kind of niche publishing work?  The development of print-on-demand technology, the digitisation of content, the spread of electronic information networks, improved search algorithms, electronic data storage technology, author-publisher agreements with no time limits or copyright zones, along with ‘disaggregating’ consumption patterns, provide some support for the idea that it can.

In any case, the question of the economic viability of this kind of publishing, and of the diversity of the publishing sector generally, is and always has been, in part, a political question. There is nothing ‘natural’ about the structure of the current Australian publishing industry; just as there’s nothing natural about our or anybody else’s free-to-air television industry structure, with its mixture of state and private providers; indeed, there’s nothing natural about any industry structure anywhere.

The future of the book industry is a hot topic at the moment, in academia, in the media, and in the industry itself. At a recent publisher’s forum of the Book Industry Strategy Group set up by the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr, I heard a range of – sometimes competing – views on appropriate forms and levels of government action and support, for the current environment.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in their extremely stimulating and – I found – rather uplifting book, The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better (Allen Lane, 2009), have even argued that the dramatic diminution of marginal or variable cost (in other words: of the cost of reproducing a product) in a digital environment, suggests the need for new means of distributing these products, in the wake of what can be considered a generalised market failure: ‘From the point of view of society as a whole, the tendency for technological change to reduce marginal costs is rapidly tipping the balance of advantage away from allowing profit-maximizing corporations to control the distribution of goods. Increasingly they can only rely on the remnants of monopolistic power provided by patents or copyright. We need to find new ways of paying organizations and individuals for life-enhancing research, creativity and innovation ... which does not then restrict access to the benefits.’

I’ll leave you with that thought, and possibility.