SWF too much of a good thing

Does anyone else think the Sydney Writers’ Festival has grown just too big? Perhaps it was ever thus, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, so when did writers become celebrities? Or is it that our voracious media has latched on to the easy copy of authors on tap and publicists on overdrive?

I just can’t be bothered going anymore and facing the bumping, grinding, tripping crowds. When I check out the SWF website and see “choose your author by letter of the alphabet” I give up. It takes the discipline of a military campaign to navigate your way through the hundreds of “acts” on offer and make your choice.

Gone are the days of serendipity when you wandered around and stumbled upon interesting panels quite by chance. Basically it’s hard to know what’s going to be good so pot luck has advantages. This was before they started charging as a way of dealing with the burgeoning numbers, not to mention including the Opera House and the Sydney Town Hall as venues. Hey, what about the Entertainment Centre? I think the charm has gone. No wonder smaller writers’ festivals are popping up all over the place.

Women and literary awards

There has been a brouhaha about the three-book short list for the Miles Franklin Award – the list being all male. The year before last, there was also a controversy when the long list was all male, so the judges would have been well aware of what they were doing, in this case. I’m sure the three books on the list are worthy – they are high-end literary and  dealing (at least with Bereft and the That Deadman Dance) with pretty serious issues (When Colts Ran is an outback, male-centred story). But as many other people have said: are male writers really that much better than female writers? Or do men choose what our culture still regards as more weighty, serious, important subjects and treatments, and thus these works are more suited to a culturally prestigious award?

Of the novels that have won the Miles Franklin for the last 10 years, only two are by women – Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire (Hazzard is a very intellectual serious novelist of the old school) and the other was Carpentaria by indigenous writer Alexis Wright – a big and highly ambitious work.

The ten all up are:

* 2010 Peter Temple Truth
* 2009 Tim Winton Breath
* 2008 Steven Carroll The Time We Have Taken
* 2007 Alexis Wright Carpentaria
* 2006 Roger McDonald The Ballad of Desmond Kale
* 2005 Andrew McGahan The White Earth
* 2004 Shirley Hazzard The Great Fire
* 2003 Alex Miller Journey to the Stone Country
* 2002 Tim Winton Dirt Music
* 2001 Frank Moorhouse Dark Palace.

Barbara Jefferis

I have to admit to not having read a single one of the above. I started Dark Palace but hated it. I also started Dirt Music and didn’t get very far with that either. Now I come to think of it, a certain masculine outlook in both books turned me off. I also avoided Truth , after trying to read The Broken Shore, and again not being able to get onto the wavelength of the writer (I know I’m in a minority here).

So perhaps reading the Miles Franklin winner is like eating your greens – you know it’s good for you even if it’s not to your taste. If it’s any consolation to the women who perpetually miss out on the award, I think women writers have a bigger readership than male writers (Tim Winton excepted).

The whole issue of women missing out on major literary prizes was the impetus behind the Orange Prize in the UK and, ironically, there have been rumblings over the last few years over whether there should be a prize based on gender at all (the playing field being so flat now, after all!!) There is a women-only prize in Australia, the Kibble Literary Award (for novels and life writing), and it is quite lucrative at $30,000, but who has heard of it?

There is also the Barbara Jefferis Award for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”. This definition means that male authors can also enter (only one brave male did so last time). G L Osborne won the most recent award with Come Inside. But, sad to say, this award hardly rates national media attention (although the Orange prize is quite high profile). So I guess you could say having such prizes doesn’t really address the problem of womens’ writing being regarded as less culturally significant than mens’.

Google Books get your hands off our tax payer-funded tomes

Hands off!

The behemoth Google Books is impacting on your local NSW government agency. Who might be interested in erosion in the Upper Lachlan catchment, or vector maps from the Plague Locust Board? Never mind, they’re not going to be able to rip off the NSW taxpayers and get away with it.

In Circular C2011-10 Google Books Settlement – Whole of Government Policy, the Department of Premier and Cabinet, advises its agencies to “carefully consider whether their commercially published books should be “removed” from the Google Books databases or ‘excluded’ from one or more of the uses proposed in the Amended Settlement”.

As, under the settlement, Google can upload a “wide range of material including all material published in hard copy in NSW prior to 5 January 2009”, the government had to decide whether to “make a comprehensive claim” for all Crown copyright publications.

In the end, they left it up to individual agencies to decide whether to get their books removed by 5 April, and, if they did so, to make a compensation claim.

“NSW Government agencies should not enter a ‘revenue sharing’ agreement with Google under the terms of the Amended Settlement,” the circular said.

Aurealis Awards finalists

YOUNG ADULT Novel

  • Merrow, Ananda Braxton-Smith, black dog books
  • Guardian of the Dead, Karen Healey, Allen & Unwin
  • The Midnight Zoo, Sonya Hartnett, Penguin
  • The Life of a Teenage BodySnatcher, Doug MacLeod, Penguin
  • Behemoth (Leviathan Trilogy Book Two), Scott Westerfeld, Penguin 

FANTASY Novel

  • The Silence of Medair, Andrea K Höst, self-published
  • Death Most Definite, Trent Jamieson, Orbit (Hachette)
  • Stormlord Rising, Glenda Larke, HarperVoyager (HarperCollins)
  • Heart’s Blood, Juliet Marillier, Pan Macmillan
  • Power and Majesty, Tansy Rayner Roberts, HarperVoyager (HarperCollins)

 

SCIENCE FICTION Novel

  • Song of Scarabaeous, Sara Creasy, EOS Books
  • Mirror Space, Marianne de Pierres, Orbit (Hachette)
  • Transformation Space, Marianne de Pierres, Orbit (Hachette)

You can see the full list in all categories here. It’s interesting to look through the categories and the publishers. One finalist, Andrea K Höst’s, novel was self-published. It seems that in the world of speculative fiction, the mainstream publishers – Penguin and HarperVoyager, mostly, stick to YA and to fantasy. The horror and science fiction publishing goes mostly to niche publishers.

Who pays for the editing?

I was interested to note some comments in a review of S J Finn’s new novel This Too Shall Pass in the Australian’s Review section by Sue Green. The reviewer thought the novel had great potential but that it was let down by insufficient editing by the publishers.

The reviewer’s comments that “how better for [the author] had she been given mentoring, tough editing and closely supervised rewriting” show a pie-in-the-sky notion of Australian fiction publishing.

I believe the average print run for a work of Australian fiction by a new writer is 2,000 and (I read recently) the average sales for said work is around 1,000.

A writer nets 10% of the cover price of their book – so, that means, a writer would receive around $3,000 for something they have probably worked on for several years.

This shows the tight, tight margins for fiction publishing. It is just plain uneconomic for a publisher to spend very much at all on a new work, whether this be in editing or in marketing.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this situation is bad and short-sighted, but it’s a reality.

When you look at the cost for editing, you see how expensive it is. If an editor charges a modest $60 per hour, on the tiny margins of a first novel, 10 hours or 20 hours would eat into any profits, and that amount of editing on a manuscript of 80,000 words is miniscule (the editor needs the time to read the ms for a start!).

The fact is, these costs fall back on the author. I know authors who pay for an editor go over their work before submitting it to a publisher. After all, this compares favourably with the cost of a manuscript appraisal ($500 and upwards), mentoring ($1,500) or a university creative writing course ($8,000 – $10,000).

Mentoring and the uni course are the only places you are going to get “closely supervised rewriting”.

I can see where Sue Green is coming from – often you read a book – even from a well-known author, and think it could have been a much better, even brilliant, book, if only…

But whatever happened to the notion that an author’s works and career build over time? I know I’m being utopian here – the brutal reality is that an emerging author usually only gets one shot at it, when everything is stacked against them. This can only be terribly detrimental to the maturity and diversity of our literary world.

Bordering on the abyss?

The big news in February was Borders and Angus & Robertson going into voluntary administration. The predictable cries that it was all due to online shopping and ebooks were heard. These bookshops now, more inevitably to follow, the argument went. It’s true book selling is down but so is most retailing. More level heads came in later to say that REDgroup (owned by Pacific Equity Partners) had a bad business model plus the modus operandi of equity companies is to use debt financing to buy up companies cheap, strip them down, then sell them off for a big profit. When outside factors impinged on the book business, this model floundered. Sad for the staff who will lose their jobs – bookshop staff, even in the chains, always seem intelligent, nice and obliging to me.

I’m not of the camp that says Borders was a flawed model in Australia (See Mark Rubbo from Readings article). The Borders I frequented – the one in Parramatta and the one in Pitt Street Mall – always had plenty of customers and a good range of books. Sure they brought in the 3 for 2 discounts but this was quickly copied by other outlets like Dymocks, and they are still trading.  I also notice today in the Sydney Morning Herald it says the administrators are looking for buyers for 103 Borders and Angus & Robertson stores. This obviously means they think the businesses are sound.

Virago reading week

Rachel at Book Snob and Carolyn from A Few of my Favourite Books blog have arranged a Virago Reading Week this week – from 24 Jan to 31 Jan. The idea is to celebrate Virago Modern Classics. Virago was bought up by Little, Brown but still publishes under the Virago imprint. The original company, though, was set up in the seventies to reissue forgotten women writers and publish new ones. The modern classics mostly covers late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century writers but a lot of the distinctive dark green-covered “refound” works are now also out of print. The reading week encourages us to scour our bookshelves and search out secondhand book shops to find these books and read them again.

I’m reading The Three Miss Kings by Australian author Ada Cambridge. The novel is set in Victoria in the 1880s and follows three recently orphaned sisters as they leave their beloved farm overlooking the southern ocean and relocate to Melbourne, and who knows, perhaps the world. I suspect they are going to learn a few life lessons in the face of their other-worldly ways and, of course, experience first love and romance. What better way to spend Australia Day than in the company of Ada?

eshorts – yay

Shortfire Press in the UK has done what I’ve been advocating for some time and is making new short stories available as electronic downloads. The stories are chosen by the editor Clare Hey and published online only. You can buy each individual story for £0.99 in pdf, mobi or epub format. There are only three stories up there now (the site only went live last week) but more are to come. This is a great initiative – I just have to work out how to get the stories onto my iPad using Stanza. They are not available through iBooks (what is?) – you purchase the stories through the Shortfire website.

Oz ebooks are out there but hard to find

In my ongoing quest to find ebooks I actually want to read, I was pleasantly surprised to find Fiona Capp’s book on Judith Wright My Blood’s Country was available in ebook format. Hooray Allen&Unwin but – oh, no – you have to go and find it on one of the 11 ebook seller sites they link off the A&U site. (How come A&U don’t know who’s selling their ebooks?) Anyway off I go tapping away. Surprisingly (or not so surprising she says cynically) those Oz sites you’d expect to stock (store?) an Australian title don’t have it ie Borders, Angus and Robertson, Dymocks and Kobo. Whitcoulls the NZ site didn’t have it either. When I did find the book, the prices were wildly varied (the pbook RRP is $27.99):

  • Waterstones (UK) £17
  • Ebooks.com (US) $20
  • Books on Board (US) $15
  • Kindle (US) $12
  • Read Without Paper (Oz) AUD $25
  • W H Smith (UK) £13.

I suppose to wide variance in price reflects the AUD exchange rate, but the good news is that ebooks can be significantly cheaper than the pbook and available simultaneously with the pbook release (the release date for the Capp pbook was December 2010).

There is a website (www.booko.com.au) that will compare pbook prices for a given title across the range of online sellers. I would be great if this service was extended to ebooks