“They say the world’s generally reading two novels, and to actually get books into the public gaze – especially from Adelaide – is incredibly difficult,” says Michael Bollen, publisher at Wakefield Press. Despite the difficulty, Wakefield Press rode out 2016 on a wave of success.
This year The Hands by Stephen Orr was longlisted for Australia’s most coveted fiction prize, the Miles Franklin Award. Peter Monteath and Valerie Munt achieved a Prime Minister’s Literary Award shortlisting for Red Professor. And Jane Jose came away with the national Bates Smart Award for Architecture in the Media for Places Women Make.
Red Professor arrived at Wakefield Press after a number of other Australian publishers were unwilling to get involved. Bollen was presented with a final draft, and had faith in the story – this intriguing exploration of the 20th century through the life of one side-lined, communist Australian anthropologist.
Munt identifies the shortlisting of Red Professor for the PM’s literary award for Australian history as a great opportunity to showcase and publicise literary works that might otherwise not capture the public’s attention.
“It’s very gratifying too, that a small independent press like Wakefield gets some recognition for a literary work they’ve gambled on and invested in.”
The risk associated with niche subjects is one that Jane Jose recognises. Her national award win is a return on Wakefield’s trust and investment.
“I was so surprised and thrilled to win a national award,” says Jose.
“Winning an award from peers is deeply meaningful … It shows a small publisher like Wakefield Press, with the courage to publish a book of new ideas written by a new author, can contribute to a national conversation about important issues.”
While the thrill of an award win or nomination is real, independent publishers are beginning to scuttle out of the race. In December 2016, the University of Western Australia Press announced they would no longer submit their books to prizes.
Terri-ann White, director of the press, told authors: “In 2016 we have found that the expense (of entry fees, books and postage) and the time involved in entering books for literary awards and prizes has exceeded our resources.”
Reportedly, UWA spent approximately $10,000 on submission processes for awards in the 2016 calendar year – an unsustainable cash haemorrhage for any small business. Bollen isn’t sure how the literary landscape will adapt if there is a mass protest against awards.
“I think there’s room for a fair debate about whether there’s too many literary awards, to be honest,” says Bollen.
“And you wonder about here, with the Premier’s Literary Awards, when the people winning are from Sydney – you have to wonder, is this really adding to the literary culture? State premiers trying to out-do each other with amounts of money, is that the best use of that money for creating a literary culture and helping South Australian voices tobe heard? If the local awards were kept for just South Australian writers, then maybe – but still I don’t know. The amount of exposure, the amount of media coverage, is so much less now, because people are exhausted by the number of awards.”
The returns for nominations, long–and shortlistings are not huge. Even the big publishers are feeling the pinch, with Allen & Unwin’s Jane Palfreyman telling the Sydney Morning Herald that they may revise their submission strategy in years to come. A&U spent an astonishing $55,000 on entry fees, postage and books submitted to awards in 2016.
“Longlisting helps sales a bit, but I think you have to win for it to have a significant effect,” says Orr.
“I’ve won, shortlisted, longlisted and been runner-up for awards such as the Vogel, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Ned Kelly, two Miles Franklins, but I’ve never been invited to a writers’ festival outside of Adelaide, been interviewed in a major newspaper. I’m not fussed, I’ll continue writing regardless. It took William Faulkner something like 17 books until someone took notice.”
Until the great award debate is settled, we’ll simply have to put our trust in “book people” like Bollen and those at other small presses. With enough passionate individuals striving to tell important stories, Australian literature will retain its vitality.
“Michael Bollen invests in people every day, takes risks, publishes books (I guess) he knows will lose money,” says Orr.
“But the alternative is an eternity of weight-loss shite and outback stories where everything comes up trumps. Michael, and his Mile Enders, are aware of where they fit into the story of publishing, and literature. Maybe only a small player, but responsive, risk-taking, original, relevant to people’s lives.”
Bollen understands that South Australian stories alone are not enough to sustain Wakefield Press; but South Australian stories are the heart of his business, and the passion of all the Wakefield workers.
“If the stories aren’t told, then the place doesn’t exist,” says Bollen.
“This recognition, the bedrock understanding of a place, can be turned into art. It makes a ‘mythopoetic’ place in the world. This place (South Australia) is quite unique and different, like any place is unique and different, and there are many ways of telling its stories.”
Wakefield Press & Bookshop
16 Rose Street, Mile End