The Red-Nosed Man Discourseth!

Welcome to Jason Ensor's personal microblog for unstructured and uncensored thoughts about screen media, culture, text, technology, reading, history, digital humanities, consumption, virtual worlds, literature, futures studies and Australian society. All opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent the views or opinions of any institution or work environment.


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    8 posts tagged Australian book trade

    Open Access in Australia

    As the incoming Director of Electronic Resources (starting July 2013) for SHARP (the international Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing), one of my first tasks was to write a report on Open Access. Although the second half of the report is written in regards to SHARP’s own activities, I could not avoid some undisguised opinion about the present state of Open Access in Australia during the report’s opening pages. Thus, enclosed below is the first half of my report, which may be of interest to anyone in academic publishing:

    Worded similarly to the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) open access policy released on 1 July 2012, the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) new policy on the dissemination of research findings came into effect on 1 January 2013. Like the NHMRC, the ARC requires “that any publications arising from an ARC supported research project must be deposited into an open access institutional repository within a twelve (12) month period from the date of publication”. While not applied retrospectively, this policy has been incorporated into new Funding Rules and Agreements signed after 1 January 2013, with an expectation that ARC funded publications produced after this date will potentially start to appear in institutional repositories from 2014 onwards. At this stage, unlike the proposal in the United Kingdom where an article is not acceptable under its “Research Assessment Exercise” if it is not open access, the ARC policy does not link compliance with participation in Australia’s bi-annual evaluation of research quality.

    Both the ARC and NHMRC require that all publication metadata is deposited into institutional repositories regardless of whether the publisher permits open access. This is so that policy compliance can be tracked through a standardized field, allowing for a future audit of funded research and its correlation with the delivery of research outputs to the Australian community. A mandate for metadata also ensures that researchers must engage with their respective institutional repository at some stage of the publication process.

    According to the Australian Open Access Support Group, neither the NHMRC nor the ARC have agreements with the publishers Wiley and Elsevier and neither has a clause regarding payments for article processing charges. However, each funding body has a roundabout means of directing a percentage of allocated funds towards publication costs. Moreover, the up-front preference for university library websites takes advantage of an existing mature network of interoperable open access repositories in Australia. By not mandating publication in open access journals, both policies avoid the expectation of funding bodies covering any article processing fees which some open access publishers charge. Unlike the NHMRC which is specifically about journal articles only, the ARC policy embodies all publication outputs including books. Therefore, as the largest funding body of humanities research in Australia, the ARC policy will be significant for many Australian book history projects.

    The central idea of the ARC policy is that research worth funding is worth sharing with anyone who has an internet connection, irrespective of profession or purpose, and it is ideally presented as providing value for money for taxpayers – within the context that a publication’s ability to make financial profit for its publisher should (after a period) no longer be the criteria that determines the long-term distribution and availability of published research. In most cases, this means ideally that published works resulting from Australian government funded research activities will eventually be made available for download from university library websites and indexed by Google Scholar through metadata harvesting (the so-termed “green” method of open access publishing which relies on a form of self-archiving). This policy is expected therefore to have a notable impact on local academic research culture by attempting to shift focus away from publishers (and online infrastructures with price barriers such as subscription, licensing and pay-per-view fees) and towards local university-based electronic resources which are often under-valued and under-utilized but which are nonetheless free for anyone to access. But while the ARC’s communiqué that all future research should be freely accessible to lay and professional readers alike is a welcome development, the policy however has a meaningful weakness which may undermine its overall effectiveness in Australia.

    Although there are no restrictions on the types of publications that can be deposited with institutional repositories (therefore allowing for the inclusion of pre-press and draft versions in addition to the final published book, chapter or journal article), the ARC will nonetheless take heed of “any restrictions relating to intellectual property or culturally sensitive data” as per its “Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research” (2007). In recognizing that some “[p]ublishers may have different policies regarding what version of a manuscript or article can be made available, and [the] timing of this availability”, the ARC acknowledges that the transferal of key rights to publishers may prevent actual compliance with its open access policy. The ARC states that: “[i]f the copyright transfer/licence agreement does not allow the article (or manuscript) to be made available within twelve months of the date of publication, it needs to be made available as soon as possible after that date. If the journal never allows the article to be made available … [i]nstitutions may wish to use a publicly available ‘holding note’ to explain that copyright/licensing restrictions prevent inclusion of a particular article on the repository until a specific date.” Given the ARC will not be sufficiently resourced to frequently check compliance with its policy and that the responsibility to obtain these critical rights and permissions is often left with depositors, chief investigators or repository managers alone, there is no counterargument for publishers who simply refuse open access. Under the new ARC policy Australian research is expected to be open access but, crucially, only if national and international publishers actually permit it.

    This closely follows what is known as a “deposit mandate” in which open access depends on publisher permissions. There is no direct penalty to publishers for non-compliance with a deposit mandate – although, granted, a stigma towards them may build up over time within research communities but only under circumstances where the balance of power can shift. The Australian National University, for example, “does not encourage researchers to publish with journals which do not allow provision of open access to research through a repository” and even goes so far as to name its largest offending publisher: Wiley Blackwell. However, as the ARC notes, researchers generally evaluate a wide range of considerations in choosing the best outlet for publications arising from their research – considerations that include the status and prestige of a publication or publisher, the quality of a peer review process, the reputation of an editorial board in a particular field or discipline, and the ever thorny issue of journal impact factors (of which the ARC plays a role in Australia in determining their measurement). By not challenging both the power of print publishers to judge, review and certify academic work and the power of print publishers to demand all copyrights over research they did not fund, analyze or write-up, the ARC policy ends up fixing open access merely as a form of digital archiving. That is, as an addendum to hard copy, ink-on-paper publishing and its ancillary cultural, social and economic hierarchies and filters.

    It is a reasonable argument therefore that at least for the next two or three years the dissemination of Australian research will remain an uneven contest between author and print publisher, with a recognizable correlation continuing between the uppermost tranches of academic publishing (and subscription-based journal storage systems) who desire to protect the market value of their copyrights and the proportion of dark (embargoed or “full text restricted”) deposits in institutional repositories. In this regards, open access in Australia still has some way to go before it is fully realized as an alternative to publishing patterns anchored in older ink-on-paper media (upon which academic legitimacy, accreditation and prestige remains wholly dependent). Nevertheless, although it is a shame that the ARC policy does not mandate that researchers retain rights to allow their work to be made open access in any medium (like, for example, Harvard’s “addendum to publication agreement”), the ARC’s revised outlook on the dissemination of research is a positive step towards true open access.

    Why Write A Book About Angus & Robertson?

    When I began my research in 2006, the Angus & Robertson (A&R) bookstore chain was in every Australian city and eBooks were a failed experiment by the makers of Palm Pilots. By the time I finished in 2010, this situation had reversed: the famous book chain had collapsed and publishers were mired in a terminal struggle to survive against rapidly expanding international digital media platforms. In an industry that was traditionally long-term, the relentless budget pressure produced by the availability of cheap overseas eBooks through Amazon and Apple shifted priorities towards “big books”; that is, short-term publishing with a focus on immediate sales. Generating a sense of crisis, the book trade was perceived to be dealing with rapid innovation followed by rapid closure and restructure. 

    As an historian and cultural studies researcher, this was also a key moment for a subject I had lived with for nearly four years. With the Australian book trade in a constant state of adaption and A&R fading from the public consciousness, I found myself anticipating challenging questions like why should A&R deserve any examination at all? It’s just a failing bookseller, right? And yet the business name still resonates with us, making headlines with every change in ownership, even if we are nowadays a little unsure of its significance.

    One possible answer is that landmark publications like The Man from Snowy River, The Magic Pudding and The Australian Encyclopaedia helped consolidate A&R’s reputation as one of Australia’s most culturally significant publishers of Australian writing. During the 20th century, A&R also became one of the largest copyright holders in Australian literature. In previous unpublished research, Caroline Vera Jones has unpacked the substantial “influence which early A&R books have had on an Australian history of ideas and even on the writing of Australian history itself”. Jennifer Alison has also examined the company’s first 12 years (late 19th century) as “A&R holds a premier position in the history of the Australian book trade” and “the story of Australian publishing cannot be told without the story of A&R”. Neil James has also studied the firm’s early domestic business and concluded that A&R’s publications helped Australian “culture to shape a sense of self. It cemented the national-historical archetypes of the bush and the Australian landscape, of social democracy and the fair-go, of the grand narratives of Australian history, of distinctive Australian values and identity”. And in Richard Nile’s account, an analysis of A&R’s business is an analysis of the production and distribution of a certain view of Australian culture.

    It is not unreasonable to argue, therefore, that much of what is conventionally imagined to be the character of Australian identity is linked to the many texts that A&R once elected to publish in book form. Granted, the modern field of publishing is now enormously crowded but the Australian publishing industry today is rooted in a long historical process, stretching back to the 19th century, of which A&R was a key player. A&R may have lost its national influence after 1970 when it was taken over by an insurance and securities company and its position has since been supplanted by several independent and trade presses. But the importance of examining A&R in historical detail remains connected with the need to understand ourselves and why we might think of certain ideas or ideals as being uniquely Australian.

    Another answer is that the focus of my research is on trade publishing; that is, both fiction and non-fiction intended for general readers and for sale through bookstores and retail outlets. It’s thus not just about Australian literature but, importantly, it’s also about Australian non-fiction and the deals that were made to give both genres a reasonable chance in international markets. The reason for this is that these two genres are interrelated and the factors that shape and organize the publishing of fiction are intimately connected with those affecting non-fiction. As George Ferguson (veteran publisher of A&R) once commented, the publication of Australian poetry was often paid for by trade books like Commonsense Cookery.

    It is hoped therefore, through investigating the cultural and commercial links between books produced at home in Australia and books produced overseas –- as evidenced by the experiences of A&R –- that Angus & Robertson and the British Trade in Australian Books, 1930–1970: The Getting of Bookselling Wisdom offers an historical primer to the contemporary transformations underway within the Australian book trade. More significantly, I hope this book contributes to a recuperation of A&R’s place in Australian cultural history as one of the nation’s earliest publishers to promote the work of Australian authors in an international context.

    Angus & Robertson and the British Trade in Australian Books, 1930–1970: The Getting of Bookselling Wisdom is available from Anthem Press.

    Kinky Edits

    It wasn’t that long ago that publishing a book like Fifty Shades of Grey would have landed an Australian publisher in jail due to prevailing obscenity laws and moral panics regarding the content of what people privately read in their own homes. A few years ago, while digitising publisher’s letters in the State Library of New South Wales, I came across this note (the above image) which remains to date one of my favourite finds from the archives. Typed by Denis Cohen in 1950, the letter was a set of suggested amendments for Australian publisher Angus & Robertson to follow if they were to purchase the rights to the rather bawdy novel A Rage to Live by American author John O’Hara and if they were to publish O’Hara’s novel in Australia. 

    A colleague in the international book trade, along with this note Cohen also sent a copy of the American edition of A Rage to Live to Hector MacQuarrie who at that time was managing director of Angus & Robertson’s London office in the United Kingdom. Sufficiently distant from Australia’s obscenity laws, MacQuarrie could read the book on behalf of Angus & Robertson without threat of prosecution and he eventually advised the home office back in Sydney that: “Without going the slightest bit Presbyterian, my impression, after reading the book, is that it is so utterly bawdy that to amend it suitably, or safely, for your market would be utterly to destroy it. It is, of course, well written; but its whole essence is what might be called bedroom life lived, largely, outside bedrooms. It is quite foul”. Deciding that Cohen’s edits would not be enough, the directors of Angus & Robertson were certain they would go to gaol for six months if the company published A Rage to Live in Australia and so they politely declined the rights.

    Such comments and concerns seem quaint by today’s standards but they are indicative of a period in Australian publishing during which the book trade had to navigate values and laws quite at odds with what we think is possible and permissible today. Fifty Shades of Grey, as a book that would have been impossible for Angus & Robertson to publish in Australia during the time of Cohen’s note, has refuelled a long-standing debate pre-dating this era over the question of whether some literature is art or porn. After all, a review of history reminds us that what is considered porn in the previous age can often later be considered culturally valuable in the next age. Any stroll through an art gallery or a look at the list of books once banned in Australia but now freely available will lend evidence to this argument. So, while I’m not in any way suggesting (nor would I) that Fifty Shades of Grey is remotely literary or artistic, the debate it has re-ignited is one worth revisiting since struggles over what messages are free to circulate in society, and challenges over what is literary and what is profane, touch upon issues sensitive to the kind of culture we want to have and encourage in the here and now.

    That said, with respect to Fifty Shades of Grey and the desperate stacks of multiple copies that I see fronting most bookstores in Perth, I think there is another important point to be made and it is one best emphasised by acclaimed Australian author Stella Miles Franklin, who in 1946 petitioned on a radio talk that we should all try at least a dozen Australian novels: “You’ll find them better than dozens of others from overseas — piffling stuff by piffling writers whose names I’ve never heard, and which I forget as soon as I’ve glanced through their efforts”. To repurpose the words of Franklin, forget Fifty Shades of Grey: if we want to “take our minds off the washing-up and potato peeling” then “keep on asking for Australian books”!

    Sources: Hector MacQuarrie to George Ferguson, Angus & Robertson, 10 January 1950, ML MSS 3269/440; Miles Franklin, 25 January 1946, ML MSS 3269/76.

    Jason Ensor, “Angus & Robertson and the Case of the ‘Bombshell Salesman’”, Script & Print 35.2, Burwood, Victoria: Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand (2011): 69-79.

    Australian Literature

    Jason Ensor, “Reprints, International Markets and Local Literary Taste: New Empiricism and Australian Literature” in Gillian Whitlock and Victoria Kuttainen (eds), JASAL Special Issue: The Colonial Present, Canberra: Association for the Study of Australian Literature (2008): 198-218.  Available for free as a downloadable PDF.

    New Empiricism

    Jason Ensor, “Still Waters Run Deep: Empirical Methods and the Migration Patterns of Regional Publishers’ Authors and Titles within Australian Literature”, Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature, Brooklyn, New York: American Association of Australian Literary Studies (2010): 197-208.

    Angus & Robertson

    Jason Ensor, “‘A Policy of Splendid Isolation’: Angus and Robertson, George G. Harrap and the Politics of Co-operation in the Australian Book Trade During the Late 1930s”, Script & Print 34.1, Burwood, Victoria: Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand (2010): 34-42.

    Digital Humanities

    Jason Ensor, “Is a Picture Worth 10,175 Australian Novels?”, in Katherine Bode and Robert Dixon (eds), Resourceful Reading: The New Empiricism, eResearch and Australian Literary Culture, Sydney: Sydney University Press (2010), pp 240-273.

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