As part of the ongoing discussion about the publication and distribution of poetry in Australia, this lost shark has fired off a few questions to some of our country’s fine independent publishers to get their view on the future of poetry publication and distribution and to see what they are up to in 2009.
First up in this series is an interview with Ralph Wessman from Walleah Press. So, let’s hear from Ralph…
As a small, independent publisher, what do you see are the major challenges for the publication and distribution of poetry in the 21st century?
Speaking personally – about poetry distribution – I’ve never been a good marketer of the titles I publish, though it’s an area I intend to improve on. Not sure if having joined SPUNC – the Small Press Underground Networking Community (SPUNC), self-described as a representative body for small and independent Australian publishers – will help much in this regard, from what I can gather SPUNC doesn’t see itself being involved in the distribution side of poetry; I listened in to a Melbourne forum in October – ‘Trends in Poetry Publishing in Australia Today: Is poetry worth publishing?’ – which was part of the Festival Franco-Anglais de Poesie. Heard Antoni Jach and Susan Hawthorn (both involved with independent publishing, both members of SPUNC) suggesting SPUNC’s role as an organisation would remain that of a representative body acting to promote the views of small press participants and not as a distributor. Nevertheless, I’m hopeful SPUNC will prove a source of marketing ideas or strategies.
I get the impression that distribution is problematic not just for poetry publishers but for journals as well. (As publisher of famous reporter, I’m interested in journals). At the festival just mentioned, I spoke to the editors of a couple of Melbourne-based journals (Etchings, Harvest) about their distribution methods, both said that at this stage they were committed to doing it themselves. Etchings’ editors had journeyed across to Adelaide and up to Melbourne in an effort to flog their magazine (one comment was ‘We found Sydney very different, unlike Melbourne where there are chains such as Readings … in Sydney it’s more commonly the independents.’) with Harvest also doing the rounds locally, for the moment at least.
As for challenges to poetry publication, it seems in a state of flux at the moment. The Oz Council are in the process of making (as yet unknown) changes to its support mechanisms. I think increased web publication is the way of the future, but the print medium feels good in the hand, seems pretty safe at the moment. I think if I had an inclination to make another investment in time and energy into publishing another journal, (which I don’t), I’d go the way of a web journal; it doesn’t surprise me so many do, and with good results.
Why is it that poetry, an art that arguably best reflects the speed at which we absorb ideas, information and imagery, is being neglected by corporate publishing houses and distributors throughout Australia?
Because they’re businesses? Back when Penguin made its decision to cut its poetry list in Australia, it seemed to crystallise the notion that an investment in poetry – in poetry’s worth – didn’t extend beyond the profit margin. Well, maybe I’m being tough on them. Some people argue if poetry made itself ‘more accessible’ it might just capture the public imagination and thus the interest of the publishing houses. But it’s argued elsewhere – and just as persuasively – that poetry isn’t a commodity as such and would do well to forget marketing and concentrate on its raison d’etre.
Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel? What is the future of poetry publishing and distribution?
A hard one. I’m a small player on the scene, take things on a day to day basis, I’m not sure if I have an eye for the bigger picture – though speaking of the immediate future: there’ve been a few instances of publishers sending their books to printers overseas – to Hong Kong, for instance – because they can get a better price, but I’ve heard of a couple of occasions where that’s been knocked on the head because of the recent savaging of the dollar.
What is on the horizon for Walleah Press?
Well, I’m pleased to have come to grips with the software publishing package, Indesign. For two or three of the collections I’ve published the typesetting has cost $800 or $900 (and I’m sure they were bargain basement prices) but I’ve since learnt to manage that side of things myself. Not ‘professionally’, but at least comfortably; insofar as the economics – what I can afford! – of publishing is concerned. Having that skill is wonderful; (empowering! don’t laugh). I’d hope that I can continue on with my magazine, I enjoy that even though the last few weeks of putting it together (June and December) drive me crazy; as to a lesser extent does my mailout cos that usually takes me a month. I’m not quite ready for a more concerted effort at publishing poetry, at this stage; perhaps within another eighteen months, two years.
About Ralph Wessman:
Ralph Wessman frets over typefaces and paper stocks, publishes books of literary merit – poetry collections primarily – and since 1987, the literary journal ‘famous reporter’.
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