Lions in the path: Book publishing in Australia [by P. R. Stephensen, 31 March 1934]

[Editor: An article by P. R. Stephensen on the need for a book publishing industry in Australia. Published in The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld.), 31 March 1934.]

Lions in the path

Book publishing in Australia

A survey of the field

(By P. R. Stephensen.)

When I returned to Australia in October, 1932, after studying the Book Trade in England for eight years, I was told in Fremantle, Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, and finally in Sydney, that there was a great scope for a modern book-publishing house in this Commonwealth, This was not news to me, as 1 knew it before leaving London. A country in which no publisher could be found for “A House is Built;” in which “Man Shy” had to be published by the author; in which “Jonah” had been for twenty years out of print: a country which Jack Lindsay and Philip Lindsay had had to leave, seeking publishers; a country which could not publish Brent of Bin Bin, Henry Handel Richardson, Katherine Prichard, Helen Simpson, G. B. Lancaster, Norman Lindsay, Dale Collins, Jack M’Laren, Vance Palmer, Frederic Manning, Leslie Meller; where poetry of William Baylebridge, Hugh M’Crae, Christopher Brennan remained unpublished — such a country quite evidently required publishing houses.

It was encouraging, however, to have this opinion confirmed. The late George Robertson offered a welcome, and told me that in his opinion there was scope for several new publishing houses to deal with Australia’s growing literary output.

Eighteen months of trial and error have gone by, and I still think the Great Scope exists, but I now understand the difficulties — some of which it might be profitable to set forth here.

First is a dumb hostility, on the part of some importing booksellers, towards the Australian book. There is nothing more sinister in this than a kind of commercial stupidity, which time and a steady supply of good new Australian books will overcome. The fixed habits of importing merchants have been an obstruction in the path of every other Australian industry — only by a tariff have merchants been induced to be patriotic. I do not advocate a tariff on books. Let the ideas of all countries come freely into ours. A bounty on Australian books, which are food for the mind, would be at least as reasonable as a bounty on wheat and butter, which are food for the belly: but best of all would be to establish the book industry here without Government aid. Governments can aid the barbed wire and alarum clock industries, but the book industry, which is a trade in ideas, is best left alone. Instead of a Government tariff, I advocate a voluntary purchase-quota of Australian books. I appeal to book buyers to place, without need of Government compulsion, at least one Australian book in ten on their shelves, and to support only those bookshops and lending libraries which give the good Australian books a fair display, side by side with the imported articles.

Second lion in the path is a doubt of quality. The Australian book is mistrusted because so many of poor quality have been issued. The poorer the book, the more its “Australian” origin has been stressed. These author-publishers, side-street-printer-publishers, mushroom publishers, and even some booksellers who dabble in publishing, have offered for sale works which are puerile in ideas and slovenly in literary and printing technique. Booksellers who ought to have known better have lowered their own prestige and that of Australian literature by boosting the sales of rubbish for a reason which is so despicable that in the public interest it must now be divulged. Tom, Dick, and Harry, the Australian Mushroom Publishers, not able to sell their books fairly, have offered them to catchpenny booksellers at fifty per cent discount, on sale or return; that is to say, three shillings per copy profit on a six-shilling book, with no charge for stocks unsold. Such has been the preposterous bribe offered to booksellers careless of their reputation, to induce them to sell works which have brought, the adjective “Australian” into disrepute. Another example of commercial shortsightedness! A bookseller who recommends inferior books to his customers will eventually lose those customers. Similarly booksellers who boost sales of their own publications while repressing other and better Australian books, must ultimately lose their customers. There is a growing demand for good Australian books; intrigues and big-discount snatching will not stem that demand.

Third lion in the path is Australian Apathy, a beast which has appalled intellectual persons. “Colonial Inertia” it has been termed — a lack of interest in civilised values, a preoccupation with the trivial mutters of sport, politics and business, and a neglect of the arts. This lion sounds formidable because he represents Demand, whereas the two former-named are whelps of Supply. Is there a real demand in Australia for good Australian books? The successful Australian publication of “Pageant” answered this question affirmatively; proved that there are at least 6000 buyers for such a book in the Commonwealth. “Pageant” published in Australia was a first trumpet-blast at the walls of Apathy. There will be more music of this kind.

The fourth lion is Provincialism, a mistrust of ourselves, an acceptance of the Englishmen’s point of view that London is the permanent centre of the Universe. “Goannas can’t fly — there it no hope for Australian literature,” said an English poet to me recently. He ignored the fact that lyrebirds can fly, and that goannas can climb quickly enough. The Englishman’s respect for his birthplace, which is really a respect for himself, causes him to doubt the potency of other birthplaces. Admiring such a vast conceit, which I should like to see inculcated in my fellow-Australians, I refrained front pointing out that bulldogs can’t fly, and should not growl. The moral is that the English garrison in Australia — which includes many Australians — should not expect us to remain permanently a literary Crown Colony. We are entitled to Dominion status.

Australia has given birth to an amazing number of first-class writers. For example, no less than five books by Australian authors (G. B. Lancaster, Helen Simpson, Mary Mitchell, Jack Lindsay, Philip Lindsay) have been the “choice” of the English Book Society during the past twelve months. The talent is born here, then exported to England, like bales of wool. A Government ban on the export of authors, an on the export of stud merinos, would seem worthy of consideration! Australian authors in England are asked by publishers and agents, not to write about Australia, but about some other country more acceptable to English readers. We can put a stop to such effrontery only by developing our own literature, on our own soil, as the American people have done, and by presenting it as a fait accompli to the English, and to all the world. This means that we must keep our good writers here — “keep” them in the literal sense of the term, by providing them with a living from royalties on sales.

In one of his last letters lo me, not long before his death, D. H. Lawrence wrote wistfully: “I wish I were on a boat going to Australia . . .” Incomparably the most sensitive of modern English writers, Lawrence had visited Australia, and had caught a glimpse of the strangely poetic spirit of this ancient land, which is home to a new type of man. To define that old land and these new people is the interesting work of indigenous Australian authors. Englishmen cannot do it for us. Even Lawrence failed in “Kangaroo” to capture the real Place Spirit, though he came near it. If Australia is to become a nation, and emerge from the mire of provincialism in which visitors invariably notice us floundering, it will1 be by books alone that the emergence is achieved; for books are the greatest civilisers, and the most permanent expression of a nation’s mind.

The days of our naive Colonial, or “Never-Never” literature have ended. Australian authors of sophistication resident in this Commonwealth, and publishing their books in the first instance here, will indicate that Young Australia has become adult.

Surveying the field, therefore, I still believe in the Great Scope for a modern Australian publishing house. There is enough talent and even genius in this country to write good books, and I dare say to print and publish them also. Yet an independent Australian literary publishing house cannot succeed unless Australian booklovers support it in the practical way, by paying money to buy the books which it issues. This remark is self-evident, and applies personally to the indulgent reader of this article. Every book published will not be a. world-stunner, but in due course the great work will arrive. Plant a tree, and it will blossom in its season.

A voluntary quota of one Australian book in every ten volumes, bought, paid for, and placed on Australian booklovers’ shelves, will establish the civilised industry of book-publishing in this Commonwealth

The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld.), 31 March 1934, page 13

Also published in:
The Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton, Qld.), 5 April 1934, p. 12
Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser (Maryborough, Qld.), 10 April 1934, p. 5

Editor’s notes:
alarum = an archaic spelling of “alarm”

fait accompli = (French) an accomplished fact; something accomplished which is apparently irreversible

lion in the path = an imagined, over-emphasised, or exaggerated obstacle; derived from a passage in the Bible, “The slothful man saith, There is a lion in the way; a lion is in the streets” (Proverbs 26:13, King James version); however, sometimes the phrase has been used to refer to an actual problematic obstacle

[Editor: Changed “flounderng” to “floundering”; “This author-publishers” to “These author-publishers”. Added a comma after “side-street-printer-publishers” and “bought”. Added a full stop after “divulged”, “disrepute” and “have ended”.]

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