Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 19, 2017

2017 Williamstown Literary Festival, and some thoughts about Australian publishing

This weekend I went to the Williamstown Literary Festival.  I went to some beaut sessions, and bought some nice books, and in due course I will read them and tell you all about them.  For now, suffice to tell you that I bought these three, and on the basis of the author’s sessions and having read the first chapter during festival lulls, I recommend that you get hold of them too:

But what I really want to tell you about is something that will interest anybody who’s interested in Australian books and writing.  Insiders will already know it, but I am not an insider, and nor, I suspect are a good many of my readers.  So read on…

The WLF is a festival supported by Victoria University (who run writers courses, as many universities now do) and this support manifested itself in a number of sessions pitched squarely at aspiring writers.  I went to two, not as an aspiring writer looking for tips but because I had read the authors and wanted to support their sessions.  At ‘Pathways to Writing’ with Enza Gandolfo and Sherryl Clark, there was a whole lot of advice about writers’ groups and courses – obviously useful to the aspiring writers in the audience –  but my ears pricked up when there was a question about the Faber Writing Academy.  It costs thousands, apparently, but they offer useful editing experience (and contacts in the industry), which led on to the wisdom of hiring an editor before pitching to a publisher.  Investing $5000-6000 for a structural edit can mean that your book is the best it can be and has a much better chance of evading the slush pile.  Because once your book is in that pile, you can’t resubmit it after you’ve improved it, with a note to say it’s better now…

The penny didn’t drop until the afternoon when I went to a session called The Age of Experience, chaired by Jane Rawson.  This session featured writers who hadn’t been published until after they were 35, and it included Jenny Ackland, Christy Collins and Paul Dalgano.  At one stage Jane began a question by saying that it was fair to say that none of them had been hugely successful: they hadn’t won a major prize and they hadn’t had their book optioned for a film.  My jaw dropped.  I hadn’t read Dalgano, but I had read Ackland’s The Secret Son and Christy Collins The End of Seeing, and I knew that Jenny’s had been chosen as a Summer Read by the State Library so multiple copies had been sold to lots of libraries and that her second novel will be out soon, and I knew that Christy’s had won the Seizure Prize and been longlisted for the ALS Gold Medal.  This seemed like success to me! Jane’s question went on to tease out what these authors were hoping for if ‘hugely successful’ wasn’t on the horizon, (and Jenny, for example, went on to talk about the pleasure and satisfaction just of being published).   But Jane’s question lingered.  And eventually it dawned on me, even if it’s not what Jane was fishing for or what these authors thought, that there are authors out there who are at least hoping for a return on their investment in themselves.

I’m not in a position to have an opinion on whether Australia’s economy is able to support writing as a income-producing career, though I think few of our current crop of really good writers are prolific enough for that, and prolific has its hazards for the quality of an author’s work (as we see with the variable quality of Tom Keneally’s work from a literary PoV).  But now *penny drops*  I can see that writers who’ve invested years of tertiary fees and/or thousands to Faber and/or a privately-hired editor might have an expectation that they’ll at least get their money back, and hopefully much better than that.  That’s what ‘success’ would mean.   Again, I’m in no position to know how realistic that is.

But – as an outsider empathising with the PoV of a writer who hasn’t spent that kind of money – I can also now see that at the publisher’s submissions desk, the competition is with people who have made that kind of professional investment.

In other words, the gatekeeper’s gates have shifted further back, and this worries me.  It might mean that what gets published is drawn from a pool of writers who can afford that kind of investment, and that might make our writing rather dull.

I think that the best writing comes from authors who’ve seen a bit of the world and care about it, and who know and listen to a wide variety of people.  Sure, they need to hone their craft, and work with other people to make it really good, but not at the expense of living the rich and varied life which is what makes writing great.  Only a genius like Jane Austen could make a very restricted life into a brilliant novel, and genius is by definition very rare indeed.   The more our books and writing are peopled by the middle-class and the tertiary educated, people who can afford to live in the inner suburbs of capital cities, and people who do not know what it is like to be homeless or unemployed or undereducated or have just $7.00 in the bank, (yours truly, circa 1969), the greater the risk that our Australian books and writing will become impoverished.

This is not to suggest that books by authors who fit the profile I’ve sketched haven’t written terrific books or that they can’t empathise with the experiences of others.  If you are a regular reader of this blog then you know that I have read and loved authors from all kinds of backgrounds.  But I think it is a risk we run if the pathway to publication becomes crowded by people who can afford to invest in themselves to the exclusion of others that can’t.

What do you think?



  1. An interesting question, Lisa. I think small, independent publishers are more willing to take on unknown or first-time authors if the quality is there, as well as a likely readership. Of course, getting help to make your manuscript the best it can be is useful, but it’s not necessary to spend thousands on it. There are more people than ever wanting their book published, so it’s a competitive area.
    Still, your other point about what constitutes ‘success’ is valid – very few authors in Australia, even quite well known ones who have published several books, earn enough from their writing to live on. In other words, it’s not a get-rich scheme. The rewards often have to lie elsewhere …

    • Thanks for saying this Anna, because that’s what I was going to suggest i.e. that small independent publishers do take on a variety of writers and look for the interest and quality of the content, rather than the external polish. I’m glad you’ve confirmed this.

      And I’m glad you’ve considered Lisa’s issue of “success” too. I guess there are two main types of success – qualitative and quantitative. Our top bestselling authors like Di Morrissey and the late Bryce Courtney have the latter. It’s easy to measure – sales and income, movie deals which bring more income, etc. (That is money!) The former is harder to measure, but is commonly measured by things like major awards (which sometimes bring good prize money, and sometimes increased sales and therefore income/money). Not many books can win these. I think you’re right, Anna, that the qualitative rewards, i.e. measures of success, have to (rightly or wrongly) lie elsewhere.

      I don’t know what the answer is for writers who want to make a living by writing, but who aren’t in the bestselling playing field.

      I must say, from what I read from writers (usually their blogs, or interviews) I’d be surprised if the majority of books which get picked up by publishers have had a lot of money spent on professional editing, but maybe they have. It would be interesting to hear from the bigger publishers on this one, as I can’t help most of the independents would reply more along your vein, Anna?

      • I’m not disagreeing with what you say, but having an agent (another expense) is obviously transparent, I wouldn’t be surprised if authors using an editor beforehand might keep it quiet, so that the publisher thinks that’s the standard that author can achieve. Who could blame them, eh?
        I’ve read a bit of Twitter & blog chat about author incomes (and lack of them), and the ASA is taking up the issue at a political level, because it matters to us as a nation.
        It seems to me that for anyone who needs an income, (i.e. most of us) the problem is that whereas if we study law, medicine, science, economics, teaching etc there is a good chance we will have an income of one sort or another at the end of it, the same is definitely not true of the creative writing degree. If the universities are upfront about this, ok, the student knows the odds and it’s an informed choice to take the risk.
        I’d be interested to know just how many graduates there are from these courses, and how that stacks up against the number of books published, but it’s obvious from the ASA campaign that it doesn’t stack up when it comes to actually having an income to live on.
        (I write this from the perspective of one who had the marks to get into law at Melbourne, but chose teaching because that was what I wanted to do. My friends and I were not best pleased to learn in second year that there was a glut of teachers for our graduation year, and the census had predicted it long before we enrolled. I was one of 25 who won a studentship, and therefore one of the very few who got a job straight away. After 12 months or so of trying to get into teaching, many of my friends went into other occupations. This experience has taught me not to trust that universities will be transparent about job opportunities).

        • I’d be surprised if people doing creative writing courses were under any illusion that it was a guaranteed path to a paying career? They might think it could give them an edge but more than that? It would be great to hear from some who do do these Creative Writing Masters courses wouldn’t it – to know what their expectations were – and what eventuated.

          • I’m not so sure about that. I’ve been reading a series called What to Expect by Jane Rawson and Annabel Smith and I’ve got the impression from the first paragraph of the first in the series ( that they’ve combined to write this series to shatter a few illusions.
            I don’t know what Jane’s path to publication was but she also wrote this piece and Annabel (who has a PhD) wrote this one – they are both addressing a reality that presumably they think isn’t understood by their readers who, we can assume, are aspiring writers.
            I don’t think they’d be doing this if they hadn’t had unmet expectations themselves…

            • I have been reading their posts too but didn’t read them quite that way. However I’ll reread those first ones when I get home from Musica Viva.

              • BTW I think I’m wrong about an agent being “another expense”. I read a Canadian blog the other day which said that agents get their money when the author gets a publishing deal, not upfront when they take the author on. So if it’s the same here in Australia, an author doesn’t ever pay the agent, the publisher pays the agent a percentage of an advance when they pay the author.

                • I think that is the case, Lisa, though I’m no expert. In the end the author pays out of their “take” from the publisher I think, but at least they don’t pay if they don’t get published so it’s a bit different as you say from the other issue. Most authors I’ve spoken to or heard on the topic (which is just a few I admit) do find an agent worth it.

    • Bother! I wrote a reply to this and it’s vanished. I’m going to blame the painkillers that are making it possible for me to sit up with my arm propped on a cushion and write today.
      What I said was…
      I’m glad that Anna has replied from ‘an insider’s POV’ because it’s reassuring that the indies are alert to the issue and still open to the interesting book even if it needs some work to make it fit for publication. Books from independent publishers don’t always get the recognition they deserve but can be very good reading indeed. (I was delighted to see Robbed of Every Blessing ( getting exposure on Twitter because someone else had read it and liked it.)

  2. There is an argument that ‘creative writing’ courses are turning out lots of writers with similar perspectives – the fashion of inserting the author into the text, for example, whose overuse really bugs me – and I appreciate the point you are making about the risk of all published authors coming from the inner suburban middle class. Not sure though what we can do about it.

    • Someone on Twitter says it was ever thus: what do you think, Bill? It seems to me that even though Katharine Susannah Prichard, Kylie Tennant, Christina Stead and Eleanor Dark weren’t underprivileged themselves, their politics made them interested in the working class (as it then unambiguously was) and they mixed and empathised with them. Olga Masters was another, her stories of marginalised people in Sydney were very powerful, and Ruth Park certainly knew what it was like to be poor.

      • I wonder who writes from the perspective of even the working poor these days let alone the unemployed. Students in sharehouses and drug addicts are popular topics, but their poverty is different. Indigenous Lit might be as close as we get, a different perspective again. BTW I reread Down and Out etc recently and didn’t find Orwell’s poverty convincing – he always had a way out, which at the end of the book he takes advantage of.

        • Well, yes, that’s true. He did have other options. But (LOL on the strength of my one experience as a waitress) I did find it convincing.

          • Orwell is a brilliant writer, but IMO he was writing as an outsider. Other than Indig.Lit, and as you say, we don’t usually get an insider’s view of anything except middle class-ness.

            • We’ll have to keep our eyes peeled for the exceptions!

              • I’ve read a lot of Aussie books in the last year or so about less advantaged groups, but many have been historical fiction Ashmere, Limprecht, Scarfe, to name a few. Contemporary, non-indigenous ones are admittedly harder to find but let me try. Hartnett’s The golden boys fits to a degree. Hmm, I think there is still quite a bit of diversity out there eg most of the women in The natural way of things were very different to my middle class cohort, as is the barmaid in An isolated incident. Barracuda deals with a working class boy. And many of Tim Winton’s characters are also “battlers”. If we are talking a little older, like Masters, I’d say Elizabeth Jolley had some too, such as Weekly in The newspaper of Claremont St. If this is fewer than in the past it could be because our demography has shifted to be more middle class? Interesting tangent anyhow!

                • That’s a good list. *musing* Sometimes I think I ought to categorise my posts by themes or issues to make it easier to find titles when a discussion like this comes up…

                • I know what you mean, Lisa – something comes up and you wish you could hone in on whatever it is easily amongst your reading – but one could categorise on and on forever (and probably still not cover everything!)

  3. What a wonderful post, Lisa, a subject well worth discussing. When I facilitate writing workshops, I always stress that one of the most important things any writer can do is to make friends with other writers and help each other out. Although not a professional editor, I spend quite a bit of my time voluntarily reading, critiquing and commenting on the work of other writers. I do this for a number of reasons but, primarily because I wished someone had done it for me when I was a young writer (in which case, I am sure I would have been able to write better at a younger age and, hence, have progressed further in my writing career [perhaps even be seeing some returns!]).
    In the process of critiquing others, I become a better writer myself. While I am flourishing my ‘editorial’ pen suggesting rewrites and different word choices, I am taking in my own advice. When I pick up something that another writer does that is detrimental to her/his writing practice, I am not only able to point it out to the writer, I subconsciously take it back to my own work. I am also lucky enough to have two very different (to each other and to me) writers who provide suggestions, alterations and corrections to my work. As I tell those I preach to, you don’t have to take every bit of advice, you just have to hear it and think about it.
    So, in my long-winded way, I’m trying to say that, in the absence of sufficient funds to pay for expert editing, my advice to all writers is:-
    • Enlist the help of writer friends to read your work.
    • If you don’t have any writer friends, join a writers’ group or go along to free book events (of course, if your budget can stretch to purchase a book, so much the better but if you can’t afford it, don’t let that stop you going to events, as borrowing from the library also provides an income for the writer).
    • Don’t be precious about letting others read your work. We writers are a fragile lot, vacillating between thinking our work is so brilliant, someone will steal it and thinking it is so bad we will be the laughing stock.
    • At best, other writers who read and comment on your work will make you a better writer and help you to see how you can polish your work before sending it off to a publisher for consideration. At the very least, they’ll pick up some of your typos.
    Also, as commented by Anna above, very few Australian authors earn enough to live on and the rewards do, indeed, lie elsewhere.
    Now that I’ve been so verbose, I’m hoping that some of your readers are aspiring writers (I am sure there would be plenty amongst your many followers).

    • Karenlee, a little bird has told me how generous you are with your time and expertise, so I know how true your words are, xo.
      I think your advice is very timely, and all I would add to it is, get out and about and mix with people who aren’t like yourself. (It’s an enjoyable thing to do even if you aren’t a writer!)
      One of the things I forgot to say in my post was that Alec Patric came to do an author talk at my local library and he made a point of saying that he hadn’t taken the professional/tertiary route. Barry @TransitLounge2 took the risk, and they won the MF.

  4. I have a wounded wing after a cortisone injection an hour ago so my time at the computer is limited and I am typing one-handed…
    so it wasn’t very smart if me to write a post (before the jab) which would arouse such wonderful answers for further discussion. I am going to veg out in front of The Box with something frivolous for a while and hope to get back here soon to continue the conversation!

    • Oh poor you Lisa… I hear those cortisone jabs can be very unpleasant (though hopeful effective in the longterm). Hope your light vegging out was enjoyable.

  5. I read an article a few years back about a writer ( I would term successful) whose day job was a waiter. I think we readers can’t really appreciate how tough it is out there.

    • George Orwell! He wrote Down and Out In London and Paris on the strength of it. An important, significant book and fascinating to read:)
      (Though maybe not if you like dining out…)

  6. Be interesting to know the percentage of writers who make a living from it; most these days have day jobs or at least supplementary incomes or partners to support them. There’s a big push in British publishing at the moment to find diverse writers (i.e. To get away from the white middle class suburban writers) and there’s a couple of interesting initiatives including W&N’s Hometown Tales to find under-represented regional voices.

  7. I see the point that the people who can afford to hire editors could queer the pitch for those who don’t have the funds. But then if I was someone with the funds available why wouldn’t I want to take every opportunity to achieve my goal of being the best writer I can. It’s no different to a photographer wanting to get the best lens they can afford or a dancer getting extra lessons – you want to make the investment in your future.

    • Good point, Karen. I don’t blame anyone with a passion for writing for doing everything they can to enhance their chances.
      But I would hope that at least some of the photographers who can afford the best lens are out taking photos of the lives of people who can’t afford a camera. And that something (a bursary?) exists somewhere so that the underprivileged student who loves photography can get good lenses too.
      (At my school, we took up a collection for the daughter of one of our staff who was a single parent, so that she could buy the tools she needed to study as an occupational therapist making prosthetics. If we hadn’t done that, she wouldn’t have been able to take up the place she’d earned at university. IMO it’s not good enough that ad hoc charity has to take up the baton for things like that.)

      • On board with you 100% Lisa. In a previous role I was responsible for our community support budget so got hundreds of letters from parents asking us to support their child with the cost of sporting/arts/creative pursuits. Isnt it sad as a society that parents have to go begging like this – and what talent is going to waste as a result

        • Our local MP has a fund for this sort of support too. The problem sometimes is that needy people don’t know about it, but maybe if they all did, the fund would collapse under the weight of it.
          Oh, I’d love to live in a society where everyone had these basic needs met!

  8. Just caught up with Lisa’s post and this fascinating correspondence. Let me share a recent experience. I’ve just completed an online writing course and didn’t much enjoy the experience. It was costly for me and I doubt I’d ever do this again. There was of course the good and the not so good. Best bits first: Participants were able to read all the works and all the critiques. I was delighted that my stories drew some very complimentary comments; I’m too shy to repeat them but perhaps the most significant words I picked out were ‘interesting’ and ‘entertaining’ and they cropped up repeatedly. I think my fellow writers might fairly be described as representatives of that mythical genre ‘the general reader’ rather than the literati and this is an audience I hope to attract. What didn’t I like? I was a ‘consumer’ not a ‘student’. The commercial imperative meant that there was a limitation on how many words the tutor would critique. If a story was, say 2,000 words long then we had to nominate which sections fell within the prescribed amount. It was like being a ‘little bit pregnant’. When my work was returned I could see through the file properties just how many minutes of editing time were involved and this made it even more apparent that I was not in a student/mentor situation but had entered some kind of contract. My own mistake for misreading the situation. We were unable communicate directly with the tutor so it was all rather remote – inevitably. Much of the critique was discouraging, often felt like a ‘put-down’ and sometimes formulaic insofar as the same comments turned up. Just for the sake of doing a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise I sent one of my course submissions to a dear friend and mentor – a published author and skilled teacher. The different approaches were stark – one discouraged the other encouraged. It amused me to see that passages the tutor sniffed at were applauded by my mentor. Which just goes to show that for all creative work it’s just a matter of opinion and taste.

    Apropos of writers making a living – definitely need a day job! Karenlee is quite right in saying the rewards lie elsewhere.

    • Hello Ros, I love it when you comment here, it’s always good to have your point-of-view. One of the things that Enza and Sherryl both did in their session was to stress the importance of finding the right kind of support. (In fact, I myself even asked a question about how PhD students find the right person as their supervisor if they’re writing something a bit different to the mainstream). You obviously had a mismatch with this course tutor and with the way the course was structured – which is a shame (but knowing you, you’ll make a funny story out of it!)
      There’s such a very wide variety of writing styles, and there’s no doubt (as Bill comments above) that there can be fashions in publishing too. And yet the traditional storyteller’s popularity has never waned, and I know from reading Solly’s Girl that it has widespread appeal.
      Anyway, I’m glad you’ve shared your experience here because any aspiring writers reading it will benefit from knowing about it.

    • Hi Lisa, You’re absolutely right about a funny story. The course was known as a ‘clinic’ (I find the changing usage of familiar words endlessly amusing). Now ‘clinic’ promptly takes me into a medical environment just as the record of editing time made me think of lawyers who clock up every six minutes. It seems such a long way from the traditional teacher-pupil relationship. [May I ramble on? Cut it out if you think it’s totally irrelevant.] As a first year student at Monash I had to prepare for a tutorial on a poem, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by the eminent American writer William Carlos Williams; it’s sixteen words about a wheelbarrow in the rain and some white chickens. In my ignorance I gave it a scathing review – I thought it was ‘pointless’ – and the rest of my tutorial group, all of whom were light years younger than me, a mature-aged student, gave me a bad time for my ‘lack of understanding’. The following week we had a passage from Jane Austen to review. I thought it was hilarious an exquisite piece of irony, but the rest of the group said ‘old-fashioned, irrelevant, out-of-date’. I can’t remember anything the tutor said – probably laughed at the lot of us – but there’s a lesson in there beyond what he intended and I’ve never forgotten it.

      ‘Fashionable’ topics today are indeed depressing and I suspect my recent tutor would have been better pleased had I written about child abuse, euthanasia or racism. My year eight grandson has just struggled through an award-winning set text that failed to inspire either of us. It deals with a single mum who has three children by three different fathers and then abandons them all. That’s just chapter one; after that it’s down hill all the way as the hero finds his way through numerous set-backs until eventually he emerges into the sunlight of self-confidence and fulfillment. Go figure!

      • Well, Ros, I expect to see this story up on your blog in due course!

  9. Hi Lisa and all the other postees
    Just wanted to come right out and say it that as a single income household, (at one time single mother living off centrelink for two years until I found a part time job) that a university degree/course in writing was never an option. I have known of a few people who have actually secured a book contract at the end of these courses and it is hard not to feel disadvantaged. I also don’t have the money to spend on a lot of copy editing and mentoring. So again (in bleak moments) I sometimes wonder If I would already have a mainstream publisher if my circumstances were different. I don’t have the website for nothing.
    As it is I’m still looking for a publisher and my spirits are up because I recently have begun writing short stories and I’m hoping to see a few of these get into print so I can add them to my CV. I have no illusions about making money from my writing. I just want to get my writing out to readers.

    • Thank you for sharing this with us, Debbie, and for confirming what I suspected, that it can be disheartening for people who can’t access the ‘professional route’. As I’m not an ‘insider’ I can’t offer any solutions except to pass on what Sherryl Clark said, which was to find a writing group that suits you, one which includes genuine workshopping of writing so that other writers (as Karenlee says above) can help with copyediting and mentoring. Sherryl said that if you can’t find one, start your own, perhaps in a library which can let you have a space to hold it. (I think my local council pays for the cost of the room for the Mordi Writers Group at a neighbourhood house, so maybe that’s an option too. ) She said it was important to set rules at the outset, so that people understood that they had to come regularly and workshop in a rigorous way the writing of others – not just turn up when it was their own turn!
      Congratulations on getting your toe in the water with the short stories, that’s competitive too so don’t underestimate your achievement there!

      • Thanks so much Lisa. I’m so glad you put it out there because sometimes you can just dwell on it and think you’re just being maudlin but in fact it really is being geared towards money and not originality – both in who can afford what and who buys what.

        • Well, maybe that was inevitable once the corporates got hold of publishing, but we are lucky here in Australia that we have many small indie publishers keeping the flag flying.
          Again, I shouldn’t be giving anyone advice because I’m not an expert at all, but if I were a writer I’d be sussing out all the small publishers I could find, to identify the ones who publish the kind of book I wanted to write. I’d read everything on their list, to suss out what appeals to them. And *chuckle* I’d try to buy some of their books or at least ask my library to buy them, to help keep them in business!

          • I have but quite a few are now inundated!

            • You don’t mean literally, as in your books were in a flood?

              • No, lol, a lot of the indies are now saying no. They can’t take any more authors on. Tried a few recently and that’s where they are at. Will still try a few more. I am sort of sitting between popular and literary with my writing which is sometimes a difficult place to be. Not literary enough for the literary presses but too literary for commercial.

                • Yes, that is a difficult place to be. From what I can see, both Penguin and Hachette do occupy that space, but I guess it would be hard to break in to publishers as big as that. Do not give up! Some of the best writers ever had multiple rejections before getting published, and it’s just like a job application, every one that doesn’t succeed is an opportunity to review what you’ve submitted and make it even better until it’s irresistible.

                • Thank you so much Lisa. I do get down and then I look at my manuscript and think no, it deserves readers.

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