Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 22, 2017

Small presses dominate 2017 PM’s Literary Awards shortlists

I have permission Michael Webster to blog this press release (22/11/17) from The Small Press Network.  

I’m sharing it because, under the pressure of slow hotel Wi-Fi while I was at the Word For Word Non Fiction Festival in Geelong, I did not notice the remarkable predominance of  Australian small independent presses in the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists.  I’m going to speculate here about possible reasons:

  • Transit Lounge’s Miles Franklin win with AS Patric’s Black Rock White City, has encouraged entries from small publishers;
  • There have been reductions in entry fees after UWAP made public its decision to withdraw from some literary award competitions because the entry fee and other requirements were too expensive for a small press to afford;
  • Judges, administrators of literary awards and reviewers for the print media have become aware of the growing evidence that much of the best, most innovative and rewarding fiction comes from small independent presses which have adopted risk-taking now that the large conglomerates have (mostly) abandoned the field in favour of ‘safe’ ‘commercial’ fiction, and readily-marketable fiction from authors who have already established a reputation.

I’ve been reviewing books from small indie presses almost since I began this blog in 2008, and just yesterday I put in a request for my library to get a copy of As the Lonely Fly by Sara Dowse, published by For Pity Sake Publishing, because I read a review of it in The Weekend Australian’s Books Review pages.  Just last week I promoted an initiative from Grattan Street Publishing, a micro-press for students to learn the publishing game and which is reissuing forgotten books from Australia’s early days.  (I heard about that one on Facebook).  Without getting too precious about stats because (a) I don’t always know which imprints are actually owned by conglomerates or when they were taken over, and (b) some small ‘publishers’ are really just masks for self-publishing, still, I reckon there are about 500 reviews of Australian small press titles here at ANZ LitLovers, compared to about 300 from large conglomerate publishers.  (You can see for yourself if you check the Publishers-Australia category in the RH drop-down menu).  That is why I blather on about small presses, because I read such a lot of what they produce, and most of what I read is good to read.

But I was very pleased to see from this press release that my personal experience is more widespread than I’d realised!

Australian small presses dominate 2017 PM’s Literary Awards shortlists

The shortlists for the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards were announced late Friday afternoon 17 November 2017. Remarkably, nineteen of the 20 shortlisted adult books were produced by Australia’s independent small press sector.

Only one was published by a global conglomerate – The Easy Way Out by Steven Amsterdam, published by Hachette, the largest publishing company in France. The Easy Way Out is Amsterdam’s third novel. His previous two novels Things We Didn’t See Coming and What the Family Needed were published by small press and founding Small Press Network member Sleepers Publishing.

The other four novels nominated for the fiction prize were from small Australian publishers: Melbourne-based Black Inc, Sydney-based Puncher & Wattmann, and the presses at the University of Queensland and the University of Western Australia.

[LH: You can see my reviews of all of these titles here.]

All of the nominated poetry books were from small Australian publishers – one from Giramondo, a press based at the University of Western Sydney and, remarkably, two each from specialist poetry publishers Hunter Publishers and Pitt Street Poetry.

In the non-fiction category, again all five nominees were from small independent presses: University of West Australia Press again, and two each from Black Inc and Text, both based in Melbourne

NewSouth press, based at UNSW Sydney, dominated the Australian History category with three nominations, with Monash University Press and Australian Scholarly making up the balance.

Turning to the children’s books nominated, again Australian publishers dominated, taking seven of the 10 places.

Data shows increasing proportion of book reviews and sales going to Australian independent publishers
The announcement of the award shortlists coincided with the annual conference of the Small Press Network at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Among the presentations at the conference were academic papers showing that books published by independent Australian publishers are increasingly dominating the reviews columns of Australia’s mainstream newspapers; and a paper reporting that the final arbiter of performance – book sales – also showed a steady increase in the proportion of the market representing sales by Australian-owned independent publishers.

The Australian book buying public is increasingly seeking out Australian stories, told by Australian writers and published by Australian owned and operated publishing companies – many of them proud members of the Small Press Network.

The shortlists of this year’s PM’s Literary provide a fascinating cultural snapshot of the types of books which are currently valued by the Australian literary community, and capture a sea change as the era of the dominance of large multinational conglomerates draws to a close.

For more information or comment, contact SPN chair Michael Webster
Small Press Network · 176 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia · Melbourne, VIC 3000 · Australia

What do readers think?

Have you noticed more reviews of small press books in the mainstream newspaper press? (Do you still read print press reviews?)

Are you among the throngs buying more books from indie Australian publishers?  If so, why is that? What is it about Australian books that you love?

Is Michael right when he says that the Australian book buying public is increasingly seeking out Australian stories, told by Australian writers and published by Australian owned and operated publishing companies ?



  1. I have noticed small press books taking up a bit more shelf space at bookshops which seems very encouraging.


    • I notice a lot more reviews around the blogosphere, but I thought perhaps that it was just the kind of blogs I follow…


      • Yes, it’s really hard to tell isn’t it? I was having a discussion last night about how The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo changed things. At least that’s my perspective. And I disliked that book, but it seemed to unleash the publishing industry (and the networks) as they looked for the next big hit.


        • I don’t know – and I really mean that I don’t know – but I suspect that it all comes back to people. A small outfit relies on one, maybe two or three people to assess the manuscripts that come in, and the ones that get through reflect the taste and interests and preoccupations of that small group. So if you’ve liked one of theirs, you’ll probably like others in a similar vein. Without knowing it, the reader comes to trust that publisher, though most of the time I don’t think many of us notice who publishes a book at all).
          But a large company has hordes of MS assessors with a whole smorgasbord of tastes and interests and preoccupations, and I bet they have a bunch of guidelines to submit to as well. (And it would be so, so interesting to know what they are but I bet they’re strictly commercial-in-confidence). Whatever, their recommendations have to be submitted to the marketing department where the bean-counters preoccupation is: ‘will it sell’, not ‘is it good’? And rightly so because the directors of a company have an obligation to their shareholders to make a profit, not to experiment with kooky things that might sell only a few hundred copies. We might not like this, but it’s actually their legal duty to steer the company towards making a profit. So, yes, they are on the lookout for the Next Big Thing…


          • I remember reading somewhere that publishers/filmmakers were on the lookout for thenext G W the D. T. Same thing with Gone Girl


            • And then the next thing we know, there are reports of million-dollar deals and movie options and the bandwagon rolls on!


  2. I’d like to say I support small presses, but except for Magabala in Broome, I rarely notice who the publisher is. Luckily I tend towards Western Australian books and all publishers over here are small by definition.


    • Yes, I would say that not being aware of who the publisher was, was generally true for me too until I started blogging, and even then, it wasn’t until someone asked me to supply the publication details that I started routinely including them. The exception was Virago and McPhee Gribble: I knew who they were and bought a lot of their books because they were interesting.


  3. I’ve noticed more press for indie books here in Canada, I think. I don’t know if this has always been the case and I just haven’t noticed it before, or if people are starting to look more closely and read more widely. Yay for small presses!


    • Well, I think it’s (mostly) a fantasy that people follow a publisher. There are exceptions: amongst enthusiasts of translated fiction, there will be some who subscribe to a particular press, and those of us in the know will always keep an eye on particular presses like Pushkin Press and the NVRB Classics imprint. As I said above, I took notice of Virago and McPhee Gribble in their heyday, and something I forgot to say was that I used to keep an eye on the original orange Penguins. They used to be a guaranteed good read, but alas, that changed and they’re not a distinctive imprint any more.
      But my instincts tell me that most people buy/read a book either because they stumble on it in a bookshop or because they heard about it from someone they trust. It seems to me that if people are buying more small press books it’s because the small presses are doing something right and the individual book has some appeal (cover, blurb, author fame, whatever), not because the consumer cares much or even knows about which publisher it is.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, you’re probably right about that!


  4. I remember discovering small presses back in the 1980s when they started publishing Aussie authors – particularly the women authors I wanted to read. I’m referring to McPhee Gribble, UQP (I think they’re small?) Fremantle Arts Centre Press (as Fremantle Press was then called), Pandora Press. I was very aware of who was publishing the books I read – perhaps because I’m a Librarian. Once I read a great book from a publisher I would often look for more releases from that publisher. So, yes, from the 1980s I’ve been reading books from small independent publishers – and it’s because they published – and still do – the new Aussie writers.

    I used to be sorry when writers, once established, would leave them for publishers like Penguin (eg Elizabeth Jolley left Fremantle for Penguin) though I understood why. I think that used to happen a lot, but I wonder if it still happens or whether the small presses are having enough success now that writers see that small presses offer them something that the big ones don’t. One of the tweets at GenreCon was quoting Garth Nix telling authors to choose a publisher for the people involved, for the people they feel they can work with, rather than simply on “name”.


    • Well, yes, I feel a little bit disappointed when an author changes from the publisher that gave him/her a start. (You can see from the press release that Steven Amsterdam switched from Sleepers Publishing who published his first two books.) But of course we can’t know why. It may be that the author has taken a departure from the style that the first publisher liked, or it may be that the small publisher just had too much on their plate to be able to do the ensuing book in a timely manner – there could be all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with the relationship between publisher and author.
      Librarians are in a good position to come across the best of what’s new, though I admit that when I was buying picture books for the school library, I was more likely to follow an author or an illustrator than a publisher. And I was a sucker for an enticing cover!


      • Yes, and for that reason, ie not knowing, I didn’t act in any way on the knowledge, but I often felt for the first publisher all the same!

        Well of course I wasn’t a book librarian after my first year of working, so I never did see new books at work, but my early training regarding the book – imprints, etc – never left me!! You can take a librarian out of the library, but … etc etc etc!


        • Sometimes dark secrets are revealed when a literary biography gets written…


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