in which Clive talks about FACP's charter and the
difficulties faced by smaller publishing houses...
A conversation between Clive Newman and Phillip Winn, Fremantle, 12 November 1997
in which Clive talks about FACP's charter and the difficulties faced by smaller publishing houses...
|Having been with FACP since its foundation, Clive is well placed to talk about the Press' history and development over the years. The challenge of fostering local talent and finding the next blockbuster is what keeps him enthusiastic about the Press' future in difficult economic times.|
The Fremantle Arts Centre Press has been around for over 20 years now and has developed a good reputation in the local community as a publisher of quality literature. But I believe FACP's origins were quite modest, is that so?
The Fremantle Arts Centre Press grew out of the Community Arts program at the Fremantle Arts Centre. There was a whole series of creative writing classes and literature appreciation classes within the course offered by the Centre and out of that the staff of the Arts Centre perceived a wealth of writing activity in W.A. No one quite knew to what extent, but we thought, back in those heady days, that maybe a publishing program could be developed. I was on the staff of the Arts Centre at the time, but it was essentially a program driven by the then director of the Arts Centre, Ian Templeton. He was the first Chief Executive for the Press. Happily the publishing program was developed, it coincided with the explosion of interest by the Australian market place in Australian writing in the mid-seventies. The first Press book was published in 1976. At the time it was very difficult for Australian writers anywhere - apart from the likes of Peter Cowan and Mary Durack, and some of the well-known names from the East Coast. All the activity was on the East Coast and a lot of it was still being determined from London really. It all happened in the seventies and the rest, as they say, is history. So we were in the right place at the right time, but we did find, and continue to find, some very very good writers on this side of the country.
So FACP publishes exclusively Western Australian writers?
Our charter obliges us to publish only writers resident in W.A. or, bending the rules, "ex-pat" writers, so West Australians living outside the State boundaries, or books that are specifically about W.A. In recent years we've bent those rules a little further on some occasions, through anthologies, to include some well-known writers from other States of Australia. On the basis of doing that we have sought to introduce resident W.A. writers to a wider market by mixing the contents of the Anthology. And that has worked to varying degrees. But essentially it is publishing and promoting the works of W.A. writers and artists. That's what makes us different, because our catchment area is confined to the State.
Are Western Australians prolific writers?
Last year for instance we received about 640 unsolicited manuscripts and that's across the whole range of titles that we publish; contemporary fiction, non-fiction specifically related to the State's social history, biography, autobiography, the kids' books, kids' picture books and so on. In addition to that we do endeavour to maintain a relationship with authors that we have published so that their second or third book will come to us as well. That probably puts the manuscripts up by another 20-25 a year.
That's quite a lot of material. Do you find time to read it all?
We do assess everything that comes in. Some of them indicate very early on in an assessment reading that while they might be interesting and worthy of documentation, they are not really going to support an economically viable print-run. And that's the bottom line. We can find material that we want, but we have to be able to sell it to a market that's basically going to make the sums sweet.
So potential commercial success is a guiding factor in the selection of a manuscript for publication?
First of all, if we find a manuscript that we believe can stand on its own, the same as any publisher, then we are most likely to make an offer to publish. But we are in receipt of an unusual general purpose grant from the Department for the Arts to encourage us to work with some writers who may have terrific material, but which is not quite up to publishing standard, or for some books that maybe would work on a very tight print-run and therefore not be chosen for a program by a so-called commercial publisher. A lot of books that have come through our publishing program over the last 21 years have started in that light. I can go back to the obvious titles like A Fortunate Life and My Place, both of which have been freak performers in the sense of sales figures in Australian publishing. Both had a considerable development time where the author was able to work with the editor to bring it up to what we thought was publishing standard. Maybe that time wouldn't have been given by another publisher who was working to the sums, to the economic formula. So maybe those books wouldn't have had the impact they have had. Maybe they would have, we'll never know. But that's the value of the general purpose grant from the Department for the Arts and the reason we fight so hard to preserve it year by year.
So, if you accept an author's manuscript, what sort of support can they expect from FACP?
They're assigned an editor, someone we think is appropriate to represent the publisher and develop a relationship with the author. Somebody well-versed in that sort of work and in developing it. We have either people on the staff or freelance people that we work with on a contract basis. The most successful books have a good author-editor relationship behind them. It's interesting because a lot of the talk in the industry in the last couple of years has been about the big publishers abandoning or abbreviating the role of the editor - there's a lot of talk at the Australia Council level with the Literature Board there, and just within the industry about that.
Would the editors always have a large input into the development of a manuscript?
There's no general response to that. Some manuscripts will come very close to publishing standard, others, particularly for a first-time writer, might have the idea there and the basis of a good book, but need to have considerable fine tuning.
When you are working on a manuscript with a view to its publication do you have a particular audience in mind?
There's no question that in our early career we were seen as elitist in some quarters because we were seen to be a literary house, we were doing works of literature, not commercial works. That comes from the charter that said "books that mightn't be published by commercial publishers". We didn't ever see it quite like that, we certainly didn't consider ourselves elitist, although we did some specialist books along the way. We first published Elizabeth Jolley for instance and she is undoubtedly a literary writer, but she has a wide readership.
So FACP's books are aimed at a largely literary readership?
In recent years we have broadened our publishing program to include some titles that are obviously specifically aimed at a more general market because we can see some dollars there. If we can sell those books well, they can, in a sense, cross-subsidise the poetry program or some of the more contemporary fiction titles that would have, by their very nature, a smaller readership than a general title. I would like to think that the word "Arts" in our title, FACP, doesn't scare off people as was quoted to us early in our career that it might, because it would seem to be a serious book or an "arty" book. I would hope that our program has broken that down and certainly some of the general titles, and the children's program has worked to that extent so I hope that we've got a relatively wide readership, but we can always make it wider.
Certainly the current catalogue includes quite diverse titles, some of which are bound to appeal to a very wide market.
They were specifically designed to increase our earnings. The assistance from the Department for the Arts, whilst invaluable, does not increase year by year, in fact it shrinks in real terms, as well as measured against CPI. One of the specific reasons behind the wildflower diary, the gardening book, the cook book last year was to improve our earnings whilst at the same time, not dropping the quality of the book, but finding that general audience. The cook book last year was drawn specifically from a talk-back program on ABC radio. And while people may say that ABC radio is, in itself, elitist or has a special audience, that was a very successful community-based link where we partnered with the ABC and promoted that book though the ABC network with a very happy result for both parties. The idea of the gardening book this year actually grew from the success of the cook book. Jeff Dorrington who wrote the gardening book for us is on Channel 7 and so there was a promotional campaign through Channel 7 and Telethon which we are still reaping the fruits of.
Although just having popular titles won't necessarily assure commercial success, you must have to devote a lot a energy to marketing and distribution.
This is the biggest hurdle for publishers in this country, because we've got a big country with the population right around the edge. From our point of view we're on the wrong side of the country as far as the market volume goes. Also we're a small publisher without the marketing, promotional, and financial resources that some of the bigger publishers may, and do, have. So we have to be very careful about how we choose to allocate the marketing and promotional funds, but halfway through our career, in 1987, we negotiated a distribution agreement with Penguin books for all States outside W.A. This is within Australia, but outside W.A. And that has been our lifeblood because Penguin have a very efficient warehouse distribution set-up. Probably the most efficient one in the country and they have an extensive sales-force. All bookshops want Penguin books and so if, as part of the monthly order form from Penguin there's two Fremantle titles, that gives our books the potential to go to every shop in Australia. We have a sales-force of one and a bit in W.A. We look after the W.A. market ourself because we believe we can do that to the best advantage of our writers and our program here.
What happens then in terms of promotion for your latest releases?
With our marketing team we try to produce a marketing program for each individual title. We have a personal contact in Sydney who looks after the contact with the major East-Coast newspapers, magazines and electronic media and so on, and we do the rest for W.A. from here, from our office. It's been difficult, but more or less successful. The competition is huge because we don't only compete with Australian books, we compete with all the books coming into Australia and the resources of the international publishers with international programs. And its very hard for a first time W.A. writer, however good we might think the book is, to compete with a new Wilbur Smith or even a Bryce Courtenay on the Australian scene. But we have had some considerable successes along the way too. It's an ongoing battle.
What makes survival difficult for FACP?
The chief difficulties are competing against the international publishing houses, maintaining a profile and shelf space for your product. We are fortunate in that respect with our distribution agreement with Penguin who look after us very well. The cash flow problems are always knocking at the door. You can have a situation where you determine a print-run of 5000 copies for a book, now it might not work as well as you want, as quickly as you want, so 2000 go to the market place and 3000 to the warehouse holding up your money. Or, you do 5000 copies of the book and you sell them very quickly and you have to reprint, so the money goes straight back into the reprint and so its always coming in and out, but seems to be going out just a little bit faster than it goes in. Over the 21 years we have been able to hold our own, but it has been difficult and it's a difficulty that you will hear time and time again from small publishers. Most of our income comes from selling books and has to; they're no good sitting in the warehouse.
But do the positive aspects of bringing local writers to the national and international scene win out in the end?
The exhilaration of finding the blockbusters like A Fortunate Life, finding the authors like Elizabeth Jolley, attending the Frankfurt Book Fair, as part of the Australian Publishing Association stand, and representing our titles and actually signing contracts for translations and international editions is what makes it all worthwhile.