We’ve just done something that may be completely crazy: we’ve moved into larger, swish, purpose-built new premises, (you can see some photos here) in the face of a book-industry recession. There’s never been a more trying time, in my experience, with pressure on every aspect of the industry around the English-speaking world. In Australia, these pressures are exacerbated by the high value of our currency, the preferential tax treatment given to offshore online booksellers, and by the high-interest-rate regime that’s been imposed by our out-of-touch, incompetent central bank for almost a year.
So why have we done this? Essentially, because we’d outgrown our previous premises, which functioned like a charming share-house; and given that we had to move, I wanted us to relocate to premises with facilities that would enable us to function at our best, and to grow when needed.
We’ve finally got a meeting-room — and it’s being used for remarkably productive conversations. We’ve finally got private space for editors to think and work in. We’ve finally got modern workspaces that give staff the room to spread out. And I suspect that we also feel more grounded collectively, in the heart of Brunswick, a multicultural, vibrant, inner-city suburb.
Strangely enough, we’ve moved to within a block or so of the factory from which I ran our family’s book-printing business, Globe Press, from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. Brunswick is now very different, but it feels like the right place to be, for me and for us.
I’ve found the move very moving, partly because — as it happens — Scribe has also just celebrated its 35th birthday. This marks 35 years of our existence as a home-grown, wholly independent trade-publishing house. I feel slightly weird about claiming this anniversary, as we published few books annually for the first 20-or-so years, but the fact is that we managed to survive and grow over that time, and in the process I’m certain that we’ve helped change the reality and the received opinion of what small-to-medium-sized publishers are capable of.
There are a couple of developments that have especially pleased me in recent years. One has been our ability to pick very good overseas books on intrinsically difficult subjects and to manage to find a sizeable readership for them. (I am thinking here of books such as Deer Hunting with Jesus, by Joe Bageant; The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel; and Every Man in This Village is a Liar, by Megan Stack.) We have competitors who’ve noticed this, and are trying to do the same thing; and although we could do without the implicit flattery, this can only benefit Australian readers and the culture in general.
The other is that it’s no longer the case that independent houses such as Scribe only attract small books by unknown or left-over authors that sell in small quantities — as we demonstrated, for example, with The Brain that Changes Itself, by Dr Norman Doidge (a Canadian popular-science title that has sold over 150,000 copies in three-and-a-half years), or Sideshow, by Lindsay Tanner (a local politics/media title that sold over 10,000 copies in a few months earlier this year).
Scribe and its peers have shown many times that independent publishers can publish influential books that garner substantial publicity and achieve commercial success. The niche that we now occupy is defined by the quality of what we do, and not by its quantity.
To my continuing astonishment, what started off in 1976 as a desire on my part to publish ‘serious non-fiction’ on a limited scale has turned into a company with over a dozen staff members and two scouts that publishes 60–65 non-fiction and fiction titles each year. We are continually sifting through submissions and manuscripts from around the world, and commissioning and editing local titles, in an uncompromising pursuit of the best books we can find and help create. Many of our books have won or been shortlisted for major international and national literary awards, and our company has won the Small Publisher of the Year Award several times since its inception in 2006.
After all these years, I’m still drawn to non-fiction writers who have a good case to argue, who bring vital analyses of important subjects to new readers, or who offer fresh perspectives on old stories. We’ve got to the stage that we can virtually guarantee serious readers who are concerned about international and national affairs that we either have or will have a very good book on our list that deals with the subject.
With fiction, I love writers with verve and panache who have a distinctive voice and something compelling to reveal about the human condition. Aviva Tuffield, our associate publisher of fiction, is building a strong emerging local list that is gaining critical acclaim and commercial success.
Of course, you can produce as many books as you like, but you can’t manufacture your reputation. I’ve realised in the last few years that we’re well regarded by many people I’ve never spoken to or dealt with, and that they’ve been contributing silently to our success. So I’d like to thank them, and everybody else who’s helped us to last this long and to get to this stage in relatively good shape — especially our authors, our readers, our staff, our sales and distribution partners, our rights agents and scouts, the agents and publishers we buy rights from and sell rights to, our booksellers and media, our suppliers, and our friends and supporters in Australia and around the world.
Finally, I should acknowledge, as I’ve written before, that there’s something deeply irrational about being a serious trade publisher — even in normal economic times. It’s one of the few genuinely entrepreneurial activities left in the free market; but, paradoxically, it usually rewards high risk with low financial returns and deep anxiety. It’s just that it’s something I’ve felt compelled to do. I’m driven by a conviction that we have to provide a means for authors to tell the truth about what they see and what they know, and that we have to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted’. This is perhaps a bit prosecutorial for a publisher, but there you have it.
In the near future, we’ll be refreshing and relaunching our branding and our website, and we’ll be extending the reach of our e-books to every significant platform — including Apple, Amazon, and Google. In the worst of times, the best is yet to come.
Scribe staff on our first day in the new building