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The Book Council of Australia? Well, it’s better than nothing

Chief Executive and Publisher of Melbourne University Press, Louise Adler, will chair the new book council. AAP ONE

The Book Council of Australia? Well, it’s better than nothing

Late last week, in what turned out to be the dying days of the Abbott administration, and perhaps the last sands of George Brandis’s time in the arts portfolio, the government’s new Book Council of Australia (BCA) finally arrived. Trailing behind it were some controversies about its structure and membership – controversies seemingly as small as its A$6 million (over three years) budget, but in fact real thorns for the literary sector.

A suffering publishing industry first mooted the idea of a book council with the Labor government in 2010. The industry was gulping air in turbulent seas as waves of globalisation and digitisation crashed. New business paradigms were attacking the old; traditional bookstores, publishers and authors were at risk – with potential downstream costs for the rest of us in the form of damage to our literary and reading culture.

After a slew of reports and recommendations for action by the Rudd and Gillard governments, and some stalling under the current one, the Book Council was finally announced by Tony Abbott in December 2014.

Most of the industry was on board – in fact the council is made up of representatives of the industry associations. But its limited aims and role, its modest funds, the source of these funds, the chair who has been appointed and the absence of Indigenous voices and voices from the emerging writer and emerging digital literary sector have tainted the initiative for some.

Without surprise, the president of the Australian Publishers Association, Louise Adler, has been invited by Brandis to chair the new council. Adler, whose day job is as CEO of Melbourne University Press, was the key player in the chain of reports and working parties that led to the BCA’s establishment. And while Adler is usually seen as a figure of the left (ex-Radio National, ex-The Age, ex-Australian Book Review, once student of Edward Said), she also seems to have the confidence of the right.

Australian prime minister Julia Gillard with former prime minister Bob Hawke and publisher Louise Adler at the launch of the biography Hawke: The Prime Minister by his wife Blanche D'Alpuget (centre right) in 2010. AAP ONE

Mostly this reflects Adler’s standing within the publishing industry and her persuasiveness on committees (see disclosure), but it may have helped in this instance that she is Tony Abbott’s publisher. Indeed, Adler even seems to have a soft spot for Abbott personally or politically (see Q&A footage from 47:45), which I presume he reciprocates, perhaps making it easy enough for him, at the time, to give her the gig.

As for the rest of the committee, the ministerial media release states::

Ms Adler will be joined on the Council by representatives appointed from a wide range of literary and industry organisations including the Australian Society of Authors, the Australian Publishers Association, the Australian Booksellers Association, the Australian Literary Agents’ Association and the Australian Library and Information Association.

In fact they are not all: the National Library, the Copyright Agency, the Small Press Network and the Children’s Book Council also get guernseys.

The BCA drew fire a week before it was announced, with an open letter from 39 organisations concerned at the delay in its arrival and a lack of clarity about its purpose and operations. There was particular concern about whether the BCA would recognise “the breadth of Australia’s literary sector”:

The National Writers’ Centre Network, writers’ festivals across the country, prize-giving organisations, bookstores, critics, schools and universities, literary journals, libraries, digital-only initiatives et al – and that many of these organisations and publications not only feed directly into the wider publishing industry, but are critical to sustaining it for both creators and consumers: developing the capacity of writers, publishers and readers; offering skills and professional development programs; and many publication and employment opportunities.

The small and the new players were pitching themselves against the top end of town (the old model of publishing).

Two related issues seemed to be at stake. The first question is around the purpose of the BCA. The second is around representative the BCA is of new forms of literary activity and new voices.

Elsewhere, I have written on the question of whether the BCA is about industry or about culture. Inevitably books, writers, our literary culture and the publishing industry come as a matched set. It is hard to have a literary culture without an industry – even if that sometimes means sharing turf with a globalised publishing industry whose goals are as much financial as cultural.

Policy responses then become a question of emphasis: will government emphasise industry sustainability (no matter what the cultural utility of the material produced) or will government emphasise literature’s work of telling our stories, debating our issues, helping people form themselves and enrich their lives through it?

Decisions by both the last Labor government and this current LNP one have impacted on the balance between these not-wholly-opposed goals. As the BCA comes into being it assumes an unexpected role as the apparatus of government with the most magisterial view of policy in the literary domain.

This follows the ALP’s shuttering of the Literature Board of the Australia Council in 2014 – a shuttering that looks increasingly misguided in the wake of Brandis’s raid on the Australia Council budget to form the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA).

For 40 years the Literature Board provided writing, publishing and other literary grants based on decisions made by a committee and sub-committees of writers and the very occasional publisher. It provided a writer-led view of literary development. It was often finely tuned to aesthetic questions, but less so to industrial ones.

Still, the board was effective in supplementing writers’ incomes and ensuring the publication of hundreds of new voices, including many of the nation’s most famous names. It was remarkably effective on a A$4 million or so annual budget, and its 2014 shuttering removed fundamental policy capacity and leadership in the literary and book industry domains – even if its policy focus was perhaps too often just on the writer.

The Book Council was intended to augment the Literature Board’s writerly focus with an industry-wide one. But now, in a real sense, it replaces the board as the senior policy agency in the literary space. Unfortunately, the BCA’s modest budget of A$2 million a year (over three years) (gouged out of the Australia Council last December) means that the resources for literary and book industry development are split between the BCA and the Australia Council (whose own budget has been further depleted by Brandis’s A$104 million raid to create his new NPEA).

Because of the BCA’s elevation to policy prominence the question of its industry versus literary or writerly focus has become a hot one. The BCA certainly professes literary aims:

The Council will provide advice to the government on strategies to raise and strengthen the profile of Australian literature and literary non-fiction nationally and internationally, including priorities for funding through targeted initiatives, and to foster a culture of reading among the Australian public.

And so does Adler in an op-ed, which can be read as an assurance about the ultimately cultural purposes of the BCA and of literature:

If we collectively believe in the principle that telling our stories to ourselves and to the international market matters as much as it ever did, then fresh thinking is required. The Book Council, with representatives from all the lead organisations involved in the business of reading and writing, has a new opportunity to ensure the community’s collective imagination is fuelled by Australian writing … [Australian writers offer us] the chance to contemplate who we are and how we live. Reading, thankfully, is not yet obsolete, nor is it odd or quaint or deviant. There is every reason to ensure it continues to flourish as both a private pleasure and a public good.

Yet many of the smaller literary organisations feel as though, no matter what the stated aims of the BCA, its composition suggests that it is defending an old literary model rather than embracing the new.

And there certainly are “new” forms of literary life following digitisation and the arrival of Gen-Ys on the literary space. As well as e-books and online bookshops, the capital cities, particularly Melbourne, are awash with new kinds of literary entities and activity: small digital publications, real and virtual festivals, and literary podcasters. These ventures are often helmed by a generation of emerging writers – often creative writing graduates.

This new digital belletrism often forsakes books entirely for smaller and more mobile forms of literary production and consumption. It is the players in this group that seem to feel most at the margins of what has been sketched out by the BCA – and not represented in its membership.

Sam Twyford-Moore. Adrian Wiggins/flickr, CC BY

Sam Twyford-Moore, former director of Melbourne’s Emerging Writers’ Festival and a key drafter of the Open Letter of September 3, has been particularly active in questioning the focus of the BCA and also Adler’s role in it. While the publishing industry happily accepts Adler as its representative – or mostly so (she has enemies as well as supporters) – Twyford-Moore sees Adler as compromised by the broad range of positions she holds, including her propinquity to Abbott.

Adler certainly plays hardball in most things, but on balance it is much better to have Adler, in all her effectiveness, inside the tent. Twyford-Moore, playing the role of tyro, is keen to challenge Adler to a public debate – which would bring out the younger members of the Melbourne literary community in large numbers.

But the faster way forward here is for the minister and the BCA to recognise the literary sector’s fundamental point that the future of small digital publishing, event and socially based literary activity, and Indigenous literary activity, need to be represented on the BCA – even if they have been outside the discussion until this point.

Until included, the BCA risks being rejected by some of the communities that should welcome it. It will suffer sniping from the very generation that will inherit caretakership of the industry from Adler and others in the coming decade.

In the background to all this is Brandis’s partial reclamation of decision-making about policy and funding from the realm of the Australia Council – where arm’s-length mechanisms have prevailed for four decades.

Brandis has ushered in a new type of ministerial activism or interventionism in the arts space. But having entered a space that was previously the province of the artists and writers themselves, he needs to ensure that there is policy and funding contiguity between the old Australia Council and his new ministerial mechanisms: the NPEA and BCA.

This is just good government. It will require greater dexterity than has been shown to date.