Practices, Influences, Themes

Last month, I had the pleasure of talking to Sarah L’Estrange of ABC Radio National. We discussed all things to do with At the Edge of the Solid World and its place on the Miles Franklin shortlist, and now, ahead of the announcement of the winner this week, our conversation has gone to air in a special episode of The Book Show focusing on all six shortlisted novels. You can download the full program at the ABC Radio National website.

Endurance

Geordie Williamson has an overview of the Miles Franklin shortlist in today’s Australian. Here’s his take on the big picture:

The make-up of this year’s half-dozen strong shortlist — filled as it is with debuts and sophomore efforts, left-field inclusions and small-press gems — suggests literature is not just an elegant or angry restatement of this week’s news. It also comes from books that have a message that is private or determinedly mysterious. It comes from books that never reach the end of what they have to say.

As for At the Edge of the Solid World, Williamson describes the novel as “an emotional endurance test” that represents a “tendency of contemporary Australian writing to keep a foot in both camps, setting narratives on native ground that also gesture towards a wider world”.

Unbending

As part of the media hubbub around the Miles Franklin shortlist — which is entirely new territory for me — you can now find brief review of the six shortlisted titles at the ABC’s Arts portal. Here’s Sarah L’Estrange on At the Edge of the Solid World:

This novel does not bend to easy summation. On the surface it is about a man crippled by grief after the death of his newborn. But where other novels might cleave to a story of domestic drama — indeed his marriage does disintegrate — this one cleverly plumbs his inner world as he searches to understand this grief within the limitations of language and shared experience. … The narrator’s peripatetic mind investigates historical figures who’ve also grappled with loss and displacement, and the reader must tussle with the overlay of meanings this intellectually sophisticated novel animates.

Shortlisted

Well, somehow I managed to slip one under the wire: At the Edge of the Solid World has officially made it through to the shortlist for the 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award. You can see the complete shortlist, including some rather rough (Zoomed-in) footage of me discussing the writing of the novel, in today’s announcement video:

There’s a pretty decent overview of the shortlist online at The Guardian. For my part, I’ve read two of the other five shortlisted books and I’ll set off this weekend to re-read them as well as diving into the three I haven’t encountered yet.

Indie Frictions

I’m glad I didn’t have to say it. I’m glad that Charles Boyle took the initiative. Here it is, anyway, an uncomfortable truth about the relationship between independent publishers and bookshops:

In theory, independent bookshops are by definition supportive of small presses. In practice, no independent bookshops (with three or four honourable exceptions) stock CBe titles on a regular basis. (This is an observation, not a gripe.) When a customer asks a bookshop for a particular title that is not on the shelves, often the bookshop will check if it’s in stock at Gardners, the main wholesaler, and if not they will tell the customer the title is not available; they will choose not to order from CBe’s trade distributor. When I take books into bookshops myself, they may agree to take one or two copies on a sale-or-return basis — agreeing to pay for those copies (less trade discount) in three months’ time if they have sold, and requiring me to chase them for that. I know bookshops have to pay rent but those are not supportive practices.

One of the things I’d add, about which I’ve been asked several times, is a note on why small presses like Splice don’t allow returns. In brief, the industry standard is this: publishers make their titles available to bookstores with a discount on RRP (a minimum of 35%, and usually between 50% and 55%) and on a ninety-day sale-or-return basis, as Boyle indicates. In effect, this means that bookshops can order as many copies of a title as they please, and then, after three months, send back the unsold stock to the publisher at minimal expense to themselves. By “minimal,” I mean that they only have to foot the bill for the return postage, while the publisher has to foot the bill for the printing, warehousing, and initial postage of the stock, as well as other aspects of investment such as sales representation.

To put this in the simplest possible terms, the publisher is required to assume the commercial risk at both ends of the transaction, taking a blind risk on the commissioning of the author before publication and a post hoc risk on the sale of stock after publication. But why? If bookshops know their customers well — and indie bookshops pride themselves on knowing their customers much better than the conglomerates — then why can’t they take the post hoc risk and pay for the stock up-front before selling it on? A refusal of returns forces them to do just this, so that, at least when it comes to titles from Splice, it’s a sure thing that the risk is shared between the publisher and any retailers who would profit from the publisher’s risk. To my mind, that’s just a matter of fair and equitable business practices — although, alas, it’s many a bookshop that has refused to stock titles from Splice on the basis that they can’t return them risk-free.