So, the Viva La Novella competition is open again for 2013-2014. When we first announced it in Melbourne on June 30 as part of The Emerging Writers' Festival, we were lucky to have Sandy Grant of the Copyright Agency speak at the event. He has kindly given us permission to reproduce it. It makes for good reading and is a good reminder of what is so marvellous about the novella form.
The Copyright Agency of which I am Chairman is a membership organisation for writers and publishers that licenses secondary uses of books and other writing in schools, universities, government and businesses.
Last year we distributed $120 million to our 25,000 members and in the last 25 years we’ve managed to distribute over $1 billion back to writers and publishers. Most of the money comes from photocopying, but increasingly it involves digital distribution. And it is increasingly important for writers and publishers to find ways other than bookshop sales to make their activities viable. In that context the role Copyright Agency plays, defending copyright and asserting that people using photocopied or scanned books pay for that usage, is very important.
As part of our role we have established a Cultural Fund that each year identifies projects to financially support. That is projects that align with our overall objectives of building a vibrant literary and cultural community. 'Stepping Stones' is a project the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund has backed and we are delighted to be involved and delighted to be here tonight.
Apart from my role at Copyright Agency, my day job is running a publishing business, so I am well aware of how hard it is for anyone to break in to the business and especially how hard it is to get into a good editorial role and from there to be given the responsibility to be a publisher, choosing new books and taking responsibility for getting them out to the appropriate audience.
Stepping Stones aims to create a bridge between working as an editor and becoming a publisher – offering mentoring and guidance through the whole publishing life cycle and at the same time creating four brilliant new cultural works. It is an exciting project that allows editors to gain experience in the wider world of publishing whilst bring their passion for publishing to the participating writers.
This year the project will involve the publishing of four novellas and by coincidence last week at the Sydney Writers Festival I sat through a session talking about novellas. I learnt that the novella is defined as between 15,000 and 50,000 words and that usually they are built around a single voice – often in a confined time, space or subject.
Think of Hemingway’ s The Old Man and the Sea – one guy stuck in his boat trying to land a big fish for a few weeks. It is a great form – and one that I think is a bit underused, mainly because the economics and optics of selling very short, very slim books.
Fifty-page books are a bad look and offer bad value. The publishing community hasn’t had the imagination to work out how to get over that perception. Maybe too many readers think 'Never mind the quality, feel the weight!' Hopefully the e-book will get over this age-old dilemma – if it is digital you won’t know how short it is!
The last time I was involved with a bestselling novella was when I was working in London in the 1990s and it was Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments – it was knocked back initially – so he self-published, sold thousands in Ireland, it became a movie, and made us rethink. But when I look at my shelves at home I can see novellas everywhere and lots of Australia’s greatest writers have used the form especially early in their career – Miles Franklin’s Childhood at Brindabella, David Ireland’s City of Woman and a few of David Malouf’s early books are examples. One of my other favourites is Kate Jennings Moral Hazard – a jewel of a book without a wasted word, something you can achieve in short form.
People like Peter Carey, Fat Man in History, or Tim Winton, Minimum of Two, published short stories early in their careers with some of the stories at novella length.
I think that tells you it is a way for writers to learn their craft and build an audience and reputation before they are confident enough to tackle a really ambitious book.
The most treasured novella I have is Plain Girl by the great playwright Arthur Miller. I was involved with publishing it in 1995 when he was 80 years old and still had things to say, but he didn’t have the drive or stamina to take on another big project. It is a reflective, sentimental book that could only have been written by someone of his age.
So the novella is an interesting, underestimated form and I am really pleased Seizure chose that idea for their project. As for learning to publish – maybe I should have entered the competition. It is hard work at the moment as bookshops close and e-books stretch their wings.
Two things I might say about publishing.
Firstly: in a lot of ways publishing is a fashion business – we need to ride intellectual fashion, literary fashion, aesthetic fashion and even format fashion (Kindles are in – hardbacks are out this month). We need to pick when paranormal romance or erotica is on the rise and then make good investment decisions. The primary investment being the authors you choose. As a publisher you need be totally absorbed in the world of writing to know who the next wave of writers are and what directions they are heading. But even then I wouldn’t have quickly published 50 Shades of Grey or the Twilight series.
Secondly: there is a very fine line between success and failure. By that I mean a successful publisher probably gets about 75% of their books right – a failure 65%. We never get it all right all the time and we all miss bestsellers regularly. I can give you long lists of titles I rejected that went on to be bestsellers (It's Not About the Bike by Lance Armstrong – it turned out that it was about the drugs, but how was I to know – and more prosaically – Who Moved My Cheese? – it looked like trite rubbish when I rejected it, but sold 10 million copies.
In a lot of ways publishing is a bit of a punt – I hope that isn’t what you’ve been learning from Seizure. But it also a business that does make a really positive contribution to our cultural and educational life as a nation, and to that end developing the next generation of publisher’s skills is a great thing for Seizure to undertake.
I’ll hand you back to David now, but good luck to all of you who have been involved and congratulations to Seizure from Copyright Agency for putting the project together.