The Writers’ Revolution: Reclaim the book for authors and readers

Most Australian writers don’t make a lot of money. Of course, there are Peter Carey and Tom Keneally, and in the recent past, Colleen McCullough and Bryce Courtenay, and going further back, Patrick White and Morris West, to name a few.
They were well looked after by publishers and their marketing and publicity staff and literary agents and bookshops and the media. But the digital age intervened and brought disruptions to book sales as customers bought Kindles and e-books. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booktopia et al targeted bibliophiles online. There were those who suggested books and bookshops would be joining newspapers in the morgue.
It was all about money and convenience and how people purchased Kindles or Kobos to read their e-books on trains, planes, buses or cruise ships. But publishers were still paying authors only 25% for digital rights, and writers were getting angry.
And thus was born the writers’ revolution. Five years ago a group of distinguished Australian authors, including Sue Woolfe and Bem Le Hunte, got together on a Sydney balcony and formed an e-publishing co-operative. Sue was the initiator, having had a few bad incidents with publishers, one who put an inappropriate cover on one of her novels, and another who dismissed her manuscript in a few minutes because she used the first-person narrative. The author of four novels including the multi-award-winning Leaning Towards Infinity, Sue decided to email a fellow novelist. He said e-publishing was a good idea, and it led her to emailing Australian publishers, telling them about her new manuscript and asking if they’d consider going into partnership with her. In her blog on her website, Sue chronicles how the passion of her fellow writers eventually developed into the authors’ portal, http://www.wutheringink.com, but not before her group, at first called The Royalties, were challenged by their lack of digital knowledge. Her plan was “to build a portal to enable Australian authors like us, luddites like me who almost have no bravery at all when it comes to the internet, to e publish. A site that any author can use. A site that attracts readers, and connects them with authors.”
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Sue Woolfe and Bem Le Hunte and a number of authors finally got their site, and it was launched last week by another writer, a former NSW Premier and Australian Foreign Minister, and presently Director of Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology at Sydney (UTS), Bob Carr (Bob Carr with Bem left and Sue right. A better photo of Bem — with glass of wine — and Sue below!). Among those at the launch at Bem’s home in Paddington were other writers and journalists, including children’s author Libby Hathorn (one of the original group), historian Anne Whitehead, Sydney Morning Herald literary editor Susan Wyndham and the SMH PS (gossip) columnist Michael Koziol. And the man who’s been promoting books for publishers and authors for decades (and Wuthering Ink), publicity guru, Alan Davidson, seen below with Bob Carr (that’s a glass of water!).
Bem Le Hunte started the proceedings with a welcome, saying Wuthering Ink is like a start up, a social venture, run as a literary salon at home. Her fellow co-founder Sue Woolfe recalled some of her blog chronicles, including a Bob Carr story: “I know he reads – one year I was head of the fiction judging panel for the Christina Stead Award, the Premier’s Award, and was told … to write comments for his speech on the short-listed books, which I duly did, and which he duly dismissed because he’d read all the books. His comments, which I listened to with great interest, were excellent, sophisticated, perceptive.” She added that many women’s books were on the short list, and Bob had read them all.
Over the years, she realised that writers lose 90 per cent of their income to publishers and bookshop, and “If Bill Gates was losing 90% of his income, he wouldn’t have much either.” Wuthering Ink was there for authors, said Sue, with an automatic author form which makes it easy for writers to digitise their books, their new and old work, which had often disappeared from bookshops. It also offers authors the opportunity to publish internationally by removing publishing territories, as well as increasing royalties by up to 80% for digital rights. It’s all on the website.
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Bob Carr began by saying the NSW Labor Government had always been an advocate of meaningful funds for writers. He said the Premier’s Literary Fellowship from the NSW Ministry for the Arts had awarded Bem Le Hunte $10,000 for her second novel, There, Where the Pepper Grows, the story of Benjamin who fled his native Poland during the Nazi occupation, aiming to fulfil his father’s dream of settling in Palestine. But he and his fellow survivors are stranded in Calcutta (where Bem was born). It’s still a topical novel about the search for refuge.
After a brief sojourn to the immigration debate by calling for a reduction in the immigration rate because of “breakneck” population growth (and the preservation of Paddington’s heritage), Bob Carr returned to his love for books and the need for authors like Primo Levi to be able to tell their story. He talks about Levi’s book, If This is a Man, about how he survived Auschwitz. It took him a long time to get the book published, but he finally got his story into print. It was important because he wanted the German people to understand what was done in their name. Bob Carr says it would have been terrible if his story was lost.
Carr mentions Anthony Burgess, whose works weren’t best sellers at first. Gore Vidal was another author whose stories were overlooked in the beginning. Other authors who deserve more readership include Murray Bail, whose award-winning novel Eucalyptus, has “genuine Australian stories.” Carr says he’s just got around to reading the 1999 book. And, of course, Colleen McCullough, who wrote Thorn Birds. Her publishers kept asking for a sequel. But she didn’t want one, and wrote a series of books about the Roman Republic. Bob Carr believes authors should be allowed to control their own work.
UPDATE:
Last week I wrote that I wasn’t sure how publishers would react to this authors’ portal. I have heard from a publishing source, who told me: “Well, as always it comes to ‘you get what you pay for.’ If you want the full publishing service — editorial/design/production/marketing/promotion terrestrial and digital — you’ll sell a lot more books and share the income with the publisher.” In my experience, there are many good, caring publishers in Australia (even the ones who rejected my novel!).
Independent bookshops didn’t disappear when Amazon and Borders moved into their market. In fact, the ones that cared about their customers flourished. Mark Rubbo, owner of Readings Books and Music in Melbourne, wiped out his rival Borders bookstore, simply by looking after his patrons and staying on top of his game. Here’s a great piece on how he did it. Wuthering Ink also aims to look after its readers as well as its authors, so that people anywhere in the world can get access to the writers’ works. Wuthering Ink is both a bookstore and a site for authors to digitise their works automatically and display them for sale. What do established authors think of the new site? Booker Prize Winner Tom Keneally said it was a “grand concept … a splendid idea.” Distinguished novelist James Bradley said: “I’m really interested to see where it’s ended up — it’s a great initiative.” And the celebrated playwright Stephen Sewell said: “Like the film actors, directors and writers who established the once great United Artists studio trying to wrest creative control back from the executives and moneymen, we wish to reclaim the book for the people whose hearts and souls go into them, and for the readers who cherish them.”
Don’t take my word for it; have a look at the website and Wuthering Ink on Facebook with videos of some of its founding family of writers. The authors are passionate and believe they are on the verge of a revolution. Just listen to Sue Woolfe: “We at Wuthering Ink have bent our brains to make our site luddite-friendly and automated to enable us all to publish our work in perpetuity.”
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4 thoughts on “The Writers’ Revolution: Reclaim the book for authors and readers

  1. “A publishing source, who told me: “Well, as always it comes to ‘you get what you pay for.’ If you want the full publishing service — editorial/design/production/marketing/promotion terrestrial and digital — you’ll sell a lot more books and share the income with the publisher.” An expected reply from an anonymous publishing source but no mention of the break-down in shared income.The standard 90% to publisher and 10% to the author which is the very reason WINK got started. Up to 80% goes to the author with WINK and their books will be available long after a publisher has remaindered them.

  2. Thanks for that Tom! I really feel like I have so much to learn about this publishing world. I have just started researching for my book on life in China which I (of course) think will be a great story the world needs to hear about our greatest super power! The long and winding road ahead feels pretty scary. I can’t even begin to fathom where I’ll start….. when it comes to looking, pleading for a publisher. I guess, for now, I’ll just write. 🙂

    • Hi Nicole, Thanks for your comment. You still have plenty of time to worry about a publisher. Just keep writing and get ready to tell the world about your great story. I look forward to reading the book. I’ll email you about a publisher. Cheers, Tom

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