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Diary of a Publisher: A lolly shop for book lovers

Books & Poetry

Fresh from the inaugural three-day WordFest, publisher Michael Bollen ponders the nature of reading and writing preferences, and how best to answer the question: What are the trends in publishing?

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Dystopian fiction is the theme under discussion in one room, while out in open kitchen Tori Arbon, author with Lolo Houbein of the grow-and-cook-your-own Magic Little Meals, has her audience rapt as she demonstrates the flow of progression from salad dressings to vegetable picklings. Very tasty!

We’re down south at Cove Civic Centre for the inaugural WordFest, “a celebration of reading and writing, supporting and connecting our community through story”.

I’m in a little room on sales duty, surrounded by alluring books from South Australian authors and publishers. “Got yourself a lolly shop,” says a customer, reading my mood.

The previous day, I had the inestimable pleasure of burbling on for hours to a captive audience about myself, publishing generally and Wakefield Press. Most pleasurable, though, were the questions and pitches that came from the audience, emanating from their many different rooms of writing and reading, their varying styles and interests.

Being a stickybeak, I love asking questions back, teasing out the connections between people’s lives and their writing ambitions or reading preferences. It becomes plain that what one person thinks of as “a book” may be very different from their neighbour’s idea.

There is enormous value in publishing for particular interests

“In my father’s house are many rooms”: the phrase flashes back to me from long-ago Sunday School days, sitting here now in this library, this neat, modern, lively, secular church with its books arranged in serried rows by genre.

A veteran book editor once told me that a general book publisher should model itself on a daily newspaper, attracting and contributing to diverse interests, having a stake in what’s said across various fields. The wise editor of this website, InDaily, said the important thing was not so much to chase the bottom line as to build, maintain and grow a community of readers.

I’m thinking about these pearls as I stumble to answer an inevitable question from the audience: “What are the trends in publishing? What should I be writing?”

I have a stock answer, evasive as it may be. The trend is what’s coming next, not what’s happening now. It’s that thought or idea or story that is just on the tip of the tongue, vague but unformed in the public mind. That “Aha!” moment when you read something new that articulates what you’ve been half-thinking but not quite recognising, feeling you’re alone in this notion. Then suddenly, everyone’s talking about whatever this theme may be.

And remember, I say, we are a very small part of the world. There is enormous value in publishing for particular interests – local history, for instance. Someone needs to tell the stories, or else we disappear entirely.

Sitting again in my little lolly shop, I’m thinking of two illustrated books that will arrive from printers this week. Deb Kandelaars and Ron Kandelaars take us journeying though the history, present and future of Victor Harbor: Down Beside the Sea. Terina Armenakis sends us overseas to myriad festivals on A Greek Folk Journey.

Each encourages holiday longings in my little mind. No rest for the wicked, however, as they say, and our next weeks are jam-packed with events, new titles and deadlines. I ain’t going nowhere.

Oh well. “There are only two seasons, Michael,” a long-serving bookseller once told me. “Not Christmas and Christmas.” Bring it on!

Michael Bollen is director at Adelaide-based independent publishing house Wakefield Press. He writes a fortnightly column for InDaily.

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