The publishing industry is having an interesting time - and I am purposely saying 'interesting', not 'challenging' because we can all put forward our own interpretation of things. What's clear, though, is that we can't do things the way we used to, not even how we used to do them three years ago. We are in the Customs queue for a brave new country; some of us have visas for it and some of us don't. Some of us will be granted asylum there but will still have to prove that we have the credentials to be there.
What's needed in this brave new country is, well, bravery. New ideas. Old ideas reworked. A willingness to try something different. What's not needed is a whimpering poor-me look back to the past. The past is past, appropriately enough. We can't change what happened then to make what's happening now different. We can, however, change the future.
In my private time - mostly spent on public transport each day in the company of hundreds of strangers - I occasionally come up with ideas. Sometimes I tell people these ideas and they don't like them or say they can't work. And that's fine. But in this instance I have an idea that I've been mentioning now and again for about seven years and no one has yet taken it up despite the inherent merit I'm convinced it has (bien sûr). It's not an idea I can do anything about without a big business loan that I probably will never be able to pay back. So maybe if I put it on this blog, someone else can use it.
In the past I've written about why people, perhaps, don't read Australian novels as much as the industry would like them to. One of the reasons is, no doubt, the cost of those novels. Most people I know in the publishing industry won't pay $30 for a debut novel - let alone $35 - so I can't imagine why they want other people to do just that. Part of the cost of putting any book together is paying an advance to the author, getting the cover design and so on. There's also the challenge of letting people know that the novel exists - how do you promote a debut novelist when there are so many other writers competing for that publicity attention.
I believe that the solution is a first-novel imprint that is visually branded and marketed as such, with a price point between $15 and $20 for physical books and $10 to $12 for ebooks (but it should be the same price each time, not changing with each book). The cover design could be templated, to cut down on the costs - each cover would look subtly different to the others but not enough to require a new design each time. The advances could be modest and maybe offer the author a reward if they sell a lot (a royalty riser at 5000 copies sold, for example). In my experience a lot of novelists would happily take no advance if they thought it meant their book would get out into the world with support from a publisher who will edit it and promote it effectively. The novel is already written - it's not like the advance pays for their writing time, as it can do with non-fiction books.
Having an imprint that is identified as being for first novels only enables booksellers to consistently sell books on that imprint. The price of the books also makes it easier for them to convince people to try a new author. Most of us would take a risk at $15; we're not going to take it at $30.
And if the figures don't work for print books, at least do it for ebooks. There are plenty of debut novels out there as ebooks, yes, but there is still value in a publisher saying, 'This is what we've chosen to publish, and we've edited it and given it lots of attention, and we believe it's great.' That sends a signal to booksellers and readers that the book can be trusted, to an extent. And we do need to win back readers' trust where Australian novels are concerned. Wouldn't this be something we could try, to do just that?
The Australian market cannot be treated like the American or UK market. Our closest comparison is Canada, in terms of size. A first-novel imprint wouldn't work in a huge market but it can work in a small one where it would be different and new (for a while) and get attention for being so. It can also work in a small market where you're not dealing with hundreds of thousands of potential debut novels - just thousands of thousands. So maybe some publisher will see this post and think it's a good idea, and do something about it, and bring more Australian storytellers to public attention. Then they can have second novels and get published on the standard old imprints - and make way for still more new voices to be heard, and new stories told.