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June 20th, 2008

The Small Press Debate

In my previous post about the Aurealis Awards, I purposefully left off making any commentary about the plan, once again, to make publishers shoulder the cost of submitting to the awards by cutting out email submissions (though the get out of jail free card of any "individuals or small/independent publishers who face difficulties in supplying hard copies of nominated works should contact the Awards Coordinator for assistance," was added.)

Of course, the only people such a ruling has any influence on are those in the independent press, and in the days since then, Alisa Krasnostein (girliejones) and Jonathan Strahan have weighed into the debate with the cost of sending work from their various projects to what could be anywhere between twenty to thirty-five judges. Of interest to me are not the posts themselves, but the replies that each have been getting, and the debate within that. There is, at the start, some amusement in noting the different tones between Kate Eltham (electricalphabt) on both blogs, where on the latter, she says, "Jonathan, I encourage you to contact the Awards Coordinator at coordinator@aurealisawards.com to discuss your needs. As with last year, we can arrange for copies to be shared among judging panels (especially if you submit well before the deadline) and Ron can also assist with copying and distributing individual story print outs," and while on the former, she posts:

That's exactly what is said, right on the home page: "However, individuals or small/independent publishers who face difficulties in supplying hard copies of nominated works should contact the Awards Coordinator for assistance."

And on the Rules & Conditions page: "...when multiple printed copies of the work/s are difficult or expensive to obtain, nominators (particularly individual authors or small presses who face financial hardship) are encouraged to contact the Awards Coordinator to discuss. We endeavour to do all we can to assist the nomination process. Contact the Awards Coordinator at coordinator@aurealisawards.com."

And on the How to Enter page: "Electronic Magazines and Publications
Works published in electronic form are eligible. However, hard copy versions of the nominated works must be submitted to judges for consideration. One copy of each work must be sent to EACH of the judges on the relevant panel/s. In the case of multimedia or mixed media works, please contact the Awards Coordinator to discuss your requirements.

When multiple printed copies of the work/s are difficult or expensive to obtain, nominators (particularly individual authors or small presses who face financial hardship) are encouraged to contact the Awards Coordinator to discuss. We endeavour to do all we can to assist the nomination process. Contact the Awards Coordinator at coordinator@aurealisawards.com."

Picking up on one sentence in the entire website (ie. about the Coordinator exercising discretion in the sharing of works between judges) and choosing to ignore all these other messages mentioned in multiple places on multiple pages makes it a straw man argument, Alisa.


I wonder why her tone is so different?

In case you're wondering who Eltham is, and why she has an opinion worth quoting, she's listed as 'the conjure chair' at Fantastic Queensland, who are responsible for the Aurealis Awards, as well as other things such as Clarion. I could be wrong, but I assume that conjure chair is a way of saying that she's the person in charge, as much as anyone is in charge at these kind of places. Other members of Fantastic Queensland inlcude her partner Robert Hoge (roberthoge), who appears on Krasnostein's blog to tell her that, "if awards are what tips a small press into the red, then it sounds like it may be a marginal enterprise to start with," thus suggesting that you ought not be putting out books in the first place.

Which is nice, of course, and very community related of Hoge to say. I was further impressed by the argument that both he and Eltham put forward that they do not see, in this case, Krasnostein complaining about the cost of having to submit to the World Fantasy Awards, of which Hoge himself is one of five. Yes, that's five judges, rather than the forty five who are involved in the Aurealis Awards, but why would you make such a point out of the numbers difference when you're making a point that people don't complain about?

Returning to my original point about the cost, however, it strikes me as strange that Fantastic Queensland and the Aurealis Awards are not actively trying to support and promote the independent scene here in Australia, which has run for years on the budget of elastic bands and matches. I don't need to link to a publisher discussing the fact that you will not make a profit in being in the independent press: that fact is of such common knowledge that it is the first thing that dozens of people will tell any person thinking of starting up their own press. You are considered doing well if you are breaking even in this industry, which makes it strange that unnecessary costs such as submitting books to judges who have email is being pushed forward and defended on such a public scale.

Still, if you were to make a stab at what motivates Fantastic Queensland, you could perhaps argue that it was the attempt to grab professionalism. The reference to the World Fantasy Award is, on their part, an attempt to brand the two together in importance, which is somewhat amusing since the World Fantasy Awards has a certain reputation that, if we were to reverse the comparisons around, the Aurealis Awards does not have. The World Fantasy Award does not, year in and year out become the cause of laughter or derisive comments when fine graphic novels such as Shaun Tan's the Arrival win a short story award, or when half the country's established authors are ignored by the award because the judges did not go out and look for new material, or did not know about what was then the top paying market for short fiction in spec fic. I could go on, but it will only be the equivalent of kicking a puppy to make the comparisons between the Aurealis Awards and the World Fantasy Award, though perhaps I'll allow such reviewers as Martin Lewis (ninebelow) to share his scathing opinion of the Aurealis novel winners in previous years, and ask him what the cultural weight of the AAs have over there, in sunny Britain. But, to return to the original start of this paragraph, it is clear that a certain professionalism is being attempted, though why of course that professionalism needs to toss an unnecessary cost to the independent press is a question that you might well ask, considering that it is there that the interest and involvement in the community is born.

I'm not quite sure why I felt the urge to post on the topic. My response to Eltham and Hoge would simply be to laugh and then boycott the award. If you could organise the rest of the independent scene to do the same, it would make a mockery out of the short story divisions, since it is in the independent press that such work is primarily produced, but that's me, and I don't have much interest in the award so my responses involve burning it down and living in a utopia.

I do, however, want to see a strong independent scene and that is the cause of my interest. It is here that the interesting projects take place, here that the boundaries are pushed. At the moment, the scene here is known more for being a place in which authors start their career, a place where you can watch them learn their skills, which more often than not, they take outside the country or into novels. But outside the small spec fic scene, interesting books are being done. I did a review for Overland recently in which I got to sample the collection Sleepers, the novels put out by Black Pepper, and a few others, and while there were flaws--Sleepers, for example, is a rip off of McSweeneys--I liked the fact that I was seeing different things, seeing people pushing the edges, and that could be seen in a production such as Cock. Such opinions that are given out by Hoge and Eltham do not, to me, encourage people to become involved with the scene, does not support them, does not draw the interesting and different projects out of people, and ignores the fact that, as everyone who has been round an independent scene for five minutes will know, such projects are done at a considerable personal cost.