I’m feeling both sad and angry about the state of publishing at the moment. Someone I know is trying to get a biography published: it’s a great story about a fascinating couple, well written and with a wealth of copyright-free images. There’s even an international conference coming up next year that will deal with the 2 people concerned.
Yet one publisher says: ‘it’s just too difficult to sell a biography of people who aren’t household names in today’s publishing climate’.
There are several issues here. We all know that publishing is in trouble at the moment. We’ve all discussed this ad nauseum so I’m not going there now. But there’s also another problem: publishers want books on familiar topics, not on something new.
This problem is not limited to biography, but in a small market like Australia, it seems to be a particular problem in this field. Yet there are so many fascinating stories still to be told.
Recently my friend and colleague Geoff Ginn managed to break through this barrier when he finally found a publisher for his biography of John Ward, ‘a spiritualist, mystic, historian and lifelong collector of antiquities’ who eventually established the Abbey Museum just north of Brisbane. Ward is certainly not a household word, but Sussex Academic Press has invested in his book, putting out a paperback edition at a reasonable price. It helps that the Abbey Museum will sell it to the crowds who come to their medieval fairs each year.
There are many fascinating stories of people who are not ‘household words’, it’s true, but there are also ‘important people’ who missed the boat, biographically speaking. Once upon a time, there was an expectation that every early Governor would eventually become the subject of a biography – but where are the biographies of Phillip Gidley King or Sir Thomas Brisbane? Carol Liston’s thesis on Brisbane appeared in articles and chapters, but was never converted to a book.
The same is true of broader topics. Some stories, particularly military stories, get retold again and again. Other stories never get published, no matter how well they are written. At best these stories are buried in academic journals or are published in ferociously expensive academic editions that will only ever be available in university libraries.
Why is it that we, as readers, have become so fearful of reading something new?
Geoffrey Ginn, Archangels and Archaeology: J.S.M.Ward’s Kingdom of the Wise (Eastbourne, Sussex Academic Press, 2012)
Disclaimer: Although I’ve written biographies of unknown people in my time, in this case, the ‘someone I know’ is not me.