How (and why) to be a publisher

I started writing books in my twenties, and to hold  a book in my hand that I had written was a wonderful feeling. The first one, a political biography, gave me such a feeling of exhilaration that I knew I would be a writer thereafter. And publishing then seemed easy. Publishers were actually interested in what I was writing, and I was even asked to write books that I didn’t want to write, and had the temerity to decline. Those were the days! I have been published by university presses, academies, Angus and Robertson, Allen and Unwin, Penguin and Pitman. One of my books was translated into Japanese, by a Japanese diplomat posted in Canberra. That book, a textbook with additional authors over the years, has had ten Australian editions since its first appearance in 1980, and is still available in university bookshops.

Angus and Robertson published my first novel, The Second Chair. While I was writing it, in 1975, I could see that I had more to say than would fit into a single novel, and sketched out in my head how the story would run over several years: a mixture of politics, university, married life and growing older (you write about what you know). The ABC wondered whether I had written all three, and could see a mini-series in it. Unfortunately, the termination of the Whitlam Government by Sir John Kerr caused my first-year Politics class to expand from around 500 to 1276, and I had no time to think about writing anything for a few years.

Then one thing after another interfered — new jobs, new challenges, moving. After twelve years as a vice-chancellor I started to pick the pen up again (I had written the first novel longhand, in exercise books and their counterparts). Then I was asked to chair this, and chair that. By the time I had declined to do any more chairing I discovered that the publishing world had changed completely. My literary agents, very keen on me in the 1970s, now thought of me as a new author, despite the dozen books to my credit. Angus and Robertson had died. Bookshops everywhere were closing. Borders, my favourite reading place overseas, went out of business, and Barnes and Noble, their main competitor, was only just in, propped up by Microsoft.

And I not only had my new novel, but several other writing projects close to completion. I tried a couple of publishers, who were gentle but firm: ‘Find something else to do!’ Then I thought of self-publishing, which I had done before when I wrote a memoir of my parents and their lives (Edna and Alec). That had been intended for family and friends, though quite a few have bought it from the website. Why couldn’t I do that again? I knew of an excellent and reliable printer. But I would have to find out about design, marketing and all the rest of things that publishers do. And then there was the question of electronic publishing.

One reason that the whole publishing industry is in what looks like terminal decline (and that includes newspapers and magazines as well) is that one can read what one wants on the computer, for the most part. Most newspapers have online editions. Many magazines do, or have an online addition. Kindle and Amazon provide books you might want to read for tablets, which are a fair facsimile of a printed book, and no less portable — and with many other uses as well. A very great amount of what humans have published in the last six hundred years is already available online.

And it is probably true that those of us who like the printed book, that most central artefact of literature, are older, and are dying out. A university bookshop manager told me that the young don’t buy books; they’re accustomed to download anything they want to read, and if they can’t download then they probably think it’s not worth reading anyway. It’s not completely true, or there would be no books at all. Another person in the industry told me that there are two kinds of Australian novelists being published: the heavy sellers like Di Morrissey and Bryce Courtenay, and the high-culture elite, like David Malouf and Peter Carey. I don’t fit into either category. And then there are the genre areas, like vampires, or Tolkien-like fantasy worlds; they have markets, but again, their output can be acquired on Kindle for $9.95, rather than in a bookstore for $29.95. The Second Chair has claims to be a novel about university life, and that is a recognised small genre, whose stars are Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge and, of course, C. P. Snow in The Masters. I greatly enjoyed Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, too, and there are many more American novels set in colleges. But it is a small market, even in the USA.

Back to the bookshop. The ones that seem to work combine coffee with reading, and they tend to be those that offer second-hand books. The genius of the earlier bookshop was that they encouraged people to browse. I remember that process well. I’d go into Dymocks in Sydney and come out with a book I’d not intended to buy. If I liked it, I would then buy more of that author. But if there are no bookshops, your opportunity to browse is much reduced.

A good deal of research into all of this uncertainty made me realise that I would have to have both a printed copy of Turning Point, which is being launched on Wednesday (at Paperchain in Manuka at 6.00pm — yes, there are still good bookshops!), but also electronic versions, and you need two, for different devices. The electronic version is coming out soon. Books need good design, and I am fortunate in having excellent designers, both for my website and for the books, in our family (for those not so connected, let me recommend Blue Giant, at

The really tricky thing is getting copies of your books into bookshops — or, more generally, into the hands of those who might buy them. Those bookstores that are chains will tell you that buying is done by head office, and that self-published books they just ignore. I have some hopes that there will be reviews in the major papers, since the literary editors have accepted copies for review. But then, how do intending readers get their copies? Well, they have to go to my website, or live in Canberra, where there will be at least two bookshops that have copies.

Or they buy online. More books were sold online in America two years ago than were sold in print form, and the trend is up further. Australian figures are hard to come by, but one estimate is 50/50. I will learn as I go. Publishing is not something you can do without research and hard work — and, irritatingly, it is getting in the way of writing. But for the moment at least, it seems the only way for me to go.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • PeterE says:

    Go for it! And well done on what you have had published thus far. Writing books and getting them published is no simple task. My first book ‘To Villers-Bretonneux,’ about the 13th Australian Infantry Brigade on the Western Front 1916 -1918, was published by a specialist military history publisher, Australian Military History Publications, in 2006. My second book, ‘Sir William Glasgow, Soldier, Senator and Diplomat,’ was published by Big Sky Publishing in 2011. Whether a third book will appear is problematic. If it does, it won’t be about climate change.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Why not? I feel the same way, too. There are other things I want to write about, and there are plenty of sensible books on the subject now.

  • DaveW says:

    Hi Don,
    I recently acquired a Kindle from a friend who had received it four years ago as a present and never used it. I love books, but they are too expensive in Australia and take up too much space. I had moved my library of many hundreds of books across the Pacific twice but decided not to return with them this last time because of financial considerations. The local library, alas, has few books that I find of interest and online remnants of the big publishers have few of their older issues listed and they are overpriced.

    I still buy reference books online or in shops when I visit the big city, and the occasional browse history that sounds interesting, but I am now adapting to the Kindle. I find it awkward, counterintuitive, and often annoying, but I’ve read a half dozen ebooks already and I’m getting used to it.

    I searched on for ‘Turning Point’ and turned up a great many, yours not included, but a search for ‘Don Aitkin’ brought it up as a solo and it has downloaded and presumably you will be receiving a portion of the cost. I’m looking forward to reading it. First I have to try to finish a very poorly written history about the Battle of Blenheim, a period of history about which I am woefully ignorant, and alas, seem likely to remain so after dragging my way through the turgid, hagiographic, irresponsibly digressive and annoyingly unobjective slush the author has spewed out. At least it cost half of what it would have cost in a bookstore.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Thanks, DaveW. I am still getting to grips with the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) way of doing things. There have been three Kindle sales so far, but I have not yet learned how to advertise it better.

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