By Emma Regan and Jordan Maxwell Ridgway
This year, Grimmish, a self-published novel by Michael Winkler was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award, the first ever self-published work to make it onto the list. The award is given to a novel which is felt to have the highest literary merit in representing Australian life during any of its phases. Established in 1957, the award was last valued in 2016 at A$60,000 (Australian dollars), the equivalent of £35,000. It is a huge prize with great prestige, and though Grimmish did not take the prize home, (this went to Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light), Winkler has won a publishing contract. There are some who are very hopeful about what the shortlist means for inventive, original and challenging writing.
In an article from the Camden Haven Courier, Robyn Ferrell highlights the possibility that the traditional market is failing to “curate the literary” with competition in the form of “producing books digitally” as well as online campaigns. Ferrell also highlights how Winkler’s achievement is no mean feat, not only because it is a self-published product but also because Australian writing still struggles to compete in the English language market with their British and American counterparts still dominating.
Grimmish has been described as an experimental historical novel, based on the American-Italian boxer Joe Grim’s tour of Australia in 1908 to 1909. An exploration of masculinity, reality and pain, its highest accolade besides the Miles Franklin shortlist comes from JM Coetzee: “the strangest book you are likely to read this year.” As testament to the hard fought battle Winkler has fought to get this novel published, he wrote an article for the Sunday Morning Herald, titled No one would publish my novel, and now it’s up for the Miles Franklin. In the article, Winkler details how he faced rejection time and time again, and turned to self-publishing feeling like it was his last choice.
There is merit to Ferrell’s argument. The dominance of not only Amazon as a giant in the industry along with the gradual homogenisation of publishing as the "big five" collect more and more indie publishers, can leave the aspiring writer disheartened to follow the traditional route to getting their work on bookshelves. As indie publishers disappear the likelihood of a mould-breaking work from a fresh perspective could begin to dwindle, replaced by trying to find the new shiny thing that will sell.
Furthermore, the market for Australian writers is one of the hardest to break into, especially through the means of traditional publishing. Writing has faced a long, slow decay in Australia, where it has been belittled down to the product it is selling rather than the story it tells.
If a writer is even lucky to have their manuscript selected for reading and an editor is thoroughly impressed with it, there is still an obstacle course the manuscript must go through before it can get published. These criteria can include simple things such as being too different and too original with your work, meaning your work can be held back as the book is “not suitable for the market.” As you can imagine, this means a lot of literary fiction gets ruled out due to the innovative ways authors tackle the genre and what it is known for.
Moreover, the imbalance between publishers and writers has steadily increased over the years. Nowadays, publishers have whittled down the advances they give to their writers, making it incredibly hard to earn a living for a writer. A study from Macquarie University in 2015 showed that authors typically earn $12,900 per year; a collation of the author’s sales, royalties from books borrowed from the library, and festival appearances. In 2020, a survey from the Australian Society of Authors showed half of the respondents barely made $2,000 per year, with most authors requiring another job to keep them afloat financially.
The Australian Council have also cut funds for authors, despite the fact that grants given through the government were the backbone of small, local markets in Australian writing. It comes as no surprise then that indie publishing and self-publishing are the way forward for most Australian writers.
This is why Winkler’s shortlist success is so important for the many self-published authors out there. It has opened the gates for other self-published books to be submitted for book prizes and showed readers how self-published books deserve as much praise and accolade as a book published by a publishing house. As a result of Grimmish being nominated, we would hope that authors would be able to earn more through publishing their books too, despite there still being a risk of it not being “suitable for the market” traditional published and self-published alike.