On Heyward’s figures, 60% of books sold in Australia are published in Australia, which if true is remarkable given the range and quality of imported books (of course some of the 60% would be overseas-authored books for which local publishers have bought the Australian rights). According to Heyward, our mix of bookshops is better than those in Britain, the US or Canada. Australians, he says, are near the top of the list for book consumption per capita (though on actually reading books we are typical of the Anglosphere, according to this recent Morgan Poll).
The only statistic he can find to suggest, in his view, that there is anything wrong is the number of books published per million people, in which we ‘lag’ behind other countries – but this is surely in the worthless factoid department since what is the possible rationale for yet more books when not even the most dedicated reader could get through the 8,602 titles that were published in Australia in 2003-04? (And most of the countries he mentions are not English speaking, and cannot use foreign publishers in the way Australians can).
But Heyward is determined to find something for the government to spend our money on, and it is editors. He not-very-plausibly suggests that more editors might mean more Australian books being published, but more plausibly implies that the standard of editing in Australian publishing isn’t what it could be. His most specific proposal is for a $1 million a year to help publishers hire and train a dozen editors
While perhaps editors could be better trained (and the government does already contribute to this via university subsidies), I don’t think the quality of editing is a major source of problems in Australian publishing. While even very good writers can benefit from editorial advice, there is only so much an editor can do. If something isn’t already of a high standard when it arrives in the editor’s in-box, it is very unlikely to be more than ‘good enough’, no matter how skill the editor has or how much time the editor spends on it. One of the frustrating things about being an editor is that you get most praise when you have done the least work, as the best things you publish rarely require more than a little polishing.
So more important than better editing is better initial writing. These days, most writers will have been to university, and that’s where they need to learn about writing. Many US colleges and universities have ‘writing and composition’ courses. I expect they are of variable quality, but I’m sure they must contribute to the significantly higher standard of writing found in US books and magazines compared to their Australian equivalents.
It’s tempting to dismiss Heyward’s suggestion as just shameless rent-seeking. It is that, but I think there is more going on here. To Australia’s state-loving artists, writers and intellectuals, there is something special about government money. To them, it is not just finance, it is recognition of their importance. The phrase ‘public support’ of the arts captures both aspects of what they want: cash and credit. It is not enough for Heyward to be a successful in the market; he wants to be worthy in the eyes of the state as well.