Rob Kennedy interviews Susan Hawthorne about the life and need for Spinifex Press
Over 22 years ago, at the end of 1990, Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein went on holidays to Kakadu. One afternoon they started talking about publishing, and within a short time, they decided to have a go at running their own press. From this they formed Spinifex Press, http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/ it was born out of an idea, and a need.
RK: Tell me about your idea for starting Spinifex Press.
SH: Renate, who was teaching Women’s Studies at Deakin University, had worked as an international editor on several academic journals (eg: Women’s Studies International Forum, Elsevier) as well as a series editor for the Athene Series which published books into the Women’s Studies academic market. She had also been involved in the organising committee for the First International Feminist Book Fair held in London in 1984. I had been working at Penguin Books as a Commissioning Editor and Senior Editor. I’d been there four years working mostly in fiction and poetry, and some trade non-fiction. Prior to Penguin, I’d organised the Women 150 Languages of Difference, Women Writers Festival in Melbourne in 1985. Both Renate and I were part of the founding group of the Australian Feminist Book Fortnight, which ran in 1989 and 1991. There were around 200 events held throughout Australia ‘from Broome to Bernie’. It was a way of promoting feminist writing through bookshops and events. There was a catalogue of books produced which highlighted probably about 100 books and a Top Twenty List, this latter was the basis of window displays in bookstores around Australia.
When Renate and I talked about setting up Spinifex, I said I have a name. I’d had the name Spinifex in my head for about five years, thinking it would make a great name for either a literary magazine or a publishing house.
At Cooinda, in the Kakadu National Park that day, we did the figures and decided we could go ahead and do it. Our figures were completely wrong – which we discovered only later – but we did it anyway.
RK: You both have an excellent publishing history and seemed to be destined to set up Australia’s first feminist press, but was there a particular impetus?
SH: There were a couple of factors operating. Australia had just had Paul Keating’s “recession it had to have.” We had been overseas for the first nine months of 1990 as Renate had a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at San Diego State University. The change in the publishing culture was really obvious when I returned to Penguin after a nine-month break. I could no longer talk up the really interesting books which I’d been able to beforehand.
The other factor was the diminishing space for feminist books in bookshops and the predominance of postmodern books instead. To put it differently, postmodernism was being mistaken for feminism (this is still often the case). That meant that accessible, sensible, clearly written feminist books by radical feminist writers were being bumped off the shelves for imponderable and unreadable ‘texts’ which claimed to be feminist. Not only that, but really good and widely read feminist writers also weren’t being published. We could see a gap in the market, and a political need for those books.
RK: When did it all begin?
SH: We opened the doors of Spinifex on 15 March 1991 and moved into our current premises in September of 1991 after running the press from our living room for six months.
RK: Where are you located; how many staff do you have, and how do you operate?
SH: The Spinifex office is based in North Melbourne with five part-time staff (and Renate and me), but we operate from wherever we are. By this I mean, if we are interstate or overseas we still operate and the Spinifex office continues. These days, we work a lot online, through social media and other kinds of digital communications. We distribute our books throughout Australia and New Zealand from our North Melbourne office, and we have distribution in North America through the Independent Publishers Group (both print and eBooks), and in the UK through Gazelle (print) and Gardners (eBooks). These are all longstanding relationships. We also sell rights into territories where we don’t have distribution (eg South Africa and India) and into foreign languages, (one of our titles has been translated into 16 languages).
RK: Can you summarise the aims and values of Spinifex Press?
SH: Our mission statement was then and still is: ‘Spinifex publishes controversial and innovative feminist books with an optimistic edge.’ I think this has helped us to stay fresh in our outlook and to keep us on our toes.
RK: Spinifex Press has sold countless books and helped expose many issues concerning women, but can you pinpoint the reason for your success?
SH: While we had quite a lot of practicalities to learn when we began, what we knew very well was our market, our audience, our potential writers and why we were publishing. We both came to it with complementary skills: I knew the Australian scene, especially in fiction and poetry, but was also well-versed in international feminism; Renate knew the academic non-fiction scene and was also an avid reader of feminist fiction and poetry. We were both experienced editors.
RK: How do you view yourself in the market and how do you think the market sees you?
SH: There’s always a certain amount of guesswork around the book market. Ours is both local and international. Spinifex books are on courses in Australia and overseas. As mentioned, some books are translated and that gets them into a range of markets we would not otherwise reach.
Our market is decidedly feminist, but that is a pretty broad group and includes readers who would also situate themselves in the mainstream. We have a strong Indigenous list, and that is well read in Australia and overseas. Because we publish authors from overseas, we get a readership among particular immigrant groups in Australia, for example, the Turkish, Anatolian and Armenian communities, after we published Fethiye Çetin’s book My Grandmother. As for age, our readership spans the young feminists who have the world at their feet, through to the 60+ cohort who’ve travelled the same road as us. We also have readers who are specifically interested in ecology, in globalisation, in ending pornography and prostitution as well as those who are inspired by fiction and poetry. None of this is set in stone because readers discover our books in all sorts of ways, mostly randomly, with only occasional help from the media. We know we have readers in Egypt and South Africa, in India and Taiwan, in Germany and Poland – and many other places.
We have resisted becoming either too big or too commercial because those factors eventually weaken you. We have stayed ahead of the mainstream in terms of what we publish, which means that when a topic comes up in general discussion (the mainstream) we already have a book to answer it (sometimes that’s a negative because the media forgets that we published something on the subject ten years earlier). In terms of publishing trends and technology, we have been early adopters. Twenty-two years ago, small Australian presses were not exporting books overseas or selling many rights. But feminist books were bread-and-butter for a large number of bookstores in Canada and the US and within three months we were approached by two of the alternative distributors in the US who handled feminist books. Within six months our first book – Angels of Power – was available in the US and being ordered through feminist bookstores. By the end of 1991 we had won the Pandora Women in Publishing New Venture Award (UK). Our profile internationally is very good and we have maintained that. It is even possible that we are better known internationally than in Australia!
RK: You have been quick to move and adapt to technological change. How has this helped Spinifix?
SH: After CSIRO Publishing and Lonely Planet, we were the next publisher to have a website with all the books in our catalogue on it and available for sale through us. We published the first books internationally on cyberfeminism, on the use of the internet for women, and works of fiction that told stories based around these topics. And we were several years ahead of other publishers in Australia in adopting eBooks which we began in August 2006. In spite of this, the media has never asked us questions about eBooks, even when they’ve done a survey of publishers. (But the industry and the Australian Publishers Association knows and does ask.) Since mid-2007, more than 100 titles have been available as eBooks. Our US distributor told us we were ahead of most of their US-based publishers.
RK: The publishing industry can be very tough. Do you feel like you’ve made a difference and succeeded?
SH: I can’t pretend it’s been easy, but the success we have had is in large part due to our loyal readership, and, undoubtedly, the incredible work of the writers we publish, as well as our great staff. A significant number of our writers have won national and international awards for their writing – and sometimes for their activism as well. As a writer-run publishing house we care about our writers, we keep their books in print and we keep on promoting them much longer than what is the norm in the mainstream.
RK: What are some of your achievements?
SH: Spinifex has also been active in the industry, both in Australia and internationally. In 1994, we were central in organising the 6th International Feminist Book Fair in Melbourne and we led the bid for it to come to Australia. We attend Frankfurt Book Fair every year and have done so since 1992 (with one year missing as I recall, due to illness). We are an active member of the International Alliance of Independent Publishers (of which I am currently the English Language Co-ordinator); it is based in Paris. I’ve been a member of the Australian Publishing Association (APA) independent Publishers Committee for the last two years and involved in other ways with the APA over many years; also involved in the Small Press Network (SPN) (formerly SPUNC) activities since it started and before that, Australian Book Group, Publish Australia and Women in Publishing. As well as a variety of writing related positions at universities since 1996 – I am currently Adjunct Professor in the Writing Program at James Cook University in Townsville – supervising students doing PhDs and MAs in fiction, poetry and publishing. Last year I was an Australian Society of Authors Mentor.
RK: Reviews, prizes, advertising and promotion of women writers are well behind male writers. But there are more women writers and more women involved in publishing than men. How can we change this imbalance?
SH: When I worked at Penguin, in one year, 1988, when the Penguin Australian Women’s Library was launched (series editor was Dale Spender) even with about six books from that series in the mix, women were still only 40% of Penguin’s output. And already male authors were complaining that you had to be a woman to be published!
At that time, I began asking men when was the last time they’d read a book by a woman. Most hadn’t read one knowingly (or had not remembered it) since primary school. The few men who had, were usually paid to do so; they were academics, journalists and reviewers. Very few had recently read a book by a woman; very few could name a woman writer whose work they liked.
This is in contrast to women who when they go book shopping will buy books by men and by women – and they’ll read them. So women are propping up the sales of men’s books, but men are not doing the same for women’s books.
Part of this also goes back to the publishing houses, the media and the festival and event organisers. Who gets the big marketing budgets in publishing? I have no doubt that if this were surveyed, there would be a few exceptional women with big budgets, but in the middle range, men would have more money spent on them. This has a cascading effect on what gets reviewed – again count the reviews over the last ten years and see the figures (that’s what the Stella Prize women did). Who are the big names on the festival circuit; who wins the biggest prizes? Who jacks up when women are noticed (just watch parliament!)?
As a feminist press, we are countering all of this with every book we publish.