Tales of Independent Publishing in Melbourne and Sydney - Guest Post by Alice Gage [04.06.2010]
“There’s no comparison. Melbourne is a city with a heart; Sydney is a city with a wallet and inside that wallet is a credit card.” -Robert Doyle, Melbourne Lord Mayor
Before I attempt a diplomatic but insightful response to this theme, let’s get my history out in the open. I was born and bred in Sydney. I came to live in Melbourne when I was 22 and did a Masters of Publishing at Melbourne Uni. I stayed for three years, and in that time started Ampersand Magazine. I fell for a guy that lived in Sydney and I was ready for a change so I moved back north. We broke up. Now I’m in love with a guy that lives in Melbourne. What a shit. But I would be very happy to move back and am sure at some point I will.
Whether or not Cr Doyle’s sentiment has any kind of philosophical truth to it is up to you, but in the case of independent publishing, God knows I wish it were so now I’m in Sydney. But it’s not; in fact the opposite is true. Melbourne, named a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008 and with the newly opened Wheeler Centre, has received the official nod – a government-sanctioned vindication of the city’s literary culture and a huge amount of money and infrastructure pumped into independent publishing and everything wordy. (SPUNC of course has had the huge boon of getting office space at the Centre and perhaps other kinds of support, but I’ll leave Zoe and the rest of the team to divulge that information – perhaps you could entreaty us in the comments below, guys.)
By contrast, last year I submitted a grant application to the City of Sydney’s creative development round which incurred such pain that only shitting an apartment block can compare, and which I was assured had a good chance of being successful. When it was knocked back, I was told the reason was that there was a conflict with ‘freedom of the press’, that is, the City felt it would be vulnerable to being portrayed in a poor light in that medium more so than say, an installation or an event. These guys have no idea. They don’t see publishing to be a legitimate artistic medium. Perhaps that’s the first difference in the cities’ two scenes: one is valued and invested in and the other is barely recognised and unsupported.
Of course Melbourne’s success is fantastic, and well deserved. Melbourne has always produced outstanding literature and has a resplendent publishing tradition. The reward has come because of quality and quantity of the city’s output.
It is an unknowable supposition that I never would have started Ampersand had I not lived in Melbourne and been surrounded by such interesting projects and supportive people. But I have a feeling it is true. What’s more, Melbourne leads Australia in education in the field. The post-graduate course that I did was the first of its kind in the country, initiated by former Meanjin editor Jenny Lee and outspoken publishing all-rounder Mark Davis in their desire to train good editors, particularly in an age where Hawke-era primary schoolers who had never learned formal grammar, and who were rapidly evolving their own digi-speak, were entering the professional world. Since its inception the course has been mimicked in universities around Australia. I loved this course and took a huge amount from it.
In my first year of living in Melbourne I went from never having even contemplated starting a publication of my own to believing, knowing, that it was an entirely possible venture.
Back up north though, we’re getting there, despite the lack of formal support. There is a burgeoning indie press scene happening here but it isn’t strictly literary – which is a good reflection on this city’s varied interests, and that is, after all, at the very heart of what magazines are about.
Some of them are great, some of them tow the line. Just like Melbourne’s offerings.
As far as literary publications go, however, they are few and far between, and as far as I know Ampersand stands alone in this new guard (and we are not purely literary). But there is a huge groundswell of events and communities that celebrate the ins and outs of all things literary, even if physical print doesn’t quite have the air time it does in Melbz. There is Even Books, a group that puts on parties for book geeks. Penguin Plays Rough is a fantastic monthly reading night. Rainoff Books is a publishing house that runs pop-up bookshops. There’s Imperial Panda, an interdisciplinary DIY arts festival that gave birth to Erotic Fan Fiction – a curated reading event where local luminaries are asked to write and perform short stories about their favourite celebrities doing each other (the event has become a highlight of the Sydney Writers Festival and sold out this and last year). And going back a few years there was Token Word, a massively successful monthly spoken word event that ran at the now-defunct Knot Gallery that drew together and had brawling a feast of young arty nerds, most of whom are now running this mongrel scene.
Taking all of that into account, you start to get a picture of a city that has a cracking and ballsy independent arts scene that is run on the smell of an oily rag and manifests in a wonderful cross-over of interests. While none of my friends are publishers, they are amazingly supportive of what I do and the confluence of our interests is at the heart of what Ampersand is all about.
In that way, Sydney has a blend of disciplines that seems less rigid than in Melbourne. We have less pride in an analytical culture so we’re not constrained to proving our intelligence, which is where I feel Melbourne’s journals often try to go.
So here comes my major and final and probably most arguable point of this article. Sydney is a town, and please forgive me for coining this horrible phrase, of ‘intelligent larrikinism’. Sure we publish Women’s Weekly, not The Monthly, but we are also home to the Ern Malley hoax, Oz Magazine, The Chaser, and Erotic Fan Fiction: this is the output of a city that has little credibility to lose.
While I love the amount of energy and faith and activity there is in Melbourne, there is a lack of supervision and pretension and expectation, and a real Fuck Yeah! culture that makes working on an indie magazine in Sydney very fun, despite Robert Doyle’s convictions (and those of so many Melburnians). Professionally, however, I’d wager that there are more opportunities to build a career in the field in Melbourne – unless you want to end up Chief Editor at New Idea.
Alice Gage is the founding editor of Sydney-based art and culture journal Ampersand Magazine. She is a member of the live publishing collective I Can Draw You A Picture, which will launch its first project at Underbelly Festival this July. And she is helping to build a Librarium (part library, part aquarium) at Redfern ARI, Bill & George. Alice loves magazines, hip music and swanky dinners.
Ampersand Magazine is an Australian curiosity journal. Ampersand explores creativity, societal change and the human condition through multi-disciplines. We are interested in the discussion of any subject matter, particularly that which is unfashionable, unorthodox, illuminating or rare. We intertwine it all with absurdity, sex and cheap laughs.