Publishing for culture but not for profit

In the highly commercial landscape of Australian book publishing, it is unheard of to start an independent publishing imprint that describes itself as a Not-For-Profit. But Terri-ann White has done it, with the establishment of her Perth-based Upswell Publishing.

The explanation is simple, and for those who know Terri-ann, entirely in keeping with her direct style. “So, I thought: ‘I’m not in it to make money and neither could I make money, if I was to be honest. So, if I go for a Not-For-Profit status and frame it as a Not-For-Profit exercise, I’m probably in a much better position because I’m being deeply honest about what I’m doing,’’ she said. 

Terri-ann started Upswell in the middle of last year after leaving the University of Western Australia Publishing after 14 years as director and publisher. In that time, she published about 450 titles, shepherding a range of raw talents into award-winning authors across genres and styles.

With a combination of redundancy payment and superannuation funds, she started Upswell with the steely focus on producing quality books that capture the spirit of the nation. Terri-ann frames it this way: “[To] publish literary writers, poets, a range of people who are primarily interested in language and how it works and through this capture something of the zeitgeist – either in fiction or non-fiction.’’

She was not intimidated at the thought of moving from a secure university-based role to creating her own business – she had done that earlier in her career, when she started a bookshop at the age of 23, but this decision had its special challenge.

“I wanted to echo the type of publishing I was interested in by thinking about it as not-for-profit because it’s really hard to sell a non-blockbuster book in Australia. It’s super hard to sell a book that is significant for long-term legacy and the literary heritage of Australia,’’ Terri-ann said.

Terri-ann decided that she’d forego a salary for two years. By her own admission, she “works like a dog.’’ Terri-ann had the benefit of an invitation from Morry Schwartz’s publishing arm, Black Inc Books to distribute her titles – “a gesture of generosity and solidarity’’ – and she works with a Melbourne-based publicist, a Perth-based typesetter and Fremantle-based designer, and editors scattered across the nation. But the reading of manuscripts, the frequent engagement with authors, the rejection letters, the contract negotiations, media requests and even posting books sourced from her website, all fall to Terri-ann.

 “This is an investment in a cultural activity and cultural artefacts rather than making a business in a highly competitive field. It’s an honest approach to think about it as a not-for-profit,’’ Terri-ann said.

She has two other people on her board – former West Australian Premier and Federal Labor MP Dr Carmen Lawrence and lawyer and former West Australian state politician Linda Savage. But the editorial decisions are all Terri-ann’s.

“I’m hoping that I can cover my costs,’’ she said. “It’s really hard work especially from this side of the country, when the publishing industry is headquartered between Melbourne and Sydney, and we are complete outliers. I guess all my life, I’ve come from this place and grown a west coast-shaped chip on my shoulder: the east coast was where the action was and maybe I’d got the short straw. I want to live here – I have lived here all my life, but I also want to be an international person – I want to have influences from everywhere.’’

Terri-ann is also dealing with the hardy preconception that writing, publishing and selling books is somehow a lucrative pursuit for everyone involved.

“People imagine that if you make an object that costs them 30 bucks to buy in a bookshop that you’d be making enough money to be drinking Moet at least once a week,’’ Terri-ann said. “The economics of publishing remain very much a secret and when you see a bookshop and you see those books piled up and you’re forking out the dosh, it does look like this could be a hugely profitable industry – and of course it is at the top with the big six (publishers): multinationals, who can strangle the independents through market share and their extraordinary publicity and marketing budgets.’’

Part of Terri-ann’s task is to show book buyers that publishing – and the creating of books – is a cultural activity, not a commercial one.

Terri-ann’s embrace of philanthropy is coming from the other side of the fence this time. Some years ago, she was the philanthropist, supporting other arts companies including West Australian-based contemporary dance company STRUT Dance, and funding scholarships for their dancers. Now, she’s looking to others to give her a hand and Upswell has secured DGR status to help facilitate that.

“I’d love to think people want to be part of participating in the making of books that hopefully will last…that will stay in the culture’s memory to 10 to 20 to 50 to 100 years. Those are the type of books that helped me get completely turned on to literature when I was young woman and changed my life,’’ Terri-ann said.

There is no shortage of interest in being part of her publishing stable. There is quality out there and Terri-ann finds it hard to ignore, regardless of the work that it generates.

“I wasn’t planning to publish 19 books this year,’’ she explained. “I was planning on, generally speaking, 4-10 books a year. It’s the quality of them I’m being offered, so I’m betting on these books to transcend issues of financial overreach.’’

 “Every day I get some kind of extraordinary affirmation from an author, from another publisher, from someone completely out of the blue. It’s superb.’’

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