The Nielsen Bookscan figures have proved something of a mixed benediction for the publishing industry since their introduction in 2002. No longer are bestseller lists culled from selected bookstores, thereby creating the impression that folk from Kogarah to Keilor Downs are feasting on the latest in Australian literary fiction (rather than true crime and cookbooks).

Now that a publisher can see very clearly what is selling in the marketplace, the already prevalent culture of me-too-ism has become rampant. Suddenly, the shelves are groaning with volumes dedicated to stain removal and variations of diets designed by the CSIRO. If Australian literary fiction is a conspicuous casualty of the weekly Bookscan survey, so the hitherto despised genre of true crime has benefited enormously. In the case of the Schapelle Corby bio Schapelle Corby: My Story (possibly a transliteration of Moi Story) co-penned by Kathryn Bonella, the resulting boost has been to the tune of 91,000 copies. Sadly for Our Schapelle, she is unable to profit from her boogie board boo-boo.

Pan Macmillan, on the other hand, has done very nicely. Even if you allow for a ridiculous advance on royalties, it’s not to be sniffed at. A $500,000 advance, for instance, would require something like 166,000 copies to be sold before Schappers earned out her advance. Even if My Life only sells only another 20 large, Pan Macmillan can afford to break out the Founder’s Port for a celebratory snort.

The greater philosophical conundrum, of course, is the moral dubiety of a publisher making money from wrongdoing when the wrongdoer herself is prevented from doing so. And what of the booksellers and the ATO raking in the GST? As for Corby’s royalties which the Federal Government has taken unto itself, one assumes it is heading for consolidated revenue. But hey now, wouldn’t it be a splendiloquent idea to dedicate the confiscated dosh to assist those poor bastards still slaving away at the coal-face of literary fiction? Just a thought. Certainly, Terry Hicks’ remark (The Age 4/4/07) that there is an anomaly in having Leigh Sales and MUP profiting from his son’s predicament has added piquancy to the debate.

The moral compass is hardly pointing true north in the Random House. Various shenanigans have culminated in the appointment of Nikki Christer in the wake of the twin departures of Jane Palfreyman and Fiona Henderson who didn’t seem to see eye-to-eye with either Margie Seale, publishing director and managing director, or her appointee, former PBL P-mag chief Jill Baker.

Better an empty Random House, you suppose, than a bad tenant. Palfreyman has since landed at Allen & Unwin and so too have at least three of her high-profile authors — Christos Tsiolkas, Michelle De Kretser and Malcolm Knox. It might explain Seale’s sensitivity to the suggestion that the snaring of Christer, formerly of Picador, has the potential added bonus of drawing names like Elliot Perlman, Richard Flanagan and Tim Winton into the fold.

”We would of course welcome authors, should they wish to be published with us, but that’s not why we employed Nikki,” she is quoted in the Bookseller + Publisher’s Weekly Book Newsletter (4/4/07) as saying. “We employed Nikki because she’s a brilliant publisher.” Goes without saying.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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