If a week is a long time in politics, then it’s an eternity in book publishing. Last Monday then PM Kevin Rudd launched Lenore Taylor’s and David Uren’s book, Shitstorm, at parliament house, spending 45 minutes listing the many achievements of his government, particularly the effective way it handled the GFC.

Last night it was Malcolm Turnbull’s turn to chair the Sydney launch, and surprisingly, his view was a little different. Sitting on a milk-crate at Balmain’s Bertoni café yesterday morning, he said the most interesting parts of the book showed the way the government panicked when it realised the extent of the economic downturn.

In between, of course, we had a change of PM, leading to several publishers ringing their printers on Thursday afternoon, pressing the stop button on a Rudd book. Melbourne University Press had spent six months editing a book on Rudd, written by an academic and former adviser, but they were not alone.

In the way that architects sometimes have exhibitions (and even prizes) for unbuilt designs, publishers should perhaps have websites of unpublished masterpieces — surely someone wants to read about Rudd, even it if it to wallow in this week’s overriding emotion — schadenfreude.

Anyway, Turnbull is a fine speaker, and it was a much jollier launch at Gleebooks last night.

While people were streaming in, he warmed up the crowd by talking about Tony Gallagher, the first owner of the bookshop, who was also young Malcolm’s English and classics teacher at Sydney Grammar.

Gallagher was the director of the school’s production of King Lear, starring Turnbull in the character of Mad Tom, “who runs around looking like a maniac, which was quite good preparation”, he said.

While waiting outside Sydney Uni’s Great Hall to go on stage, Turnbull had decided to improve his costume by rolling around in the dirt and twigs piled under a bush. Upon hearing the sound of an MG, he leapt out on the road, causing the young driver to put his foot down and take off — the effect many people would like him to have on Tony Abbott.

Taylor and Uren have done a fine job of writing about the GFC and the government response to it in an accessible and interesting way. Turnbull said that one of the lessons of the crisis is the need for more transparency around financial products such as derivatives, which needed to be traded on markets in standard forms. Which is a bit rich coming from a former director of Goldman Sachs, particularly given his walk-on part in the Shakespearian tragedy of HIH, starring Ray Williams as King Lear and Young Rodney as Goneril.

From Glebe, it was a 10-minute drive in the Crikey limousine to Paddington, to attend the annual Australian Book Industry Awards, hosted expertly by Gretel Killeen, who has herself published 20 books. The awards recognise literary and commercial success, and are voted for by a large panel of publishers and booksellers.

Although the big topic of last year’s dinner was the ongoing battle over parallel importing, this year there was much talk of the “challenge” of digital publishing, which is a bit like describing cancer symptoms as “issues”.

Allen & Unwin’s long-time chairman Patrick Gallagher was a popular recipient of the Lloyd O’Neil Award for outstanding service to the Australian book industry.

In his speech, he said that “unlike the finance industry we make things that last. We won’t be making things in quite the same way in the future, but they are things than can last and make a difference.”

Tom Keneally was there to receive the General Non-Fiction Book of the Year award for Australians: Origins to Eureka, also published by Allen & Unwin, which won overall Publisher of the Year.

He said it was “a wonderful thing to be in the industry and be supported by booksellers and publishers who have been selling my books since 1965, I thank them and I honour them”.

Book of the Year was awarded to Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, published by Allen and Unwin. In his videoed acceptance speech, Silvey thanked his publisher, Jane Palfreyman, describing her as a “hot bitch” to the delight of the crowd.

Small Publisher of the Year was won by Henry Rosenbloom’s Scribe Publications, which also won Book of the Year for Older Children for Parlour Games for Modern Families, a book, he said, which had been written, designed and illustrated by members of his extended family.

Speech of the night, however, went to Martin Shaw, who came on stage on behalf of Carlton’s Readings bookshop to accept the award for Independent Bookseller of the Year.

At the end of his speech, he excoriated the Redgroup (Angus and Robertson and Borders) for their “vulgar over-pricing”, leading to a round of applause from the audience. Afterwards, I was inundated with people wanting to tell me about the pricing strategies of the group, which is now owned by private equity firm PEP, and the effect it is having on the industry.

Soon, however, the lure of the Fringe Bar was too strong, and the black-clad crowd dispersed to the after-party, no doubt to discuss their upcoming books on Julia Gillard.  But will there be a category for digital e-books at the Australian Book Industry Awards next year? Now, that would create a shitstorm.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey