The jobs of the employees and director Terri-ann White, who has led UWA Publishing for 13 years and worked at UWA for many years prior to that, would be “surplus to requirements”, the memo said.
“We’re absolutely fighting this,” said White, who has been known in the Australian literary landscape since her days as owner of Northbridge’s Arcane Bookshop in the 1980s and 1990s.
Canberra poet and former Prime Minister’s Literary Award winner Melinda Smith put up a change.org petition overnight that had passed 1200 signatures and was being shared across writers’ social media groups on Friday morning.
“It’s already going gangbusters,” White said.
“My inbox is going crazy as well; I am so heartened by the support we are getting for the work we do.”
UWAP has more than 320 books in its backlist and around 35 books scheduled for 2020, many of which are already in production.
The press published Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions, which won the 2017 Miles Franklin Prize, the nation’s most prestigious book prize, and was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. It also published her debut, Cusp.
“That is significant, that a book produced in a university program, then published by a university press, can then go on to win these awards,” White said.
Other UWAP publications to gain national attention this year included Renee Pettit-Schipp’s poetry collection The Sky Runs Right Through Us, which won the WA Premiers Book Award for an emerging writer; Anna Haebich’s Dancing in Shadows, on the shortlist for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award; and Rozanna Lilley’s Do Oysters Get Bored? on the National Biography Award shortlist.
White said the alternative being proposed, an open-access, purely digital system of scholarly works by UWA authors, didn’t necessarily work for all academic disciplines.
She also believed universities were not just for scholarly works, but for disseminating knowledge and ideas into the wider community.
UWAP runs the $10,000 Dorothy Hewitt Award for unpublished manuscripts and has led the nation in poetry publishing since 2016, since 2015’s major Australia Council funding cuts sent numerous boutique poetry publishers under.
UWAP stepped into the breach with an innovative poetry series that cut costs with streamlined cover designs, and allowed it to publish about 40 books of poetry since.
“They have done well. They have won awards and are often sold hand-to-hand at readings,” White said.
It will undo years of publishing innovation and stunt the current flourishing of creativity in our country’s literature
“We have got them into some bookshops and they have sold very reasonably, with some having to be reprinted. That is one of the big achievements we have provided for poetry, which is a literary form necessary for the dark times we are living in.
“We also encourage academics to write for a broader readership; the smart people who want to keep up with what is going on in the world.
“We publish books that work with language and literary form that stretch the bounds … short stories, verse novels, risky interventions into language and ideas and knowledge.”
Prominent Australian poet John Kinsella, who has published with UWAP as well as overseas publishers, described the news as a shock. He said he worried about a pattern emerging between Australian literature and local universities given Melbourne University Press’s recent decision to only release scholarly work.
“The University of Western Australia has lost the plot,” he said.
“They’re not seeing the consequences of this. This kind of publishing is very important to keep the dialogue going between different kinds of readers, different kinds of thinkers.
“And from a poet’s point of view it’s absolutely catastrophic. UWA Publishing is one of the [poetry] pillars.”
The Change.org petition says that UWAP under White is a national treasure whose cessation would leave an enormous hole in the Australian literary landscape.
“The decision to disband UWAP will have a devastating impact not just at UWA, not even just in the state of WA, but nationally. It will undo years of publishing innovation and stunt the current flourishing of creativity in our country’s literature,” it says.
UWA’s memo mentioned it would ensure continued access to back catalogues and an ability for authors to obtain royalties.
UWA said in a statement late on Friday that UWAP was a longstanding part of the university and would continue as such, and softened the language of the memo, hinting that print publishing might remain part of the mix.
“To ensure that university publishing continues for many years to come, UWA is looking to evolve current operations to broaden publishing reach and impact, and to boost accessibility,” the statement said.
“Current publishing works already in train this year and next year are expected to continue, as will consultation on innovation that will assist UWA Publishing to adapt to the demands of modern publishing, with options to examine a mix of print, greater digitisation and open access publishing.
“The proposal to wind down the present form of UWA Publishing will help to guarantee modern university publishing into the future. Should the proposal proceed, over coming months UWA will look at ways to provide even more equitable access to publishing opportunities, to highlight further works with real-world impact, and to continue the proud tradition of contributing to our cultural foundations.
“UWA, like other Australian universities, is striving to be more responsive to the demands of modern
publishing, and while diversifying, is committed to ongoing promotion and publishing of works that are impactful and enriching in many ways.”
With Broede Carmody
Emma Young covers breaking news with a focus on science and environment, health and social justice for WAtoday.