SPUNC: an interview with Zoe Dattner

Verity La Lighthouse Yarns


A small press publisher called Russian Thought released a story called ‘The Lady with a Little Dog’ in their December issue, in 1899. A little earlier, The Russian Messenger had released chapters of War and Peace in alternate issues with Crime and Punishment. The authors Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevski were not gracing the pages from the height of literary success and prestige. Those small press publishers were instrumental in bringing these works of literature into being. For me it’s always represented an ideal of small press publishing and perhaps a mythical era never to be seen again. If we contrast this to the embattled small press scene in Australia at the moment, we might feel a sense of tragic diminishment. But small presses are proliferating as small press publication becomes more broadly available. There are more passionate writers than ever in this country, and more Aussie publishers expressing a fierce dedication to grass roots work. The cultivation of an avid literary culture seems all that’s missing. What are your thoughts on this perspective and how can an organisation like SPUNC help in creating that kind of climate?


I think that Australia does have a reasonably avid literary culture. If it didn’t we wouldn’t have such a proliferation of small presses, journals, university courses and independent bookstores – not to mention the number of individuals deeply passionate about writing and reading. Also, SPUNC wouldn’t exist. SPUNC came to be because a group of small publishers in Melbourne perceived an ever-growing small press sector that needed industry cohesion and representation. That is, the mass was approaching a critical one, which is fantastic news for emerging writers and adventurous readers, and the independent bookselling industry. As for the story you invoke about Chekhov, I’m pleased to say that this is something that continues to occur with those authors who are unearthed by small publishers. Helen Garner first emerged when a small publishing company called McPhee Gribble published Monkey Grip back in the 70s. Giramondo, a two person team in Sydney, continue to attract awards and nominations for a number of their books, as do many other publishers who are members of SPUNC. There are so many wonderful stories where authors who were rejected by every major publishing company are picked up by smaller ones, willing to take a risk, and having it pay off with critical acclaim, awards, or even better, high book sales. Most of these publishers you would never have heard of, and I hope that SPUNC is helping to attract more attention to these small outfits. In a lot of cases, these presses are operated part time, subsidised by other ‘day jobs’, and a lot of voluntary or unpaid work by people passionate about the titles, and keen to be a part of Australian publishing.
The mythical era you allude to is well and truly alive and vibrant right now. The future of publishing is abuzz with debate and as massive companies such as Amazon and Apple (and there are many others of course) enter the fray with predictions of how we will read, the issue of humans telling stories and conveying them to audiences has become a much bigger and globally shared conversation. Which is really very wonderful for us all. And small presses are able to take part in that conversation from ground zero. Because that is the only thing we have ever been that interested in. Many small publishers (including myself, probably) wouldn’t know a Da Vinci Code if it was hand delivered by golden angels descending from the sky with choral refrains of ‘This is going to be the biggest selling novel ever published’, but we know a Chekhov when we see one. No doubt about it. And we will publish it, and we will celebrate it, and we will feel chuffed. And the reader shall reap the rewards.