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Books & Poetry

Diary of a Publisher: Blooming books

Books & Poetry

A visit to historic Burra for an open gardens festival sees publisher Michael Bollen discover an Aladdin’s cave of second-hand books. It also provokes a twinge of sadness.

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“Yeah, I’m all right. Just won the two-yard race,” says Les, 97. “An all-day event.”

I’d like to ask Les for stories, but he’s the centre of neighbourly badinage. I’m listening quietly from a corner, under a verandah by a beautiful garden, minding my brood of books for sale.

Daughter Em and I are up in historic Burra for an open gardens festival. Wakefield authors are on the speakers’ program, including Bendigo escapees Penelope Curtin and Tansy Curtin, mother and daughter team behind Blooms and Brushstrokes: A floral history of Australian art. The title of guru Trevor Nottle’s sparkling book of gardenalia, Endless Pleasure, suits well this lovely town.

Not just for the gardens with their spring flowers, or the stone cottages, or the bridges over the running creek. Wonder of wonders, Em and I discover as we take turns to wander, Market Square is dotted with Aladdin’s caves. Bric-a-brac, collectables, cake and coffee, and – ta da! – wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling second-hand books.

Here in Gaslight cafe I pick and choose a handful, titles from before I was born. Thinking, well, I could sit here these next 36 years until I’m Les’s age, and not get through all the books I’d like to read. So long as that nice gentleman keeps bringing me cake, I’ll be happy. Perhaps a glass of wine?

Thinking also, maybe there’s something obscure here I could bring back into print as a surprise bestseller.

Splayed on a rack are some back issues of The Adelaide Review magazine. A twinge of sadness, a worm in the rose, the same as I felt a couple of days ago back in the office when I interrupted Maddy Sexton, editor and compiler of our Wakefield Weekly newsletter, among many jobs.

Maddy was racing to meet her own deadline. She made it, completing an excellent piece, dual-purposed for our blog and the Weekly, on a poem from Annette Marner’s Women with Their Faces on Fire.

That’s happy. Sad was the thought that The Adelaide Review, 1984–2020, is no more, its last issue, number 488, published this month.

“I was about your age when I worked there 35 years ago,” I told Maddy as she focused on her article, fingers flashing over keyboard. “I pretended I could type. Rude shock when, day three, the boss asked me to type a letter while he dictated. Live and learn.”

The first question to ask of a manuscript is: Why this book?

Interrupting Maddy further, I went into a codger’s rave. How much I learnt, connections made, books that emerged and keep emerging from that well, writers encouraged and sustained . . .

She nodded. “I wouldn’t have learnt so much in a large place as I have here these last couple of years. Would have been a cog in a wheel. Here everyone is 17 cogs.”

In our little hive Maddy works with authors, editors, typesetters, sales reps, designers, shop customers, trade customers, random enquirers (“How do you write a book?”), marketing folk, accounting managers, warehouse manager, production manager, interns, the odd drop-in drunk (she’s used to them: second job is at the Arab Steed hotel).  Through these last daily-changing months of muddle, she’s been Wakefield’s helmsman, calmly, efficiently, keeping the ship sailing on, learning all the time and bringing her own skills to bear.

Now that “in-person” events are possible, COVID-marshall Maddy has her events manager hat on again, ready for all that finicky organising as we rev up with launching and talks.

Maddy Sexton at Wakefield Press.

Blog post completed, a couple of phone enquiries answered, she moved back on to copy-editing a fat book of 19th-century SA murders (watch out for it next year!).

“Did you always want to work in publishing?” I ask Maddy.

“My Year Six teacher,” she says, “told my mother I had a book in me. Well, I looked back at my first efforts, and realised it wasn’t a very good book.”

I’m convinced that if Maddy sticks in this game, she’ll be a power behind many fine, enduring books. A century hence, they’ll line shelves in magical places like Gaslight in Burra.

“Why, why? says the junk in yard.” The line from Paul McCartney’s song – from his forgettable first solo album – hovers as I wander Burra’s stores.

“The first question to ask of a manuscript,” I said to Maddy, as someone decades ago said to me, “is, ‘Why this book?’.”

“It gives endless pleasure”, or something close to that idyll, will surely be a sufficient response.  With Goyder’s Line shifting south over Burra, they say, and so much in publishing and media being laid to waste, fingers crossed we can all hang in to grow gardens with juicy mature fruit, ripe for the plucking.

Michael Bollen is director at Adelaide-based independent publishing house Wakefield Press. He writes a regular column for InDaily.

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