Home | Policy & Reform | ‘We will be fighting hard’: outrage as UWA axes publishing house after 85 years
UWAP Director Terri-ann White. Photo: Tyndall Andy

‘We will be fighting hard’: outrage as UWA axes publishing house after 85 years

Academics, authors, alumni and the book-loving public are in a state of shock after the University of Western Australia yesterday announced it would close its publishing house after 85 years.

The decision, circulated in a memo by Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Partnerships) Tayyeb Shah, proposed that UWA Publishing’s “current operations come to an end by engaging in a progressive close down of operations”. 

As rationale, the memo notes that the publishing house’s activities are out of alignment with its “core mission and strategic priorities”, and that a pivot to an open-access digitised repository would be a more suitable investment.  

“Currently, only a small proportion of the authors and content published by UWA Publishing relate directly to the University and its work,” the memo states.

The window for staff consultation is open for less than two weeks. The memo declares the shutdown to begin effective this month. 

Current UWAP Director Terri-ann White and four other staff members are expected to lose their jobs.

“This is devastating,” said White, who has held the executive role since 2006. “We will be fighting back to make a case for the value of a university-based publishing house.”

The decision came out of left field, she told Campus Review.

While she had discussed the possibility of open-access with the university, and supported it as “another string in our bow”, the idea had been put forward as something that would complement rather than replace the traditional publishing model: “that we would continue to make print books and do what we do in our list”.

“On Tuesday it was communicated somewhat differently, in that the traditional publishing model would cease,” she says.

The proposal itself — a mere couple of lines — also bewilders her in its timing. It is not a comprehensive plan to create a new business model. 

“We’ve got a full program of publications for next year. We’ve got a rather large backlist and a national and US distributor that we have relationship and agreement with. We have royalty payments that need to be calculated and paid in March 2020. And we have authors that we both cherish and feel responsible for.”

The proposal would “wipe the whole lot of us out,” before Christmas, she says. “What happens when the university reopens? Who’s going to answer the phone and do all the things I’ve just described, and a great deal more?”

She reflects that it is typically at the end of November that they would be deciding on the shortlist for the next Dorothy Hewett Award for an unpublished manuscript, which has been running successfully for five years.

I don’t know how we’re going to deliver that if we close down.”

The independent press may be small, but it is mighty. In 2017, Josphine Wilson’s Extinctions won the Miles Franklin Award, the nation’s most prestigious literary award (controversially, UWAP didn’t pay for the entry). This year, its volume of Christmas Island poems by Reneé Pettitt-Schipp won the 2019 Western Australian Premier’s Book Award for an Emerging Writer.

It also publishes a line of Indigenous titles, including one on Noongar bush medicine, which is one of its top-selling books.

Since 2011, UWAP been a key support behind the Mamang, Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project by Kim Scott; a bilingual series which aims to reclaim lost dialect and support the vitality of Noongar language and cultural heritage. Each book is workshopped through a series of community meetings involving Elders and artists. 

The stories are then taken to country, where Noongar artists illustrate the pages.

“We’ve published six so far; we were planning on a seventh and eighth in 2020,” says White.

“It’s incredibly distressing to think that might fall out because of this decision.”

In a media statement sent to Campus Review late on Friday, UWA said that “current publishing works already in train this year and next year are expected to continue”. There is also the option to consider 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,” it continued. “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.”

The community in WA and beyond has rallied to keep UWAP alive, decrying the move as short-sighted, and a open threat to the vitality of the literary sector. A petition launched at 1am on Friday by award-winning poet poet Melinda Smith to revoke the decision had amassed over six thousand votes by Monday morning.

“UWAP is a vital part of national cultural life,” commented UWA Discipline Chair for English and Cultural Studies and former Westerly editor Tony Hughes-d’Aeth. “It is an asset that belongs to UWA and the WA community and [should be] celebrated and supported.”

“No matter the reason, closing it is foolish and insulting to everyone in the arts,” averred poet Dr Robyn Rowland AO. 

Publishing and literature associations have also called for UWA to reverse its decision, including the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) and the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL).

“UWA Publishing is Western Australia’s conduit to the intellectual life of the world,” ASAL’s WA representative Tanya Dalziell told Campus Review. “The decision to close down the Press is damaging to both the university’s reputation and its role in the life of the nation.”

The Small Press Network also voiced its disappointment.

“UWAP has published important titles in fiction, poetry and Indigenous writing, as well as general nonfiction titles, that between them reach a much broader readership than open-access academic works ever will,” it said in a statement.

The chorus continues on Twitter.

The closure comes on the heels of a concussive series of blows for Australian literature. Early this year, Melbourne University prompted a board and leadership exodus for its decision to severely limit the remit of its publishing house by focusing on academic titles. And in October, the University of Sydney effectively cut the legs off the Chair of Australian Literature by removing funding support.

White is determined not to give up the fight. After a few days to collect her thoughts, she is mobilising and remaining positive. Since she woke up this morning, her day has been a frenzy of emails and media interviews. While “overwhelming”, the messages she’s been receiving have been very welcome.

“They’re wonderful,” she says. “They’re the best thing about this.”

This article was updated on Monday 11 November 2019 to include a media statement from UWA.

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