Bibliodiversity, Fair Speech and Cultural Resilience –
an Interview with the Feminist Author and Publisher Susan Hawthorne

This spring, I had the great pleasure to meet Susan Hawthorne, who was invited to Berlin by the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin and spoke on account of the publication of the German translation of her book “Bibliodiversity”, translated by Doris Hermanns and published by Verbrecher Verlag in March 2017 (link). In our interview for the Literary Field Kaleidscope, we touched upon chances for and challenges to bibliodiversity, writing spaces, activism, and how bibliodiversity was and is connected to feminism. Before posting the interview, let me give you a brief overview about Susan Hawthorne’s latest publication Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishing.

In her manifesto, Susan Hawthorne explains what bibliodiversity means for a literary field – following Chilean publishers who coined it in the 1990s and developing it further – and how to get there. Her definition of bibliodiversity is deliberately connected to biodiversity in an ecosystem:

“Bibliodiversity is a complex self-sustaining system of storytelling, writing, publishing and other kinds of production of orature and literature. The writers and producers are comparable to the inhabitants of an ecosystem. Bibliodiversity contributes to a thriving life of culture and a healthy ecosocial system […]
[Bibliodiversity] is not just about profits. It is about creating a long-lasting and sustaining literary culture.”

The risks of nurturing monocultures instead of bibliodiversity lie not only in the lack of diversity and choice, but also in the reproduction of various kinds of violence such as racism, misogyny, homophobia, and colonisation. Susan Hawthorne explains how the literary field’s level of bibliodiversity is linked to colonial power structures, but also how resistance – not least through feminism and feminist perspectives – can make a difference. Her book provides many examples from the trade and lists a number of principles and things everyone in the field can do to make it a healthier ecosystem.


Sandra van Lente: Why do you think that bibliodiversity is so important for every literary field?

Susan Hawthorne: I think the reasons why it is important come from its origins. Independent Chilean publishers invented the term in 2001. That was a time when there were a lot of antiglobalisation protests – especially in Latin America. I think part of why bibliodiversity is such a political term is because it comes out of that political analysis. And it comes out of an intention to transform the world, to do things that are not just reforming laws and things – that’s a necessary part as well – but to go further than that.

I see bibliodiversity in analogy with biodiversity: if you have biodiversity in an ecological system, then you have a dynamic balance. All the plants and animals, rocks, waters, the sky etc. are more likely to survive. Those things don’t survive if there’s an ecological crisis or when some plant or animal comes to dominate the environment. The same is true for cultures. Cultures can thrive while a wide range of people have a voice and the playing field is not tipped too steeply in favour of just one group or even a small number of groups who might fight about the highest market share.

What made you write your manifesto? Did you feel that our contemporary literary fields are not in balance, indeed, but tipped towards one side?

Yes, is the short answer. I think in the English speaking world it’s even more strongly the case. Here in Germany, for example, there is a limited German language market. There are still dominating forces, obviously, but it’s not quite the same as in the huge English language world – well, maybe it is, given Bertelsmann.

In the English language world you have the US publishers, the UK publishers – big multinational conglomerates – and there are really only six publishers in this context who ‘matter’ (in inverted commas) because the rest are just small fry. A few medium ones in between. But it’s the smaller and independent publishers who produce a lot of ground-breaking work. They produce risky work, they produce work that is not a guaranteed bestseller – and this is where the long-lasting literatures actually come from.

I know Virginia Woolf was not a poor person, but she was a woman writing at a time when women were not meant to write as she did. The fact that she had her own press with her husband Leonard meant that she was able to write the books she wanted to write. That’s really something.

Thank you for mentioning Virginia Woolf and James Joyce’s Ulysses as positive example for self-publishing. In the German literary field you will still encounter a lot of condescension on self-publishing or forms that are not traditional publishing. Which role does the medium play for bibliodiversity?

I think that the more different kinds of ways of publishing there are, the better it is. I think print has a lot of advantages – not just for me and my generation. Books are just great little inventions. You know, you can stick them in your pocket, you can take them to the beach, you can read them in the bath. You can’t read it in bed when your partner is asleep – which is one of the downsides, one limitation. But there are only very few limitations on the book.

Flipping through a book and remembering where you read something can’t be done scrolling through a pdf or an epub. I mean you can do it, but it’s not the same process. So there are things where I think print has some advantages.

On the other hand, the digital form has an extraordinary advantage in just being able to get it out really widely, reach people in very remote communities. In Australia, for example, there are many remote communities who don’t have bookshops. So people in those places are able to access digital forms of the book just like that [snaps].

And audio is fantastic, too. Especially if you have a long drive like we sometimes have in Australia, like 3,000 km type of drives. The audio form is just brilliant for that.

It’s also great if you can’t read, e.g. if you have a disability or are analphabetic. There are of course Braille books, but the choice is still rather limited and the books are rather voluminous.
In your book you state that we should be careful not to allow a recolonization of these new means of technology – e.g. with respect to conditions of distribution tailored for big players or the spreading of a mainstream Western world view and value system through a particular kind of literature. You said that independent publishers should use technology where it’s useful, but then also be careful and resist where necessary.

What I’m thinking about there is the situation in Australia and it’s obviously different here. We’ve had competing US and UK publishers who wanted to retain the ebook rights when we wanted to close a contract with them. And you think like “Hang on. We’ve been doing ebooks longer than you’ve been doing ebooks, so what’s your problem?” And they just go “Well, that’s just how our system is set up and that’s how we do it.”

Then change it.

That’s what we say. We had this situation on a couple of occasions, one quite recently. And we say “Just change it, do something different.” And they say “No, can’t do it.”

Nevertheless, I got the feeling that you’re still carefully optimistic. Is that right? And if so: why?

Yes, because I’m a crazy optimist anyway. [laughs] That’s my excuse.

But I’m not totally optimistic. I see that there are real problems with the way in which the publishing industry is working. That market forces are used as an excuse to do a whole lot of things that actually are not necessary. It’s perfectly ok, for example, if you’re working with an author to allow them – in fact, you must allow them – to keep their copyright.

In America, if you write an article for a journal, most of the journals will insist that you assign your copyright to them. I’m forever writing to these journals saying “sorry, can’t let you publish my piece unless I give you an exclusive license and then I have no problems. You don’t need my copyright. You can do everything you need to do with an exclusive license.” Mostly I managed to make it work.

But this is one of those things. That arrangement comes out of the film script writing industry. But if you write a film script, you normally get paid 50,000 dollars, 100,000 dollars – I might give up my copyright for that amount, too. You can say that that’s a proper payment. But very few writers get paid anything, certainly not at the beginning. And what makes writing actually worth doing is the long-term stuff. Eventually, maybe your royalties can help out with your pension. For me, the long-term perspective is much more important than the upfront.

When you wrote your manifesto, did you have a particular readership in mind? And why did you write it in 2013?

The “why then” was because I had a six-month literary residency in Rome. I was writing a collection of poems at the time. So I had time to think and time to write. It was an Australia Council grant and the residency came with a flat in Rome that is there mostly for poets – because it was left by a poet. As a requirement, you have to finish the project you put in the grant application. You can’t change your mind along the way.

I spent New Year’s with some publisher friends and I just started writing it. I thought, I have to do this, I can squeeze this in in the last month or so of my residency. I didn’t finish it in that time, but got most of it done.

In terms of the audience: At the time I was the English language coordinator of the International Alliance of Independent Publishers (link), which is based in Paris. And I’ve been going to their annual meetings for several years and really started to get how the system was working. And the French system works quite differently. So I was thinking about some of those publishers.

I was also thinking about some independent publishers who I won’t name where the men who run them don’t seem to have caught up with feminist ideas. So that’s why there are a couple of chapters in the book about feminism and about why feminism has to be at the core of bibliodiversity. Because: if you only got the male side of the story being told, you’re not being bibliodiverse. Simple.

But also, I was having discussions with people about the concepts of free speech and fair speech and having trouble getting them to understand what fair speech is. I had done my PhD on globalisation and read up a lot on free trade and fair trade – and I was very clear about why free trade is a very big problem: because it basically allows the big players to do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want. The same thing applies within the speech paradigm.

The worst thing about free speech is the organisation in America – the Free Speech Coalition I think it is – which was invented and is run by pornographers. And you go “hang on a minute, something’s wrong”. Free speech for the pornographers, but what about the people who are in the pornography, being abused and used and all the rest. A friend of mine, Betty McLellan, wrote a book called Unspeakable and she was drawing on my analysis on free trade-fair trade – and I then drew on her invention of the word fair speech, but then applied it to publishing. You can find it here: link.

Fair speech has to have a role in publishing. There are some publishers who are prepared to publish whatever they want and not worry about whether the work is racist or sexist or homophobic or whatever. For me, those things are really critical. That’s not part of what bibliodiversity is about.

It became very clear in your book that it’s not just about having many different independent publishers, but that it’s also about the content and mindsets as well.

One of the important features of bibliodiversity is the intention to change society, to increase the range of voices available in the cultural mix. Because the original Chilean publishers had in mind a transformative role for bibliodiversity, that is also what I want to see continued. Some publishers who don’t agree with the idea of bibliodiversity might say, look we have all these publishers from the left and the right, we have such diversity in our market. For me, that is not enough. The publishers whom I believe are having a great impact are those who are prepared to publish critiques of the mainstream, not just join it. There are many such independent publishers around the world. They are the ones whose books will survive for more than six months on the shelf, indeed are likely to speak to future generations. This takes a concern for the content (it’s not just faddish) and the mindset of the publisher to take on books that push boundaries, that make readers think in new ways, that challenge long-held assumptions.

What did you want people to do with your manifesto? And what were the reactions like?

It’s hard to know. I’ve had very good reactions in some areas and the fact that the book is available in five languages, if you count the original, is something that has truly amazed me.

I’ve also had some great reactions from particularly younger women working in publishing in Australia who say “I read your book and loved it”, but I hardly had any reviews in Australia. So it’s hard to know what people think. There is this tension between people who say it really liked it but there’s not any traction with it.

Any theory why that is?

Maybe they’re overworked and underpaid – that’s one possibility. The other thing could be a slightly anti-feminist thing.

Although I had occasional good responses from people within the publishing industry. It surprised me that I don’t have more conversations with people.

I hope this interview might be a contribution and spark some conversations. And the feminist literary criticism magazine “Virginia” (link) will publish a review in the fall edition.
In your book, you make a couple of points in the end what “we” could do. Who is this “us” and whose responsibility is it to create bibliodiversity?

I think it’s all our responsibility. I think at least everybody who is interested to live in a fair and just society. It falls onto all of us to do different things to make it possible.

For people in publishing, bibliodiversity is one of the things they can try to do. They can publish in a way that voices of people who are not heard, are heard.

One of the other things I think is important is although small publishers to a lot of great work, sometimes small publishers also publish “failure books” – we have to be allowed to fail! Not every book can be a great success. But when you publish a book you need to think that there is something meaningful about this book. That this book will speak to some people, that it might have the potential to change the way people think about certain issues – or it might just excite them because the ideas are really imaginative. That has to be part of it as well.

And because I am a poet, I think poetry has to be part of it also. I’m not biased at all [laughs].

If bibliodiversity is so important for a society and a culture, shouldn’t there be state interventions – e.g. grants, interest-free loans for independent publishers and booksellers etc. – or would that create undesirable dependencies in your opinion?

It’s a really complicated issue. Again, I think it is going to depend on the different societies. In Australia we do have some grants, but because of the WTO rules, the Australia Council has to treat both Penguin Random House and Spinifex equally. That is the equal opportunity model – not the equal outcome model. If we’re lucky, we might get a grant of 5,000 or 10,000 dollars, whereas PRH might get a grant of 40 or 50,000 dollars. So that’s equality in the WTO pattern. If you swapped it around and said “equality of outcome” you would reverse that.

So how could we change that?

We would have to get rid of the WTO and/or change the rules. I think it’s a big problem that there is this big organisation out there saying “you can’t give grants small publishers or whatever in any different way than from how you give it to Monsanto. What I mean by this is that despite the huge difference in access to resources, marketing power and recognition, an independent publisher is treated in the same way as a multinational in the provision of grants. In the WTO, this is referred to as the “most favoured nation clause”.

What role do bookshops play in a bibliodiverse environment?

The conditions for bookshops are very tough at the moment. Part of that is the arrival of digital and the ability to order books online. And I know of some booksellers who know that some of their customers come in, have a look at what their stock is and then go home and order it online because it’s cheaper online.

One thing that booksellers could do – and I’m thinking about independent booksellers particularly – they could put a table at the front of the shop with books by independent publishers. That would enable people in the community to see some of the books they might not see reviewed in the newspapers or elsewhere in the media. And we know that some people will go into bookshops just to buy the bestsellers – so those could be at the back of the shop, which is where poetry now sits. So if you reverse it and put the bestsellers in the back and the ‘hard to sell’ things in the front, maybe, on the way to the back, people will see the books that they would like to read.

I’m interested in categories in bookshops. Do you find them helpful or harmful? For example, if a queer, literary crime novel is placed in the LGBQT section, might it not be overlooked by readers who might potentially like it but only head for the crime section?

I think a lot of this will depend on the size of the bookshop. I think in a big bookshop you’re going to need some categories. In a small bookshop you don’t need much. There is a fabulous bookshop in Melbourne called “Collected Works” – and it’s a poetry bookshop. The man and woman who run the shop have been collecting books for years and years. You can find some really old books there, you know, like 1970s. But as well as that, they have this amazing community support of poets. Almost all Melbourne poets have their books launched in this shop. So you’ll find an incredibly wide array of books arranged by the origin of the poets. So in a smaller, more specialist bookshop you don’t need to do much in terms of categories.

But in a big bookshop you need some kind of categorisation just to help people to find their way around the stock. And probably also for the people who work there. In progressive bookshops in Australia there used to be feminist book sections. No more. They’re gone.

Does this mean that those books are integrated in the rest of the stock or does it mean that the books are gone, too?

They’re integrated – which means that you can’t find them.

But doesn’t this also bear the chance of people stumbling upon a feminist book that they might not have come across because they never went to the feminist section?

The ideal is to order at least two copies so you can have them in two sections. And if you have 10 copies, why not put three here, three there and four in a third category. But booksellers have limited shelf space. That’s the pragmatics of it. And I understand people caught in the pragmatics.

For me, what distinguishes a good bookshop from a not so good one is that in the latter I see the exact same books that I saw in the bookshop in the next suburb. A good bookshop will have very different books. It will have books that respond to the community and relate to the location, but it will also have books that are outside of that. So answer some of the basic needs but also extends people.

That’s what I like so much about good bookshops. I like seeing things that I haven’t seen before.

Was the founding of Spinifex your contribution to bibliodiversity? What is your political agenda?

Renate Klein and I founded Spinifex. We had not heard the word bibliodiversity until 2007, so that particular word wasn’t there. However, Renate had edited a special issue of Women’s Studies International Forum called “Unity and Diversity” about five years earlier. I had organised a feminist writers’ festival which had the theme “The language of difference”. And I wrote an essay in the late 1980s called “The Politics of the Exotic – the Paradox of Cultural Voyeurism”. So these things were part of our thinking before we started Spinifex.

And one of the things I wanted to do was to publish very good Australian feminist writers who were having trouble getting published in the early 1990s – partly because postmodernism was so overwhelmingly taking over all feminist thinking. Finding books that were accessible and interesting and political was really hard. And a lot of feminist writers whose work fitted into these categories were finding it very hard to get published. So we set ourselves the task to do that.

We also wanted to publish people from different backgrounds and different countries – and we have managed to do that (link to the Spinifex catalogue).

Has your agenda changed since then?

No, our agenda hasn’t really shifted. We wrote ourselves a mission statement in 1991 which goes: “Spinifex Press publishes controversial and innovative feminist books with an optimistic edge.” And the only slight change that we sometimes add to that is that we say we want to publish radical feminist books that are controversial and innovative with an optimistic edge.

And the optimistic edge part of it is important because in order to be a feminist you have to be an optimist. You have to believe that social change is possible. If you can’t believe in the possibility of social change, you might just go ahead, get a really well-paid job, a mansion and whatever else… Or just lie in bed all day.

What is your perspective on the state of bibliodiversity today (for Australia)?

There is a sort of weird lip service to ‘diversity’ – and I put diversity in inverted commas, because what they mean by diversity is ‘discovering’ a younger woman or man from another cultural background as a new author. And it’s really good if she or he is a debut author as well because there are no past failures.

While there is this lip service to diversity, genuine bibliodiversity is nowhere to be seen. And if you start counting numbers, male authors are still more often reviewed, they are given more space in the newspapers, they’re given more time on radio – and the men will say: “We’re feeling left out.” The people who are privileged don’t ever think of themselves as having identities. It’s a bit of a trap.

If you had a wish – what would you wish for the Australian publishing scene?

I would love to have a really fantastic distribution system. For independent publishers in Australia, this is the biggest challenge: getting your books out there, that would include marketing and sales and getting the books into bookshops. If it were just for the transport to the bookshop, you’d still have to have sales reps and some supporting marketing and the like.

That’s the bit that is never supported by cultural grants. There are grants that are called “marketing and so forth”, but they seem impossible to get – or maybe I’ve just been unlucky. It’s a much harder thing to make happen. I don’t know why the cultural bodies haven’t gotten on to that.

In Scandinavia, for example, if you get a translation grant, to translate something from Norwegian or Swedish into English – once the translation is done and the book is published and you apply to help the author get an event in Australia, they will almost always help out with the air fares and/or some accommodation or marketing. They get it!

Thank you very much!


About the author and Spinifex Press

Susan Hawthorne is an Australian feminist, poet and publisher. She has written six collections of poetry (e.g., Cow (2011), Earth’s Breath (2009), and Lupa and Lamb (2014)), two chapbooks and three works of fiction as well as non-fiction books. Her non-fiction includes Bibliodiversity (Spinifex, 2014) and Wild Politics (Spinifex, 2002). Her poems have been published in Australia and internationally, e.g. repeatedly in the annual Best Australian Poems anthology. Her works have been shortlisted and named winner of numerous awards. Her most recent book is a novel, Dark Matters (2017). She was recently was named winner of the Penguin Random House Best Achievement in Writing, 2017 Inspire Award for her work as an outstanding lifetime contributor to increasing people’s awareness of disability. Full list of her works: link.

In 1991, Susan Hawthorne founded the independent publishing house Spinifex Press with her partner Renate Klein. “Spinifex Press is an award-winning independent feminist press, publishing innovative and controversial feminist books with an optimistic edge.” With their publications, the publishers aim to contribute to important socio-political discussions. They see “publishing [as] a political act as well as an opportunity to engage in creative ways of producing good quality books. […] Spinifex has developed a number of strong specialist lists including Indigenous, writing from Asia and Africa, lesbian books as well as women’s health, violence against women, racism and cultural opportunism, ecology and economics, war and exile, prostitution and pornography.“ (Spinifex website)


The Book

Susan Hawthorne: Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishing. Spinifex, 2014.

The English edition of Bibliodiversity it is available internationally from Spinifex Press and in a Canadian edition.

Doris Hermanns translated the book into German and wrote an epilogue for the edition published by Verbrecher Verlag.
Agnès El Kaïm’s French translation is available in Cameroun, Mali, Benin, France, and Switzerland.
And the Arabic translation by Bilal Zaitar it is available in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon.
The Spanish version, translated by Alejandro Caviedes, can be obtained in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Peru, and Colombia.