A crack of light appeared under the door of Australian writing when it was announced that Grimmish had been shortlisted for this year's Miles Franklin Award.
It didn't win, but the significant thing was that Michael Winkler's novel was self published. And its shortlisting marks the coming together of two originally immiscible streams of publishing: trade and vanity. Under pressure of the changes wrought by the digital and fintech revolutions of the past 20 years these two opposed sources of literary product may now be at a confluence.
This is partly because of the failure of the traditional market to curate the literary in the way it traditionally did. It is also partly down to the growing possibility of producing books digitally and of marketing them non-traditionally, online.
Grimmish began as a writer's determined effort to get an original kind of writing into the market place where the traditional conduits of "good writing" had broken down. Winkler is not the first "authorpreneur" to give up on traditional publishing and go "indie" - this is a development that has been coming for more than a decade. But he is the first Australian writer to receive critical recognition for a self-published title on the Australian literary award circuit.
Before this, the cost - and the risk that Winkler took on himself when self-publishing - was to forego critical attention in favour of having readers read your work. Newspapers and literary magazines do not review self-published work. He should be congratulated for his daring. He appears to have been rewarded, since it has also brought him a publishing contract.
It could give Australian writers heart, since of all the dysfunctional and bone-cracking markets for writers, the contemporary Australian one surely ranks as one of the hardest. The obstacle course of getting a contract with a traditional publisher on a novel by an Australian writer means that the effort of writing it is the easy part.
Australian "product" starts at a disadvantage from other writing in English in larger markets. Traditional English-language publishing is still dominated by the commercial colonialism of British and American self-regard.
Put simply, the Australian market today is not scaled up enough to compete globally, but has put aside its local strengths for financial protection by global conglomerates. In Australia, the "social licence" of publishing to curate the culture of literature for readers-to-come is being undermined by the action of the market.
Marketing is anathema to the risk that grows literature, and writers and publishers have never been more at cross-purposes about this all-important conviction about what writing books is for.
If the book offered to a traditional publisher makes it to the elevated stage where it gets a reading, and where an editor is impressed enough that they are prepared to take it on, it must then get past the marketers at the publishers' meeting. And if there is anything unconventional, different or original about it, the book is likely knocked back at this stage as "not having a market". This rules out much literary fiction which by definition can be inventive, risk-taking and at the growing edge of genre.
The long, slow descent of Australian writing over several decades has been marked by the tightening grip of market hegemony. First, publishers whittled down the advances paid to writers that made it possible to live off writing. This handed down a long-term sentence: "Don't give up your day job."
Then, in neoliberal spirit, Australia Council funding was cut back because books were a market, even though the first-novel subsidy and the writer's project grant were the backbone of the small and precarious local market in Australian writing.
In the noughties, the Amazon gorilla denuded the local ecology of bookshops and small presses by outpricing them on distribution. The mirage of internet marketing dominated. The sucker punch was the global financial crisis, which gutted world publishing and forced presses into the "Big Five" mergers to survive.
All this has meant the relation been writer and publisher is marred now by the demotion of the writer from a partner to a raw material. The writing, and the writer, has been re-conceived as a product. This reflects the growing imbalance of power between the publisher and the writer, but it also destroys the pact between them.
So Indie publishing and the path of the authorpreneur has emerged since the GFC as an alternative. By now, it is possible to produce one's own book, having written it, to the production values of mainstream literary offerings. There are several degrees of self in self-publishing, from running the whole show yourself to working with hybrid publishers or book packagers to professionalise certain features for you at various price points.
The discriminator between traditional and self-publishing is now around the assumption of financial risk; in the former, the publisher assumes it, in the latter, the author. But indie authors argue that they are taking less of a risk, marketing their own work energetically to readerships that they search out for themselves.
The exception that proves the rule are the anointed best-sellers that have been handed a self-fulfilling prophecy in the form of a six-figure book deal. The catch in this success for the author is daunting; if sales of the book don't return the investment, they will be unlikely to get another chance on another book, however good.
Of course, writers of the past faced their own barriers to publication, placed there by education and social access. And publishing - and therefore writing - has always been about commercial success. Getting a title onto the prize-winning shortlist buys the publisher some kudos, even if it may be a more reliable vector of literary fashion than of legacy.
Perhaps what is most optimistic about the indie turn is the chance for writers themselves to make the critical canon more in their image. If self-publication were no barrier to award shortlisting, then the authorpreneur has a much better chance at having their work distributed and read. This is good for readers, too. To offer Australian readers stories of cultural relevance and aesthetic resonance is a core reason for local writers to write.
The weakness of the self-publishing method has been that it relies on the same tools for marketing as general book sales, the "likes" of readers - except without the market dominance of traditional players.
Until this Miles Franklin shortlist. Now perhaps self-publishing can compete using critical reception as an important endorsement of its writing. The squeamishness of tastemakers needs to be overcome, for this to work. If critics, patrons of literary awards and others like literary editors and reviewers were to follow on from the regard of Grimmish, devising methods to include independently published writing in their purview, there will be a much stronger space for the development of Australian writing.
Maybe Grimmish is the beginning of a trend? Maybe Australian writers can see their work in print, and even see a royalty payment, if they can just put aside the dream of publishing with a "reputable" publisher?
As Leonard Cohen sang in Anthem, "Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in."
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.