In 1950s Australia, an emerging Aboriginal writer would have had to travel to a city-based publishing house, sit in a dingy office opposite a white man who likely had little knowledge or understanding of Indigenous culture and pitch their idea.
Today, prospective authors of both fiction and non-fiction can engage with companies that are set up with a purpose to showcase Indigenous writing. However, many of these publishers would not exist if not for those first authors such as David Unaipon, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Sally Morgan.
As contemporary author and academic Dr Anita Heiss writes, ‘the growth of an Indigenous publishing industry… is the result of the pioneering roles of Aboriginal writers who paved the way for the current pool of emerging Indigenous writers.’
With today’s increasing diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices we take a look at some of the Indigenous publishing houses that helped to put them on the map.
Indigenous publishing companies work to provide material written in Indigenous languages and for Indigenous as well as mainstream audiences. Many of their publications also contribute to academic discussions on Indigenous studies and scholarship as well as developing the scope of the literature landscape.
IAD Press and Jukurrpa Books
Established in 1972 and based in Mparntwe (Alice Springs), the traditional lands of the Arrernte people, IAD Press began as the publishing division of the Institute for Aboriginal Development.
From its humble days as an in-house service printing leaflets and language resources, the organisation has evolved into a professional publishing house that specialises in Indigenous language dictionaries, art works and children’s books as well as publishing oral history, biography, poetry and fiction.
In 1997, IAD Press expanded to create Jukurrpa Books to showcase the children’s publications and novels, adopting the Warlpiri spelling of the Central Australian word for Dreaming’, ‘Story’ or ‘Law’.
With a focus on language and culture, the organisation seeks to publish the work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and artists as well as promote their varied voices. All of the books published by the company must be approved by the Indigenous board of management and be the creative products of Aboriginal people at every stage: writing, researching, editing and design.
One of their most successful publications is the Jukurrpa Diary which showcases some of the best artwork from the region and the team are also working to expand their distribution to gift shops in order to offer authentic Indigenous books to tourists.
Taking its name from the Yawura word for ‘bush banana’ which disperses seeds across the ground, Magabala Books seeks to reach the rest of Australia with Indigenous culture through its books. Operating out of Broome, Magabala Books has a focus on the Kimberley region but sources stories from across Australia.
Established in 1987, with government and local grants the company became an independent Aboriginal Corporation in 1990. Magabala specialises in publishing novels and poetry and has created a scholarship program to give emerging writers and artists a start to their literary career.
Artwork and design is also central to the publishing company, as former editor Rachel Bin Salleh explains: ‘a large proportion of our books contain a visual element, and it is through this visual element that many of the books have very firm sales. Where possible we utilise Indigenous illustrators, rather than non‐Indigenous ones. ’
Like IAD Press, Magabala has an Indigenous management committee that oversees the process from pitch to publication.
Indigenous editor Sandra Phillips, who was trained at Magabala Press and worked at University of Queensland Press in the 1990s before moving on to manage Aboriginal Studies Press in the early 2000s, believes that Indigenous writers are well looked after in the hand of Indigenous publishers.
"It goes to the question of control, authority and decision-making. If you have that at the highest level in a cultural organisation all of its outputs should reflect Indigenous priorities, values and stories."
She commented that it was still a novelty to have full-time Indigenous editors and praised the State Library of Queensland's 'Black & Write!' program that offered an Indigenous Editing Internship alongside a Writing Internship.
Aboriginal Studies Press
The earliest Indigenous publishing house was established in 1964 and evolved out of the emerging field of Aboriginal studies. Thus it is no surprise that the ASP focuses primarily on academic publications on topics as diverse as art, biography, history, land rights, anthropology and education.
More recently the organisation has expanded into publishing fiction, poetry, plays and children’s books and currently publishes about six titles a year.
Housed in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, ASP acts as the publishing arm of that Institute. ASP also runs the annual Stanner Award competition that grants mentoring, editorial support and publication to an aspiring author.
The publishing arm of Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education this publishing house focuses on teaching and learning resources for communities with the adage ‘because Indigenous knowledge matters’. The books often seek to record traditional knowledge such as ‘Kawarla: How to make a Coolamon’ and preserve language and stories: ‘Mer Angenty-warn alhem: Travelling to Angenty country’.