Cross-country collaboration helps small publishers grow


Publishing is an inherently collaborative business, but what about publishing companies collaborating to improve their businesses? Independent publishers are now collaborating to improve their business practices, with Melbourne’s Affirm Press and Broome’s Magabala Books – both past ABIA Small Publisher of the Year winners – recently coming together to share knowledge and learn from the other’s business processes.

Initially these were Zoom calls to share insights, then in October Affirm sent a delegation of staff to Rubibi (Broome) to spend time with the Magabala team, with both parties reporting many positive outcomes. Here Affirm Press CEO and publishing director Martin Hughes shares how it came about, the experience, and some of the benefits for Affirm:

In 2017, Magabala Publisher Rachel Bin Salleh and I sat beside one another at the Australian Book Industry Awards and bonded over having the worst seats in the venue; we were as far back from the stage as was possible and close enough to the kitchen to feel the constant whoosh of its swinging doors. To make matters worse, I had accidentally brought my old wedding suit, flared pants that whooshed all on their own whenever I walked (and which my partner, Keiran, gleefully pointed out to everyone he could), so I was reluctant to leave my seat at all. 

The subtext of our banter was that we’d show them, and in some ways we did, winning awards in subsequent years – although having the worst seats in the house was more in keeping with how we saw ourselves. We kept in touch, and that’s how some of Rachel’s colleagues at Magabala reached out to us in recent years for insights into how Affirm Press handled (or didn’t handle) certain situations during our growth. 

During one of these Zoom calls, we realised there was so much potential to share info that we should get together, and so we started planning to send a group to Broome to spend a few days with the team at Magabala. Everyone at Affirm Press wanted to go, so I left it to Magabala to decide which departments they were most keen to spend time with (at the same time implying that I was somehow integral to the process so please invite me too). Myself and Keiran, with production manager Steph and publicity manager Laura headed over to Broome in late October 2023.  

The Affirm and Magabala teams outside Magabala's Rubibi office

Magabala’s general Manager and current acting CEO, Kate Rendell, programmed three days of workshops and we went through every stage of publishing, who does what and how, what processes and technology we’ve found work best, what mistakes we’ve made, what we’re aiming to do better, what challenges we are currently facing and those we expect in the future. It’s not exactly sensitive information, but we told them all along that we’d be 100% open and honest in everything we said, compensating in candour for what we may lack in eloquence.

We were a teeny bit nervous that with our usual MO of passion over pragmatism we might come across as a bit too full-on or thinking we had all the answers, so we mostly listened first and got a sense of Magabala’s culture and team. We were welcomed with a Yawuru smoking ceremony led by Aunty Dianne Appleby, which was a welcome reset. Sitting out there on country wrapping ourselves in smoke was a great opportunity to focus on what’s most important instead of worrying about emails, schedules and any number of situations that can become tricky if your mind is cluttered. It was also when we started referring to Broome by its Yawuru name, Rubibi. 

Magabala has such a different focus, objective and way of working to Affirm Press that we didn’t really know what to expect, but our experience there blew us away. Magabala are an incredible bunch and the visit was, well, I was going to say ‘inspirational’ but I can hear Rachel laughing at me from here. They are a fabulously skilled, passionate, dedicated, positive and balanced team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous book-lovers. For more than three decades, they have been singularly focused on nurturing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, and they apply themselves to this task with infectious warmth and wit. I took away loads of ideas about how to build stronger bonds and team culture. 

It struck me that the way Magabala goes about its business is almost the reverse of other trade publishers. In very crude terms, we do what is necessary to get and produce books to sell in the market (and feed the machine), whereas Magabala is first, foremost and almost exclusively dedicated to author care. I was struck by how well they achieve what is often the most difficult part of the process, and that became a central crux of our conversations: how they can more economically and effectively produce, market, publicise and sell their books without compromising integrity. 

Magabala gave us terrific insights and advice about author care, particularly when working with First Nations creators, and helped us look at our entire business from angles we hadn’t considered before. For me, personally, the key realisation was that the best way to work with Indigenous creators was exactly the opposite of my normal process of aiming high and passionately trying to crash things through. 

At one stage, I outlined an idea I had a few years ago, on the back of the success we had with FROM LITTLE THINGS BIG THINGS GROW. That idea was a great big children’s book of stories from across Indigenous Australia that would provide one common cultural reference for all Australian primary school kids. We had a prominent Indigenous patron for the project and I’d enlisted many brilliant illustrators and authors to help make it happen. But I couldn’t get Australia Council to help with funding, so the project fizzled out. I was getting re-excited when describing my vision to Magabala and felt myself gathering steam, until senior editor Margaret interjected and said, ‘That sounds like a great idea. Where’s your 200-year business plan?!’

Set back on my heels, I learned that when working with Indigenous stories I should gather up everything that has worked for me in the past, bury it in a hole and start again. Essentially Magabala’s advice was to find what is already happening on the ground and support it in any way we can, to let Indigenous creators come up with the ideas rather than us trying to coax them to share one of our visions. 

I borrowed a chair and esky and went bush camping up in the Dampier Peninsula for a few days after the workshops, where I was struck by the vibrancy, strength and pride of Indigenous culture all around that part of Australia. I came to see Rubibi as a centre that attracts brilliant, dynamic people dedicated to being active participants in a culture that has been thriving for over sixty thousand years.  

We came away from Magabala even bigger fans than we’d been already, mightily impressed with the deep, broad strength of their list and moved by their spirit and hospitality. On our way out the door, outgoing Magabala CEO Anna Moulton gave me a copy of Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Living on Stolen Land. ‘In all the time I’ve been here,’ she said, ‘this is the book I come back to time and time again for advice on how to be the best ally to Indigenous Australia today.’ 

We bought a copy for everyone in the Affirm Press team, and they were all excited by our report of the trip (despite their disappointment about not getting to go, on this occasion at least). I’m delighted to say that the dots that were joined between Affirm Press and Magabala that week have multiplied many times over, with new connections across our teams. And I know there are many great new connections to come, all thanks to the ABIA seating policy!

Magabala also found the experience beneficial, offering a unique professional development opportunity for their entire team, with Magabala Books general manager and acting CEO Kate Rendell saying: 

‘We really appreciate Affirm staff taking the time to travel to Rubibi (Broome) to share their processes and practices with us on our turf. There was something really special about Affirm stepping away from the east coast centrality of the publishing industry, and Magabala being able to access this professional development opportunity here on Yawuru Country in Rubibi (Broome). It meant that every member of our team was able to engage and share their learnings. We hope there are future opportunities for professional development intensives and exchanges like this across the industry.’