A new project brings out-of-print books back to life.
Have you ever searched for a particular book, perhaps one published in the twentieth century by a well-known Australian author, only to find that it’s out of print?
Too much of Australia’s literary heritage has been lost. Untapped, the Australian Literary Heritage Project, is working to make books available to readers once more by selecting and digitising over 150 culturally important titles — fiction and non-fiction, poetry, plays, children’s fiction and speculative fiction. These can be borrowed through Australian public libraries and are for sale through ebook retailers. Authors — or their estates — earn royalties on library loans and sales, creating new income streams from books that were languishing out of print. While some devoted readers are used to scouring second-hand bookshops and websites, and some publishers have launched programs that make out-of-print titles available once more, most notably Text Classics, Untapped does so systematically and at scale.
You may be surprised to hear that some of the selected books were out of print at all. The collection includes titles published as recently as 2011, such as There Should Be More Dancing, by Rosalie Ham, author of the popular novel The Dressmaker, and titles as significant as Thea Astley’s Miles Franklin Award-winning novels The Well-dressed Explorer (1962) and The Acolyte (1972). Others are by important authors from across the twentieth century, such as Kylie Tennant, Katharine Susannah Prichard and Martin Boyd.
Untapped is a unique collaborative project between academics, libraries and authors. Arising from research at the University of Melbourne, it now includes representatives (the author of this article among them) from state, territory and public libraries. A panel works to select a diverse and inclusive list from titles nominated by librarians, authors, academics and the general public.
What makes a book culturally important? The criteria vary; a title might have won a significant award, such as the Miles Franklin, or be critically acclaimed. It might be a seminal work on a particular place or time, a debut by a now well-known author or a favourite children’s series.
The wide distribution of these ebooks through public libraries nationally is made possible through the advantages of ebook technology, sponsorship by industry and government partners, and the waiving of commissions by ebook platform providers. Copies are lodged with the National Library of Australia under the National edeposit Scheme, so they will be available indefinitely.
You can explore the Untapped collection through several categories: by author, genre, prize, publication date or state. You will find six Miles Franklin winners that, until now, were unavailable, including The Cupboard Under the Stairs (1963) by George Turner. More specialist prizes include the Aurealis Award for Excellence in Australian Speculative Fiction, won by Sean Williams for Metal Fatigue (1996), and the Grace Leven Poetry Prize, won by Rosemary Dobson for The Three Fates and Other Poems (1984).
Many contemporary authors are represented: Carmel Bird’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted titles Red Shoes (1998) and The Bluebird Café (1990), Sue Woolfe’s Leaning Towards Infinity (1996) and Painted Woman (1989), and several books by crime writer Gary Disher. Writers who are well known for one famous work like Jessica Anderson’s 1978 novel Tirra Lirra by the River now have other titles available — try her Stories from the Warm Zone/Sydney Stories.
Author Danielle Clode, whose book A Future in Flames is in Untapped, says, ‘One of the things that’s really frustrating about writing books is that you spend such an awfully long time creating the works and sometimes they can go out of print really quickly.’ Clode says, ‘republishing my backlist … means my books have a longer lifespan … and that’s especially important for books that have small enthusiastic audiences or particular local relevance.’
Some books may return to prominence after many years. When Bernadette Brennan was researching the Gillian Mears papers held in the Mitchell Library, I asked her if she’d recommend any out-of-print books by Mears for Untapped. Mears’s Collected Stories turned out to be still in print but not The Grass Sister (1995), which Brennan considers Mears’s best novel. It was duly selected by the panel and loans data shows it has already been borrowed in several states, no doubt enhanced by the publication of Brennan’s literary biography Leaping into Waterfalls: The enigmatic Gillian Mears.
Non-fiction titles cover history, sport, biography and autobiography. Historian Henry Reynolds contributed a new introduction to his book Fate of a Free People (1995). My Library colleague Warwick Hirst’s 1999 book Great Escapes by Convicts in Colonial Australia is available again. There are some curiosities such as Ready When You Are, C.B.! the autobiography of Alan Yates alias Carter Brown, one of the world’s most prolific and acclaimed ‘pulp’ authors, selling millions of copies of his Carter Brown mystery series.
Plays by Alex Buzo (Rooted, 1973) and Louis Nowra (The Temple, 1993) are in the collection, which also includes poetry. Recently deceased poet Jordie Albiston’s 1998 verse novel The Hanging of Jean Lee is now part of Untapped. Several books by another much-missed poet, Dorothy Porter, were chosen including Driving Too Fast (1989) and What a Piece of Work (1995), as well as Michael Dransfield’s selected poetry collection A Retrospective, and Anita Heiss’s 2007 book I’m Not Racist But …
Children’s and young adult fiction (though not picture books, which were outside the project’s scope) by Isobelle Carmody, Sophie Masson and Ivan Southall is once again available, including the modern classic Space Demons (1986) by Gillian Rubinstein.
Libraries are an essential part of our literary ecosystem. They have been one of the few places for readers to find out-of-print books, and now they come to the fore in facilitating access to the Untapped collection.
Jane Gibian, Specialist Librarian
NSW readers can borrow from the Untapped ebook collection through Indyreads, using their public library card credentials. Please explore this exciting collection and enjoy some of Australia’s lost literary treasures, whether you’re keen on literary fiction, sporting history, YA fantasy or something else altogether.
This story appears in Openbook winter 2022.