Melbourne, City of Books

Coles Book Arcade in Melbourne

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Melbourne is the literary capital of Australia.

Isn’t that how it goes?

Au contraire: many a folk from the mother country have the impression Sydney is the best place to get published – that it is the cultural and literary hub of the country.

Yes, we Melburnians know better, but having spent time in London and specifically amidst the UK publishing scene, I can attest to the fact that people overseas are relatively surprised when you tell them that Australian publishing is based in Melbourne.

The conversation typically goes something like this:

‘Oh, you’re from Melbourne, how lovely. Is there much work in publishing over there?’

‘Actually, there is! Melbourne has the most publishers of any city in Australia, and there are several literary festivals hosted there.’

‘Oh, really? Well that’s great! I’d have thought Sydney would have more. I guess that’s where the mind goes.’

And indeed, the mind there goes. After all, Sydney is certainly the tourist capital of Australia. No other city in the country can compete with the Harbour Bridge or the Opera House, or the beautiful beaches and perfectly mild weather that wanes only on the rarest occasions (but then, to be fair, when it does wane it leads to torrential downpour).

But actually, many would argue Melbourne is the place to be if you’re a writer or publisher in Australia. We have more publishing and writing-related outfits than any other city in the country, and, to an outsider, this can definitely be surprising.

The real question is why? The Melbourne City of Literature website has its own list of reasons, detailing why Melbourne has been christened Australia’s literary capital. And of course, there’s data that backs up this claim (it isn’t just a rumour perpetuated by inner-city coffee and literature snobs), chiefly:

Reassuring facts, I would have thought.

I could compare each of these statistics to Sydney, but, then, this isn’t a Melbourne vs Sydney article (the Sydney CBD has approximately 10 book shops); we aren’t competing with each other, and, if anything, we should be encouraging each other to become more invested in books, more invested in publishing. We are one nation etc. etc.

So, then, let’s focus on Melbourne and how it came to be appointed the literary capital. Interestingly, Australia’s earliest publishing scene actually sprang to life in NSW, not in Victoria: early colonial Australian fiction, like John Lang’s The Forger’s Wife, was produced by authors from NSW; Dymocks was founded in Sydney in the late 1870s, as was Angus & Robertson not long thereafter. What’s more, the first Australian publisher is known to be George Howe, who paved the way for book and newspaper publishing in the very early 1800s – also in Sydney.

At what point, then, did publishers and booksellers permeate Melbourne?

Maybe it was prompted by the emergence of a book publishing community, stimulated by publications like Books+Publishing, which was established in Melbourne in 1921; maybe it started with the emergence of eclectic booksellers like Cole’s Book Arcade in the late nineteenth century. In actuality, it’s likely to be combination of these factors, amongst others.

So, to give a somewhat-unsatisfying conclusion, there is no singular answer to this question; we can’t sum up Melbourne’s literary popularity in one word or phrase, or explain the exact reason for which Melbourne is bequeathed the literary capital of Australia.

But, as sure as a clichéd Jane Austen quote, we are really grateful that it is.


Vintage photograph by Rose's Australasian Views

Anthea Bariamis is a master’s student at the University of Melbourne, where she studied French as an undergraduate. She has worked for publishers in London and Melbourne and is currently a freelance editor.



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