Sydney — When an incomplete draft of ``My Place'' landed on Ray Coffey's desk, the editor of Fremantle Arts Centre Press sensed it was something special. ``It was only an idea and two draft chapters at that point. No synopsis. But the style was engaging. I realized it had the potential to be an important book,'' he recalls.
Published two years later, in July 1987, ``My Place'' became an immediate hit. The ``bush telegraph'' (i.e., word of mouth) sizzled and sales took off even before the glowing reviews came out. Some 35,000 copies were sold in trade paperback (a budget hard-cover) before Christmas. To date, more than 110,000 copies have been sold in Australia, a country where 10,000 is considered doing well. Indeed, ``My Place'' still rates a spot on the top-10 nonfiction best-seller list here.
``Aboriginal nonfiction traditionally doesn't sell well except among white liberals. There's been a lot of self-conscious discussion about what it's like to be an Aborigine. This book cuts right across that,'' says Jacqueline Kent, a leading Australian free-lance editor and author. ``It's not perceived as an Aboriginal book. Instead, people say, `Have you read Sally Morgan's really beaut book?'''
Ms. Kent, who has read it twice, was smitten by its ``disarmingly direct, folksy quality.'' She believes the broad appeal also lies in the way the story ``comes from a perspective everyone knows - discovering your family - and carries you into something you don't: the discovery of being Aboriginal.''
Members of the Aboriginal community are pleased that the success of ``My Place'' coincides with Australia's Bicentennial and with efforts to publicize the ongoing trials of Australia's original settlers.
``Most Aboriginal people can identify with the story. It aligns with how we feel and still suffer. Some whites think we've had a hunky-dory life living off all the riches of the land,'' comments Anne Gray, an Aboriginal activist in Sydney.
Ms. Gray expressed surprise and delight when told that ``My Place'' is now required reading in many Australian schools. ``It's a very moving book. The key will be whether it changes people's attitudes. If it can make people sensitive to Aboriginal issues, that's all to the good.''
In addition to imparting understanding about Aboriginal life, ``My Place'' also helped cement the reputation of Fremantle Arts Centre Press - a tiny, state-funded regional publisher - as a tour de force in the country's publishing industry.
Fremantle Press has published the early works of now well-known Australian author Elizabeth Jolley. And its editors discovered Albert Facey, the octogenarian author of ``A Fortunate Life,'' one of the biggest-selling Australian books ever. More than 500,000 copies of this grandfather's autobiographical reminiscences (now published by Penguin Books Australia) have been sold since the book came out in 1981.
``The success of `A Fortunate Life' was considered by established publishers as a quirky fluke of a small publisher,'' says Clive Newman, Fremantle Press business manager. ```My Place' shows we're not a fluke.''