Friday, June 11, 2010

The fiction conundrum

No question for this one, just me ranting a little.

It's always hard for me to find publishers for fiction, especially debut novels. It's especially hard at the moment, with book sales down, booksellers nervous and publishers also nervous about not just the economy but digital publishing too. Even novelists who have already been published are having a hard time if they haven't sold several thousand copies of their last novel.

The fundamental reason for this is that there is not perceived to be a robust market for Australian fiction. Australians don't like to buy Australian novels (although they love Australian non-fiction). There are, no doubt, a few reasons for this, and a big one is that publishers tend to favour literary fiction, which is not the type of fiction most people want to read. There is not a lot of expertise or interest in the sort of commercial fiction that sells in big numbers here when it's written by other people. I've written before that there can be snobbery about commercial fiction. And we see the big sales for overseas writers continue. This could be a form of cultural cringe too - we just don't believe Australian writers would be 'good enough'. The only endeavour in which Australians seem to think we're 'good enough' is sport.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of submissions I receive are for fiction. And I receive a lot of submissions, so that's a lot of fiction being written.

My question to those of you writing Australian fiction (for, if you're Australian and you're writing a novel, you're writing Australian fiction) is: when was the last time you bought an Australian novel, of any type? Have you bought one in the last year? Have you bought more than one? If you have not bought one or have bought only one, I guess we can't say that you're actively supporting Australian fiction, can we? As our economy works on supply and demand, no demand = no supply. No supply is rapidly where we are heading, which means that if you are writing fiction it's going to because harder and harder to get that novel published by conventional means.

If you've just realised that you don't buy Australian fiction, yet you write it and expect to get it published, you may be coming up with reasons: it's too expensive, there's nothing that I want to read or, perhaps, Australian novels aren't as good ... Yes, some novels are expensive (although what price someone's years of intellectual and creative toil?). I try to get first novels published at B formats, priced under $30, but I lose most of the time. It's frustrating. So I understand why you may not want to take a $35 risk on an unknown author. Why, then, would anyone want to take the same risk on you and your novel? And if you have a cultural cringe about Australian novels, why will yours escape someone else's cultural cringe?

So here's a suggestion. If you are writing Australian fiction and want to get published one day, the best thing you can is to buy Australian fiction and create a bigger demand for it than publishers currently think exists. Actively choose an Australian novel over a novel from another country. There are lots of great Australian novels out there. If you love genre fiction, buy Australian thrillers, romance or crime novels over books from other countries. Become a mindful book buyer and reader. We know that energy is neither created nor destroyed, it just changes form. If you put more of your book-focused energy into Australian books, there will be more to move around. This not a woo-woo incense-burning statement - it's science.

My personal policy is that I buy Australian books and I usually borrow books from foreign writers from my local library or buy them as ebooks. I work in the Australian publishing industry and, even though I don't have a huge amount of disposable income to spend on books, this is one expense I will bear because it's important. Is it important to you too?

13 comments:

kathrynoh said...

I don't buy Australian fiction for the reason you mention - that publishers favour literary fiction. Mostly it's not even good literary fiction but all about some struggles and issues.

I don't think it's cultural cringe. I think it's publishers not running their business to met based on arty ideals rather than meeting consumer needs.

If I think a book sounds interesting, if it captures my imagination, then I'll buy it. With most books published in Australia, I can't make it past the first few sentences on their blurb, let alone the actual contents.

I don't think we should be buying Australian books to support the Australian publishing industry, I think we should be buying them because they are the books we want to read.

I really feel like there is a lot of pressure to fit into a certain style in this country or you don't count. Not just from publishers but across the board -

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm, that makes a lot of sense to me. I have bought Australian Fiction recently, or what I thought was....is Kathy Lette still Australian?

An Australian, living in London, writing about Australians going overseas...ouch!

I will make a point of telling all friends and family that we do in fact have fabulous authors here, and to stop buying overseas stuff - like the 'be vocal, buy local' campaign we have for fruit and veg :)

Shannon said...

I know when I was younger I felt some cultural cringe and I've noticed it in people around me. Common complaints that I've heard is that no one thinks our cities and towns are 'exciting enough', there's not enough violent history, and many people think even our flora and fauna are boring. It's kinda disappointing.

On the other hand, I loved Tomorrow When The War Began, but I don't know many other books like this.

Bron said...

I have been actively buying Australian fiction, both for myself and for others as presents. I'm not going to stop buying overseas authors but, having just bought an ereader, I'll probably restrict my purchase of these authors to their digital books. I'd prefer to do this with Australian authors as well, but my understanding is that very few Australian books are available as e-books.

I do agree that an aspiring author should be buying books from their country of origin and in their genre as much as financially possible, especially from debut authors. It's like you said, there needs to be a market for people to get published and if we who have such an interest in it don't buy these books, we can't expect others to buy ours.

However, that only goes so far. I'm only going to spend my money on books that interest me. I'll try to make them debut Australians, but if I don't find anything to excite me there, I'll be looking further afield.

Anonymous said...

Out of interest, what are "severeal thousand copies"?? 3000? 5000? 10000?

J A Quick said...

I buy books that I want to read - it's as simple as that. I don't pay any attention to where the author comes from, genre, publishers etc. If the blurb on the back cover peaks my couriosity I will buy & read the book. If I really liked it I may actively seak out other books by the same author. I have no idea if any of the books I've bought in the last 12 months where written by Australian authors because i didn't bother to check and nobody pointed it out to me. A good story is a good story - regardless of who wrote it. Maybe publishers etc could make more of an effort to promote the fact that a book is 'Australian Made' so to speak. I'm sure if there was a stand in my local bookstore specifically for aussie writers I would take a look and find at least one book that interested me enough to buy it.

Sheryl Gwyther said...

Now I'm hauling up the flag for the Australian children's book industry. We have well-loved, respected and award-winning authors (and books) who sell globally as well as in this country - thousands of children agree.
Why do you think we Aussie children's authors fought tooth and nail last year to stop the proposed parallel imports of Australian-written, foreign-published children's books into this country?

T said...

Ozlit isn't marketed very well, either. Publishing seems Darwinian.

I've consciously supported Australian writing because to me it would seem unpatriotic and a tad hypocritical not to. That's not to say that others should buy books that don't interest them - publishing needs to be responsive & proactive. My effort has been rewarded with finds that delight even though they might never find their way to the NY Best Seller list. I've bought books for myself and as gifts for book-loving relatives and friends.

EG. Sara Douglass, Peter Temple, Gary Crew, Tara Moss, Bryce Courtney, Colleen McCullough, Andrew McGahn, Nigel Krauth, Kate Grenville, Mem Fox, Peter Yeldham, and heaps of others.

Australian writing has evolved and continues to do so. Publishing & marketing might just need to catch up and get a little bit bold.

Anonymous said...

We have some of the best writers in the world. I'm reading Joy Dettman's new book at the moment and I race out to buy everything she releases. Dad gets Matthew Reilly for Christmas. Every new child born gets a copy of Mem Fox's Possum Magic. I could go on and on about the fabulous Australian writers I've bought in the last year, and recommended to my American writer friends and associates. But I won't. I'd love to see Australian authors get more publicity though.

Lil Smith said...

I agree with J A Quick 110%.

I have no idea where the author is from, so in recent years have been asking my librarian to point out Australian authors to me.

Can't publishers place an Aussie symbol on the spine of each book? Would make the whole exercise of buying Australian a whole lot simpler.

And, why don't book stores have an Aussie section? If Aussies want a better selling/buying market, surely marketing better would be the place to start.

ps. Have recently discovered Joy Dettman and will add her to my bookshelves, gladly.

Anne Whitfield - author said...

I try to buy as much Aussie fiction as possible, but my book budget is limited, and I prefer commercial fiction to literary.
I'm a member of Romance Writers Of Australia and while most people will turn their nose up at romance, we have members like Bronwyn Parry who are widening the romance genre and in the process creating Australian sales.
If you're interested in finding some Aussie authors check out this link http://www.romanceaustralia.com/authorsites.html
Sadly, a lot of our memebrs have to publish overseas because Australian publishers turn their noses up at romantic commercial fiction. Hopefully that will soon change.

Ann Elise said...

If it interests me, I'll buy it. My first concern is not the nationality of the writer. However, it seems that every Australian book I have read I have not enjoyed (save for the Book of Lies by James Moloney, and even then I found it frustrating). Show me some good Australian young adult fantasy or paranormal romance, or even just contemporary YA with an unusual premise, then perhaps I will read it.

Cass said...

I wonder, for the purposes of this post, does it count as Australian fiction if it is written by an Australian but published overseas? I bought a debut Steampunk novel by a Melbourne writer not long ago (and loved it!) but his agent is in New York and it was published by a US publishing house. I want to be able to say I'm supporting the Australian industry ... but that seems a little hollow, even if I am supporting an Aussie writer!