The question I always want to ask, but tend not to, is: 'When was the last time you bought an Australian novel*?' Because I know that the answer will most likely either be 'Five years ago' or 'Never', or they'll blink and look at me like I've asked if they think Tony Abbott looks good in his Lycra bike pants.**
Well, kids, wake up and smell the Vegemite toast: this is the reason why it's so hard to get your Australian novel published.
If every person who is writing an Australian novel (regardless of genre) would simply buy one Australian novel a year (regardless of genre), the sales figures would look a lot healthier, and publishers would think that there's a more robust market for it. (This being a capitalist economy, they're quite interested in the whole supply-and-demand caper.)
For example, if you're writing a crime novel, consider buying an Australian crime novel instead of Patricia Cornwell next time you're in a bookshop. Don't write an Australian crime novel, buy only US and UK crime novels and then complain that you can't get your Australian crime novel published. Why should the Australian publishing industry support you when you don't support it?
I am the first to admit that the Australian publishing industry (which includes agents) has perhaps let down the novel-reading Australian public in the past. There were a lot of heavy literary novels published as we tried to pin down a literary identity independent of our colonial overlords. We got children's fiction incredibly right, but a lot of the grown-ups' fiction suffered in comparison to what was coming in from overseas. These were the faltering missteps of a toddler culture. No longer.
I can tell you from the fiction submissions I see - most of which I have to reject, because the publishers are reluctant to take risks on new novels because they think no one will read them - that there is some terrific, robust storytelling happening out there, much of it in genre fiction. A lot of it is written by my very own talented clients (who, obviously, didn't get rejected). There are so many great Australian novels available. So I'm sure that there's one - at least one - that you, an Australian novelist who wants to get published, would like. And the best thing you could do for the industry that you would like to part of is buy that one book.
If you're one of those writers who regularly reads Australian novels, fantastic - we love you, you help keep our local fiction publishing alive. If you're not, please first consider why that is, and if it's simply that you don't have the habit of reading Australian novels - that you reflexively choose novels from elsewhere - try to change that habit one book at a time. You'll be glad you did when publishers realise that there is a bigger market for Australian fiction than they thought, and then they're more likely to look for new novelists, and then I and my agent colleagues will have more incentive not to reject so many of these submissions we receive.
Yes, I realise that many novels are very expensive. Believe me, it's not because some of us aren't trying to get the prices adjusted, especially for first novels. We know that the cost is prohibitive for some people. Which is why I'm only suggesting you buy one per year. It's an investment worth making - in your own publishing potential, if nothing else.
*I define 'Australian novel' as 'novel written by an Australian' not 'novel about Australia'.
**I know this because when I have asked the question, these have been the responses, although I added the Tony Abbott bit for embellishment.