Monday, March 12, 2012

Who's afraid of Australian novels?

Following last week's post and the response to it - by far the most instantly popular post in this blog's history, and some of you were kind enough to give feedback on email and Twitter - I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts as to why Australian fiction is not as loved as fiction from elsewhere. I am concentrating on fiction because local non-fiction does verywellthanksverymuch. Also because it's not non-fiction writers who are complaining about how hard it is to get published. I'm also focusing on genre fiction, as it's genre fiction that we buy in quantity from non-Australian authors.

These are my opinions and observations only; I have not done a research paper and, having already spent far too many years accumulating letters after my name, am unlikely to ever do one. They're opinions and observations that come from several years spent working in various facets of the publishing industry and what I've seen of 'consumer behaviour' in that time. I should also note that I was not in the publishing industry for some of the years I write about below, so I am assuming (yes, yes, I'm aware that 'assume' makes an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me') certain things based on the information I have.

1. The cultural cringe
In the not-so-distant past, the Australian publishing industry didn't really exist except as a distribution arm for British publishers, probably because the Australian culture didn't really exist except as a distribution arm for British cultural artefacts. That's what you get for being a colony (or collection thereof). New Zealand and Canada no doubt know how that feels, but Canada, at least, seems to have been spurred into strongly supporting its local arts because of the cultural gigantosaur sitting on its shoulder, whereas Australia - drifting along in the South Pacific and kind of left to its own devices - hasn't had the same kind of pressure to develop a strong cultural identity, let alone proactively support an 'Australian culture'. What we did have, however, was a slight simmering resentment of our colonial overlords and a desire to prove that we're smart too. Result: a lot of literary fiction, much of it worthy and trying to create or prove a cultural identity, from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s; not a lot of genre fiction. Thus, 'Australian literature' became synonymous with 'Australian literary fiction that is trying to tell us something about the Australian national character'. Not many people read literary fiction compared to those who read genre fiction, especially when that literary fiction is a tad didactic. Further result: not a lot of people bought Australian novels and publishers kept their expectations for Australian fiction modest.

2. The habit
In those three decades, fiction readers who didn't want to read literary fiction but actually wanted to read romance, thrillers, crime, sci fi et al had to look to authors from elsewhere. And look they did, as Australians cheerfully chomped down on commercial fiction from the US and UK, in particular. In that time Australian readers developed a habit of buying these books from overseas authors. The small number who have always bought literary fiction did buy Australian literary fiction, but it's always been a small number - apart from the odd breakout - and the big numbers for fiction were seen in sales for foreign authors. This habit of buying foreign fiction has gone on for years.

The habit might also have formed because for many, many years Australian schoolchildren were given a literary diet more rich in Enid Blyton than Ruth Park. As the Jesuits say, 'Give me the boy 'til he's seven and I'll show you the man' - many of us who are now in our disposable-income prime were exposed to a lot of books written by non-Australians when we were young. That cultural programming worked - we now probably don't even realise that we reflexively reach for non-Australian authors, simply because we're programmed to do so. This is another habit that has gone on for years. Result: not a lot of Australian fiction bought by Australian readers.

3. The signal to authors
Because literary fiction seemed to be all that was getting published in Australia for many years, prospective authors - turning a pragmatic eye to what would give them the best chance of publication - would have written literary fiction. Those who wanted to write in genres in large part seemed to try their luck overseas (as we have seen, especially, with romance novels). Consequently the manuscripts that were submitted to publishers and agents were, in the main, literary novels. Result: people in the publishing industry thinking that all they were ever going to see was literary fiction, so there was little incentive to think about how Australian genre fiction might be published successfully.

4. The catch-22
So now we arrive at a time when there are more stories available than ever before, most of them in genre fiction - and it's harder than ever to get genre fiction published in Australia. If we look at the patterns of the past - not much genre fiction published here, which encouraged genre fiction readers to look at overseas, and the literary fiction that was published appealed only to a small number of people - then what we have is very little Australian fiction being bought by Australian readers compared to what could be bought if genre fiction were more actively published here. So, not much genre fiction bought gives a signal to publishers that there is little incentive to publish it - which means they don't publish it, which means readers keep buying books from non-Australian authors. I am concentrating on the 'buying' rather than the 'reading' because publishing companies are businesses and if people are only 'reading' and not 'buying' then they stop 'publishing'.

Result: the loop-de-loop, in short, looks like this - no genre fiction published = no genre fiction bought = no incentive to publishers to publish it = no genre fiction published.

5. Difficulty of access
As if all this weren't difficult enough, it seems that it's hard for fiction readers to actually find out what's new or even what's not new from Australian authors. A reader of the blog says that she buys YA books through Australian bookstores 'but they simply don't carry the types of books I like to read'. She reads a lot of romance novels and says 'when you know there are new releases out for Australian authors ... and you can't find them at the local bookstore, you tend to save yourself time and automatically look elsewhere'. This problem isn't likely to be solved any time soon, because we're likely to lose more bookshops and book outlets. But we do have the internet and its access to Australian ebooks - the problem with that, though, is discoverability. As more and more ebooks are available, how is anyone going to know which ones to read, let alone being able to find Australian authors?

Price is another factor in 'difficulty of access' but the book prices are the same for Australian authors as overseas authors, unless the overseas books are imported directly by booksellers. I'm not going into the pricing argument here - I understand that price is a barrier to access for many people but part of me also feels like saying indignantly, 'What price can you put on someone's creative brain, huh?' I also know how complex some of the pricing arguments can be for Australian publishers, and it's not just GST on the cover price - it's GST on several steps along the production path.

In conclusion
We have a national habit of buying certain types of books - the popular types - from non-Australian authors and this has created a market signal to publishers that we don't want those types of books from Australian authors. Sometimes it's not that we don't want them - rather, it's because we can't find them or they're too expensive compared to books we can order from overseas. Regardless, publishers do publish non-literary fiction written by Australians and they would want to do more of it if they thought there was a market for it.

You are the ones who can show them that there is. If you make a decision to more proactively seek out Australian authors in the genres you love - and I'm seeing what I can do about disseminating more information about what's available - you can develop a new habit and send a big signal to Australian publishers that you want to read Australian authors. As I wrote last week, if you an Australian writer who wants to be published one day, it is important to understand this particular reason for why it's so hard to get published. I am not, as one person suggested, asking you to rescue the Australian publishing industry. I'm simply asking you to stop and think about what you read and why, and then to also realise how the readers 'out there' think. If you're all thinking that you don't want to read Australian novels - or if you simply can't be bothered to change a habit - then don't be surprised if you see less of them around.


Lan said...

As a book blogger, I'm going to have to disagree with a lot of what's said in this post. Most of the post seems to be geared at the things readers may have done to limit the proliferation of Aussie books. But to be honest, I don't feel like this is a fair assessment.

I read a ton of Australian genre fiction and I buy a lot of the books I read. I've even participated in an Aussie Author Challenge for the past two years. I'd love to support Aussie authors in every capacity, but I tell you what, the publishers don't make it easy. Books that are released in Australia don't get released overseas for years. When they are released, I feel like very little is done to publicise that fact. Many Australian authors aren't accessible to their fans the way overseas authors are and pricing for books in Australia is out of control.

I think it's a bit simplistic to pin it all down to cultural cringe and habit. Given the right marketing, habits can be broken and so can historical trends. The mere fact that Aussie readers are buying large quantities of overseas genre fiction should signal to publishers that genre fiction is growing in popularity and is worth further investigation and investment. Nobody even cares anymore if what they're reading is from this country or that. If it's a good story than it will be enticing to readers.

At the end of the day, publishers, authors, book stores, in fact the entire industry needs to take a good look at the way it's marketing itself. Why should readers be the ones who change their habits drastically to suit an industry that won't innovate? I don't know any other industry where the consumer is the one that has to go looking for a product to buy. As I reader I find that ludicrous.

I'm willing to bet that if you put two books in front of an Aussie reader and tell them one is an Aussie book, that's the one they will pick. I know I certainly would. So my question to publishers is this: I'm willing to buy more Aussie books. What are you willing to do to help me?

Natalie said...

How do book-buyers even know whether the book they grab off the shelf is Australian or not? I don't unless I later Google the author or something. I just buy what looks good. I read a lot of genre fiction written by Australians, but also by overseas authors. Generally without knowing beforehand which is which.

Ilsa Evans said...

As both a reader and writer of Australian fiction, I would add a few variables to the equation. Media firstly - despite a good publishing house and great reviews, my last book barely scored a mention in the newspapers/magazines - and suffered sales-wise as a result (the ripple effect of which I am only experiencing now, while trying to place the next book). And then there's the industry itself, which is quite selective with its support - I experienced the most remarkable irony last year when asked for a donation to support more OS authors coming to the Melbourne Writers Festival. In 12 years as a writer, and nine books, I have never been invited myself!

Anonymous said...

Some Australian fantasy novels I love:
1. "Samurai Kids" series by Sandy Fussell (for kids)
2. "Castings" trilogy by Pamela Freeman (for adults)
3. "Old Kingdom" trilogy by Garth Nix (for young adults)

In my opinion, these books are absolutely at the top of their field. I read them over and over.

Louise Curtis

Virginia Lloyd said...

Thanks for these posts, Agent Sydney! I agree with you entirely about the invisible habits we develop early on in our reading lives. It's a point made visible recently in the discussion of gender imbalance in the authorship of books reviewed in major newspapers' book pages and in the gender of the reviewers themselves.
I don't believe, however, that someone who naturally wants to write genre will "try their hand" at literary fiction. I wish I could write thrillers or suspense stories myself instead of the essayistic nonfiction things I myself produce.
I agree with the several commenters who suggest that marketing and information distribution still leaves plenty of room for improvement. Unfortunately the marketers' jobs are increasingly difficult due to the fracturing of mass information channels into so many narrow and niche ones. That's the main reason why authors need to realise that, once the labour of love of writing the novel is at an end, they are only halfway there.
Keep the posts coming!

Theresa said...

Great post; great comments. Santa supports Aussie authors in this house, all year round, in fact. Publishing is a cautious industry, made up of people of good will who, like the rest of us, would prefer to keep their jobs. Their decisions have to be supported by numbers, by what's 'proven'. Does that sting many would-be authors? Sure it does. Still, there's always hope and change is pressing at the door.