Is The Great Australian Novel An Endangered Species?


As part of my role as an advocate for authors, I present workshops around the country called "So you want to be an author?" One of the first things I do in these workshops is ask each participant what they are writing. Invariably, 75 per cent or more are writing adult fiction — usually a novel. The rest are writing for children or young adults, poetry or non-fiction.

This analysis allows me to introduce to these budding writers the market they plan to storm. Very few of them have done any market research. They have little idea of the business aspects of a writing career. Most of them are unaware that, at the present time at least, non-fiction outsells fiction. I point out that, as demonstrated by our little survey, there are more and more novelists competing for a smaller share of the market, so non-fiction writers already have an edge in terms of actually getting published.

I remind them that can take years for a manuscript to reach publishable quality, even for a writer working full-time, which very few budding authors have the luxury to do. Most first novels sell a small number of copies — 1500 would be a good average. The reward to the author for innumerable hours of writing and revision is paltry.

We also look at some Bookscan figures relating to unit sales. In 2006 and 2007, children’s books sold more units in Australia than adult fiction. This would seem to be good news for children’s writers. Most books written for children, however, sell at a lower price than adult novels, so the overall sales value is generally less and so are returns to authors, as most royalties are calculated on the recommended retail price. That means there’s less money going to the author for each book sold. You have to sell a lot more books writing for children than you do writing for adults to make a sustainable income. On the upside, the publishing opportunities for those writing for children are greater because there are fewer of them.

Yet all this bad news doesn’t stop people writing.

There were 14,258 books published in Australia in 2007. The 244 publishers who state that publishing is their primary business published only 8924 of these. A total of 2872 books represented the sole output of their publisher. The majority of these books were self-published and, if we interpolate data from the United States into the mix, we can assume that a vast number of these were fiction. Unfortunately, most of those books will sink without trace due to a lack of marketing, no distribution channel and the fact that the author is unknown.

But this does demonstrate that book publishing can sometimes be a viable cottage industry as well as big business — and perhaps reminds us that it has always been so. The truth is we don’t really know, as research in this area is very sparse. What research there is concentrates on traditional publishers. In some cases, self-publishing can be very successful. Just ask the women who wrote the best seller 4 Ingredients and its successor 4 Ingredients 2. Or visit Philip Rush’s website to see how a poet can successfully self-publish and market his work outside the mainstream marketplace.

Unfortunately, though, self-publishing is not yet a recipe for success for novels. Partly, this is because there is strong competition in the storytelling market between novels and more modern forms of media such as DVDs. Boxed sets of series made for TV as well as movies compete with books for the attention of those who like to be entertained with stories. While technology has made it easier for the average author to self-publish, it has also made it relatively easy for audiovisual material to be viewed on a bus or at the beach, locations where books have reigned supreme until now.

In my view, though, we are on the cusp of change. With new e-readers coming onto the market, the possibility for books to be more interactive and less text-based has increased. Already, the sales of graphic novels and manga for adults are increasing. The fact that Shaun Tan’s wordless The Arrival won the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award in 2007 demonstrates that words are no longer necessary — were they ever? — to story telling.

Books will not disappear, but novels may well morph into some multimedia mutation. This does not bode well for the authors of novels in the long-term. At present, though, the best-seller lists feature Di Morrissey, Judy Nunn and Stephanie Meyer doing very well with their various forms of romance, and Kate Grenville doing very well with her historical fiction.

But all those would-be novelists churning out thousands of words should do some market research before they devote so much of their lives to writing novels designed to be read in print format. And they should brush up their business skills too. With a little lateral thinking, aspiring authors could act as their own, successful web-based publishers — a situation potentially a great deal more lucrative than 10 per cent of royalties on 1500 sales.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.