2 Jan 2009

Is The Great Australian Novel An Endangered Species?

By Jeremy Fisher
Read this before you throw down your pens, aspiring novelists. Jeremy Fisher crunches the numbers on the market for Australian fiction
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.

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Dr Dog
Posted Monday, January 5, 2009 - 14:18

All true Jeremy, but don't you still secretly hope that somewhere amongst all these ill-informed and newmedia-shy folk someone is writing a fucking great new novel? One that you or I might purchase and enjoy as an object, a talisman of the concepts it contains.

At least when I buy a printed book I know it has been through some evaluatory process. Self publication on the web is democratic in that it makes vanity publishing available to everyone.

Posted Tuesday, January 6, 2009 - 04:24

It took Penguin's Australian sales director <a href="http://www.smh.com.au/news/entertainment/books/nostalgic-book-covers-jud... years to convince head office</a> in the UK to let him release the orange-and-cream reprints currently making a nice profit.

Decisions by major publishers are nothing to base your life on, and never have been.

Major publishers are no more perceptive than other executives.

But the one nice thing about the Penguin reprints - apart from the price, books have been priced out of the range of anyone below the middle-middle class for nearly 20 years now - is that they will encourage and enthuse and educate by pleasure an audience for new books published by other means, by other presses, in print or other formats.

I'm sorry to have said that, though to me it is true. I'm fond of Penguin and always have been; my bookshelves are still full of Penguins, turning brown now.

Posted Wednesday, January 7, 2009 - 15:10

Dr Dog, I agree with you one hundred percent. The great novel should never be given up on. This article has a tone that irks me - a 'if you can't beat them, join them' attitude that will only lead to lazy authors. I'd rather try harder to write a great novel than I would to succumb to the internet and have an over-glorified livejournal.

Posted Wednesday, January 7, 2009 - 16:52

I wonder if Bookscan takes into account book purchases made by Aussies through Amazon and similar Internet sellers?

I've have bought hundreds of books over the last few years mainly from The Book Depository in the UK saving hundreds of dollars (e.g Tim Winton's latest Breath - $42 from Doubleday Book Club and $20 from TDB which sends by free airmail express). TBD also has a huge stock of out-of-print books going back to the 80s.

Many of my friends and relatives are now seriously committed to buying over the 'Net and this must really skew the figures of book-buying by Australians.

Posted Wednesday, January 7, 2009 - 22:17

The next GAN will probably be a political thriller about how the more politicians in the west talk about human rights and values near and dear to normal folk, the less they actually deliver the same.

Also, if the net can become publicist and publisher and allow budding authors to do their own market research, then I would hope then that our downloaded computer prints or at least net ordered copies will be from Ozzie sources. Maybe "Murray-Darling.com" instead of Amazon, and "Tea leaves Baker's dozen" (pardon me rhymin slang) for TBD.

Hack hack and more hack, let's just hope it's not going to be publish and perish, especially for historical novels and non-fiction.

Cheers Oli

Posted Thursday, January 8, 2009 - 15:53


Like Dr Dog, I also yearn for a steady supply of great (very good would do!) novels - and they don't have to be Australian. I managed to re-read Waugh's Brideshead Revisited recently (sandwiched between the usual diet of airport crime and non-fiction) and it gave me simple, enormous pleasure by reminding me of just how good a novel can be. I don't mind if I have to wait a while - as long as I know there is something coming ...