Where to Now For Literary #2

A couple of weeks back I wrote about the problems facing literary fiction in the US, and by implication Australia, and what a few litbloggers were doing to help alleviate those problems. Now, in the first issue of the new literate journal The Monthly we are presented with Malcolm Knox's views about why literary fiction in this country is in the doldrums.

In his article titled "The Ex Factor" Knox examines the role that one specific item plays in the continuing decline of the Australian novelist: Bookscan. For those not familiar with the subject you can consider Bookscan to be the literature equivalent of the Neilsen TV ratings. In fact, it is the Neilsen company which runs Bookscan in this country. In essence, it tracks book sales, at the point-of-sale, so an accurate and timely count can be kept of the number of copies a particular title has sold.

Publishers like it, of course. I assume booksellers like it as well, as they are the ones inputting the data, and it would allow them to track their sales without the expeense of setting up an individualised tracking system. The losers, according to Knox, are the Australian novelists. It replaces the old idea that one big seller in a publishing house, a Matthew Reilly or a Bryce Courtenay for example, could "carry" a host of other authors who played to much smaller audiences. A publisher used to get an overall picture of sales and as long as the total bottom line was in the black that a few red values along the way wasn't going to matter all that much. Now the publisher can see the individual lines, the swathe of small red amongst the big black numbers, and they are not pleased.

Knox contends that this has led to a reduction in the number of literary novels published in this country, oddly enough, not by the new emerging writers, but by the writers working on their fourth, fifth or sixth book. If their previous one or two books didn't rate well on the Bookscan scoreboard then they're out. Writers such as Brian Castro are struggling to find publishers even though they are winning awards once the book sees publication.

So what does this tell you?

Well, to me it implies that good books are being written, that they are out there, but readers just aren't reading them. Partly this has to do with the problems of scale. I'd guess that a first novel in the US would be considered to have been a success if it sold, say, 20,000 copies. Pretty decent numbers I'd reckon. But if you apply these numbers to Australia in direct proportion to population you get a figure of about 1,200. Not quite so decent.

I haven't worked in the book publishing business but I reckon it's safe to assume that the major expense in printing - not marketing - a new book is in the setup costs. The first thousand copies are much more expensive to print than the 20th thousand. So, relatively speaking, printing proportionally similar book numbers is going to be much more expensive here than in the US. And there's not a lot that can be done about that. At least the way books are currently printed.

So, assuming we can't do much about the way books are printed maybe something could be done to change the way they are marketed, how readers are informed that new books are available and what reviewers think of them.

I don't see a lot of book marketing in this country. I go looking for it but don't see a lot anyway. And the marketing I do see is mainly for foreign or big selling local authors who don't need the push, think Stephen King or Bryce Courtenay here. A couple of days back, the Book Standard published an article titled "Getting a Buzz On: How Publishers are Turning Online to Market Books". The title would give you a pretty good hint that some publishers in the US are trying to think outside the usual marketing constraints by trying some different approaches. The Book Standard piece considers the case of Freakanomics, a book that is subtitled "A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything". Not the most inviting of subjects one might think, yet it is currently sitting at #3 on Amazon's Book sales charts.

The article explains this: "Published April 12, Freakonomics has found a larger-than-expected audience, due partly to publisher William Morrow's strategically placed advance copies, some with industry professionals, but perhaps more importantly, with bloggers." A new resource in the US has been found and tapped. "Publicists for the book sent galley copies of the title to over a hundred bloggers who, in turn, profiled or reviewed the book on their sites. The result - Freakonomics has sold 34,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen BookScan - has been overwhelmingly positive."

Again, remember we are talking different scales here but who's to say something similar might not work in this country. At least it's a thought.

[My thanks to the Grumpy Old Bookman litblog for alerting me to the Book Standard article.]

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on May 10, 2005 4:07 PM.

2005 Sydney Writers' Festival was the previous entry in this blog.

2005 Nita B Kibble Award is the next entry in this blog.

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