The Outlook for Australian Literature

In "The Australian" last weekend Rosemary Neill wrote a long article titled "Lits Out", or elsewhere titled "Who is Killing the Great Books of Australia?" I meant to link to it earlier in the week, and wanted to make some comments on it. I just couldn't think of much to go on with. I'm not sure that I still can, yet I think it does need to be mentioned and discussed.

Neill's basic premise is that Australian literary fiction is in a very sick state indeed. It isn't dead, it's just not very well. Sales are down in numbers and value and if the current trends continue then it's probably going to slowly fade out of existence.

Her main argument is based on the number of non-genre Australian novels published each year which has fallen from 60 in 1996 to 32 in 2004. And by any stretch this isn't good. One part of the problem seems to lie with the current crop of major Australian publishers, who are all, bar Allen & Unwin, majority owned by non-Australian companies. Current publishing set-up costs mean that a major publishing house has to print, and sell, at least 3000 copies. That doesn't sound like a lot but Shona Martyn, publishing director at HarperCollins, says that a lot of well-known, respected writers sell under 1000 copies of their novels in this country. The finances just don't add up and publishing at those numbers just isn't feasible. Yet you can't blame the publishers for not publishing books at a loss. They are in the business of making money for their shareholders. They aren't a charity and shouldn't be expected to act like one. Martyn also goes on to say that a book only has a window of approximately four weeks to find a niche in the market. After that the focus of the metropolitan newspapers and magazines has moved on, and all that is left is the round of state and national literary awards. It's not looking good.

There is a ray of hope in all this, however. Small publishers such as Giramondo can make ends meet with print-runs about half those required by the big publishers. The trouble is, their resources are limited and they can't take on the whole field.

It's possible to come up with a long list of reasons why this state of affairs has come about: the marketing is ill-conceived or non-existent; the publishers don't understand the market and are publishing the wrong books; readers just aren't interested in fiction any more, let alone Australian fiction. And a case can be made for all of these. You have to add in the general societal changes involving new forms of media, greater availabilty of those forms, and the subsequent lowering of the attention spans of media consumers. I don't think there is any one reason for the fall in sales, all of those listed play a part, but not the total.

I don't work in the industry and don't have a "wonder cure" for the ills of the Australian publishing industry. I don't believe anyone has. Maybe it lies in the unearthing of a major new writing talent, the emergence of an energetic and courageous publisher, government intervention, or the introdutcon of innovative new publishing forms that are cheaper and more easily accessible.

In some ways the current state of Australian literary fiction mirrors the current problems with our male swimmers at the Commonwealth Games: what once was great has now been seen to rely too heavily on one or two heroic performers who are currently missing through injury. In the next six to twelve months I suspect major initiatives will be put in place to correct this sporting "deficiency". If only the same sort of effort could be put into the literary field we might not be having this conversation again in 12 months' time. In the meantime, don't hold your breath in hope or expectation that the Federal Government will step in to save the day. You're going to be severely disappointed.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on March 23, 2006 4:07 PM.

2006 Hugo and Campbell Awards was the previous entry in this blog.

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