Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Golden Age of Aussie Publishing

I dare say some writers, especially those struggling to get published or republished, will take issue with what I’m about to say, but I’ll say it anyway. The past decade and a half have been the golden age in Australian publishing and, over this time, it’s never been easier to get published – and to succeed as a writer.

Let me take you back to the late 1980s, when I started writing. The Australian publishing industry was dominated then, as it is now, by a small number of international publishing houses. But back then, in their fiction departments at least, there was scant interest in publishing fiction by Australian authors unless it was either literary fiction or fiction for children. Or crime fiction, though there wasn’t much of that either, apart from Peter Corris.

I write mainly fantasy and science fiction, mainly for older readers, and at the time I first started sending my manuscripts out (1989), no Australian publishers were publishing SF, fantasy or horror by Australian writers for the adult market. This was curious, since Australians are keen consumers of speculative fiction and some UK publishers were shipping nearly half of their print runs here. There seemed to be a presumption that Australians couldn’t write this kind of stuff – or perhaps publishers preferred to import their proven big name international authors rather than risk the investment of time and money to develop local authors.

This situation began to change when Pan MacMillan started publishing Martin Middleton’s fantasy series, Chronicles of the Custodians, in 1990. The first book,Circle of Light, sold exceedingly well, as did the second, and this spurred a brief flowering of speculative fiction publishing in the early Nineties. Other authors published then included Shannah Jay (AKA prolific novelist Anna Jacobs who mainly writes historical sagas) and Tony Shillitoe (fantasy), and Graeme Hague (horror), though by the mid-Nineties, in the face of declining sales, publishers were dropping authors and pulling back.

Then, in 1995, along came Sara Douglass, whose first novel Battleaxe outsold many of the big name international fantasy authors, and this began the Australian speculative fiction Renaissance which continues to this day. Over the next few years a dozen or more Aussie writers had big sales or critical success, or both, including Caiseal Mor, Traci Harding, Kim Wilkins, Sean Williams, Kate Forsyth, Ian Irvine and Juliet Marillier and, for YA readers, Garth Nix, until, around the turn of the century, 10 or more new authors were being published a year.

Even towards the end of the Nineties, though, it was rare for Aussie SF writers to be published internationally, one exception being Garth Nix, whose charming YA fantasy Sabriel was a big success in the US in the mid-Nineties. Then suddenly, between 1998 and 2001, virtually every Aussie author successfully published here was also being published in the US, UK or in translation. Many authors, including all of those listed above, were being published in 8, 10 or more countries, and the deluge of Aussie novels was making a big impact internationally.

Now, in late 2011, more than 80 (and perhaps as many as 100) Aussie speculative fiction authors have had novel length science fiction, fantasy or horror published, not including children’s authors. Many, but by no means all, are listed in the following articles:

Quite a few of these authors have had major international commercial and critical success, including John Flanagan, Matthew Reilly, Garth Nix, and Lian Hearn, each of whose sales are known to exceed 4 million copies. Trudi Canavan, Sara Douglass, Juliet Marillier, Ian Irvine, Isobelle Carmody, Fiona McIntosh, Jennifer Fallon, Kate Forsyth, Sean Williams and Karen Miller (and probably others I’ve unintentionally left out) have also had big sales extending over many years in Australia and internationally. Aussie authors who have garnered great critical acclaim include Margo Lanagan (4 World Fantasy Awards for her short fiction) and hard SF writer Greg Egan.

It’s not just speculative fiction writers, of course – the world has opened up to our crime, thriller, saga and romance writers, and children’s and YA writers, as well. Emily Rodda’s Deltora Quest children’s fantasy series has sold more than 15 million copies. Kate Morton’s three novels have been published in 38 countries and garnered sales of 6.5 million copies in five years. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief has been a No 1 international bestseller and translated into 30 languages. And in the past few years, two Australian writers, Sonya Hartnett and Shaun Tan, have won the Astrid Lindgren Award, one of the richest and most prestigious literary awards in the world.

Would these successes have been possible without the Australian market for Aussie authors opening up the way it has? I very much doubt it – in the majority of cases, it’s success in an author’s local market that opens doors internationally.

So what about those formerly reluctant publishers? They’ve done very well out of Aussie authors over the past 15, making good profits in most or all of those years, and many of them now publish more local authors here than they do international ones. Hurrah for us! They bow before our altars every day and give thanks for having known us (LOL).

What of the future? Is the golden age passing? With so many local authors being published, these genres are much more crowded than before and, save for those lucky few who already have a substantial following, it’s going to be hard for most authors to sell as many copies of a book as in the early days. The demise of the Borders and Angus & Robertson book chains hasn’t helped, either. I suspect it’ll be much harder to get a print edition of a book published in future, though it’s likely to be easier to be published in eBook form. EBooks still have to be designed and edited, but since there are no printing, warehousing, shipping or return costs, and no damaged copies, the financial risk from publishing this way is far lower. But that’s a topic for another post – or ten.

Interesting times –

And all the very best for your writing.

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