catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

The problems of Australian fiction

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The Weekend Australian‘s story on falling Australian fiction sales has, as is often the case, authors pointing the figure at publishers who – shock, horror – aren’t keen on losing money by releasing books that they don’t think will sell well. The paper has novelist Brian Castro tell the kind of story that gives hope to writers everywhere, of a book rejected many times before going on to critical and/or commercial success.

I’m not sure the situation for Australian fiction is as dire as the article makes out, especially in its first part. Publishing is an up-and-down business, and which base year you pick can paint a rather different picture on trends. Using the ABS data things look better if you pick say 2000-01 to compare with 2003-04 rather than 2001-02. And the complaints about booksellers not giving books long on the shelves to sell rather obscure the fact that high turnover at least means that more books appear in the shops in total (the rise of very large bookstores must also be helping give authors exposure).

The main enemies of Australian fiction are not publishers or booksellers, who if anything may still be giving it more prominence than it warrants in either literary or commercial terms, but its quality compared to the signals we get about it. As with other products that are hard to judge before consuming them, potential readers have to rely on signalling devices such as third-party endorsements, bestseller lists or brand, which in this case is the author’s name (this is less of an issue with non-fiction, where the subject matter is more likely to sell the book). All of these inherently work against first-time novelists, which is one reason that publishers are reluctant take risks on them.

Many of us have learned to take reviews of Australian books sceptically. As the Weekend Oz‘s article notes, over-promoted Australian novels breed disillusioned readers. Misguided desires to not offend authors or to ‘help’ Australian fiction have led to overly-soft reviewing, which in turn has made necessary re-inventing the cultural cringe of relying on endorsement from overseas, by people not part of the small and incestuous world of Australian novel-writing and reviewing.

Even brand-builders such as the various literary prizes lack the strength of say the Booker in the UK. Like Rafe, I once made a commitment to buying Australian novels. For a few years, I bought the winner of the Vogel award for young Australian writers. But I liked a minority of them, and found the thought that this was the best of young Australian novelists depressing (I probably should have gone for the Miles Franklin winner instead). And as I noted last year, compiling bestseller lists from representative Bookscan data rather than the smaller independent bookstores where Australian fiction is most likely to sell has kept Australian novels off the bestseller lists, and possibly further reduced their sales. Strong ‘brands’ like Tim Winton can still sell lots of books. But the future Wintons are likely to need a lot of shrewd marketing and favourable word-of-mouth if they are to replicate his success.

Another difficulty is one that all fiction publishing faces. So many good novels have been published that I could spend the rest of my life as a satisfied regular reader of fiction without ever having to buy any novel published in the future. The fact that a book can be enjoyably read decades or even centuries after it was written is a literary strength but a commercial weakness. Though the same can be said to an extent of non-fiction, its less universal themes mean that keeping up to date provides a reason to continue buying new books. Writers and publishers of fiction have to work much harder to convice me that I should buy their book rather than purchase an old novel more cheaply at a second-hand bookseller. Patriotically, I will set myself a target of reading at least one Australian novel a year – but I will probably start with the backlist rather than take a risk on a 2006 release.

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Written by Admin

March 20, 2006 at 6:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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