by PATRICK LENTON
When I was a young writer, all bright-eyed and hopeful about my inevitably successful career as a comedic literary writer, a publisher working for one of the big trade companies sat me down and drew me a rough pie chart of Australia’s book-buying habits. There was a big wedge for cookbooks and lifestyle, another for celebrity memoir and biography, and finally a smaller wedge for fiction. He then used his pencil to carve another, tinier sliver out of the fiction wedge, and said ‘that’s literary fiction’. I’m not good at numbers, and couldn’t quite work out how many people that was meant to represent, but considering Australia’s small population, I was able to get the gist.
Put bluntly, literary fiction just doesn’t sell to enough people in Australia for it to be a huge commercial imperative for big publishing. Big publishers still do publish literary fiction obviously, but the opportunities for debut authors are limited. More importantly, the opportunities for commercial success for debut authors are even more grim, meaning that if you’re lucky enough to have had a book picked up and then watched as it sold “poorly”, you might not be picked up for another. Your career might halt right there – a big publishing house is a business after all, and if you can’t make back the money spent on your book, then you might not be a worthwhile investment.
There are a hundred thousand other reasons why literary fiction is going through a tough time in Australia – but there are rays of hope. From the excellent support of Australian indie bookshops to the success of recent titles and authors, it’s not all doom and gloom. And one of the exciting developments is the rise of Indie publishing in Australia.
I truly believe indie publishers can fulfil a vital role in the Australian publishing landscape, and that’s the ability to take risks with literature. As literary fiction becomes riskier for big commercial publishers, it looks like indie publishers – who don’t need such huge sales figures to justify publication – are the ones who can pick up the slack.
Indie publishers are not a new phenomenon, but there have been huge changes in the costs associated with running this sort of business, mostly for distribution and printing. It means that print runs are not the budget-destroying behemoths they used to be, and are more likely to be picked up in bookshops. Combine that with the ease and scope of marketing and distribution online and it’s an entirely new world from even ten years ago.
In Australia, we’re seeing really exciting new independent publishers popping up all over the place, from The Lifted Brow branching out into books, to DIY lit collective Subbed In creating a chapbook publication prize for NSW residents.
We’re also seeing evidence that these indie published titles aren’t simply being printed and then lost in the back of bookstores. Over the past few years, we’ve seen books from indie publishing sweeping through Australian awards such as The Stella Prize, The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, The Queensland Literary Awards and more. When Black Rock, White City by A.S. Patric won the prestigious Miles Franklin Award last year, it proved that tiny presses such as Transit Lounge can play in the same field as big budget publishing houses.
Winning a prize can make the difference from a few hundred copies sold to a few thousand. Often the major difference between a small and a large publisher is the amount of money available for marketing and publicity campaigns (although to be honest, even the big houses don’t usually put too much into a debut literary title), and a number of copies initially printed. Winning a prize can – but doesn’t always – even out the gap between those discrepancies. This is why initiatives like the Victorian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards offering free submissions to their literary prize for members of the Small Press Network is welcome – the cost of entering prizes can be prohibitive to small publishers, and this change will help our literary landscape flourish.