Monday, April 28, 2008

Authors income throughout the world

What is an author worth? What he or she is paid, ultimately. And unfortunately that is often out of all proportion to the work an author must do to create a work.
In Australia, the best data on what an author is worth come from the work of David Throsby and Virginia Hollister for the Australia Council. The 2003 edition of their book Don’t give up your day job states that in 2000-01 the median earned creative income of writers was $4,800, the total arts income was $11,700 and the total income was $35,000. Throsby and Hollister acknowledge that income for writers can come from various sources. The Australian Society of Aithors (ASA) has long championed a range of income possibilities for writers. Payments from royalties from the sale of the published book are the main income stream from a publishing contract, but the exploitation of subsidiary rights such as serialisation, film and other adaptation rights can be quite valuable both on publication and afterwards. As the age of book increases, its potential to earn royalties usually decreases, which is why the ASA has been the driving force for the creation of payments for lending rights and from copying, both of which extend earnings to the author from the exploitation of their work.
Throsby and Hollister took all these income streams into account when assessing authors’ incomes, as well as other types of income coming from public appearances, reading and activities related to authorial activity. This means that the Australian figures on authors’ incomes are relatively comprehensive. For example, Throsby and Hollister found that 42% of writers earned less than $10,000 from their creative and arts-related work, while 18% earned $50,000 or more. When income from all work was considered, this figure dropped to 13% of writers earning less then $10,000 and rose to 35% of writers earning $50,000 or more.
The same isn’t always true of data from the rest of the world so when we compare authors’ income internationally we have to be conscious that what is being measured isn’t always the same thing. Nevertheless, international comparisons are a useful means of assessing the success of Australian authors as income-earning writers.
Let’s consider our South Pacific neighbours first. Using the services of Research International, the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA) recently surveyed 355 mid-career and established writers regarding income (New Zealand Author, Oct/Nov 2007) and discovered that “ just 17 per cent of New Zealand writers survive solely on their writing income”.
The New Zealand figures also showed that the mean total of a writer’s income from all sources (but excluding full-time work) was NZ$15,383 (A$12,768). The minimum wage in New Zealand is NZ$23,400 (A$19,422).
The NZSA found that
• 77 per cent of mid-career authors earn less than NZ$10,000 from writing;
• only 9 per cent of established authors earn over NZ$50,000
• only 30 per cent of mid-career and established authors have received a grant in the last four years; and
• 34 per cent of authors say they couldn’t afford to write without the help of family of friend.
As to other income streams, New Zealand authors have not yet achieved some of the successful additional income sources available to Australian authors through the ongoing work of the ASA. As an example, set up in 1973, the New Zealand Authors' Fund acts a bit like Public Lending Right as it compensates New Zealand authors for the loss of income through holdings of their books in New Zealand libraries. Authors may register with the Fund if they are eligible to receive royalties for their books and if more than 50 copies are held in New Zealand libraries. The Fund was meant to allow authors to pursue their writing full-time. The survey showed only 9 per cent of writing related income came from the fund. An overwhelming majority – 78 per cent – of the authors surveyed stated that if the Fund offered more they would be better able to make writing their career, even though over 1400 authors benefit from the Fund.
Tings are a bit more positive in Europe. There, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), based in the UK, commissioned a comparative study of authors’ earnings from Bournemouth University. They sent out 25,000 questionnaires to ALCS members and two professional bodies in Germany (Verband Deutscher Schriftsletter [Association of German Writers], and Verband der Drehbuchautoren [Association of Scriptwriters]). The survey defined three categories: professional authors, who allocate more than 50% of their time to writing; main-income authors, who earn more than 50% of their income from writing; and audio-visual authors, who work mainly in television, film, radio and the internet. Another category of academics/teachers covered other writers in the educational sector. In the United Kingdom because ALCS is a collecting society which administers some educational licences, the academic/teacher category was larger as a proportion of authors. The German sample, drawn from members of professional writers organisations, saw a much smaller proportion of academics/teachers.

Table 1: Mean and median income for author groups (pounds sterling: one pound equals $A2.26)
Main-income authors Professional Audiovisual Academics/teachers Total
Australia* NA NA NA NA 100%
Mean NA NA NA NA $46,100
Median NA NA NA NA $35,000
UK†* 33% 46% 8% 32% 100%
Mean $A93,080 $A64,048 $A86,131 $A12,434 $A37,360
Median $A51,980 $A28,117 $A33,900 $A3625 $9,040
Germany† 63% 90% 19% 4% 100%
Mean $A42,951 $A31,364 $68,686 $A4,857 $A30,200
Median $A31,188 $A18,713 $A46,782 $A4,678 $A18,713
New Zealand NA NA NA NA 100%
Mean $A12,768
Median NA
*Data from Throsby/Hollister, 2003. Period is 2000-1. Figures are total income.
†Authors could be in more than one category.

For the United Kingdom, writing was shown to be a very risky profession with median earning less than one-quarter of the typical wage of a UK employee. And there is is significant inequality within the profession. The top 10% of UK authors earn more than 50% of the total income. Moreover, when the ALCS 2004-05 figures were benchmarked against the figures collected by the UK Society of Authors in 2000 they appeared to indicate that the earning of a typical UK author were deteriorating in real terms. The median (‘typical’) earning in 2000 were A$14,313. In 2004-05, the same earnings were A$9040.
As we don’t have similar Australian figures, we can only posit that the situation is similar in Australia. From anecdotal reports, it does seem to be so.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Reading is bad!

We like think we understand our readers. We believe we know what readers really want. That’s why we believe we’re the experts in story-telling. And why shouldn’t we? We write wonderfully inventive stories that explore every street, every sewer even, of human experience.
Of late, though, the post-modern novel, elliptical, issues-driven, appears to have has fallen foul of readers. There is one view that this all started with 9-11. The market for fiction dried up as the Twin Towers fell.
That’s not really the case. Fiction is still selling. It’s just that readers aren’t looking for any reality in their fiction. They are looking for escape. Fair enough, given the War on Terror, and Darfur, and tsunamis.
But wasn’t it ever so? Don’t we read because we want to escape?
I suffered severe asthma for the first ten years of my life. When I was five and six my grandmother read me Rudyard Kipling’s Just so stories. I learned how the elephant got its trunk. It was all nonsense. I knew that. But it was an escape from the rattle in my chest and the effort required to breathe.
Later, when I could read myself, I’d go to the local library and borrow writers such Ivan Southall, Colin Thiele and Rosemary Sutcliffe. On a cold winter’s day I could sit beside a fire and travel wherever they took me, my wheezing lungs forgotten.
But I also went to the movies. The Saturday matinee was one of the highlights of my week. Later, when my family finally bought a television, I learned how to follow different stories. Superman and My Favourite Martian were perfect relaxation after a day’s school.
For me, neither films nor television dominated. In my home, reading was encouraged, even rewarded. My parents read books, talked about what they read and put no limits on me or my siblings with regard to what we could read. We were never told a book was too old for us. So my siblings and I all grew up enjoying reading and accepting it as a pleasurable activity. We looked for new stories, new writers, and shared our discoveries with each other. I avidly read my way through my sister’s Georgette Heyer collection as well as my father’s library copies of Jon Cleary and Morris West and my mother’s Ngaio Marsh paperbacks. I never had a problem finding a book to read. It was more “which one now”?
Today, we face a reading problem. Many children do not grow up with the exposure to books I had. As a result, educational authorities in Australia have identified a problem in schools. Reading rates remain high for the first couple of years, then drop off alarmingly. This is particularly so for boys. By Year 9, boys are refusing to read books. A similar pattern has been identified in the United States where a recent study, the “Kids and Family Reading Report”, funded by publisher Scholastic, has been reported recently in Publishers Weekly. This study reveals that, while children like to read books, they read significantly less after the age of eight. While 44% of children aged 5 to 8 years of age were high frequency readers (that is, they read a book every day) the proportion fell to only 16% for children aged 15 to 17. Further reports from the National Endowment for the Arts spport this evidence.
The study found one reason for the drop-off was the poor role models parents set as readers. Only 21% of parents were frequent readers themselves. There was no passive encouragement of reading.
But the study also uncovered the fact that the major reason children don’t read more is because they can’t find books they like to read. While the study said parents should be doing more to recommend books to their children, I had another view. Don’t recommend books. Tell children books are bad! Read a book and you’ll go blind! Make books evil. That’s a sure-fire way to sex them up and start children reading. Of course, some good stories would be useful as well. But it’s the sexiness of the activity that’s more important. That draws attention
Think about movies. Movies seem huge. Movies make money. But remember that the total Australian box office revenue for movie is 50% less than the total sales revenue for books -- and Australian movies are much, much less successful in revnue terms than Australian books! Yet movies continue to have a sexiness that the average author can only dream about.
V for Vendetta and X men are action movies with some spectacular special effects but they are pretty simple stories when subjected to any critical analysis. Does this mean they are bad? Not at all. Simply, to non-reading children they are sexier than books. They are bad! Parents disapprove of the violence and hints of sexuality.
No more shocking than a glimpse of stocking, movies like these ooze adolescent hormones and teenage rebellion in a way I see only manga comics doing in print form and. Nevertheless, mangas are the one thing teenage boys do read. Why? Because they are bad!
I’m not saying we should all be writing mangas. I am saying we should be looking at how we can “sex up” reading so that non-reading children will reach for a book as easily as they do a movie or a DVD. For this missing audience, we need to be giving reading a bad reputation.
I think many of us writing for those missing readerships know that. The people who don’t know are publishers. But what would they know? After all, if publishers really knew how to publish for readers why did J.K. Rowling fail in her first dozen approaches to publishers? The truth is no publisher recognised readers were crying out for a child Wizard. Nor did they know readers wanted a book that offered a curious and spurious take on Christianity in the form of the Da Vinci Code.
Both Harry Potter and Dan Brown were sleepers, books that caught their publishers by surprise. It was readers who took them up because they were good, competent stories and good escapist fun. Readers enjoyed them. They were plot-driven narratives, page turners, real stories. Readers spread their strengths by word of mouth. Readers sexed them up. Readers made them bad.
In 2005 at the ASA’s forum on Indigenous literacy Wendy Cowey spoke of her work with the Accelerated Literacy Program from Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory. This program seeks to engage reluctant readers in remote communities and develop their reading skills. Wendy spoke of how she and her fellow researchers first thought their reluctant readers didn’t read because of a paucity of culturally specific material. But this was not the case. It was exposure to reading material that was important. Good stories were even more important. Wendy spoke delightedly about one young girl who had successfully moved from almost zero literacy to a level commensurate with her eleven years of age. The girl had read a whole book by herself. The girl wanted to buy a copy so she could have it with her for the rest of her life, it was such a good story. For her, it was the best.
The book was The lion, the witch and the wardrobe, a story about as far away from the girl’s remote Northern Territory community as you can get. Reading it allowed the girl to escape to a land of the Lion for a while. Now that’s bad!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Book Reviewing and other matters

At the 2007 Australian Book Industry Awards (in Sydney on 24 July), 15 of the 18 awards presented had been voted for by an academy of booksellers and publishers. The Bookshop of the Year (won by Riverbend in Brisbane as an independent and by Dymocks Garden City in Booragoon, Western Australia as a chain representative) and the Publisher of the Year category (won by Allen & Unwin overall and by Black Inc. in the Small Publisher category) were suitably self-congratulatory.
Then there were the awards for the books. The Book of the Year award went to Les Carlyon’s The Great War (Macmillan). The Great War was also the co-winner of the inaugural Prime Minister’s History Prize of $100,000. It was chosen from a remarkable short list that included the following books – Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (Hachette/Lothian), which has also won the NSW and WA Premier’s awards for Book of the Year, Chris Masters’ Jonestown (Allen & Unwin), Barry Jones’ A Thinking Reed (Allen & Unwin) and Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem (Black Inc.). The list is remarkable because it does not contain a work of fiction. There are two memoirs (Jones and Pung), one biography (Masters), one wordless illustrated book (The Arrival) and one work of history (Carlyon). While The Arrival appeals both to children and adults, the other books are all clearly aimed at the adult market. That aside, all of these books are exceptional and excellent representatives of the best of Australian publishing.
Before the Book of the Year was announced, The Arrival, which is now in many editions internationally, had already won the 2007 Book of the Year for Older Children (7 to 14), The Great War the category of General Non-fiction Book of the Year, Jonestown Biography of the Year and Alice Pung was announced as Newcomer of the Year. They were up against major competition in those categories, too. For example, The Arrival competed with a really tough (and eclectic!) bunch that comprised Melina Marchetta’s On the Jellicoe Road, Maureen McCarthy’s Rose by Any Other Name, Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Ten Things I Hate About Me, and Tim Flannery’s We are the Weather Makers. Jonestown was up against the Barry Jones book, General Peter Cosgrove’s My Story, Helen O’Neill’s biography of Florence Broadhurst and Unpolished Gem.
This list of books, as unrepresentative as it is, clearly demonstrates the diversity and strength of Australian publishing. The children’s books that were shortlisted were equally as strong on their quality and diversity, as were the literary and general fiction titles. And this is excellent news for the health of the industry and for opportunities for authors.
But there is an aspect of the industry of which we need to keep ourselves aware. It has to do with marketing and publicity and book reviews.
Recently, I perused the results of a Dow Jones/Factiva Benchmark analysis by Chris Pash of coverage of books in Australian newspapers from January to June 2007. Factiva Benchmarks measure the amount of media coverage and often how company and product coverage changes over time. Factiva’s tools for this are based on a proprietary text mining technology enabling them to process huge volumes of media data to produce trends and analyses. Of course newspapers are not responsible for all book reviews, so this analysis is not a comprehensive study of book reviewing in general. However, even in this digital age newspapers still remain one of the most accessible forms of information about books and it is interesting for authors to understand exactly what newspapers are communicating to their readers about books and their creators.
The analysis I refer to was presented to the Pacific Area Newspaper Publisher’s Association (PANPA) 2007 Conference in early August. What the research showed was that The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian generated the most coverage of books (The Canberra Times should also be honourably mentioned).
Unfortunately, papers in cities other then Sydney or Melbourne rarely review books. Nevertheless, Melburnians are best off in terms of access to book reviews, with The Age way out in front. Melburnians reading both The Age and The Australian are going to be exposed to the most book reviews, and even more if they read the Herald-Sun. While The Sydney Morning Herald does well, Sydneysiders reading both it and The Australian don’t fare as well for book reviews, and the situation doesn’t improve if they read the Daily Telegraph as well. The Canberra Times performs better on book reviews than the Brisbane Courier-Mail. The Adelaide Advertiser and the Townsville Bulletin are on par in their coverage of book reviews. Tasmanians have to wait for the Sunday paper for their reviews. The Australian Financial Review reviews more books than the Daily Telegraph. But even the Illawarra Mercury and the Northern Territorian rate higher for book reviews that the West Australian.
Not surprisingly, books from the larger publishers -- HarperCollins, Allen & Unwin, Penguin, Random House and Pan Macmillan, dominate reviews. Not all publishers were reviewed evenly. For example, Pan Macmillan receives more attention from the Daily Telegraph than do other publishers. HarperCollins (a division of News Limited) receives top coverage in the Fairfax-owned Sydney Morning Herald and the Age and the News Limited paper the Herald-Sun. However, Melbourne-based small publisher Scribe gained some needed attention from The Age and (less so) the Sydney Morning Herald.
In the category of competitive volume, an analysis of the most significant mentions of books in newspapers, HarperCollins leads the pack, closely followed by Allen & Unwin, then Penguin, then Random House. Pan Macmillan and Hachette Livre drop back in the pack. This is interesting because it is not representative of market position vis a vis sales. Penguin is our largest publisher.
It was the specialisation and language of the book reviewers that most interested me. Pash’s research showed that reviewers have a preference for mysteries and bestselling books. It is a mystery why mysteries receive this attention, but bestsellers surely do not need added attention from reviewers. Authors might hope – vainly it seems – that reviewers would seek to bring unfamiliar books to readers’ attention. Some mysteries may fall into this category, but reviewing the latest Harry Potter rather than, say, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria does seem a pointless use of a reviewer’s talents. Not many buyers of Harry Potter are likely to be swayed by a positive (or negative) review; potential readers of relatively unknown new Australian works (even Miles Franklin Awards winners) may well be provoked to read or buy a copy by a positive review.
Already, you can tell this research does not bode well for emerging writers of literary fiction or poetry, or for those writers who are not on the Top Ten list! But then the reviewers weren’t that creative when it came to describing the books they reviewed. Reviewers commonly used the words “extraordinary”, “compelling”, “page-turner”, and “stunning”. The mouthful “unputdownable’ appeared nine times in the period under analysis. An author was also often described as a “master” or their works as “masterful”.
Is this the language of dispassionate review or marketing? This is a hard one. Newspaper book reviewers are certainly choosing the easiest course by reviewing a small selection of the top-selling titles, and the language of their reviews also reflects a quick approach to a task that is rarely well remunerated and often regarded as "filler" by editors. But in doing this newspapers are not doing justice to Australian authors and their books – or the potential readers of those books.
A vicious circle indeed.

Parts of this article first appeared in the August 2007 issue of Australian Author. Copyright © 2008 Jeremy Fisher/Australian Society of Authors.

Professional authorship: The key to living from writing

I am often asked to deliver a guest lecture or a seminar to university and TAFE creative writing classes, or a workshop at a writers’ festival. I am always happy to oblige. What I usually talk about is often considered boring – copyright, contracts and conditions. However, my audience doesn’t seem to think what I have to say is boring, since it relates closely to their ability to make a living from their writing.
They ask me detailed questions about the clauses of contracts, rights, subsidiary rights, what they need to do to obtain permission to use third-party works, how they can avoid defamation, the term of copyright in Australia, whether work published on a website is copyright, what is a standard royalty and a myriad other things with which they have never before had any connection in their course, but which they want to know. I hope I do my part.
The reason I am asked to speak, of course, is because I probably know more about these issues than most teachers of creative writing. I’m not a lawyer, but I can assist with the legal practicalities that are very much part of the professional practice of writing.
But it seems a shame to me that this sort of basic professional knowledge does not form a part of creative writing studies. Journalism courses, in contrast, have mandatory legal strands. They may also cover basic accounting practices for journalists who are freelance. Surely, since most creative writers are entering into what is essentially a freelance career, similar knowledge needs to be given to creative writing students to best equip them for the small business world of the professional writer?
I say this as a constructive suggestion for the evolution of creative writing as an academic discipline. As a graduate of writing classes myself, and some very good ones too, but with a background in publishing and an understanding of copyright, I feel strongly that writing students are missing out on a vital part of the skill set they needed to prosper as writers when they are not offered some legal and financial knowledge to help guide them as writers. The ASA is always happy to assist in the regard.
Another area that does not seem to receive much attention in creative writing at present is a sense of the market for writing. It is unfortunately true that the market for Australian “literary’ (I abhor that word) fiction is particularly dire at present. That doesn’t mean Australian fiction isn’t selling. As I write this, there are four Australian works of fiction in the top ten bestsellers: Matthew Reilly’s The Six Secret Stones is at number one, while ASA members Di Morrissey (Monsoon), Monica Mcinerney (Those Faraday Girls), and Judy Nunn (Floodtide) are at fourth, sixth and seventh place respectively and it is terrific to see them enjoying such success.
But students in creative writing classes ought to be aware that their chances of having non-mass market novels published right now is slim. Does this mean that they should not write them? No, but they would be better prepared for life as a professional writer if they had some knowledge of the dynamics of the publishing industry and the market for books in Australia. I try and provide some perspective on this for those who come to listen to me. I show the dismal statistics and break down sales into genres and categories. My information may not be what my audience was expecting to hear, but at least it provides them a degree of reality regarding their chances of succeeding as a professional writer in their chosen area.
One of the other things I suggest to beginning writers is that they should have more than one arrow for their writing bow. The skills of the craft of writing can be used in more ways than one. One of the suggestions I have put forward to the Literature Board of the Australia Council is for a program of residencies for writers within industry. I’d like to see creative writers learning the skills and craft of writing annual reports, press releases, and internal communications. At the same time, they could be sharing their creative writing skills with other employees. If they were employed on a half-time basis, say, they’d have some income to underwrite their own creative writing as well as the ability to learn other writing skills that can assist them through other lean times. I tend to think we have become too specialist as creative writers, particularly with regard to fiction. My November 2005 plenary address to the Australian Association of Writing Programs expands on these issues and can be read here.
This is not so true of creative non-fiction (which also has the largest market share of the book market at present), but often the writers who succeed at this have a journalistic background. Granted, Anna Funder’s Stasiland had its origins in creative writing classes and an ASA mentorship, but books like Chris Masters’ Jonestown benefit from well-honed journalistic skills. Over the years journalists have offered much to the Australian book industry and perhaps this has much to do with their ability to be flexible in their point of view. The leftish journalist Brian Penton wrote a couple of great Queensland novels (Inheritors and Landtakers) in the 1930s before becoming editor of Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph in 1941 and excelling himself in emulating the outrageous industrial relations of his boss.
But let me leave the last words to the creative writers. Some years ago I was studying under the late, great Glenda Adams at the University of Technology Sydney. Glenda was a wonderful teacher who gently pushed her students towards narrative excellence. It was not her fault that I was too heavy to be pushed far in that direction.
Nevertheless a remark Glenda made in one seminar has stayed with me. Glenda remarked that we wrote, basically, because we were compelled to by our obsessions. She didn’t mean that writers were obsessive. Rather, she meant we were compelled to write because we had something to say. The point she was making was that this was not necessarily enough for our writing to meet a readership. We had to impose the discipline of the craft of writing on our obsessions so that we could most effectively communicate with our readership.
Even more years ago, at Macquarie University, Thea Astley worked hard to imbue me with an appreciation of Australian literature. In her measured fashion, she succeeded very well. Thea taught me to dissect books from the author’s viewpoint. We never discussed obsessions, but in our analysis of Voss, Maurice Guest, The Pea Pickers, To the Islands and Astley’s own The Acolyte this was the not-quite-invisible elephant in the room.
But Thea too concentrated on the art and craft of writing. The obsession was simply the kernel of the author’s desire keep refining their art and craft over thousands of pages and multiple drafts. This hard-working concept of the creative process is the one to which I subscribe. It may be that some people are born great writers, but many need a good deal of training. And all, I posit, need to understand the market they are entering as writers. The fact that a good manuscript receives continual rejections may not mean it is unworthy of publishing – it may simply mean that publishers can see no market for it. This is an unfortunate economic fact of life and we do all aspiring authors an injustice if we do not make this clear to them.

Parts of this article first appeared in the December 2007 issue of Australian Author. Copyright © 2008 Jeremy Fisher/Australian Society of Authors.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Australian Author: Moron or Oxymoron?

I have a confession to make. I am not an Australian. More correctly, I am a naturalised Australian, not one native-born. The sordid truth of my origins is that I was born on a South Sea island and raised as an Englishman. The island was the North Island of Aotearoa. The English bit came from the books I read as a young child. The Just So Stories by Kipling and Captain W.E John’s Biggles were favourite. My Englishness was reinforced by the texts I studied at primary school and the culture I absorbed in the suburbs of a staid Auckland. At school we sang “God Save the Queen” and saluted the flag each day. My father drove a Standard Vanguard. We had a Corgi because the Queen had one and we didn’t think twice about our place in the world.
Then, when I was almost 10, I came to Australia. Australia was not England and definitely not New Zealand. Australia was another country. Mine. It was a very strange feeling to realise one was home when you had arrived at a place to which you had never been before. Perhaps it was something in the books I was reading. Cerainly, the literature I started to read almost as soon as I set foot on Australian soil had much to do with transforming me form an Englishman to an Australia. Ivan Southall’s Ash Road was one of the first books to show me the towns, cities, people and empty landscapes of this magnificent continent. The different, dry air of Australia floated out of its pages. This air had miraculously cured the chronic asthma of my New Zealand childhood. Ironically, my asthma had made me a voracious reader. I read above my age. Soon I was reading Tom Keneally’s Bring Larks and Heroes and Three Cheers for the Paraclete. Through them, I learned more about our convict past and religious divisions than history lessons could ever teach me.
As I grew older, I studied the works of Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Randolph Stow, Bruce Dawe and even the dreaded Patrick White without question. Why wouldn’t we want to know the words of these great writers? Studied along with Yeats and Eliot, Wright shone because she spoke to us with a language and imagery that was our own dialect. I’m quite happy to slouch towards Bethlehem, but I’d like to do so beside my heavy shouldered team of bullocks.
Then Paddy gave us my personal favourite of his works, The Vivisector, and Tom gave us The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, both written in the same dialect, albeit with their own accents, Paddy’s ironic and patrician, and Tom’s passionate and forgiving. A year after Jimmy Blacksmith was published I was at university studying Australian literature. I was fortunate to have Thea Astley to guide me in this subject. Thea made us read Ralph Rashleigh and The Pea Pickers, tore Frank Hardy’s structure apart and made us appreciate that good writing was good writing no matter where it came from and some of the best was from Australia, and Thea herself was one of the best. Years later, I read Drylands wet-eyed at the beauty in every sentence and the luminosity of the complete book.
Admittedly, university and I are now many years apart. A lot of books have been published since those days when Thea taught me Australian literature with no doubt in her mind that it was something worth teaching. Many of those books are what I would consider “Australian literature”. But apparently that phrase now is academically on the nose.
Why? Cultural theorists regard it as too specific, or too amorphous. In the post-modern world of textual studies, the word “literature” is a dirty one anyway. Now, literature is replaced by “communications and culture”. It is understandable that the academy should study more widely than the worlds of books and writing, but surely this does not mean literature, especially the stories that nourish our culture, should be totally ignored?
Over the past 30 years, the Australian publishing industry has developed into Australia’s most profitable and self-sufficient creative industry. It has done so on the basis that Australians wanted to read books about themselves. These books have been novels, but they have also been histories, biographies and cookery books. Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life, Sally Morgan’s My Place, Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion and Margaret Fulton’s Cookbook are as much a part of our culture as any Miles Franklin Award winning novel. They are worthy of the attention of academia, too.
But books like these don’t appear to be under threat at present. It is the stories of our imagination which have difficulty, first, in finding a publisher, and, second, in finding a readership. Many first novels struggle to sell 600 or 700 copies. Such sales make publication very marginal and few publishers want to take the risk without some support. The Literature Board of the Australia Council assists with funding to defray production costs, but it is still up to the publisher to market the book, distribute it to bookshops and promote it to the industry. Some small publishers like Giramondo have done this well. Others have been much less successful. And less fiction is being sold. The 236 or so publishers identified by the ABS published 1347 works of fiction 2002-03 and 1367 in 2003-04. But sales dropped to from $43.92M in 2002-03 to $38.44M in 2003-04.
The window of opportunity for first-time novelists is very small given the small sales of first novels and their brief shelf life. They are soon out of print and forgotten. They rarely make reading lists for schools or universities, let alone get reviews.
This has a flow-on effect for our culture. As Josie Emery of the Literature Board of the Australia Council wrote in the December 2006 issue of Australian Author “literature is the mother of the narrative arts”. Without literature, we would not have films, television and other forms of story telling. Australia’s film industry is in crisis at present. Most of it exists as a form of cheap labour for Hollywood. A film like Happy Feet, as good as it may be, can’t really be claimed to be part of Australian culture. Its director, George Miller, noted as much recently when he announced his desire to make another Mad Max movie (very much part of Australian culture) when funding made it possible. He has since argued about the funding given his "Wolverine" project.
However, without literary narratives being read and absorbed much as I did with Ash Road so many years ago, we risk losing our special cultural identity, the one that took me in its embrace when I came here as a 10 year old.
And as for that South Sea island I left, well, it is now a bilingual nation very proud of its Maori and pakeha heritages and with a wonderful literature of its own. For evidence, read Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, which was the 2007 South East Asia and South Pacific winner of Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2007 and winner of the 2008 Kiriyama Prize.
But why has the country where I have made my home turned its back on its own stories?

Parts of this article first appeared in the April 2007 issue of Australian Author. Copyright © 2008 Jeremy Fisher/Australian Society of Authors.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

At the Gong!

I'll be speaking at Diversity Week at the University of Wollongong on 3 April at 12.30 on the theme of "Authors and Social Justice".
I'll be back in the Gong on April 9 for a seminar on Financial Issues for Authors at the South Coast Writers Centre. Full details of this seminar are available at
And I'll be doing an Arnie in the Gong on April 21 when I present a seminar for Creative Writing students at the University of Wollongong (this last is restricted to students at the University).