Sean McMullen's

Going Commercial and Becoming Professional

The Australian market for original SF and fantasy writing is talked about a great deal but not at all well understood. How many original short stories were published last year? How many novels? What proportion were published overseas? This article will trace the Australian genre market from its birth in World War II to the present. First, however, let us look at two key terms. Defining commercialism is not hard: 'interested in financial return rather than artistry', declares my Oxford English Dictionary, and I agree. Professionalism is much harder, as you will see, but it does define something that does exist, and if you have been reading SF and fantasy for any length of time you will probably know it when you see it.

Australian SF had commercialism thrust upon it in 1940, when a wartime austerity measure cut off the supply of overseas magazines. Typically enough, government bureaucracy took until 1958 to lift the ban. Thus Australia went - almost overnight - from importing nearly all of its magazine SF to importing close to nil, and the situation was not much better for books. Local publishers moved quickly to fill the gap in the market, employing writers of crime and adventure fiction to try their hands at SF. The result was, predictably, a disaster. The long suffering public was given crime and adventure fiction in futuristic settings (and fabricated from shoddy science), yet there was nothing else available, so they bought it.

This situation continued into the Fifties, although British magazines with reprinted American stories began to trickle in, and local publishers realised that instead of printing sub-standard original Australian SF, they could buy the rights to the latest US SF and publish it in Australian magazines. Some of these local magazines broke even, and some ran at a profit. Of the SF magazines that published original local SF, the first - and most notorious - was Thrills Incorporated.

Apart from half a dozen stories filched from the likes of Ray Bradbury and Clifford Simak by one of the contributors, the majority of Thrills stories are unreadable, except for the purposes of research. This is in spite of some of them having been written by reputable authors such as Alan Yates, Norma Hemming and Clive Bleeck (and many of the covers and internal illustrations were by one of Australia's greatest SF illustrators, Stanley Pitt). The underlying problem was with the editor, however, who insisted on infantile space opera because he thought that it had the widest market appeal.

The same company published the Scientific Thriller series of 'novels', commencing in 1948. There were 33 of these, appearing once a month, about 30,000 words in length, and running on the theme of science fiction crime. These, to give them credit, were a little less hysterical than Thrills stories, and introduced scientific themes to the crime and detection novellas that were very popular in the Forties and Fifties. Once again, Clive Bleeck and Alan Yates wrote many of these, and the series actually led to Alan Yates becoming Carter Brown, and going on to sales in the dozens of millions.

Side by side with the specialist magazines was the reasonably frequent publication of SF in such magazines as Australian Journal and Man. How many of you realised that the "mens'" magazine Man published more original Australian SF in its forty year lifetime than any other magazine? Thus when specialist magazines were absent from the Australian market, opportunities to be published still existed. The catch was, however, that the emphasis of most of these magazines was entertainment in the most commercial sense of the word. The SF had to be simple, non-controversial, and exciting.

Another interesting trend from the fifties was the emergence of juvenalia as a commercial proposition. If children would secretly buy the garish, lowbrow Australian SF magazines, their teachers and librarians openly bought the Australian juvenile SF books of Ivan Southall and Mary Pratchett. Personally, I hated the works of these authors like the devil is reputed to hate clerical collars, but that was only a matter of taste. Their books sold well, were republished overseas, and had many reprints in Australia.

There is an important lesson for us here: Professionalism can mean a great number of things, depending on how you define it. Some very scaly SF was published by fully commercial publishing houses in the Forties and Fifties and, terrible though they were, Scientific Thriller and Thrills Incorporated were fully professional operations. Fully professional operations are quite capable of turning out amateurish SF if the people editing it do not have any background in the genre. During the 1980s Australia saw some very amateurish loan decisions being made by bank managers acting beyond their area of experience, and it is the same with SF. The Forties and Fifties demonstrated that professionalism must include competence and background as well as financial clout.

Thus the Forties and Fifties showed how a protected market could produce a strain of SF that was almost totally commercial, so that the entertainment aspect swamped such facets as science, characterisation and speculation. On the other hand, there were some authors who managed to master both local and overseas markets - something which would seem to be a logical impossibility. Authors who did just this included Wynne Whiteford, Frank Bryning, Norma Hemming, Dal Stivins and Bertram Chandler. Some of their stories finished first, second or third in overseas readers' polls and, at the end of the Fifties, Australian authors were actually outselling US authors in the top British magazine New Worlds. Remember what I said earlier about competence and background? The authors just mentioned knew and understood good SF because they read the overseas SF that did manage to reach Australia (either imported from Britain, or republished in Australia, or even mailed out direct). Although they wrote to the standards of overseas professionals, they were also versatile enough to give Australian editors what they thought they wanted. Note that the graph for this period does not give a clear picture of overseas sales. Often an author would sell a story locally then sell reprint rights overseas - so that the number of overseas sales for the early to middle Fifties is often double what the graph shows it to be. A lot of Australian work was doing very well.

Throughout the Sixties and for half of the Seventies the trend to work through overseas markets continued. Writers such as Harding, Baxter, Rome, Broderick and Wodhams would begin in overseas magazines, then sell works in Australia as established authors. Authors who did not look overseas, but put all their energies into local magazines that ran SF, could also sell well, but have you heard of Rod Fittock or Gene Janes who specialised in the local market? Both groups of writers were being paid for their SF, but those in the latter group were essentially paid amateurs.

Local publishers were putting out - on average - two or three SF books per year in this period, most eminently forgettable yet written to a sufficiently good standard that an average adult could read them, while fog-bound for a few hours at an airport, without throwing up. In particular, John Baxter's two Pacific Book of Australian SF anthologies (1968 and 1971) were big hits, and both had multiple republications. These anthologies were important because they gathered together much of the best Australian short SF for the first time and marketed it to the general public. The general public bought these anthologies, read them and liked them. Commercial interests were shown that one could write SF intelligently and still sell. The Australian sponsored, UK published Vision of Tomorrow magazine also contained some interesting and important Australian SF, but the Baxter anthologies demonstrated that Australian SF could be a success locally, and they pointed the way to what was to come.

What came was the first World SF Convention to be held in Australia. It was held in Melbourne in 1975. This convention raised the profile of local SF in the public eye, at the very time when the Federal Government's newly formed Arts Council was able to provide grants to help Australian books and manuscripts into print. Thus the late Seventies saw another boom in the publication of original SF and fantasy, with more new SF being published than in any earlier period.

This boom was driven by a mixture of established publishers and small presses, and a lot of opportunities were opened up over a short period. As in the earlier boom it was often a case of markets looking for material to publish, rather than the best works fighting it out for the few spaces available. There were, inevitably, abuses but some promising material did get into print, and some publishers (such as Paul Collins) even made a small profit on their ventures.

The most interesting aspect of the middle and early Seventies is that the best of the genre writers to emerge in this period went straight to overseas markets in spite of the improvement in the local market. David Lake, Leanne Frahm, Keith Taylor, Cherry Wilder and Paul Collins were first published overseas - and this at a time when the local market was easier to sell to than ever before. Was this because overseas editors became more aware of Australians as a result of Aussiecon 1? However neat this theory might seem, the answer is no. A glance at the graphs will show that although the volume of local works increased dramatically after the mid-Seventies, the average number of overseas sales remained steady. How can this be explained?

Again the answer lies in the nature of overseas markets. Competitions where everyone gets a prize and nobody wins are fine for children's birthday parties, but they are not practical in the marketplace where such magazines as Analog get 2000 submissions for the six or seven monthly spaces. Thus when Keith Taylor (as Dennis More) sold to Fantastic and Leanne Frahm sold to Chrysalis, they were standing on a large pile of other writers' dreams, typed in double-spaced, single-sided format on A4 (or quarto), that had failed to make it into the top six. Back in Australia the acceptance rate with some of the semi-professional magazines could be as high as one in three. Those who were good enough to make it overseas were in a market 100 times harder to penetrate, so is it any wonder that they turned out well? Hark back to the Fifties and Sixties and you will see that the same situation had applied then as well: those who made it overseas were generally our best writers, and our best writers almost always seem to try overseas markets early in their careers.

Whatever its shortcomings, however, the post-Worldcon boom in local publishing had the effect of freeing Australian authors from the spectre of rampant commercialism, even if it was at the price of allowing some amateurish and self-indulgent efforts into print. By the early Eighties many of the ventures begun in the previous five years were closing down, yet all that effort did not entirely go to waste. It had raised the profile of local SF further and caught the attention of larger commercial publishers. The most outstanding venture that resulted was Omega Science Digest.

Omega was the Australian equivalent of America's Omni magazine, running two stories per issue alongside science fact, enhancing the package with often breathtaking full-page colour artwork (by local artists) and paying its authors at overseas rates. Omega became the only Australian magazine to be granted full professional status by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Thus such authors as Terry Dowling and myself were able to count stories published in Omega in our applications for full SFWA membership and Nebula voting rights.

Omega ran from 1981 to 1987, and towards the end it had a circulation of over 35,000 and was paying authors between $500 and $700 per story. This was more than many small presses would pay as an advance for an entire book! Omega was swamped in the publishing upheavals of the later Eighties, but it was fully viable and bringing in a good profit until its parent company dragged it down. Many of its stories won awards and were recognised overseas, yet it was a market where local rank amateurs could compete against fully professional authors. Omega received as many as 200 submissions per month for its bimonthly two spaces, a rate of competition similar to that of the overseas markets. Omega was world class.

Thus the decade following Australia's first Worldcon saw a move to higher standards in locally published SF, even though amateur publishing began to play a greater role. The role of the overseas markets remained about the same, however, and most of the big names which emerged during this period were not part of the local boom.

The period following Aussiecon 2 saw Aphelion magazine begin publication. Aphelion was the most ambitious of the semi-professional magazines published in Australia in the '80s, was quarterly and ran for five issues. To his credit the publisher (Peter McNamara) decided to try again after the magazine folded, building on his experience to start a small press in 1990. At the time of writing Aphelion Publications has published three well received collections, with another three books planned. Besides Aphelion Publications there are currently two paying magazines that specialise in Australian SF; Eidolon and Aurealis. Eidolon has sold out of three of its first four issues, and is obviously in good health. It has also been reported to me that Aurealis is currently running at a profit. All three of the foregoing ventures work very hard on the thorny problem of distribution, which is probably why they have done so well compared to earlier magazines and presses. Perhaps SF publishing in Australia really has pulled its act together at last.

Distribution aside, a big problem with local SF magazines is that they often tend to be limited in space, forcing the stories to be shorter. Really good, really short stories are hard to write, and are in demand everywhere . . . overseas especially! Most of the stories that I have sold in Australia have been trimmed heavily before being submitted. What should one do? Support local ventures with trimmed stories, or hawk the full version overseas? I have no answer to that.

Commercialism, often involving big budgets, is still with us. A fact that is often ignored when considering Australian SF is that most of the money spent on it - and earned by it - is in the non-print media. Film, television, games, theatre, radio drama, and even theatre restaurants all contribute to the genre, with a total budget in the millions. However, as I pointed out in my article in Eidolon Five ("Not In Print But Worth Millions"), the sort of SF that is created for these media is also structured to suit these media. Thus SF for radio must be innovative radio first, and if it is also good SF then that is a bonus. SF for film and television must be good entertainment for as large an audience as possible first, and good SF if that doesn't get in the way.

The nett result is that scripts that could not make it as short stories if they were submitted to an amateur magazine with a circulation of ten, often end up covered by a budget in the millions and shown internationally as Australian SF. This leads to a very interesting dilemma: does the term "professional" imply leading edge SF themes and plotting, or does it merely mean that the SF has the power to make money? I think it's got to be what is professional for the medium that it's produced in, and what works well in one medium will almost certainly not be easily transportable to another. Take the recent television series The Girl From Tomorrow. As SF it's at best lightweight, yet it was tuned very finely to a juvenile audience and has been a howling success. Customers are already banging on the counter for the recently completed sequel.

Predicting the future is supposedly the role of the SF writer, yet as far as predicting the publishing scene is concerned, nobody does particularly well. My own studies have shown that patterns and trends are cyclical in Australia. Lean times inevitably give way to good times, so that authors should never stop writing, even when there is nowhere to submit. When good times return, you will be the firstest with the mostest.

If you look at the graphs you will see some important trends in the publication of original Australian SF. Looking at short fiction first, the trend is to vary. Even in recent years the market has dropped six or seven fold in a single year, then jumped to record levels again two or three years later. For writers facing bleak prospects for getting into print the lesson is clear; keep writing, even if the market looks atrocious. History shows that it will soon pick up again. Going on five year averages for numbers of stories published, the trend is more encouraging; after being steady on an average of two dozen stories per year until 1974, the average slowly grew to nearly five dozen by the last half of the '80s. In other words it is easier to get into print these days - on average! There can still be bad years, and bad years can be very bad. Overseas markets tend to be more stable than those in Australia, and Australians' ability to sell in them is more related to their ability to submit suitable fiction than to the sheer numbers of opportunities.

Opportunities in novel-length fiction averaged out at around three or four per year in the Sixties - both local and overseas sales combined. Overseas sales were a dominant component until 1975, but after the Australian Government began subsidising authors and publishers the overseas component remained about the same while the local component more than doubled its total number of books published. With the advent of lean and hungry economic times, it will be interesting to see how this local component maintains itself.

The long term trend is the same as for short fiction. There were about 2.5 times as many books being sold per year in the late Eighties than the annual average in the Fifties and Sixties. The average number of books sold overseas has increased only marginally since 1960. This is in spite of the overseas genre market for novels increasing substantially, and along with the increase in the size of the Australian population. Australians are tending to sell less overseas in terms of novel length fiction.

So what will be the trends of the Nineties? My inclination is to be optimistic. The specialist press, Aphelion Publications, has done extraordinarily well in terms of professional reviews and acclamation with its first three books, both in Australia and overseas. The publisher has produced books with a fine finish and striking artwork, and has worked hard to promote these books in mainstream markets. Outside the specialist venues, mainstream publishers are buying more SF works, particularly juvenalia, and there are about four or five juvenile books published for every ten adult SF or fantasy books published.

If the overseas scene is where some of the best Australian SF is to be found, is there any simple way to keep track of it? One good move is to subscribe to Eidolon, which runs such features as "In Print" in order to maintain awareness of Australian SF. Another is to follow the catalogues of the local specialist SF shops and mail order suppliers, most of whom take an interest in local authors.

To conclude, the future looks good in terms of expecting local SF of a good standard. The best local authors are on a par with the better authors overseas, the local publishers are financially viable, and the local publishers are also competent in terms of understanding the field. Although the best of Australian SF is often successful in places that are all but invisible to Australian readers, with the introduction of the new Australian Speculative Fiction Award later this year the situation should improve. This award will be sponsored by some staff from Galaxy Bookshop, Eidolon, Aurealis and Aphelion Publications, and will be judged by a panel of experts after nominations from Australian SF professionals. All this should mean that Australian works in distant markets will get better recognition.

The main lessons from the Australian SF market's journey towards a more professional image can be listed as follows:

  1. The best SF need not be found in professional markets, but is usually found there.
  2. The worst SF can be found anywhere, but is generally found in markets that are light on background in the genre.
  3. The present Australian market has managed to combine financial viability with quite reasonable quality.
  4. The overseas markets are tough, but not impossible.

As an afterword, if any Australian authors had incorrect or missing entries in my bibliography Australian SF and Fantasy mid-1985 to mid-1991, which was published at the Legends seminar, please let Jonathan Strahan of Eidolon know by November 1. A revised and expanded version will be published at Swancon 17 next year, so there is still a chance to get your entry right.

(First presented at the Legends seminar, 13 July, 1991 as The Professionalisation of Australian SF)

Originally appeared in Eidolon 6, October 1991.
Copyright © 1990 Sean McMullen. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.