Sean McMullen's

No Science Fiction Please, We're Australian


I would like to start by stressing that this article is not primarily aimed at aspiring Australian SF authors, but still . . . Imagine that you are just such an author, with half a dozen stories published and even a couple of minor writing prizes on your CV. Assume that you have a novel in manuscript form and are wondering what to do with it. The Australian SF small presses are booked solid for the next two years, and overseas publishers do not want to know you without an agent. All that seems to be left between you and the spectre of Vanity Publishing are the Australian commercial publishers. What are your prospects of selling to them? In fact, what are your chances of selling your novel at all? Some historical background would be a good place to start.

The mid-'70s were a watershed for the genre locally. Australia Council money for publishing projects became available then, and Australia's first Worldcon was held in 1975. The US series The Six Million Dollar Man became the first SF television show to make it into the Australian Top Ten ratings in 1974 and it topped the ratings in 1975. Of more immediate interest to SF writers, the first Australian SF small presses came into being in 1974 and 1975, giving local authors an outlet for more ambitious stories. It was a time when Australians were becoming more receptive to genre entertainment, and in the two decades since then Australian commercial publishing firms have accounted for 50% of the country's SF. Although that slice has dropped to 40% over the past five years, they still dominate the market in terms of original books published. A glance over the Australian SF ("Ditmar") Award nominations for long fiction in 1992 suggests that genre publication in Australia is quite healthy. All six books were good, entertaining fiction, but there was one small, niggling problem: not one of them had been published by an Australian commercial publisher. This was not a fluke.

Prior to the late 1950s Australian SF was literally confined to what was available from local commercial firms. Australian authors had had a minuscule number of novels published overseas over the previous two decades, and SF small presses did not exist. By contrast, during the past five years there have been 69 Australian genre books published, 28 of which were SF from local commercial publishers. An increase from 5 in 1958-63 to 28 in 1988-93 is good news, yet like all statistics it needs to be treated warily. Recently I conducted a survey in three large Melbourne bookstores and the local genre bookstore, and found that out of 5,307 genre titles on display a mere 39 were by Australians - of which 11 were from local commercial publishers. Thus, a five-fold increase over three decades has contributed just 0.2% of titles on bookshop shelves. Add in the titles from SF small presses and overseas publishers and the number of titles with Australian authors rises to 0.7%. Thus if Australian genre authors are small players in their own land, local publishers are much smaller. Australia's population is 5.5% that of Britain and the USA combined, so our rate of genre book publication is nearly 8 times less per head of population than the countries that supply most of our SF.

If the numbers have been down, what has the quality been like? Consider the Ditmars first. Go back five years, and 8 out of 28 Ditmar nominees were from local commercial firms: 40% of the titles rated 28% of the nominations. That's low but not startling, yet 7 of those 8 nominations were for teenage readers - and none of them actually won the Ditmar award. That is startling. Overall, out of 24 years in which Ditmars were awarded, only 5 winners were books published by local commercial firms.

If the SF community has had doubts about the offerings from local commercial publishers, the mainstream awards have been more generous to SF for teenage readers. Lee Harding's Displaced Person (Hyland, 1978) was one of the best selling Australian SF books ever, in addition to winning the Children's Book Council Award; Victor Kelleher's Del Del (Random House, 1991) won Britain's Carnegie Award; Gillian Rubenstein's Space Demons (Omnibus/Puffin, 1986) won three awards, and her next book, Beyond The Labyrinth (Hyland, 1988), won the Children's Book Council Award in 1989; and Gary Crew's Strange Objects (Heinemann, 1990) won the Children's Book Council Award, as well as two state literary awards in its category. The list goes on, but you should have the idea.

On the whole there is quite a contrast between adult SF from commercial publishers and that targeted at older juvenile readers. This is probably because books for young readers ranging from pre-school age to older teenagers have a place in the culture of our literary establishment. Everyone accepts that our children need good books that are relevant to growing up in Australia, and publishers know that teachers, librarians and a large number of parents form a guaranteed, stable and profitable market for suitable books. Most also accept that a sizeable proportion of young people have a strong interest in SF, so this branch of SF gets good support from local publishers. Thus authors can write for the teenage market with some certainty of being taken seriously by the publishers, and publishers can be confident of good sales and the chance of an award. It is also significant that the overlap between the books winning these awards and the Ditmar winners is very small. Ditmars are voted on by readers who are around University age or older, with correspondingly more advanced tastes in reading.

So, while mainstream publishers tell us that SF for any audience older than teenagers does not sell, large bookstores nevertheless have a vast amount of it on sale. Why? Are silly bookstore managers displaying all those unsellable genre books because their covers compliment the decor of the shops, or are the books actually selling? My impression is that the genre fiction is making a fair bit of money . . . yet the amount of Australian material displayed for sale is less than one title in 100. So, we are losing money while underselling our own literature. Has any local firm managed to make a profit from genre fiction for adult readers? The answer is yes.

Pan has become an interesting player among Australian commercial publishers. In 1989 it published a 376-page fantasy novel by the then unknown writer Martin Middleton - which was greeted by sneers from many local fans. It was a soundly crafted book for general readers, however, and with Pan's national distribution behind it sales have run to 13,000 copies over three printings within a couple of years. Middleton has now done four such books with Pan, and Pan has two more out by another local discovery, Tony Shillitoe. Copies of all six were in every bookstore that I surveyed and, although they cannot muster a single Ditmar nomination between them, the authors and publishers must be crying all the way to the bank. I am told that Pan has a very dynamic and competent sales team, and I believe it.

Two interesting - and related - issues are the increase in fantasy titles and the growing number of female genre authors. Looking at the figures for the past two decades, about one quarter of the 222 titles were fantasy, and the rest SF. About one quarter of the SF titles were for teenagers, but for fantasy the percentage for teenagers is nearly two thirds! So, even though fantasy has grown from almost nil to one quarter of the genre market over the past twenty years, SF is still the main player, especially in the adult market. What about gender roles and bias? Women have written 44% of the book-length fantasy published, including 64% of the fantasy for teenagers. This is very impressive, and even for SF the percentage of women writing for teenagers is a healthy 50%. Women writing SF overall, however, constitute just 16% of authors!

Is this the worst nightmare of gender stereotyping come true: women writing most of the fantasy books for teenagers, with men writing most of the SF books for adults? Should the publishers be hauled up before an Equal Opportunity hearing? Hark back to Jeremy Byrne's editorial in the previous issue of this magazine, where he pointed out that 15% of Eidolon fiction published was by women. Eidolon's policy is to accept SF, fantasy and horror, but perhaps there is a bias to SF in the selection committee - I would not know: I only write this column. Because such unconnected markets as Eidolon and the book publishers show such similar figures for SF by women I suggest that neither are to blame for the imbalance. What is showing up statistically has its roots deep in our society's attitudes, and the statistics themselves are the broken windows, not the people who threw the rocks. When aspiring SF writers ask me about where one gets ideas I ask them if they read New Scientist, listen to The Science Show, or watch Quantum. The ratio of men to women who tell me that they do any of the above is about 4 to 1. That works out at about 20% of female writers taking an interest in those science news sources: not far from that 16% for female authors' share of adult-oriented SF. If you are going to write about it you must follow and understand it. My feeling is that the commercial publishers probably have no discernible sex bias in their policies, and that what they publish reflects what they are offered.

Returning to the SF/fantasy ratio, genre titles published locally have increased to an average of around 17 per year since the mid-'70s, yet in the class of SF for adults, the rate is now 2.6 books per year, up only 0.6 per year from the mid-'70s figure. Thus, we have had no significant change in two decades. The overall increase in genre publication was 4.2 books per year, however, so where did the increase come from? SF titles for teenagers and the SF small press output have each increased by about 1 title per year, but fantasy (both adult and juvenile) has increased 6.5 times in the same period - from 4 titles between 1974-78 to 26 in 1988-93. All of this increase was due to mainstream publishers.

There is only a limited amount that raw statistics can tell us, so let us check some underlying factors. SF's big strengths are innovation and rapidly changing ideas. Mainstream publishers can assess fantasy in much the same way as horror or crime, but SF is a moving target and very hard for a non-enthusiast to nail down with questions like: Is it good? Who will buy it? How much of it is already on the market? Is its market share expanding? Does the author have a market share? Imagine yourself as a reader for some Australian commercial firm confronted with the book-length works Stations of the Tide and Foundation. Chances are that the last named would come out as the most accessible for a non-specialist publisher's reader, yet Foundation is around fifty years old. Chances are also that the author of the more recent Nebula Award winning Stations of the Tide would get a letter to the effect that "While it is obvious that you are a writer with potential, we cannot see a market for this sort of work".

The problem with this approach of supporting proven and classic formulas is that the best local authors are not going to write to such outmoded formulas, while the people who like reading such works prefer to read those by the masters themselves. Thus the best local works get published by SF small presses or overseas publishers, while local commercial publishers accept material that would sell if Isaac Asimov were on the cover, but not Jim Scroggs. Thus when Scroggs' first Space Opera gets smeared (or worse, ignored) by the critics, then fails to sell well enough even to pay back the author's advance, the verdict from the publisher is that there is no market for SF in Australia - despite the thousands of titles by overseas authors on the shelves of Myers, Angus and Robertson, Dymock's, Minotaur and the like. However, as always there are exceptions. Jackie Yowell of Aird, and formerly of Wren and Penguin, began promoting Australian SF in the 1970s because the sheer quality impressed her. One area where most Australian commercial publishers are willing to take a chance is that of marginal SF. Novels employing a few SF icons to support a mainstream plot seem able to sneak past the editors for precisely the reasons that prevent them from succeeding as SF. Note that the statistics for SF would be far worse if I had not included such books.

In my previous article for Eidolon, "Suffering For Someone Else's Art", I mentioned that all the SF small press publishers that I interviewed complained that while they got a pretty hefty number of manuscripts, good novels were thin on the ground. Doubtless the commercial publishers experience the same problem, but is the situation really hopeless? Broderick's The Dreaming Dragons was first published by Pocket Books in the USA, and it won a Ditmar Award and was runner up for the Campbell Award. Dowling's Rynosseros was published by the SF small press Aphelion in 1990, and it won a Ditmar Award and actually sold out before being republished in the USA. Greg Egan's Quarantine (UK, Legend, 1992) won a Ditmar Award and has been highly praised in SF review columns the world over. Good SF novels and collections by local authors might be scarce, but they do exist. Note, however, that all of these three were published overseas or by an SF small press.

An important point to establish is just what commercial success, Australian style, looks like. Top Australian authors such as Thomas Keneally or Peter Corris currently expect to sell between 20,000 and 50,000 copies of a book, and a typical hit would sell about 20,000 copies. Moving on to really big hits, one Robert G Barrett novel, You Wouldn't Be In It For Quids has sold 90,000 copies over nine print runs to date, and is still selling well. Australian sales of top overseas authors continue to be more than double these figures, however. Barbara Taylor Bradford novels are expected to sell between 180,000 and 200,000. Sidney Sheldon or Robert Ludlum sell between 160,000 and 180,000. James Gurney's Dinotopia has sold 70,000 copies in Australia and 700,000 worldwide.

By now the literary-minded readers will be wondering what the more edifying end of the literary spectrum rates in terms of sales. My figures show that in 1989 a typical Australian 'literary' novel would sell 3,000 to 5,000 copies, but by 1993 that had dropped to 1,200 to 1,500. Now this is around the same level of sales that a good SF book from a small press would be expected to reach - without the benefit of a commercial publisher's national distribution and promotion.

How does local genre fiction compare? We have seen that Martin Middleton's fantasy novel Circle of Light sold 13,000 copies over three print runs, and in my survey of Melbourne bookshops it was always on the shelves. While this is only half the 25,000 sales that make a mainstream hit, it is still a very successful and profitable book. By contrast, Terry Dowling's award winning Rynosseros, published with the SF small press Aphelion, took about two and a half years to sell out its print run of 2,000 copies. This suggests that readable books that are well promoted in the mass market in Australia can have a seven-fold edge in sales.

If a hit is 25,000, moderate success is 13,000, and marginally solvent is 1,500, what is a real flop for a commercial publisher? Information passed on to me in confidence suggests that, during the past 5 years, one SF book barely managed 300 copies sold, while another did not even sell 200. By contrast, the lowest sales for an SF small press book that I know of is still over 500 copies (excluding books with small print runs). If their triumphs are not shattering, neither are their disasters.

Andrew Wilkins, Marketing Director for Hyland House, provided some estimated figures on books for teenagers. A run of 3,000 to 5,000 hardback copies would be typical for a first print run for a big-name author, while the paperback run would be about three times that. Shortlisting for a Children's Book Council Award can triple sales. Hyland's selection of books is heavily influenced by what they know they can promote. Wilson also emphasised that the total sales are not as important as the ratio of sales to the print run. At Hyland they tailor the print runs carefully, on the basis of experience.

If commercial publishers have an edge in promotion and distribution, then SF small presses have something that at least gives them a head start: they work more closely with the fan community. An author who is known to fans and liked by them is liable to get sympathetic treatment when fans are browsing for books or voting for awards. An invisibility factor can also work against books from commercial publishers: communications between the fan community and commercial publishers are not as advanced in Australia as in America. Rubenstein's multiple award winner Space Demons did not even get a Ditmar nomination, yet her next book, Beyond the Labyrinth did get one. There are many more examples that I could name. Thus both SF small presses and commercial publishers have different strengths and weaknesses, but in general the former tend to attract better SF, while the latter have the potential to reach a wider market.

If commercial publishers do not want leading edge SF from Australian authors, what do they want? Turning overseas for a moment, Humphrey Price of Hodder and Stoughton in Britain declared in an interview in the November 1990 Interzone that "You've got to have somebody who at the age of thirty is tremendously popular. Clive Barker is a good example". Well, bad luck Arthur C Clarke. Price's words show that publishers can have rather unrealistic criteria for success, and it is up to the authors to show them otherwise.

Realistically, Australian commercial firms want the same as the SF small presses in most respects: readable, original novels from authors who are willing to be involved with promoting the books through signings, interviews, talks and the like. Hark back to my previous article and check what the small press publishers said about author involvement in promotion being a big factor in sales. Even if some authors dislike that idea, it is nonetheless true that readers like to meet authors, and that such meetings sell copies.

How do commercial publishers' requirements differ from those of SF small presses? In two words, they want safe success. They prefer books that conform to their idea of what is potentially successful, and this requires both the style and subject matter to have a proven track record. If the marketplace rejects this approach they blame SF itself. SF small press publishers are generally in it for the love of the genre. This is why they show more interest in bold innovation, and possibly why they publish proportionally more Ditmar winners relative to the number of books produced.

Local commercial publishers are hard to sell to, but they have begun to recognise that there is money to be made out of genre books, and we may owe both Pan and Martin Middleton more than we realise for the example set by Circle of Light. The publication of genre fiction for adult readers might not yet be normal behaviour for local commercial publishers, but the first firm to tap the full potential of the Australian genre market is going to unleash greater changes than those which transformed Australian SF beyond recognition in the mid-1970s.

This article was originally presented as a talk to Melbourne's "The Nova Mob" June 2nd, 1993.

Thanks for assistance to Andrew Wilkins of Hyland House, Jackie Yowell of Aird Books, Bruce Gillespie, Steve Paulsen, my ex-children's librarian wife Trish Smyth, and many others within and without the industry.

Note that some of the figures quoted in this article were compiled from the following published sources:

Originally appeared pp. 47-52, Eidolon 13, July 1993.
Copyright © 1993 Sean McMullen.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.