Alumni Feature May 2018

 

Insights into the barriers and opportunities for Australian writers

by Executive Director Veechi Stuart

Veechi Stuart Amy and I spent a fascinating morning recently at an industry forum as part of the Australia Council Visiting International Publishers program. Publishers, literary scouts and agents from around the world shared their thoughts about the barriers and opportunities for Australian writers, the future of alternative formats such as audiobooks, the rise of crime writing as a genre and the future of literary fiction.

The US editors and agents talked about current trends in US fiction. Psychological suspense continues to be very popular, with legal thrillers, mysteries and missing girls, missing children, missing women . . . A sense in the room, met with the laughter of recognition, that missing people and psychological suspense on public transport may finally have reached saturation point.

Hillbilly Elegy cover There was also lots of discussion about trends in US non-fiction, which is currently super-dominated by political analysis and titles inspired by the political and economic context. The huge success of titles such as Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance and Evicted by Matthew Desmond demonstrate how even memoirs tend to be driven by political themes at the moment. Self-help also remains very popular. For rights acquisitions from overseas, self-help that reflects its culture of origin performs strongly, such as French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano, or The Happiness Plan by Elise Bialylew.

The Happiness Plan cover This first panel also talked about publicity, and what it takes to make a book successful. Some publishers still invest in huge advertising campaigns (particularly in the US), while others rely on awards to make a book rise in its profile. Many of the very successful titles that seem to explode out of nowhere are in fact underpinned by very strong marketing campaigns and by early proofs being circulated to bookstores. A book that is in some way political often attracts welcome publicity. Traditional ways of obtaining publicity are no longer relevant in many cases, and the fast pace of the news cycle means that the launch of a book can easily get lost.

For non-fiction, the reach of the author, their social media presence and their capacity to support author events is crucial. The agency DeFiore, for example, initially knocked back Humans in New York, and it wasn’t until Brandon Stanton had 250,000 followers on Instagram that he was signed up. The panel also agreed that publishers don’t necessarily expect literary fiction writers to have a social platform, but they are looking for where these writers have already been published, awards and fellowships they may have received, and other credentials that may be relevant to their work.

After an impressive morning tea, both in terms of the cakes on offer and our prodigious consumption, Amy and I returned to the forum, this time to listen to a panel talking about alternative platforms. Audiobook sales have tripled over the last few years, with much of the growth driven by commuters and males aged 25 to 44. Kirsty Melville from Andrews McMeel Publishing in the US talked about the increasing demand for content that can be experienced on a smartphone, such as short-form poetry, audiobooks and podcasts.

Arpita Das, Publisher at Yoda Press in India, enthused about their huge success with graphic novels, the way social media underpinned the success of this genre, and how storywriters and graphic artists are focussing on the narratives of what is happening right now, for example, addressing themes of political crime and sexual violence in India. Others on this panel concurred about the rise of graphic novels and comic strips. One of the key messages I took away from this session is how writers need to be more aware than ever of how their work may be acquired for use across different platforms such as Netflix, and to be especially vigilant about screen rights when signing contracts.

Literary scout from the UK, Sylvie Zannier-Betts, talked about the decline in readers wanting to read literary fiction, and how she felt that the frontier between literary and commercial fiction was becoming increasingly blurred. She talked about this being a time of transition when literary readers were becoming more interested in narrative non-fiction, and how H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald was so enormous in the UK. She felt that readers were seeking things that were closer to their own experiences, such as grief, loneliness or self-doubt, and were seeking narratives that they could more closely relate to.

Sylvie also talked about the huge growth of crime fiction, for which sales have increased by 19% in the UK in the last year. She felt that this popularity was a real reflection of the ‘Trumpian’ times we live in, and quoted bestselling thriller writer David Baldacci: “When times are stressful and it looks like the bad is winning out over the good, along comes the genre of crime novels to put the balance back in life. People inherently don’t like folks who do bad to get away with it. In real life they do, all the time, because of a variety of factors. But in novels, evil is punished, and the good guys mostly win, after solving the puzzle. And all is right with the world. At least fictionally.”

The crime fiction panel, with its grisly references to Ukranian noir (who knew there was such a thing?) and optimistic forecasts about the rise of Australian outback noir, marked the end of the forum, and what had been a very interesting few hours.

I hope sharing these insights is helpful in some ways, and welcome your comments and thoughts.





 

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