What do readers want?

Australian publishing book industry on reading Publishing

Words by Charlotte Guest, Publishing Officer at UWA Publishing.   

‘Historically speaking,’ said one of the visiting publishers at the Australia Council’s 2016 publishing scheme, ‘Koreans read for educational purposes. Only recently have we started reading for pleasure. This is why non-fiction books are very big in our market: business books, science…but literary fiction is starting to sell very well.’


The publisher from Japan remarked that genre fiction is popular; particularly crime and thrillers, and foreign titles make up 20% of the market. Curiously, Australian classics are enjoying a moderate take up.


India, by contrast, is experiencing an explosion in digital publishing and the use of e-readers. Bookshops are shutting down, the gap between bestseller numbers and middling titles is growing (a Mexican-wave of nods courses through the audience). Anish Chandy from Juggernaut Books in New Delhi is particularly interested in smartphones as a platform and says he’s trialing serialised novels. They release an erotic short story, or chapter, every night at ten. We all laugh. Sci-fi and literary fiction, he adds, doesn’t turn people on.


I’m at the Visiting International Publishers Scheme (VIPS) run by the Australia Council in tandem with the Sydney Writers Festival. VIPS is an opportunity to present our titles to overseas publishers and, ideally, export Australian literature to the rest of the world. It is an important fixture on our literary calendar. There are industry events designed to keep Australian publishers in touch with global goings-on, and one-on-one pitch meetings that – with a timer and bell – closely resemble speed dating. It’s informative and motivating. It’s fun.


Each market represented by the visiting publishers has local quirks and characteristics. It’s always fascinating to get a snapshot of book-buying publics, different body politics. There are sometimes hints at cultural movements or sentiments, waves of collective expression. Or not. Or there’s just trends. Appetites.


The Dutch market, we are told, is currently very introspective. It’s looking inwards, interested in homegrown talent. Ten years ago the Dutch were reading multi and inter-cultural narrative non-fiction books; the bestseller lists were much more diverse, but something happened and the interest nose-dived. What happened? How curious, we mutter.


Slovenia is an interesting case. Until the 1990s, when Slovenia gained independence from Yugoslavia, the publishing houses used to be owned by the state, and the bookshops owned by the publishers. Slovenian publishers, of which there are approximately 100 who publish over 5 books a year, are collectively producing around 3,000 books per annum. Of that 3,000, approximately half are works in translation. A third of all translated works are from English, and 5% of translated English titles are Australian. So, by my calculations, when we are pitching to a Slovenian publisher we are competing to be one of 25 Australian books published in Slovenia per year across all genres.


France is the only market in which independent bookshops are thriving, an anomaly which, as our Director Terri-ann White touched on in her latest article for Books+Publishing, is attributed to their fixed-price system. Booksellers must sells books at RRP for two years after release; after that they are able to discount. That’s the law. It prevents big chains or superstores aggressively discounting books and pricing the independents out of the market.


A take-home message that emerges from publishing industry programs is that ours is not an exact science. There is always an element of mystery. Inexplicable shifts occur. The unlikely eventuates (adult colouring books as the biggest ‘non-fiction’ sellers of 2015?).


That’s the beauty of it.


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