Much has changed in Australian publishing since I wrote the essay. Most significantly, REDgroup Retail declared bankruptcy, causing the closure of the Angus and Robertson, Borders and Reader’s Feast bookshops that I surveyed. Thankfully, the last, though not as independent as many observers had thought, was independent enough that it will be reopening in the Georges building on Collins St.
Another big change has been the rise of ebooks. There is now a lot of talk of world rights to books, though territories remain with us in both copyright and contracts for the time being. Meanwhile, genre fiction sells particularly well as ebooks — so much so that Amazon has launched its own science fiction, fantasy and horror imprint, 47North. No Australian publisher has yet to take similar advantage of ebooks to sell SF.
I am now not only studying publishing but working in the industry, and have had the opportunity to observe it with an insider’s perspective. I now think that I too easily dismissed the problem of ‘snobbery’, which is actually a very complex set of phenomena, undeserving of that label. Authors who write science fiction but who don’t identify as SF authors have their books damned for being too SF yet not SF enough — by both mainstream and SF reviewers. Meanwhile, the smaller scale of Australian publishing means there are often insufficient resources available for promoting into the SF market even when these books are published. Indeed, publishing houses have to work hard to promote Australian-originated books of any kind. I think this is an area that would be particularly worthwhile to research more closely.
Regarding my utopian vision of the future… the North American cyberpunk author William Gibson denigrates the very possibility of writing near-future science fiction, yet this last year has seen three near-future Australias in Black Glass by Meg Mundell (Scribe), Nightsiders by Sue Isle (Twelfth Planet) and The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood (Voyager)… so I remain hopeful.
This essay is dedicated to my wife, Penny, who was its ‘commissioning and structural editor’. Thanks to my lecturer, Bryony Cosgrove, who agreed with Penny that I should follow my passion, and who later suggested I pursue publication. Thanks to my friend Andrew for advice on what an arts essay should look like. Thanks to Robert Baensch for publishing the essay. And finally, thanks to the editors Bernadette Foley (Orbit), Stephanie Smith (Voyager) and Louise Thurtell (Allen and Unwin) who took time from their busy schedules to talk to me — and thanks to all the Australian editors and publishers of science fiction.
David Golding 21 November 2011
No Future? The Lack of Science Fiction Published in Australia
Publishing Research Quarterly
Volume 27 Number 1
Pub Res Q (2011) 27:62-71
Science fiction is popular in Australia. Yet very little science fiction is
published in Australia. This essay establishes and examines the paradoxical truth of
these two statements. Australian interest in science fiction is shown by reviewing
local bookshops, authors, literary events and fan culture. The lack of Australian-published
science fiction is shown by examining accounts of local publishing,
sampling what is stocked in bookshops and surveying the output of publishing
houses. The reasons for this lack are literary snobbishness, the success of the related
genre of fantasy, and the importation of foreign-published science fiction.
Allen and Unwin
HarperCollins Publishers Australia
Pan Macmillan Australia
Penguin Books Australia
Random House Australia
I have been a fan of science fiction for as long as I can remember. One nice thing
about being a fan of this particular genre is that I know I can walk into any library or
bookshop in Australia and expect to find something to read. However, as a fan and
an Australian, I’m all too aware that the something I find to read will most likely be
published in America or Britain. Now that I am beginning a career in publishing, I
thought it would be good to take a closer look at the situation. Is it true that science
fiction is popular in Australia? Is it true that very little science fiction is published in
Australia? And if, as I suspect, the answer to both these questions is a paradoxical
‘yes’, then why is this so? And does Australian-published science fiction have a
Science Fiction and Fantasy, a Definition
In order to establish the popularity of science fiction, science fiction must first be
defined. Broadly, science fiction extrapolates from our current understanding of
the world to generate its stories. It is usually set in the future and features fictional
advanced technology. Much has been written about the overdetermined and
contested parameters of science fiction. Books which may be considered science
fiction are found in bookshops on a variety of shelves with different labels: books
such as Uglies by Scott Westerfeld in the ‘Young Adult’ section, or Things We
Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam in the ‘Fiction’ section. The main
presence of science fiction is on shelves that are labelled ‘Science Fiction and
Fantasy’. Science fiction and fantasy share an interest in the unreal, with fantasy
usually being set in a medieval past and featuring magic. They have long been shelved
together and tend to share readers, authors and publishing houses. They may be
distinguished by their covers, which might include an explicit label or familiar visual
tropes, such as spaceships for science fiction or dragons for fantasy.
A Survey of Major Melbourne Bookshops
Bookselling is a commercial proposition, so the number of titles on shelves shows
the popularity of different genres. A profitable bookshop would employ their time,
space and money in only stocking a large number of titles that were expected to sell
through. Therefore, to ascertain the popularity of science fiction I performed a
survey of science fiction titles in major Melbourne bookshops. The central business
district of Melbourne has four major bookshops: Angus and Robertson (Bourke St),
Borders (Melbourne Central), Dymocks (234 Collins St) and Reader’s Feast
(Midtown Plaza). They are each a different kind of shop: the first two are chain
stores owned by REDgroup Retail, though Borders was only bought from its
American owners in June 2008; Dymocks is a franchise store; Reader’s Feast is an
independent bookshop. These bookshops serve a large population of workers,
tourists and shoppers. I expected this demographic pressure to make proportions of
their stock representative of an average bookshop for average readers. One factor
that might increase the proportion of science fiction in these bookshops is their
proximity to two specialist science fiction and fantasy bookshops: Minotaur, and Of
Science And Swords. If this increase makes it seem that science fiction is more
popular than it might be, I can only note that the existence of the speciality shops is
itself proof towards the popularity of science fiction.
My survey was confined to the science fiction and fantasy section of each
bookshop, because this provided the greatest number of titles shelved in a single
location, with the least controversy in identifying a book’s genre. A manual audit of
books was performed. I counted unique titles rather than the total number of books,
but there were typically one to three copies of each title. I counted both science
fiction and fantasy, to give an indication, first, of their combined presence in the
bookshops, and second, of their relative proportions. Where the genre of the book
was not obvious, it was later discovered on the internet by performing a Google
search for its title and author, then looking for genre markers on websites such as
those of the author, the publishing house and Amazon. As another indicator of
popularity, staff at each store reported that their stock turns over quickly. It is for
this reason that the date of each audit has been given.
Table 1: Number of science fiction and fantasy titles in Melbourne bookshops
Angus and Robertson
19 April 2010
26 April 2010
19 April 2010
9 April 2010
As can be seen in Table 1, a large number of science fiction titles were stocked in
each of these bookshops, indicating that the genre is popular in Melbourne.
The Popularity of Science Fiction
Interest in science fiction comes not only from the general reader, but also from
Australian authors, critics and governments. Over the years, the Literature Board of
the Australia Council has awarded six fellowships to Damien Broderick. Steven
Amsterdam won the Age Book of the Year Award for his post-apocalyptic debut
novel, Things We Didn’t See Coming. David Ireland won that award and his third
Miles Franklin Award for A Woman of the Future, which depicts a teenage girl
growing up in the near future. One of our most prominent authors, Peter Carey,
started his career with short stories that were reprinted in science fiction anthologies,
and his novel The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith makes use of science fiction trope
and technique in creating the countries of Efica and Voorstand. And another Miles
Franklin Award–winner, George Turner, has gone on to become one of the
country’s most important science fiction authors.
The success of science fiction with authors, readers and critics has resulted in its
presence at literary events. The 2009 Melbourne Writers Festival was a particularly
significant event as it invited a long list of guests associated with science fiction.
This included an academic who had written on the genre (Justine Larbalestier), an
artist with science fiction roots (Shaun Tan), young adult authors (Kerry
Greenwood, Scott Westerfeld), mainstream authors who had written science fiction
(Steven Amsterdam, Max Barry, Peter Goldsworthy) and science fiction and fantasy
authors (Jack Dann, Margo Lanagan, China Mievelle). There were many sessions
with a science fiction focus, including ‘Creating New Worlds’ and ‘The Future of
Fiction’. Literary journal Overland, supported by the City of Melbourne 2009 Arts
Grants Program, took the opportunity to launch issue 196, which featured fiction by
Dann and Lanagan, joined by Andrew Morgan and Lucy Sussex.
The promotion and discussion of science fiction doesn’t only take place in the
mainstream arena. Australia has always had a vigorous science fiction fandom,
gathering in science fiction and fantasy clubs around the country and hosting its own
regular events. In 1975, the Melbourne Science Fiction Club obtained money from
the Literature Board of the Australia Council and successfully hosted the 33rd
Annual World Science Fiction Convention, only the fourth to be held outside of
North America. Since then three more have been hosted, in 1985, in 1999, and the
latest being in this year. The Australian science fiction community also gives two
sets of awards: the Ditmar Awards, voted for by the members of the annual
Australian National Science Fiction Convention since 1969; and the Aurealis
Awards, adjudicated by a panel of judges since 1995. News of conventions, awards
and other science fiction occurrences relevant to Australians has been published in
The Australian Science Fiction Bullsheet, a free electronic newsletter, for 16 years
now. And for the last 5 years, authors, editors and publishers with weblogs have, on
a voluntary round-robin basis, hosted the Australian Speculative Fiction Carnival,
collecting and posting relevant links to other weblogs.
This paints a picture of thriving interest in science fiction in Australia. There are
many books for sale in shops, authors appear at both literary and genre festivals, fan
clubs exist around the country, and the genre both influences and is influenced by
great authors. But although science fiction is an object of interest, this cultural
currency has not been cashed by publishers.
Lack of Interest in Publishing
This lack of interest is evident in that little has been written about either the
presence or the absence of science fiction publishing in Australia. There is scant
use even of the words ‘science fiction’ in accounts of the industry. Of such books,
Making Books is a good example. It mentions science fiction three times: in an
essay that names science fiction with other genres in a negative definition of
literature; in a case study of Penguin’s publishing for children, where it is stated
that Penguin enlisted science fiction authors like Richard Harland to write for
them; and in an essay on crime fiction publishing, the crime fiction specialist
market is compared to that of science fiction and fantasy [4, p. 236–238, 293, 311].
Even when Australian science fiction is written about, there is no attention paid to
how it is published. The New Diversity does have a chapter on ‘speculative fiction’
which includes several pages on science fiction written by Australians . Twenty
books are named, sixteen of which were published in Australia: one at the
University of Queensland Press, eleven at small presses and four at publishing
houses of reasonable size. All of the small presses named had ceased publication by
the time that The New Diversity was written: a fact that was probably overlooked by
its authors due to their literary rather than publishing focus*. Of the four larger
publishing houses, Angus and Robertson and Hale and Iremonger have subsequently
ceased publication, while Hyland House and Penguin don’t currently have any
science fiction titles in print.
The few specialist accounts of Australian science fiction have a similar blind spot
for the means of production. The MUP Encyclopaedia of Australian Science Fiction
and Fantasy again focuses on authors and does not have any entries for publishing
houses . This is particularly strange for two reasons. First, it squeezes in mention
of significant small presses, like Void, into the entries of their publishers, who
conveniently are also authors. Second, it does have entries for other topics like
awards, fandom and bookshops.
Published in Australia
To meaningfully identify Australian-published science fiction in bookshops, a
distinction must be made between the ways a book may be published. ‘Published in
Australia’ is usually understood to mean a book was commissioned, edited and
produced by an Australian company. But this might not be the case for a book that
features the logo of an Australian publishing house on its spine. The latter kind of
book may instead have been commissioned, edited and produced by a foreign
company for their own market. The rights to such books are acquired by an
Australian company that will produce an edition suitable for the Australian market,
which might have been minimally edited to reflect local spelling and idioms. The
Australian publishing house pays an advance and royalties which are split between
the foreign publishing house and the author. The providence of a book can be
identified on its copyright page. It is books that are commissioned, edited and
produced in Australia that provide more profit to their publishing houses and
employ more people locally. These Australian-originated books are therefore most
important to the local industry and will be the focus when discussing books
published in Australia.
I found few Australian-originated titles on bookshop shelves. When surveyed,
Reader’s Feast had just two titles: the anthology of The Best Australian Science
Fiction Writing, edited by Rob Gerrand, published in 2004 by small press Black Inc;
and the novel Being of the Field, by Traci Harding, published in 2009 by Voyager.
Dymocks had only one title: the novel Killswitch, by Joel Shepherd, published in
2004 by Voyager. Borders and Angus and Robertson had none.
To confirm that the survey of bookshops accurately reflects what is currently
being published, I performed a survey of large publishing houses. The five largest
general book publishing houses in Australia are Hachette Livre, HarperCollins, Pan
Macmillan, Penguin and Random House; they are all owned by international
conglomerates. The largest Australian-owned publishing house is Allen and Unwin.
I contacted these six publishing houses for information and examined their websites.
On the Allen and Unwin website, a user may browse by subject for ‘Fantasy and
Science Fiction’: this returns 33 results, but only one is science fiction and this is a
foreign edition merely distributed by Allen and Unwin† .
Hachette Livre established their Orbit science fiction and fantasy imprint in 2007.
On the Hachette Livre Australia website, a user may obtain an Excel spreadsheet
containing a list of all Hachette stock available to booksellers . This has 691
Orbit titles, but these are all titles that originated overseas, along with 764 titles
from the Gollancz imprint. Science fiction and fantasy titles that are originated and
published in Australia are found under ‘Fiction’, but this currently consists of only
HarperCollins established their science fiction and fantasy list in 1995,
originating and publishing their first science fiction titles the following year. The
list was subsequently rebranded as the HarperVoyager or Voyager imprint. On the
Voyager Online website, a user may browse their catalogue of 992 science fiction
and fantasy titles . This has fourteen science fiction titles which were originated
and published in Australia. After Killswitch was published in 2004, there was a
four year gap devoid of new science fiction, and only four titles have been published in
the last two years: Dreaming Again edited by Jack Dann, The Daughters of Moab by
Kim Westwood, The Gene Thieves by Maria Quinn and Being of the Field by Traci
Pan Macmillan established their science fiction and fantasy list in 1989, but it
took them until 1994 to publish a science fiction rather than fantasy title. They now
report that they no longer have a distinct list. On the Pan Macmillan Australia
website, a user may perform an advanced search by category for either ‘Fantasy’ or
‘Science Fiction’, though both contain titles that belong to the other: together they
return 118 results of science fiction and fantasy titles . Only one, Poetic
Retribution from Mars by Sylvester Abanteriba, is originated and published in
Australia, but by independent publishing house Brolga.
On the Penguin Books Australia website, a user may browse by subject for
‘Science Fiction’: this returns 72 results of science fiction and fantasy titles, with the
six Australian-published titles helpfully labelled with an icon of Australia .
These six are all originated and published in Australia, but not by Penguin, who only
distributes them. Five are Hal Spacejock books from independent publishing house
Fremantle Press and the other is The Best Australian Science Fiction Writing from
In 1996, around the time that Pan Macmillan and HarperCollins were
establishing their lists, Random House published a science fiction novel. In 1998
it inaugurated the George Turner Prize, to be annually awarded to an unpublished
Australian science fiction or fantasy novel, with the prize including publication.
However, the award only ran for three years, and its final winner may have been the last
science fiction book originated by Random House. On the Random House Australia
website, a user may perform a search by subject for ‘Fiction: Sci-Fi’: this returns
500 results of science fiction and fantasy titles, but these are all originated overseas
Before the large publishing houses took their interest in the mid-1990s,
Australian-originated science fiction was primarily represented by small presses
dedicated to science fiction and fantasy. Currently, there are approximately eight
small presses that focus on science fiction and fantasy‡. Exact numbers are hard to
obtain due to the nature of small presses. The oldest extant small presses are
MirrorDanse, founded by Bill Congreve in 1994, and Ticonderoga, founded by
Russell B. Farr in 1996. MirrorDanse have thirteen books in print, predominately
anthologies containing science fiction, including the ongoing Year’s Best Australian
Science Fiction and Fantasy series. Ticonderoga have twelve books in print,
including seven anthologies containing science fiction. Both publishing houses sell
their books online, though MirrorDanse distributes Year’s Best to bookshops.
Why Science Fiction Isn’t Published in Australia
Despite the thousands of science fiction and fantasy titles available from the major
publishing houses, there are very few science fiction books originated locally. This
small number, coupled with the verities of distribution, results in even fewer titles
finding their way onto the shelves of bookshops. The obvious question, given the
large commercial support for science fiction, is why?
The Australian publishing industry is capable of publishing science fiction.
Editors and designers are familiar with publishing foreign-originated titles.
Marketers already sell foreign-originated titles to booksellers. The distribution
chain for foreign titles is already in place. There are three reasons that are given
time and again for the lack of science fiction: snobbishness, fantasy and importation.
The noted Australian scholar and editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
Peter Nicholls claims that ‘Australia has always been rather snobbish about the
popular genres’ [5, p. viii]. By this he means not that science fiction is unpopular in
Australia, but that there are social forces at work within publishing companies that
prevent them from supplying the market themselves. Garth Nix, who was an editor
at HarperCollins, where he tried to start a science fiction and fantasy list in the late
1980s, puts it more bluntly: ‘the people who actually had the power to decide what
we published weren’t interested in [science fiction]. It was as simple as that.’ 
Louise Thurtell, who succeeded in starting the HarperCollins list, thinks this lack of
interest is because ‘a lot of the people who are commissioning and publishing fiction
at the moment have Arts Degree backgrounds’ where they no doubt learnt the
orthodox critical view that Australian fiction is realist in orientation . This is
certainly a view which has been obvious to Australian authors; in Strange
Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction, the three authors, all of
whom are also published science fiction authors, write of the problem that science
fiction is regarded as ‘juvenile in appeal’ [3, p. 217].
This problem of snobbery has been at least partially overcome: after all, three
major publishing houses have started adult science fiction and fantasy lists. Thurtell
didn’t have a ‘long background of reading science fiction and fantasy’ but pursued
the creation of the HarperCollins list for commercial reasons. She knew that science
fiction and fantasy were a success for HarperCollins in the United Kingdom, and
that the Australian sales representatives were already familiar with the genres
through distribution. She was allowed to proceed once she got a ‘report about what
was selling in Australia and the commercial viability of it’ .
The move from editorial taste to commercial viability was a global trend in the
late twentieth century. While this market-driven approach opened the door to
popular fiction, it also demanded that books at least pay for themselves, or, better
yet, become bestsellers. This led to an emphasis on the second and third reasons for
the lack of science fiction published in Australia.
The second reason is that science fiction always shares with fantasy. It shares
shelves, readers, authors and publishing houses. It has been known that Australian-originated
fantasy is successful in Australia since 1989 when Pan Macmillan
published the fantasy novel Circle of Light by Martin Middleton and sold 13,000
copies . Sean McMullen used this to suggest that science fiction could enjoy
similar success if similarly printed, promoted and distributed by a major publishing
house. Unfortunately, science fiction and fantasy do not share equally. Thurtell says
that ‘Science fiction is harder to publish commercially because, in general, it doesn’t
sell as well as fantasy.’  This is reflected in the long time it took Pan Macmillan
to originate a science fiction title, the few science fiction titles from Voyager today,
and the fact that Orbit have yet to originate one. As small press publisher Bill
Congreve says, ‘Why sell 3,000 of [a science fiction] novel when for the same effort
you can sell 8,000 of a fantasy novel?’ .
The third and final reason given for the ‘weak indigenous [science fiction]
industry’ is, according to Nicholls, the ‘ready availability of [science fiction] from
other countries’ . George Turner agrees that Australian science fiction fans ‘will
not, will not, will not buy Australian [science fiction]’ . McMullen puts this
imbalance down to Australian publishing houses playing it safe with ‘outmoded
formulas, while the people who like reading such works prefer to read those by the
masters themselves’ . This latter claim seems to be false, with, for instance,
HarperCollins investing in Sean Williams, whose ambitious Metal Fatigue has an
‘extraordinarily complex’ plot with an ‘enormous effort [put] into working out a
detailed scenario for the near future’, and whose The Resurrected Man won a
Ditmar Award [3, p. 211–212]. Furthermore, the fans can only be counted on to buy
at most 200 copies . Most likely the imbalance is not unique to science fiction.
Because of Australia’s distance from the United States and the United Kingdom,
Australian readers have always favoured access to those cultural powerhouses over
development of their own national publishing industry .
It must be noted that Australian publishing houses make money by distributing or
publishing foreign-originated titles. Though doing so does not make as much money
as originating titles, neither does it require as much investment on the part of the
publishing houses. In a sense, publishing houses are competing against themselves.
As new authors take time to catch on, so this competition is biased towards the
incumbent foreign titles.
And foreign titles include those written by Australian authors. Our biggest
authors, such as Damien Broderick, Greg Egan and Sean Williams, are first
published overseas. This makes sense as the American and British markets are
larger and more developed than the Australian market and so offer more reward.
Some authors have been able to start their careers overseas; others have started their
careers with an Australian publishing house, only to move overseas when they are
prominent enough to be noticed by foreign publishing houses. Australian readers
wishing to read Australian authors will in these cases be paying at least some of
their money to a foreign publishing industry; it will be a lot of money if the book is
merely distributed by a local publishing house, as is often the case. If the book
cannot be found in a local bookshop, then the reader may buy the book online from
Amazon or direct from the foreign publishing house, in which cases there is no
money earned by Australian publishing at all.
This paints a bleak picture. It seems that, in the future, while science fiction is
celebrated, written and bought by Australians, they will buy foreign editions of
science fiction books which sit on shelves alongside Australian-published fantasy.
However, publishing is both a commercial and a cultural activity, and in both the
fields of commerce and culture, nothing is certain.
In the manner of utopian science fiction, another picture can be extrapolated.
Publishers might nurture the diversity in their lists. They might develop their own
strengths rather than remain beholden to external suppliers. They might retain
authors by developing Australia as a rights territory from which Australian titles can
be sold into other territories. Alternatively, it might simply not be as late as
doomsayers think, and the market might lose its hold on the industry. There is no
reason that Australian-originated science fiction might not follow a traditional path
of slow development.
Sean McMullen proposed the author Martin Middleton, with his fantasy novel
Circle of Light, as a model for how science fiction could be successful here. I now
propose a different author for such a model: Margo Lanagan. Lanagan writes both
short stories and novels, in both science fiction and fantasy. Her first novel,
WildGame, was published shortly after Middleton’s, in 1991 at Allen and Unwin.
She was published there steadily throughout the 1990s and 2000s without becoming
a bestseller. In 2005, her most recent anthologies attracted the attention of American
and British companies; they acquired rights to publish their own editions. This lead
to an agent securing a deal for her fantasy novel Tender Morsels to be published
simultaneously in Australia (by Allen and Unwin), the United States (by Knopf) and
the United Kingdom (by David Fickling Books). The novel has been a success,
winning both the local Ditmar Award and the World Fantasy Award.
What if the Lanagan model were followed? The number of all titles originated
and published in Australia has been steadily increasing since 1970. In 2003–2004,
locally published titles represented 68.1% of general books sold . For adult
fiction, 47.5% was locally published. It is said that ‘Australia is a mature book
market, with few easy pickings to be made’, but an increase of science fiction to
47.5% of 625 (the number of science fiction titles carried by Borders) would mean
that—along with more work for agents, editors, designers, printers, and others—there
would be 296 more Australian-originated books in the bookshop [4, p. 22].
That’s what success might look like in the future.