The Australian book industry has existed for over a century. It has become a mid-level English-language market, smaller than the US and UK markets, but of sufficient size to generate top-notch books and export significant works to the rest of the world.
It is also an industry exposed to an unusual degree of risk at all levels of the supply chain. Authors take a risk by spending years writing a book that may or may not be accepted for publication.
Even if an author receives an advance, it is unlikely to reflect the time it takes to write the final manuscript, except in the rare case of a best-selling author.
Publishers take a risk by paying advances and publishing books that may or may not generate significant sales. Books are different from most other retail goods, in that commercial publishers often accept returns (or negotiate discounts) for unsold books.
Booksellers take a risk in choosing which titles to stock and promote from the thousands of new books published each year. Independent bookstores in Australia play a particularly important role in ‘handselling’ Australian books and new Australian authors through personal recommendations from staff.
Despite the risks, the longevity of Australia’s book industry suggests it can continue to succeed – given the right policy settings.
Direct and indirect benefits
The book industry makes a significant contribution to the Australian economy. It has a market size of $1.7 billion and supports around a thousand businesses. Book publishers employ 3,650 people. When you add independent booksellers, authors and publishers, the number grows even more.
The greatest profits from commercial publishing come from bestselling titles, but these make up a very small proportion of the books published. There are many more “mid-list” titles and a long tail of books that sell in very small numbers per year.
The industry is also a major exporter. A Macquarie University study published in 2021 found that Australian books are read around the world. Sales of international rights provide significant revenue to the local industry. Rights sales also play an important role in international literary exchanges, bolstering Australia’s reputation abroad.
The book industry generates significant indirect economic benefits. For example, books often provide the raw material for successful film and television adaptations. And writers who gain training and experience in the industry can apply their skills in other industries. A recent survey showed that 60% of writers use their artistic skills in an industry outside of the arts.
The book industry is essential to the well-being of Australian society and the health of Australian culture. Among its most significant contributions are its social and cultural benefits. Books are a source of entertainment, education, imagination, inspiration and comfort.
Our national survey revealed that readers and non-readers recognize and appreciate the contribution of Australian books to our cultural life.
In 2017, our research team surveyed a representative sample of over 3,000 Australians to ask how they value books and book publishing. The results of this survey provide a clear indication of the importance of the book industry to Australian society and culture. The research found that the vast majority of Australians believe books are worth more than their monetary cost.
The majority of Australians recognize the cultural impact of Australian books:
- 71% think it is important for Australian children to read Australian books
- 61% think the Australian book industry is part of Australian culture
- 63% say books written by Indigenous Australians are important to Australian culture.
Respondents were asked how important they thought it was for books written by Australian authors to be published in Australia. A majority (60%) considered this important or extremely important. Just over half (54%) agreed or strongly agreed that there should be public funding specifically for Australian writing.
The survey found that 69% of respondents believe Australian books help people understand themselves and the country they live in.
Australian publishers promote increased opportunities for authors from diverse backgrounds, for example through a new imprint Allen and Unwin, Joan. The industry is also a strong supporter of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
Supporting the Australian Book Industry
The precarious income of authors has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Writers experienced reduced cash flow from personal appearances, such as school visits and other paid activities.
The upward trajectory of international rights sales from 2008 to 2018 arguably heralded a new era. This export growth was halted by the pandemic. It is unclear when the old level of success will be restored, or what the post-pandemic business parameters will be.
Our research shows that commerce is generally only effective where an established relationship already exists. Maintaining these relationships will likely be difficult without additional industry support. Support in this area is vital for continued international success.
There are multiple avenues at all levels of government, from federal to local, to develop policies that will ensure the continued strength of the book industry.
Writers develop their skills over many years and often over a number of books. A sustainable ecology is necessary for authors to maintain their professional practice. Financial support for innovative writers and publishers contributes to a diverse artistic ecology – an ecology capable of renewing and reinventing itself, rather than becoming stale and outdated. The innovation may not be a commercial success in the short term, but may enter the mainstream over time.
Initiatives to support First Nations authors and authors from diverse backgrounds over the long term are crucial. International interest in author diversity is substantial and requires a long-term commitment. Recognition of the social and cultural value of Australian books clearly justifies public support for writers.
This could be achieved through grants provided through the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, support for writers’ centers and professional associations, and the continuation of Public Lending Right and Public Lending Right programs. educative.
Public Lending Right payments are payments to Australian authors whose works are held in significant numbers in public libraries. Educational Lending Right payments are made to Australian authors whose books are held in significant numbers in school, TAFE and university libraries. A practical policy initiative would be to expand these payments to include digital borrowing.
Small independent publishers are most at risk in these uncertain times. Small publishers have less ability to invest large sums of money in promoting their titles. They see an important role for government in developing audiences for books and reading.
About four-fifths of our sample of publishers saw the reduction in government support for book and reading promotion in 2015 as a major constraint to their operations.
Many smaller publishers have a high proportion of Australian authors on their lists, so they are most likely to have received government support through the Australia Council. Any reduction in support from this source is likely to hit smaller publishers harder.
From its inception, the Australian book industry has been dynamic, resourceful and productive. A key policy challenge for the future of the industry is to maintain this vitality, with well-placed financial and regulatory support from all levels of government.
The skills and expertise of Australian writers and editors must be maintained so that the sector can recover and regain momentum after the pandemic.
The economic and cultural value of the Australian book industry deserves more government support
Paul Crosby, Lecturer, Department of Economics, Macquarie University; David Throsby, Emeritus Professor of Economics, Macquarie Universityand Jan Zwar, faculty research director, Macquarie University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Image: Pages of a book glued to a wall (sourced)
To note: This is an edited version of the authors’ submission to the Proposed National Cultural Policy.