Australia Council’s Wenona Byrne talks literary trends

January 23, 2018

In November last year, the Australia Council’s Literature Director, Wenona Byrne, delivered the keynote speech at the Independent Publishing Conference organised by the Small Press Network.

We’ve reproduced Wenona’s speech, which offers terrific insights into current trends and opportunities in publishing (with her permission).

The Australia Council’s Wenona Byrne.

Frankfurt Book Fair

In October 2017, I attended the Frankfurt Book Fair. I’m not sure how many people here have been to the book fair before but for the benefit of those who haven’t I’ll describe the scene. There are several functions held by publishers, agencies and scouts during the fair. The night before the fair opens Fischer Verlag, one of the few publishers based in Frankfurt, invites hundreds of publishers, scouts and agents from all over the world to its office in the old part of Frankfurt called Sachsenhausen.

After I introduced myself to one of the Fischer Verlag editors as from the Australia Council, this editor said, “Oh, I’m reading an Australian book at the moment. I’m about a hundred pages into it and it’s amazing! Apparently there is a lot of interest so I’m reading quickly.” When I asked which book, the editor said, “It’s by Shaun Prescott called The Town.” The Town is only the second book published by Brow Books, the publishing imprint of The Lifted Brow.

The next day, at another networking event, I saw literary scout Catherine Eccles, who came to Australia this year as a Visiting International Publisher. Catherine’s job as a literary scout is to read absolutely everything that is going around before Frankfurt and then to recommend the best and most suitable works to her client publishers in Europe. When I saw Catherine at the VIP alumni party she stopped me to talk about the same book. She said, “We sold rights in Spain yesterday in a pre-empt and we are expecting offers from Germany today”. This is after rights were already sold to Faber & Faber and Farrar Straus Giroux in the US.

It was a delight to hear that a book from a small Australian press which is an extension of a literary journal become the sensation of Frankfurt, following other recent successes such as Christian White’s Nowhere Child from Affirm Press, Flames by Robbie Arnott from Text, Black Rock White City by A.S. Patric from Transit Lounge and Extinctions by Josephine Wilson from UWA Press have all found enthusiastic readers around the world.

The importance of international income to Australian authors is significant. Thirty per cent of Australian authors have had their work translated or sold overseas.

Today I want to talk to you about literary trends as I see them both nationally and internationally and the programs the Australia Council supports to help you make the most of any opportunities.

Australia Council’s international strategy

I started out in publishing working for a literary agency and then spent nine years at Allen & Unwin as the rights manager. My work there was mainly focussed on pitching and selling Australian books to international publishers so this is an area of specialist knowledge for me. I have seen first-hand the value of promoting Australian writing overseas. In terms of the income, rights sales primarily benefit the author, with the Australian publisher or literary agent taking a commission to cover the costs of travel and contract management and to secure their initial advance to the author.

However, the benefits of rights sales extend far beyond the initial advance. A translation deal, no matter how small, is a thrilling endorsement for an author of the value of their work. Sometimes it can be the spark that ignites an international chain of rights sales, or it could simply represent invaluable cultural exchange.

Alexis Wright, in an interview marking the 10th anniversary of the publication of her Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Carpentaria, said, “The translation of literature is an incredible thing because it helps to break down the barriers of language and distance, and creates communication, instead of silence.”

The first strategic goal of the Australia Council is ‘Australian arts are without borders’. We aim to support Australian writers and publishers to access international markets for their work. The way we do this is through a number of strategic programs including the Visiting International Publisher program, which has been running now for 20 years.

The VIP program brings a group of international publishers, agents and editors to Australia every year to participate in industry briefings, casual networking events and one-on-one pitch meetings. The aim is to establish long-term connections between Australian and international publishers.

In just the last 5 years, the VIP program has earned Australian rights holders more than $4 million dollars’ worth of rights deals.

Other international initiatives which we support are industry delegations to key markets, support for the APA stand in Frankfurt which provides a platform for member publishers, international residencies, and grants to support individual writers’ travel to festivals and conferences.

Our focus is on supporting activities that build long-term networks with benefits that extend beyond one book or author.

So what kind of books travel?

Well the answer to this varies a little from territory to territory but there are great opportunities for small publishers in the international market. As with Shaun Prescott’s The Town, international publishers are yearning for new fresh voices, including Indigenous and diverse voices – the kind of work published by small presses. Books considered as too niche or literary by larger publishers are often exactly what the international publishers are looking for, to set themselves apart from the mainstream.

Interestingly though, some international publishers I met with recently said that they thought Australia was better known for its commercial than its literary output. Perhaps we are not pressing our literary books into the right hands, which underlines the importance of building the right network of contacts.

But the international opportunities are not just limited to rights trading.

When I met with the Berlin Literature Festival a few weeks ago they were eager to hear about authors that they could potentially invite to appear at the annual festival in Berlin. They are looking for young Indigenous voices, political and current affairs writers, and writers on the environment.

If you do have the opportunity to engage with international festivals or events please do make sure you let us know about it and also make sure you connect with other agencies such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as they can often facilitate meetings or help host events.

Australia Council grants program

In Australia, festivals, literary journals, reviewers, podcasters, residential programs, writers’ centres, copyright organisations, booksellers and publishers large and small, are all part of the literary ecosystem, but the creator is at the heart of the sector.

Whether that creator is an illustrator, poet, essayist, graphic artist, fiction or non-fiction writer, the Australia Council’s focus is to ensure first and foremost that there is support for the creation of new work. This is why our grants program is structured so that the majority of funding goes to individual writers.

However, we also acknowledge that writing needs to reach readers. Without journal publishers, audio podcast producers, publishers and writers’ festivals, the creator’s work may not find its audience at all, so supporting these organisations is a key part of the Australia Council’s grant program.

The grants program also supports emerging writers to develop their skills through writers’ centres, mentorships, festivals and other collaborations.

In literature, we receive between 150 and 280 grant applications each grant round. There are three rounds annually. Over the three rounds between $2.5 and $3 million dollars goes to literature projects.

It’s competitive. In 2016, we received 587 applications from writers, groups and organisations which were assessed by your peers. Out of those, 112 were supported.

In the last grant round, 67% of funds went to individuals. Grants to women writers make up between 65 and 75% of supported applications depending on the round. However, it’s also interesting to note that women writers tend to request and therefore receive smaller grant amounts.

In June, the last round we announced, we saw 30% of successful grants go to first-time applicants. It’s great to receive strong applications from first-timers but we want to see applications from established authors too.

It’s interesting to note that grant applicants to the literature panel, request less in terms of dollar value than other art forms.

I’m sure many of you will want to hear about how the changes to Catalyst will affect the amount of funding available through the Australia Council.

While the funds previously allocated to the Catalyst program will come back to be administered by the Australia Council, this change won’t make an immediate impact. Most of the Catalyst funds have already been allocated to multi-year projects so we are looking at 2019 before we will see any additional funds at the Australia Council.

“While the funds previously allocated to the Catalyst program will come back to be administered by the Australia Council, this change won’t make an immediate impact. Most of the Catalyst funds have already been allocated to multi-year projects so we are looking at 2019 before we will see a significant impact on the funding levels in Australia Council programs.”

In anticipation of the return of the Catalyst funds we have already made some changes, including dropping the limitation on successful grant applicants applying to consecutive rounds. Now, even if you were successful in one round you can still apply to the next round, as long as the project activity is different.


While we are continually evaluating our grants program, we are also actively engaged in research into national trends in the arts. The Australia Council is the biggest single commissioner of this kind of research. The results of this research give us the basis on which we make strategic decisions about the direction of arts policy and the research is available for the sector to use too.

Some of the significant pieces of literature research work we have commissioned or supported this year include the Reading the Reading survey conducted by Macquarie University into Australian reading habits, and the Arts Participation Survey called Arts Nation.

This research shows that more people than ever are participating in literature through writing for themselves and for publication, writing poetry, attending festivals and accessing creative writing online and through podcasts. As the population ages, we can expect more Australians will want to spend time developing their creative writing skills and engaging with literary organisations.

Regular readers are more likely to be educated and female. Readers mostly enjoy reading crime novels, while they would like to read more literary titles, they are not entirely sure what ‘literary’ means.

Readers mostly get their recommendations from word of mouth.

This week the Australia Council released the results of research conducted by Prof David Throsby and Katya Petetskaya into the earnings of professional artists in Australia. This is the 6th tranche of a longitudinal study over 30 years and is called Making Art Work.

The results of the study reveal a trend that will be familiar to many of you. Writers earn an average of just $19,900 per year from their artistic practice. However, the median income from creative work for writers is $4,500, pointing to a concentration of writers at the lower end. In fact, 62% of writers earn less than $10,000 a year while at the other end of the scale 15% earn more than $50,000 per year from their writing.

Professional writers in Australia are more likely to be older and female, with 59% of writers aged 55 or older. Women comprise 65% of all writers.

The research shows that writers are spending just as much time writing but are earning less income for the same amount of work.

This is why at the Australia Council we are looking for ways to help build sustainable careers for writers through supporting professional development and diversification of writing income.

More writers are looking to cross into other artforms and work collaboratively. When we’re assessing grant applications we look to support organisations and individuals in their efforts to pay their collaborators appropriately.

In our advocacy, we believe that that current copyright protections should be maintained so that creators continue to earn income from the use of their original work.

Diversity in literature

Internationally and in Australia, there is a recognition that we have to improve the diversity of the people who work in the literature sector and also the diversity of writers who are published. 7% of writers are of non-English speaking background, compared to 10% of all artists and 18% of the Australian labour force.

The statistics on writers with a disability are similarly uneven. 10% of writers identify as having a disability – similar to 9% of all artists, but fewer than the 19% across the Australian population.

Some publishers in the UK have set targets for their employees to reflect the same cultural diversity of their population in the next five years. This is a strategic, as much as a non-discriminatory practice; there is a demand for writing of original integrity. Readers want to hear from writers with a different world view and to expose them to experiences different from their own.

We’re also seeing an increased demand for First Nations writing. This is not only part of the diversity revolution, it’s a recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture is rich and significant and ultimately the way we Australians can define ourselves as having our own unique history and storytelling.

Future Opportunities, US trends

The Australian book market usually follows trends set in the US. In the US, trade sales are up slightly, with three out of four major publishing houses reporting a small increase in sales and earnings compared with the same time last year of between one and 11%. The rise is driven by an increase in children’s book sales, digital audio, and film tie-ins. Ebook sales in the US are falling or stagnant.

In terms of genre, crime is still big, although some specific crime sub-genres such as domestic noir with an unreliable narrator (Gone Girl and Girl on the Train) seem to have run their course. Audio book sales are booming with one US publisher reporting audio download sales up as much as 37% on the same period in 2016. One Australian crime author I spoke to, who is published in the US, said that their audio book sales in North America are now higher than their printed book sales.

Art and collectible books

I see opportunities for high quality books and journals with unique design elements. Australian designers such as Stuart Geddes here in Melbourne are creating books rich in typography and crafted design, embracing the local and peculiar, and making books that appeal to the collector.

In non-fiction, readers are craving the real – an antidote to fake news – which perhaps is the reason the subscriber base for The New York Times is up 59% on last year. In fiction, storytelling that is seen as ‘authentic’, that either has something to say about the world today or the world in the future. Climate fiction, the migrant experience and feminist fiction is becoming highly sought after.

In festivals, audiences will want to participate rather than simply spectate, and I think we will see a demand for programming that offers opportunities for active involvement and hands-on experiences. Audiences also increasingly seek destination events and unique festivals, such as we have seen with Mofo and MoNA in Tasmania.

Despite the results of research into writers’ incomes, I believe the future for artists and writers in the long term is positive. According to a recent report into the impact of technology on future jobs written by Dr Michael Osborne of the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University, jobs that involve genuine creativity are the ones that are least likely to be automated. Artistic, literary and media occupations are in the top 10 jobs predicted to experience increased demand by 2030.

The incredible artistic skills of our writers and the creative problem-solving skills of editors, festival programmers and publishers will be increasingly sought after in a wider range of sectors including and beyond literature.

As small presses you are perfectly placed to meet this future demand because you are unearthing the original and diverse voices that a growing number of readers here and overseas want to read.

This is how 25 year old Canadian poet Rupi Kaur became a New York Times best-seller.

Milk and Honey, a collection of poems on themes of sexuality and abuse, was first self-published before US publisher Andrews McMeel picked it up. With nearly 2 million copies sold world-wide, Milk and Honey is the second best-selling book in the US in all categories in 2017.

A book of poetry reaching this number of readers anywhere in the world is astounding.

Difference in literature is now a good thing. As Catherine Eccles went on to say about The Town, “This is a metaphor for our times that interestingly comes from a tiny start up at the bottom of the world – this seems wholly appropriate.

Being at the bottom of the world need not be a barrier to international success. Small and bespoke can be an advantage. It’s a matter of making and using your contacts and taking full advantage of the opportunities. Thank you.

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