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DIY-MFA. Part 5 - Navigating the Publishing Industry and Literary Criticism.

Updated: Mar 11


Image: An obviously Australian reader. (Source: AI generated image. Spot the anatomical problem!).


Welcome to the fifth instalment of my six-part blog, DIY-MFA Series. As previously discussed, this series of blog articles provides a ‘template’ for you to follow an MFA-like curriculum, at your own pace with zero outlay. I’m drawing on my experiences in the field to outline a DIY-MFA which means that it unashamedly focuses on the area that I am most interested in, Modern Australian literature. You can easily modify the ‘template’ to make it bespoke to your needs. If you need a hand or additional clarity through any part of the program, drop me a line.

 

The Publishing Industry

The publishing industry is vast. Worldwide book sales in 2023 were estimated at around US$78.1 billion (1). Printed books account for around 82% of the market. This means that e-books make up around 18% of total sales. This is lower than I thought, but the segment is growing at 3.5% each year.

 

The five biggest book markets; USA, China, Germany, Japan and the UK account for two thirds of all sales. The remaining third is made up of sales from everywhere else. While significant in the region, Australia represents a relatively small part of the global market. Statistic specific to the Australian market are hard to find. A parallel (with, I acknowledge, no valid authenticity) is to compare book sales with the global share market. The same top five players represent about two thirds of the total and Australia represents around 2% of the world market. My guess is that book sales might be a similar percentage. Two percent is not a huge market, but it would represent sales of around $1.5 billion (or $1.3b and $.3b hardcopy and e-books respectively).


Image: The publishing industry is dominated by five large players- but don't let that stop you. (Source: AI generated)

 

The world-wide publishing industry is dynamic and subject to many influences. The Australian publishing industry is a microcosm of the world market, and the influences and trends are largely the same:

 

Publishing Trends

 

Digital Transformation. The rise of digital publishing continues to grow, with e-books and audiobooks continuing to gain market share. Australian publishers are increasingly leveraging digital platforms to reach new audiences, both domestically and internationally. The pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital reading habits, a trend that remains strong as accessibility and convenience drive consumer preferences.

There has also been a recent increase in books being converted to movies and series, via the growing pay TV market. This trend is particularly marked in Australia where legislation to regulate local content exists.

Independent Publishing. There has been a surge in self-publishing, independent publishers and hybrid-publishers, buoyed by software platforms that simplify the process. This increased accessibility allows for a more diverse array of voices, stories and demographics to reach the market, challenging the dominance of traditional publishing houses.

A Focus on Diversity. Australian publishers are increasingly recognizing the importance of diversity in literature, both in terms of authors and across subject matter. There is a concerted effort to publish works that reflect Australia's multicultural society, including Indigenous voices, authors from many origins and contributions from the LGBTQI+ communities. This demonstration of maturity in the industry enriches our literary landscape.

Sustainable Practices. Environmental concerns are prompting publishers to adopt more sustainable practices. This includes reducing waste in the production process to exploring eco-friendly materials such as recycled paper stock, sustainably grown feedstocks and non-oil-based inks. This shift is not only a response to consumer demand but also a recognition of the industry's responsibility towards environmental stewardship.

Genres. A difficult trend to predict until it is apparent is the genre that of the genre of books that the public engages with. Crime and romance remain industry favourites but occasionally books or genre take off that defy prediction. Who would have thought that tales involving a junior wizard-wannabe, a retelling of a Dickens novel, or suburban S&M would be market sensations? The sensations were Harry Potter, Demon Copperhead and the Fifty Shades of Gray franchise if you hadn’t guessed. It is amusing to note that the ‘random’ in the great publishing house of Penguin Random House was somewhat sarcastically described by a Penguin Random House executive as a reference to how random predicting bestsellers can be.


Image: A Rainbow library (Source AI generated)

 

Significant Players in the Publishing Industry

Many international publishing houses have subsidiaries or affiliates that operate in Australia.  Penguin Random House Australia, HarperCollins Australia, and Allen & Unwin play critical roles in shaping the literary market. They are complemented by a vibrant and growing independent publishing scene, with small presses contributing significantly to the diversity of the Australian literary voice.

 

Major Australian Literary Publishers include:

•              Allen & Unwin - known for a broad range of quality literary and commercial fiction, non-fiction, and academic titles.

•              Penguin Random House Australia - A major global publisher of a wide array of bestsellers, literary novels, and non-fiction.

•              HarperCollins Publishers Australia - offering a diverse catalogue that includes high-quality fiction and non-fiction.

•              Hachette Australia – The Australian arm of the global Hachette Livre group, publishing a mix of Australian and international authors across various genres.

•              Pan Macmillan Australia - Publishes a wide range of fiction, non-fiction, and children's books.

•              Text Publishing - An independent publisher known for discovering Australian and international writers.

•              University of Queensland Press (UQP) - One of Australia's oldest and most respected literary publishers, focusing on both fiction and non-fiction with a strong emphasis on Australian stories.

•              Giramondo Publishing - Specializes in innovative and adventurous literary fiction and poetry, with a focus on Australian writers.

•              Scribe Publications - An independent publisher with a focus on non-fiction, literary fiction, and serious essays.

•              Black Inc. - Publishes books that contribute to the conversation about Australia, including literary fiction, non-fiction, and political commentary.

•              Fremantle Press - An independent publisher championing the best stories from Western Australia and making them available to the world.

•              Affirm Press - An independent Melbourne-based publisher dedicated to publishing great Australian stories, big ideas, and engaging local and international authors.

•              Spinifex Press - Known for its feminist and innovative approach, publishing books that challenge the status quo, particularly in areas of women's studies and gender issues.

•              Wakefield Press - An independent Adelaide-based publisher focusing on literary fiction, Australian history, arts, and culture.

•              Magabala Books - Australia's leading Indigenous publishing house, dedicated to promoting and preserving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.

 

As stated, this list represents a fraction of the publishers operating in Australia. There are many more small and independent publishers contributing to the diversity of Australian literature. These publishers might focus on specific genres, niche markets, or local authors, playing crucial roles in the literary ecosystem by offering platforms for voices that might otherwise go unheard. Given the constantly changing nature of the publishing industry, I recommend consulting the websites of these publishers for the most current information about their catalogues and submission policies, as well as exploring directories or associations like the Australian Publishers Association (APA) for a more exhaustive list and updates on new and emerging publishers.

 


Image: Digital books continue to grow in the market. (Source: AI generated)


Hybrid Publishers

There are an ever-increasing number of hybrid-publishers. My definition of a hybrid publisher is a publishing company that combines elements of traditional publishing and self-publishing. This usually mean the economic equation is different too. Traditional publishers will pay authors an advance (that is an upfront payment based on future book sales). Hybrid publishers usually involve you paying for part or all of the process, but (in most) cases what book sales you make are yours to keep (less printing and transport cost). No reputable hybrid publisher should lay claim to any works that you haven’t produced yet.

Warning: There are a number of high unscrupulous organisations that purport to be hybrid publishers but are at best book printers or pure charlatans whose intent is to fleece novice authors for as much as they can.

Reputable hybrid publishers usually require authors to contribute financially in the publication of their work. This may involve paying for services such as editing, cover design, printing, and distribution. Hybrid publishers typically have some level of quality control and may vet submissions before agreeing to publish them (don’t get suckered by this though I am sure some of the dodgy ‘publishers’ appear to vet author’s work but take on anyone willing to pay).

Hybrid publishers may offer distribution services to make books available through online retailers, bookstores, and libraries. They may also provide marketing support to help authors promote their books, though this varies greatly.

It's essential for authors considering hybrid publishing to carefully research and evaluate potential publishers to ensure that they provide high-quality services and a fair publishing agreement. While hybrid publishing can offer authors more control and flexibility than traditional publishing, it's essential to understand the financial investment involved and to carefully review any contracts or agreements before committing to publication.

 

Literary Agents

The debate on whether a starting author needs a literary agent in Australia is hotly contested. The argument suggests that if you’re an established author you don’t need one but can get one, while if you’re a beginning author you need one but can’t get one. The dilemma doesn’t exist in the USA, where all authors need an agent to get through a publisher’s door.

If you're aiming to publish your work with a traditional publishing house, having a literary agent can be beneficial. Literary agents have industry contacts and expertise in negotiating contracts, which can help you secure better deals with publishers. Many larger publishing houses prefer to work with literary agents rather than directly with authors. Having an agent can give you access to publishing houses that may not accept submissions from unrepresented authors.

Literary agents are familiar with the publishing market, including trends, reader preferences, and changes in the industry. They can offer valuable advice on positioning your work and targeting the right publishers. Agents have expertise in negotiating publishing contracts on behalf of their authors. They can help you navigate complex legal terms, rights management, and other aspects of the publishing process to ensure you get the best possible deal. A literary agent can be your advocate throughout the publishing process, offering support, guidance, and representation to help you achieve your goals as an author.

While having a literary agent can offer numerous advantages, it's not strictly necessary for every author, especially if you're pursuing alternative publishing paths such as self-publishing or smaller independent presses. Ultimately, the decision to seek representation from a literary agent depends on your choice.

If you are after an agent but don’t know where to start here is a list of the top twenty agents in Australia (in no order):

•              Curtis Brown Australia

•              Jacinta Di Mase Management

•              Alex Adsett Publishing Services

•              Jenny Darling & Associates

•              Cameron Creswell Agency

•              The Nash Agency

•              The Cameron Creswell Agency

•              Zeitgeist Media Group

•              Australia Literary Management

•              Inkwell Management

•              The Rights Hive

•              RGM Artists

•              Hughes Literary Agency

•              The Naher Agency

•              Lisa Berryman Literary Agency

•              Selwa Anthony Author Management Agency

•              The Writer's House

•              Calidris Literary Agency

•              Profile Talent Management

•              Pippa Masson Literary Agency

 

Your choice of an agent, if you go that path may come down to how you ‘feel’ dealing with an individual at any agency. Like a good mentor, there is a lot to be said for ‘chemistry’.


Groups like Writers Victoria, Australian Society of Authors can assist you with recommendations to find suitable agents and publishers. They will also provide assistance with any contract that may be offered too.

 


Image: A cake celebrating the author Miles Franklin, who Australia's most respected literary award is named after (Source AI generated)


Literary Awards

To understand the literary landscape, it is worth seeing who is given the literary awards in your region. This doesn’t necessarily need to be to apply for the awards (though by all means have a go), it is to understand what critical judges see as valuable literature. Try to determine why the work has been awarded and see what trends may appear in the judging process. Of course, try to do this for the entire long list if it is available. Also remember that there will be many, many books that are really excellent that don’t get a mention at all. The intent is not to write with a particular award in mind (as that will likely stifle any creative uniqueness) but to understand the process.

 

A few Australian examples to review include:

 

The Miles Franklin Literary Award: A prestigious award, established in 1957, celebrating Australian literature, offering significant recognition and financial support to authors.

The Stella Prize: Founded in 2013, this award highlights the contribution of Australian women writers to literature. It has quickly become one of the most influential awards in the Australian literary scene.

The Australian Book Industry Awards: The ABIA awards recognize excellence across the publishing industry, from authors and publishers to retailers and cover designers. Even just reviewing the awards for trends in book cover design is valuable.

 

There will be Awards in your regional area of state. Check out the Writing Group that represents your state.

 

 Other Players in the Publishing Industry

There are many, many groups and organisation that play a part in the industry. This includes the literary groups, clubs and events. A few examples of these include:

 Australian Society of Authors (ASA): This professional association supports and advocates for Australian authors, offering resources, guidance, and representation. Its role is vital in ensuring fair treatment and remuneration for authors.

Booksellers and Distributors: Retail giants (Big W, Kmart, Dymocks), independent bookstores, and online retailers are key distribution channels for Australian literature. Their promotion and support of local authors are crucial for the visibility and success of Australian books.

 Literary Festivals: Events like the Sydney Writers' Festival and the Melbourne Writers Festival play essential roles in promoting literature, facilitating dialogue between authors and readers, and celebrating literary culture. There is also a growing number of regional literary festivals that are worth keeping an eye on. Check out my blogs of June 2023 (https://www.petemitchell.com.au/post/book-fairs-signings-and-literary-adventures) and March 2023 (https://www.petemitchell.com.au/post/hooray-for-writers-festivals) for some insights into bookfairs and festivals.

 

Groups like Writers Victoria, Australian Society of Authors can assist you with recommendations to find suitable agents and publishers. They will also provide assistance with any contract that may be offered too.

 

Literary Journals

Australia boasts a rich array of literary journals that showcase the country's vibrant literary talent, ranging from poetry and short stories to essays and critiques. These journals are potential platforms for you as an emerging writer. Here is a list of some of the best and most influential literary journals in Australia, keeping in mind that ‘best’ can be subjective and dependent on personal taste and literary interests:

  • Meanjin: Founded in Brisbane in 1940 and now based in Melbourne, Meanjin is one of Australia's oldest and most respected literary journals, publishing essays, fiction, and poetry. Interesting fact, Meanjin is the name the Turrbal People of the Yuggera nation gave to the area now known as Brisbane.

  • Griffith Review: A quarterly journal founded by Griffith University, Griffith Review is known for its thoughtful essays, reportage, memoir, and fiction addressing major issues and ideas from multiple perspectives.

  • Overland: Established in 1954, Overland is a quarterly print journal (with an online presence) that emphasizes progressive politics and culture. It publishes fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and essays, with a focus on provocative and engaging Australian and international writing.

  • Westerly: Published by the University of Western Australia, Westerly has a long history of publishing literature and scholarly articles, with a focus on Australian and Asian writing.

  • Kill Your Darlings (KYD): Founded in 2010, KYD is a contemporary cultural publication, featuring commentary, essays, fiction, and reviews, with a keen eye on Australian society and culture.

  • The Lifted Brow: Known for its experimental and challenging writing, The Lifted Brow publishes everything from essays and long-form journalism to fiction and comics from Australian and international writers.

  • Southerly: One of Australia's oldest literary journals, Southerly publishes essays, creative non-fiction, poetry, and fiction, focusing on Australian literature, arts, and culture.

  • Island Magazine: Based in Tasmania, Island Magazine is a quarterly that features fiction, essays, and poetry, with a strong emphasis on Tasmanian writers while also showcasing works from mainland Australia and abroad.

  • Australian Book Review is an Australian arts and literary review, created in 1961. ABR is an independent non-profit organisation that publishes articles, reviews, commentaries, essays, and new writing.

  • Australian Poetry Journal: As the name suggests, this journal focuses on Australian poetry, publishing works from poets across the country and fostering the art form.


Note, this list is not exhaustive, and the Australian literary landscape is home to many journals (including those that are exclusively e-zines), each with its unique flavour and focus.


These journals that I’ve listed above not only contribute to the national and international recognition of Australian literature but also foster a community of writers, and serve as incubators for literary talent.


If you are contemplating submitting to a journal read my “Six Rules for Getting Published in 2024” (  https://www.petemitchell.com.au/post/six-rules-for-getting-published-in-2024) and review the most current information on submissions by visiting the individual websites of the journals beforehand.

 

Literary Criticism

There really are a lot of writers out there. Make sure you give your work the best possible chance of publication by making sure it is in the best shape before you submit it. Edit and proofread it to an inch of its life before you submit. Get a critical beta reader to review it and then, be prepared for a delay.


It is not unheard of common to have a six-month delay after submission. Even publishers who offer a quick turnaround might be a couple of months. Some publishers also only take on submission at certain times of the year. Then prepare yourself for potential rejection. Just because you’ve poured your heart and soul into a work and it has been rejected doesn’t mean the end of the earth. For first-time authors, navigating the world of book reviews and feedback from literary critics can be both exciting and daunting. Understanding what to expect can help prepare you emotionally and professionally for the responses your work will generate. You should understand that there will be:


A Range of Opinions. Your work will likely receive a wide range of opinions, from glowing praise to critical feedback. Taste is subjective, and what resonates with one reader/publisher/critic may not with another. Prepare yourself for the diversity of reactions and try to maintain perspective on the varied tastes and preferences of readers and critics.

Zero Feedback. Don’t expect a publisher to provide you with anything other than a “thanks but no thanks”. Publishers are busy and they are not your writing coach. Some won’t even give a “thanks but no thanks – just a response effectively advising “if you haven’t heard from us in x months were not interested.” Personally, I think that is pretty poor, but that’s the reality.

Constructive Critics. If you are lucky enough to get a reviewer to provide criticism, take it as being constructive (even if it’s not). This means they may point out both strengths and weaknesses in your work. Such feedback, though it may be hard to hear, can be invaluable for your growth as a writer. It offers insights into how your writing is perceived and areas where you might improve. Don’t argue the toss if you get feedback. Not all criticism is created equal. With time, you'll learn to discern which feedback to take to heart and which to let go. Feedback that offers specific insights into your writing is often more valuable than vague or purely subjective opinions. Look for patterns in the feedback—if multiple readers are pointing out the same issue, it's a sign that area might need attention.

Public Feedback. If you do get into print you might receive public reviews posted on platforms like Amazon, Goodreads, and social media. Rember it is one person’s opinion, and it is better to see this as an opportunity than a threat. The silence after submission can be loud. Sometimes, the lack of feedback can be as disconcerting as negative reviews. New authors often face the challenge of getting noticed in a crowded market.

The emotional impact of receiving reviews can be significant. It's natural to feel vulnerable when your work is subject to public scrutiny. Celebrate the positive reviews and try not to take negative feedback personally. Instead, view it as part of the process of becoming a better writer.


Image: Old school literature with a fountain pen and a pewter mug of rum (Source AI generated)


Stay Focused on Your Goals and reflect on why you wrote your book and who you wrote it for. Keeping your audience and goals in mind can help you navigate the feedback you receive. Build a ‘support network’ by connecting with other writers, particularly those who've been through a similar the publication journey. They can offer advice, support, and perspective.


Entering the world of published authors is a significant achievement. While the feedback from book reviews and literary critics is an important aspect of the journey, it's just one part of a broader, ongoing process of development and engagement with your readers and the literary community.

 

References:

 

1.       Worldwide book sales. https://wordsrated.com/global-book-sales-statistics, accessed 10/3/24.

 

The sixth and final blog on the DIY-MFA journey is on its way soon.

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