Regional Australia is home to one of the world’s most successful writers.
She wrote more than 80 books in three decades, landing on New York Timesthe bestseller list 40 times and has outsold Australian literary icons such as Tim Winton, Melina Marchetta and Richard Flanagan.
But despite her success, most Australians haven’t heard of Stephanie Lawrence.
The romance writer is one of many high-profile authors who have turned their backs on Australian publishers because they don’t support her work.
“(They) never published genre fiction, especially romance. And unfortunately not much has changed,” Lawrence tells AAP.
The local publishing landscape is dominated by trade houses that focus on contemporary or literary fiction: books that are often character-driven, serious and contemplative.
But these novels are not the most popular. A survey of Australian readers in 2021 found that their favorite genre is crime and mystery, followed by science fiction and fantasy, then contemporary and literary fiction.
The Australian literary landscape focuses disproportionately on the latter because it “prioritises literary fiction as ‘best'”, says Pantera Press editorial director Kate Cuthbert.
Turning to America
Melbourne-based author Shelly Parker-Chan has introduced a fantasy novel She who became the sun to an American agent, wanting – in part – to make sure the job was taken seriously.
In Australia, romance, science fiction and fantasy are mostly relegated to the lists of publications for young adults. To be included in the Australian adult section, works must intersect with more literary genres such as historical or contemporary fiction.
Joe Mackay, head of HarperCollins subsidiary HQ Books, says fantasy has not been published locally because the market is saturated.
“Readers can’t read everything, retailers can no longer sell large print runs and are choosing to sell smaller print runs,” she says.
“Publishers can no longer bear the cost of publishing a book, and we’re seeing a shift until the pendulum swings.”
A veteran of the publishing industry, Cuthbert says this is why many genre authors are appearing abroad.
“There are also readers going there looking for these books because they won’t see them on bookshelves in Australia.”
According to Parker-Chan, the fiction genre has been popularized worldwide by the US-led movement of diverse authors exploring different perspectives.
“Science fiction and fantasy are now places where marginalized imaginations can roam.
“It’s a place where queer people, people who are ‘other’ in some way, who aren’t white, for example, can write stories where they see themselves however they like.”
Parker-Chan’s manuscript follows these trends and has been picked up by American sci-fi fantasy publisher Tor.
While Australian sales were treading water, She who became the sun raced off the shelves internationally.
It led Sunday Times bestseller list and won awards for LGBTQI fantasy and literature.
Global recognition that is ignored at home
It was also the first novel by an Australian to be nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, placing Parker-Chan alongside such celebrated writers as George RR Martin and Neil Gaiman.
Asked about the book’s popularity, Parker-Chan says the science fiction genre “creates new worlds we want to live in, full of possibilities and joy.”
“We need to get rid of the idea that all serious fiction has to be really dark.”
There are some Australian publishers who produce domestic genre fiction. Micro-publishers such as Clan Destine specialize in genres, and Mackay says HarperCollins publishes rural romance, crime and historical fiction.
But these publishers produce only a few books each year.
This is because the Australian landscape – booksellers, bookshelves and book prices – is built around the paperback trade: a book format with thicker, larger pages.
It’s expensive and takes longer to print, so publishers have to make safe choices about the stories they tell.
In other markets, presses can print smaller, faster, and cheaper books that are more suited to voracious fiction readers.
Cuthbert says changing the Australian system “will take work and risk, and publishing and literary institutions are very risk-averse”.
But for Lauren, even international publishers limited her success. Their 12-18 month turnaround was too slow for Lawrence, who writes two to three books a year from her home in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges.
She wasn’t even allowed to choose book covers. Instead, they were dictated by a manager from Walmart because the American retail giant was her biggest customer.
“I had to satisfy this man’s idea of what attracts women,” she says.
Transition to self-publishing
Most Australian novelists, including Laurence and award-winner Anna Campbell, have since moved on to self-publishing.
“Publishers have been helpful in helping you reach an audience, but if you have an audience that doesn’t read from the publishers, the publishers don’t control any of that,” Lawrence says.
While Australian readers and writers have learned to look overseas, Cuthbert says that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Parker-Chan, Lawrence and Campbell interact with their overseas audiences through social media. Science fiction and fantasy have found a vibrant home on BookTok and Twitter, while romance thrives in Facebook groups.
But Parker-Chan says the Australian literary sector would benefit from celebrating and celebrating the international success of genre authors.
“It would be nice if writing centres, creative writing courses and grantmakers opened up to the possibilities of genre fiction as a really useful place to develop our consciousness as Australians,” she says.