What Australian publishers want

by | Dec 1, 2012 | Blog, Popular, Publishing | 109 comments

I’ve just returned from a too-brief trip to Sydney where, in addition to catching up with family, a couple of old friends and a few clients, I enjoyed a number of meetings with publishers from the major trade publishing houses based there.*

Would you like to know what I learned from these meetings about the state of Australian publishing? Read on as I attempt to summarize the main points.

The general mood
I’d have to say it was a mixed bag. Everyone seemed relieved to be at the tail end of a difficult year, but some publishers had enjoyed less difficult years than others. Ebooks and all things digital seem to have settled in publishers’ minds as both a reality of the business and a real opportunity, with some publishers willing actively to experiment with new models (such as Macmillan’s digital-only imprint Momentum). Rather than being some kind of comet shooting uncontrollably across the publishing sky, “e” has become part of the ongoing challenge for all publishers to find readers and to sell books to them. Sales of fiction generally did not meet publishers’ expectations, let alone their hopes, in 2012.

What publishers are looking for

  • In a word, nonfiction! Please. The truth: nonfiction sells more books, and publishers want to keep their jobs. Stories of “tree-change” and aspects of relationships that haven’t been done to death seem particularly welcome.
  • They want intelligent commercial fiction for women that has a darker edge to it. What does that mean? Great story-telling that takes on social issues without moralising or speechifying, which doesn’t necessarily tie up every strand of plot in a pretty bow, and which may or may  not include an element of suspense. Take a look at the two best-selling examples of this genre from 2012: Hannah Richell’s Secrets of the Tides and Fiona Higgins’s The Mothers’ Group. (Needless to say I am thrilled to represent Fiona.)
  • Historical fiction seems to be having a moment at the moment.
  • They seem rather taken with “farm-lit”, aka the girl-meets-man-on-the-land or agri-romance. Or even the agri- sans romance, such as Mary Groves’s An Outback Life. This genre can work in fiction or nonfiction.
  • They still want memoir … IF it has a strong hook. Surprise recent hits of this nature include Cleo, about a cat who helped a grieving family; and The Happiest Refugee, Anh Do’s true tale of his Vietnamese family’s struggle to reach Australia and build a life here.
  • With the death of Bryce Courtenay, the door is wide open for a new teller of large-canvas Australian tales.

What that means for you as a writer

  • I suppose literary agents must sound like broken records, but I’ll say it again: it is really difficult to sell fiction. It has to be outstanding. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.
  • If you’re writing memoir, you need to frame your story in a surprising and fresh way. A story of overcoming trauma, in and of itself, is no longer enough.
  • If you have a subject you’re passionate about and an existing/growing platform of some kind (blog, radio spot, speaking circuit), you potentially have what it takes to publish a book on your subject.

What that means for me as an Australian literary agent considering your work

  • I have to be tough about what I choose to take on. I can only say yes to your manuscript if I think I can sell it. Agenting is a business, not a charity, just as publishing is. By definition I will have to say no to most manuscripts I consider.
  • I need to work with authors who are willing to do more work on their manuscripts. Almost every manuscript I see is at least one serious draft away from publishable standard, which is a lot further away than its author believes it to be. Having worked as an in-house editor, as a literary agent, and having been a published author myself, I know what I’m talking about. (In this area of life, at least …)
  • I want to hear from a journalist with a subject he or she is passionate about. I’d love to discuss possible book ideas with you.

Your thoughts?
So, what do you make of this list? Are you encouraged, infuriated, inspired, depressed? I really want to hear from my readers. I know you’re out there because of all the emails I get thanking me for the valuable material you find on this blog, but I’d love it if you would leave me a comment. Thanks!


  • I am disappointed that I could not extend my visit to spend a couple of days in Melbourne, where there is much fine publishing happening and several people I am keen to meet in person. (Let alone friends, restaurants, the fabulous Bennetts Lane jazz club … ) It’s always much better to chat face to face than via Skype or in chains of email, where one spends too much time trying to read between the lines.

** I will be opening my books again to new queries in January. Take the time to get a tough reader to give you honest feedback on your current draft – please.

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