What Drives Australia's Genre Publishing Boom? by Sean McMullen
I've been after Sean for a while to hook me up with a correspondent from "Down Under" to give SFRevu a look into the Australian publishing scene. In lieu of offering up a sacrificial countryman, he's given us this review of the AussieSF Scene. Few, if any, are more qualified for the job, as anyone who's heard Sean talk about the emergence of SF Down Under will testify. Sean is the only person I know who would use mathematical analysis of awards to make his case that far from the second class citizens that these writers once felt like, the Australian movement's output is sought after across the world.

Of course, it's hard to come by a better example of that than Sean's own work, which I discovered with The Centurion's Empire, and we've been happy to review his works here time and again. You might also find our 1999 Feature on Sean informative, as it includes an interview, and reviews of The Centurion's Empire and Souls in the Great Machine, which started the epic trilogy; Souls in the Great Machine, The Miocene Arrow, and Eyes of the Calculor, published just last year.

-- Ernest Lilley, SFRevu Editor


t is three years since a post-graduate course crowded out the regular report on Australian SF that I had been doing for Locus with Terry Dowling for most of the 90s. Back then, I predicted that the boom in Australian SF was not going to burst, and that it would become the new standard. Writing now, at the beginning of 2002, I can report that this is precisely what has happened. The market for books has expanded, short fiction's market has remained static but healthy, and the production of media SF in Australia has grown fastest of all.

With the current trend, it is probable that the number of Australian genre books will outnumber the number of genre stories by 2004.

First, the raw statistics. The number of books published in 1999 was 72, increasing to 84 in 2000, and increasing again to 91 in 2001. The number of stories published each year remained steady at around 100. With the current trend, it is probable that the number of Australian genre books will outnumber the number of genre stories by 2004. About one book in 8 has been published overseas, which is an increase on the early 1990s, but for short fiction the rate of overseas publication is less than a quarter of this (even after being boosted by a special Australian edition of Interzone in 1999). The actual number of Australian stories published overseas has never been great, so this represents stability rather than a decline. Besides, many of Australia's better authors recognize that the only place to make a career is in novels, and having become good enough for overseas magazines they then cut back on short fiction.

The breakdown of the statistics for novels is where the real surprises kick in. I surveyed the adult and substantial young adult novels according to genre and author gender, and discovered that a whopping three quarters of the total was fantasy, and of the fantasy just over two thirds was by female authors. Male authors wrote an equal number of SF and fantasy books, while SF novels by women accounted for just 4% of the total, and 14% of the total SF. Don't reach for the tar and feathers, folks, I'm just the messenger: the sexual stereotyping is all in the figures. Australia's SF boom is rather like a motorbike being swept along in the backwash of a truck, and that truck is being driven by female authors of fantasy novels.

Australia's SF is healthy but steady, while fantasy - mainly by women - dominates the market.

The vast majority of the books are published by large Australian companies, and many of the overseas titles are republications of Australian first editions. It is significant that in the early 1990s the genre publishing boom here was built on fantasy novels by male authors, and when Sara Douglass arrived on the scene in the mid-90s she was definitely an exception. Roughly speaking, the absolute number of fantasy books by Australian men each year has held its ground. In SF the statistics show a mixture of stability and slow growth. In the early 1990s works by female authors represented about 15% of the total for SF, and it is about the same today. The absolute numbers for SF show a slight increase on the boom of the early 1990s, but many of the male authors who started out in SF are now also writing fantasy. (including myself, although I am also doing a PhD in medieval fantasy literature and so can claim dual competence - just in case anyone accuses me of merely jumping onto the bandwagon). By contrast, virtually no local authors who started in fantasy have made forays into SF.

In short, Australia's SF is healthy but steady, while fantasy - mainly by women - dominates the market. The genre market is still expanding, but that expansion is in fantasy. Ten years ago I predicted that statistics like this were possible, and people laughed - literally - but in hindsight it does make sense. Statistically there are bound to be quite a lot of aspiring fantasy authors in a well educated, English speaking population of 19 million. American and British was very popular in Australia in the early '90s, after all. Once the local commercial firms displayed interest in local authors - as happened back then - a lot more people began to write. In terms of Australian settings in locally written fantasy there is not much to be seen. SF is far more amenable to the use of Australian history, geography and wildlife however, and one does see a heavier use of Australiana in Australian SF.

On the magazine front, the two major Australian SF and fantasy magazines still exist, although they are not published as regularly as a decade ago - and Aurealis has changed hands after a lengthy sale campaign. The Aurealis Awards have become quite important in Australian commercial publishing, and the annual announcement ceremony has become an important event in the Australian literary calendar. Newer magazines, such as Orb and Altair, have been on the scene for some years now, while the Internet is providing an alternative showcase for Australia's short genre fiction.

On awards, the biggest news of the past three years has been Greg Egan's Hugo for Oceanic at the Melbourne Worldcon in 1999. This was the first Hugo for fiction to be won by an Australian resident. It was followed in the same year when the anthology of Australian fantasy and SF, Dreaming Down Under, won the World Fantasy Award. Edited by Jack Dann and Janeen Webb, this book's strength was based on the overall quality of quite a large number of Australia's best genre authors, and it announced to the world that Australian fantasy was to be taken very seriously. Many more Australians have been serious contenders for overseas awards even though they have not won anything - yet. Back in Australia, the Aurealis and Ditmar awards have been dominated by authors whose first books were published in the 1990s, although a few authors and editors dating back three or more decades, such as Damien Broderick and Paul Collins, continue to be nominees and winners.

...alien fighters are occasionally spotted on Australian Air Force bases...

Media SF and fantasy is a more complex scene, and needs to be dealt with in a separate article. By way of introduction, the TV and movie studios along the Australian east coast are relatively cheap by US standards, while their staff are as good as those anywhere else in the world. Australia is politically stable, the locals speak English, the living is cheap and comfortable, and there is no tipping. Little wonder that overseas producers find the place attractive. Some genre movies are largely produced in Australia, using overseas money, stars and scripts. The Matrix and Pitch Black are a couple of more prominent examples of this. There is, however, a lot of 'invisible' work done in Australia as well, however, such as CGI and modeling for overseas productions with no other Australian connections (including Titanic - anyone like to guess which scene? Answer ). Television SF in Australia goes back a long way, and locally produced young adult shows have good prospects of being sold to a hundred or so other countries. Mockup alien fighters are occasionally spotted on Australian Air Force bases, and actors in fantasy and SF costumes no longer turn heads when they arrive for lunch in Port Melbourne cafes. Local television SF still tends to be for young adult audiences, examples being the recently completed Pig's Breakfast series by Shirrifs and Thompson, and the currently running Cybergirl by Jonathan Schiff, The Australian contribution to Farscape points to a trend toward involvement in adult series. 

Across the Tasman Sea, the scene in New Zealand looks healthy too. After a string of high profile shows over the past two decades, including The Quiet Earth, Hercules, and Xena, that country is the production site for the three Lord of the Rings movies.

The good news is that it is no longer possible to talk about Australia's SF and fantasy boom coming to an end. Basically there is too much money involved now, as well as quite a large market base. The raw statistics should continue to show increases in the numbers of books published and overall sales, and the next boom will probably be an increase in the number of Australians getting overseas awards and being Guests of Honor at overseas conventions. I will stick my neck out and predict that by 2010 Australia's genre publishing should be thought of as a slightly cut-down version of Britain's - established and accepted, rather than emerging. Back in 1989 I said that there was a lot of money to be made in Australian SF and fantasy if only the local commercial publishers would wake up to themselves. I seem to have got that one right.

-- Sean McMullen


About that Titanic Question: It was he rather harrowing scene rather well into the sinking, where the two principals are struggling through the corridors and water is pouring in all around them. Apparently the scene was shot with stunt doubles, because the insurance costs for the principals would have been unthinkably high, but there were several shots where you got quite good views of the characters' faces so the director had quite a serious problem. An Australian outfit was hired to do a graphics fix, to superimpose the principal's faces on those of the stunt doubles. Expensive though it was, it was cheaper than the insurance.

2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu