The economic and cultural value of the Australian book industry deserves more government support

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The Australian book industry has operated for more than a century. It has matured into a mid-level English language market, smaller than the US and UK markets, but of sufficient size to generate first-rate books and export significant works to the rest of the world.

It is also an industry exposed to an unusual degree of risk at every level of the supply chain.

Authors take a risk in devoting years to writing a book which may or may not be accepted for publication. Even if an author is paid an advance, it is unlikely to reflect the length of time it takes to write the final manuscript, except in the rare case of a bestselling author.

Publishers take a risk in paying advances and publishing books that may or may not generate significant sales. Books are unlike most other retail goods, in that trade publishers often accept returns (or negotiate mark-down allowances) for unsold books.

Booksellers take a risk in choosing which titles to stock and promote from the thousands of new books published each year. Independent bookstores in Australia play a particularly important role in “hand-selling” Australian books and new Australian authors through personal recommendations by staff.

Despite the riskiness, the longevity of the Australian book industry suggests that it can continue its success – with the appropriate policy settings.

Read more: 'The entire industry is based on hunches': is Australian publishing an art, a science or a gamble?

Direct and indirect benefits

The book industry makes a significant contribution to the Australian economy. It has a market size of $1.7 billion and sustains around a thousand businesses. Book publishers employ 3,650 people. When you add in booksellers, authors and freelance editors, the number grows even more.

The largest profits in trade publishing come from bestselling titles, but these constitute a very small proportion of books published. There are many more “mid-list” titles and a long tail of books which sell in very low numbers per annum.

The industry is also a significant exporter. A study by Macquarie University released in 2021 found that Australian books are read globally. International rights sales provide significant revenue to the local industry. Rights sales also play an important role in international literary exchange, enhancing Australia’s reputation overseas.

There are significant indirect economic benefits generated by the book industry. For example, books frequently provide the raw material for successful film and television adaptations. And authors who gain training and experience in the industry can apply their skills in other industries. A recent survey showed that 60% of writers use their artistic skill in an industry outside the arts.

Non-economic benefits

The book industry is essential to the wellbeing of Australian society and the health of Australian culture. Among its most important contributions are its social and cultural benefits. Books provide entertainment, education, imagination, inspiration and solace.

Our national survey found that readers and non-readers alike recognise and value the contribution Australian books make to our cultural life.

In 2017, our research team surveyed a representative sample of over 3,000 Australians to ask them how they value books and book publishing. The results of this survey provide a clear indication of the importance of the book industry to Australian society and culture. The research found the vast majority of Australians believe books have a value greater than their monetary cost.

The majority of Australians acknowledge the cultural impact of Australian books:

  • 71% think it is important for Australian children to read Australian books

  • 61% think the Australian book industry is part of Australian culture

  • 63% say books written by Indigenous Australians are important for Australian culture.

Respondents were asked how important they thought it was that books written by Australian authors be published in Australia. A majority (60%) regarded this as important or extremely important. Just over half (54%) agreed or strongly agreed with the proposition there should be public funding specifically for Australian writing.

The survey found that 69% of respondents think Australian books help people understand themselves and the country in which they live.

Australian publishers are promoting increased opportunities for authors from diverse backgrounds, for example through a new Allen and Unwin imprint, Joan. The industry is also a strong supporter of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Read more: Australian writing and publishing faces 'grinding austerity' as funding continues to decline

Supporting the Australian book industry

The precarity of authors’ incomes has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Writers have experienced reduced cash flow from personal appearances, such as school visits and other paid activities.

The upward trajectory of international rights sales from 2008 to 2018 was arguably heralding a new era. That export growth was halted by the pandemic. It is unclear when the former level of success will be restored, or what the post-pandemic business settings will be.

Our research shows trade is usually only effective where an established relationship already exists. Maintaining those relationships is likely to be difficult without further industry support. Support in this area is vital for continued international success.

There are multiple avenues at all levels of government, from federal to local, to develop policies that will ensure the ongoing strength of the book industry.

Writers develop their skills over many years and often over a number of books. A sustainable ecology is needed for authors to maintain their professional practice. Funding support for innovative writers and publishers contributes to a diverse arts ecology – one that is able to renew and reinvent itself, rather than becoming stale and dated. Innovation may not be commercially successful in the short-term, but may enter the mainstream over time.

Read more: Friday essay: we are the voice – why we need more Indigenous editors

Initiatives to support First Nations authors and authors from diverse backgrounds over the long term are crucial. The international interest in diverse authors is substantial and requires a long-term commitment.

A recognition of the social and cultural value of Australian books provides a clear rationale for public support for writers.

This might be achieved through grants awarded via the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, support for writers’ centres and professional associations, and a continuation of the Public Lending Right and Educational Lending Right schemes.

Public Lending Right payments are payments to Australian authors whose works are held in significant numbers in public libraries. Educational Lending Right payments are made to Australian authors whose books are held in significant numbers in the libraries of schools, TAFEs and universities. One practical policy initiative would be to extend these payments to include digital borrowing.

It is the small independent publishers who are most at risk in these uncertain times. Small publishers have less capacity to invest large sums of money in promoting their titles. They see an important role for government in audience development for books and reading. Around four-fifths of our sample of publishers saw the reduction in government support for the promotion of books and reading in 2015 as a key constraint on their operations.

Many small publishers have a high proportion of Australian authors on their lists, so they are the most likely to have benefited from government support via the Australia Council. Any reduction in support from this source is likely to hit small publishers hardest.

Ever since it began, the Australian book industry has been dynamic, resourceful and productive. A key policy challenge for the future of the industry is to maintain this vitality, through well-placed financial and regulatory support from all levels of government. The skills and expertise of Australian writers and publishers need to be maintained so the sector can recover and regain its momentum after the pandemic.

This is an edited version of the authors’ submission to the proposed National Cultural Policy.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Paul Crosby, Macquarie University; David Throsby, Macquarie University, and Jan Zwar, Macquarie University.

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Paul Crosby receives funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

David Throsby receives funding from the Australian Research Council, the Australia Council for the Arts and the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

Jan Zwar receives funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.