Sydney Writers’ Festival 2001

Though most of us can name a few Australian authors — Tim Winton, Robert Hughes, David Malouf, Colleen McCullough, Shirley Hazzard, and Thomas Keneally — the fact is we may not understand the greater context from which they have emerged. And judging from a week spent as a guest at the 2001 Sydney Writers’ Festival, the publishing culture of Australia is home to a significant degree of untapped writing talent and potential that we don’t know about. But most impressive is the fact that the country loves to read: There is a greater sell-through rate of books per capita in Australia than in either the US or Britain. What is surprising is that K-mart and not a bookseller is the nation’s #1 national account. While there are no wholesalers in such an enormous country, and only one “chain” of franchise stores, the balance of selling falls firmly in the hands of the nation’s numerous independent booksellers.

The festival kicked off on a suitably contentious note with the NSW literary awards dinner, where the State Premier advocated bypassing to protect the prevailing independence of Australian bookselling. If, of course, there had been an, then the issue would have been moot. While visiting authors and publishers went to work in earnest the next morning, a discussion on the latest sword of Damocles to hang over Australian publishing — parallel importation — continued behind closed doors: Local agents and mid-sized publishers prepared to explain yet again to the government why parallel importation caused a threat to the local publishing industry. When the Premier touched on the subject at the official opening cocktails later in the week, he met with booing from publishers. Negotiations did not seem to be going well.

The strong ties that bind Australia to Europe have been a hot-button political issue in recent years, and attendance at a panel to discuss how to take Australian fiction to Europe was at full capacity on a rainy morning. Members of the public may not have understood the relevant rights and translation issues, but clearly the need to be involved in the rest of the world, no matter how far away, is keenly felt. England, however, wasn’t even discussed as part of Europe, and it remains a frustrating fait accompli that most British publishers will not pick up rights to a novel from Australia when the Australian market is already tapped. That much the public also seemed to take for granted. Interesting, on the other hand, that American publishers are able to separate rights out between the UK and Australia in the case of nonfiction.

After a few days with appointments Frankfurt-style (but even more brief: every 20 minutes), each of the seven international visitors had met with more than 95% of the Australian publishing community, some of whom flew in from as far off as Perth and Adelaide to convey their passion, their smarts, and their fervor. As the week drew to a close, we realized the Australian literary scene may be far away but it keeps us in mind on a daily basis and puts us all somewhat to shame, particularly since its community of agents, publishers, and booksellers is so supportive of local authors and of each other. Most of us were tempted to stay, as have many other publishing types over the years. If the nation’s vibrant literary life isn’t enough of a draw, consider this: a few Australians even hold their publishing lunches on Bondi Beach.

This article was contributed by Rebecca Strong, senior editor at Harmony Books.