All hole and no plot: fixing Australia’s literary sector

If you could do one thing to ‘fix’ Australia’s literary sector, what would it be?

When recently asked to recommend a high-impact, culture-shifting initiative, I found myself flummoxed. More funding? More support? More, um, of the above?

A career spent advocating for increased investment in the arts had left me surprisingly ill-equipped to prescribe a miracle cure. But in such an under-resourced sector, it’s hard to know where to begin. Does a single investment, initiative or idea even exist to take us to happy-ever-after?

Low receivers

Australia’s vibrant and complex literary culture has a massive cast of characters. Far from being a simple, binary relationship between writers and their readers, the sector is a broad collaboration between editors, manuscript assessors and sensitivity readers, illustrators and designers, publications and publishers, agents, funders, peak bodies, service and training orgs, education institutions, writers’ groups, book clubs, booksellers, libraries, residencies, events, festivals, podcasts, publicity platforms, competitions, prizes, awards and more.

Between us, we’ve made reading the most common way that Australians engage with the arts. Nearly nine out of ten Australians are regular readers, making reading a more popular pastime than watching TV or going online. Participation in literary activities is growing faster than in either visual arts or music and the number of Australian writers continues to grow.

And yet, those writers and the literary professionals that support them are amongst the sector’s lowest income earners and funding recipients.

Federal arts funding has been cut in each of the last six years. At just under 3%, literature receives the smallest piece of this pie – a figure that has more than halved over the past two decades. But the entire arts sector has felt the impact of these funding cuts, as well as the increase in competition for the funds and opportunities that remain.

Successful authors can aspire to earn an average of around $13,000/year from our creative work (or just under $5,000/year for poets). As a result, only 20% of us are able to write full-time, and only 5% earn Australia’s average income.

Writers are one-person businesses. The small and precarious income we receive from writing can include article fees (often less than $200 per piece) or – for the lucky few – publishing advances (often no more than $5,000), festival appearances (usually around $250), royalties (which are often negligible and can take years to acquire), grants, prizes, fellowships or awards. Even well-known writers are often asked to work for free or ‘exposure’. And all this without sick leave, superannuation or security. No wonder we’re more to make a living through teaching, corporate writing or non-writing-related day jobs. Our fellow literary professionals are similarly underpaid. And members of marginalised groups are likely to be further disadvantaged within this already challenging environment.

High achievers

In spite of this grim context, Australia’s arts, cultural and creative industries contributed $111.7 billion to the economy in 2016–17, on an investment of around $2.6 billion. That’s more than half that of the mining industry (which contributed $148 billion in 2017–18), on less than 10% of its $29 billion subsidy. The sector employs more people than the mining industry, too.

In 2017, more than 4,200 Australian publishing entities published nearly 29,000 new titles and sold 55.5 million physical books worth A$1.07 billion (net of ebook and audio book sales). Many of these are children’s books, personal development books or crime fiction, though rural romance (aka ‘chook lit’) is another one of the sector’s secret success stories.

Less than 1% of those publishing entities are considered major trade publishers, with fewer than thirty of them releasing more than one hundred titles a year. Many of them receive grants or subsidies from the Australian Government, in spite of being commercial, for-profit businesses.

At the other end of the scale, more than 85% of publishing entities are small publishers – usually one-person businesses that release between one and five titles a year (often exclusively their own work). The rise in the quality of self-publishing services has finally made taking a DIY-approach a viable (and even profitable) option for some writers.

Quantity + quantity ≠ enough

Digging into the detail of our literary nation turns up more than six hundred organisations and 1,100 initiatives that exist to support Australia’s literary sector.

This includes more than two hundred literary awards, ranging in size from life-changing cash prizes to those that offer their winners recognition, bragging rights or just certificates of appreciation.

The biggest awards are run by state, territory and federal governments (which are open to writers across Australia). Of these, the Victorian Prize for Literature – the major prize of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards – is the largest literary prize in the country at $125,000 (or around $90,000 after tax, bringing it almost on par with the $80,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards – the country’s only tax-free literary prize).

There are an increasing number of awards for unpublished manuscripts, though the Dorothy Hewitt Award run by UWA Publishing is currently in limbo following the University of Western Australia’s recent announcement that it intends to close the press in its current form. The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award also caused controversy earlier this year when it chose not to award a winner at all.

Unsurprisingly, location is key for most of these opportunities –Melbourne being arguably the best-served city for Australian literature (a fact recognised by its designation as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008). The further writers are away from Melbourne (or similarly well-served areas of Sydney), the less likely they are to have access to literary opportunities or infrastructure. Australia’s network of regional literary festivals and online opportunities such as the Digital Writers’ Festival are vital for the twenty per cent of writers based in regional areas.

Location is also important in terms of creative and professional development. While there are any number of education and training opportunities available to aspiring writers and other literary professionals, the closure of many TAFE campuses and the cessation of several professional writing and editing qualifications have reduced access for many – particularly in the regions.

Short stories, fiction and poetry seem to be the best-served genre areas. But many of the initiatives that exist in these areas are small-scale, short-term and/or unsustainable. Being dependent on funding means they tend to come and go: some rising and disappearing, some merging or evolving, and some remaining whispers that never fully come into the world.

We may have quantity. We may even have quality. But that does mean we have enough. Simultaneously thriving and tenuous, Australia’s literary ecosystem is the ultimate alignment of ‘unmet need’ and ‘unfunded excellence’ – a term used by arts funders to highlight the increasing proportion of eligible and worthwhile initiatives they don’t have the resources to support.

In spite of significant investment across the country, the plot holes in this story are like so much Swiss cheese. We are all gaps and all excellence. We are all hole and no plot. If a single, ecosystem-shifting silver bullet remains hard to find, it’s not for want of the holes that such scattergun investment has left behind:

  • #PayTheWriters (and everybody else)

Writers (and writing) are made with time and money – usually a writer’s own.  Writers have to wait longer than other artists to make any money from their work. Not only do we have to self-fund our writing time, but also pay to enter many of the competitions or opportunities that could possibly support our careers – significantly privileging those in a position to afford such financial investment.

The sector’s fragmented peak bodies and lack of a single advocacy voice, our race-to-the-bottom ‘exposure economy’ and the reluctance of many publishers and publications to be transparent about what they pay, has meant that campaigns calling to #PayTheWriters have gained little ground so far.

This is why the range of competitive fellowships that give writers time and space to write are just (if not more) important as awards for already-published (or already-written) books. However, these competitive processes can also privilege those with submission-writing skills, general-sector savviness or time, and can even be damaging – particularly for initiatives targeted at people who have traditionally been left out.

  • #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Literature is one of the most privileged and homogenous artforms in Australia – across all areas of culture, identity, accessibility and lived experience. Institutional bias can be seen across our publishers, publications and literary organisations, as well as in who they publish.

Addressing the discrepancies between men and women writers has been a key focus of the sector over the past decade, though the dialogue around diverse writing in Australia is only just starting to embrace a broader definition of diversity.

We are, however, finally seeing an increased passion and appetite for more diverse voices, as well as for Australian stories that depict the authentic, lived experiences of people from marginalised and under-represented groups.

  • #WeNeedDiverseEditorsToo

Australian editors and literary sector leaders also remain persistently monocultural. The trend in publishing more diverse Australian voices and stories has outpaced the growth and development of editors, publishers and sensitivity readers with similar (or comparable) experiences. This can be seen in manuscripts being rushed into print without adequate support, or in writers being subjected to culturally insensitive (and damaging) editorial processes.

  • Address inconsistent opportunities across writing stages and genres

With many opportunities focused on emerging writers (in their first five years of practice) or established writers (those more likely to receive literary prizes and awards), a gap has emerged for the mid-listers – those with one or two published books who aren’t yet household names.

Established writers face challenges from reduced investment in marketing and promotion, as well as dramatic changes to the publishing landscape. Before UWA’s shocking announcement, 2019 saw most of the Melbourne University Press board step down after the university announced its decision to produce only academic books.

Having been de-prioritised by arts funding agencies, many Australian literary journals have moved online or closed altogether, with Overland and Island the latest to announce their loss of federal or state funding. With most journals dependent on a combination of arts funding, subscriptions or volunteer labour to survive, pay rates for writers are low (though still better than many commercial publications) and editorial staff routinely work for low or no return.

Recent changes to service organisation funding have also created gaps for emerging writers, who are likely to have less access to subsidised creative and professional development in addition to fewer publication opportunities.

Inconsistent opportunities also exist across writing styles and genres, with translation, playwriting and arts criticism currently at the poorly-served end of the list.

  • Understand Australia’s isolation (and what we risk to address it)

Isolation is a key characteristic of Australia’s literary ecosystem: both our weakness and our strength. It informs extraordinary stories that can’t come from anywhere else in the world. But many of us don’t understand the quality or context of our work until we’re able to make an international comparison. And much of our nation’s unique, high-quality literature struggles to make inroads into international publishing markets.


The (in)visibility of the literary sector has been further diminished by the Federal Government’s removal of ‘arts’ from the newly renamed super department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

If an entire industry can be so easily devalued, what of its most poor(ly funded) cousin? As Australia grieves from a Summer that’s already left scars, how will we support those who’ll record this moment, who will fight against the propaganda, and try to find the words to help us heal?

Like the sector itself, the answer is multi-faceted, plural and complex. Investment in our stories – all of our stories – is vital. Let’s make sure we’re not left with a blank page.


Photo by Eli Francis, Unsplash

Kate Larsen

Kate Larsen is an arts, cultural and non-profit consultant with more than twenty years’ experience in the non-profit, government and arts sectors in Australia, Asia and the UK. She is on Twitter as @KateLarsenKeys.

More by Kate Larsen ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Probably needless to say, however, reading is not simply a book placed pursuit (readings of and in the world are too multiple to list), just as plot is narrative rather than story, as Aristotle well knew, and as for awards and funding, both have nothing to do with writing per se, so the less said the better.

  2. What with arrival of Armageddon, I’m not sure dwelling on the woes of angsty essayists and would-be storytellers is a particularly productive use of time, but I do have to question the citing of numbers like “Nearly nine out of ten Australians are regular readers.”

    Like the infamous “28 years of uninterrupted annual economic growth” it’s one of those airy-fairy statements of marketing guff that bears no relation to daily lived reality.

    Hell, I’m not even sure 90% of the population were regular readers during the early 20th Century when the reading of short stories was supposedly at its peak (due to lack of competition in the form of TV and the internet).

    (Obviously I understand why such glorifying statements are perpetuated, but it also means there can be few complaints when — surprise, surprise — it turns out the booming stock market was really founded on nothing but the same old BIG SHORT cross-conniving and bullshit bubble-blowing).

    In terms of the creative sector, a more realistic sounding statistic I heard recently is that only one in fifty Americans has ever seen a play (including a child’s school performance).

    Methinks the Australian percentage would likely be even lower knowing our nation’s notorious detesting of creative types.

    Sure, wordsmiths and bibliophiles WOULD LOVE IT if 90% of Australians were regular readers of material beyond some idiotic celebrity tweet or forwarded splutter of fake news, but alas, desperately WANTING it to be true doesn’t make it so.

    Leave the delusional thinking to economists.

    Because if the real situation is ever going to be altered, it will have to begin with an honest assessment of what the industry is up against, what targets are realistically achievable, and whether the established metrics for determining the “popular value” of creative output are even that relevant.

  3. I suppose this is what happens when an arts manager writes a fix-it program for Australian literature: a document that could just as well been headed: To All Staff.

    Australian literature is exactly where one would expect it to be under capitalism, in an occupied country. In a situation such as this, it is worth asking what value literature has anyway? And whose purposes it serves? There is too much in this enraging piece to comment on here, and it seems to make little sense anyway in a landscape which is on fire thanks to two centuries of colonial devastation. But the statement “Australia’s network of regional literary festivals and online opportunities such as the Digital Writers’ Festival are vital for the twenty per cent of writers based in regional areas” is ludicrous, not mention insulting. Regional lit festivals do zip for the creation of vital literature for writers, and are very much part of the problem. The infrastructure – such as it is – doesn’t even work for urban-based writers, never mind rural and remote. All this piece tells me is that there is a chasm
    of gigantic proportions between arts managers and people who write, and between Australian literature as it currently exists,and what is actually going down in this benighted,burned place where psychopathy has become a national virtue.

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