What a difference a decade or so makes. Not so long ago—2004, to be exact—journalist and author David Marr wrote that his main impression of judging that year’s Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, was “how very little good writing there is.” He noted that Australia’s already-small market for literary fiction was shrinking and that Australian outposts of multinational publishers were cutting back on fiction and ignoring unsolicited submissions.
No longer. Over the past couple of years, Australia has hatched a raft of authors whose work is selling around the globe. Hannah Kent, Liane Moriarty, Graeme Simsion, and, most recently, Jane Harper are now global exports. Harper’s debut, The Dry (Flatiron), which arrived in U.S. bookstores in January with a Reese Witherspoon movie option and glowing praise attached, has sold in 29 territories and has worldwide sales of more than 420,000 copies. (Sales in the U.S. are more than 26,000 copies to date, according to NPD BookScan.) Moriarty, of course, hit the bestseller lists in the U.S. with Big Little Lies, which has sold more than 565,000 copies in trade paperback since it was released two years ago and more than 260,000 copies this year, helped by the HBO miniseries adaptation.
“Australia has long had a large and talented pool of writers, and it’s only now the rest of the world is getting to discover them in large numbers,” said Fiona Inglis, managing director of Curtis Brown Australia, whose clients include Harper. “We currently have a thriving retail market, specifically in the independent sector, and lots of those booksellers have helped to build homegrown authors’ careers.”
New York agent Dan Lazar of Writers’ House concurs. He first went to Australia four years ago as a guest of the Visiting International Publishers program—organized by the Australia Arts Council to turn publishers, scouts, and agents on to local talent. He has since been back twice on his own dime and closed a number of sales for Australian authors in the U.S. and in some other countries. Through contacts with small publishers like Midnight Sun, he picked up Black Rock, White City by A.S. Patric. He found An Ordinary Epidemic by Amanda Hickie while browsing in a bookshop in the Crow’s Nest area of Sydney. Lazar went on to sell the latter to Little, Brown in a six-figure preempt. (It was published in the U.S. in March as Before This Is Over.)
As a nation, Australia has often seemed caught between the polarities of the Anglophone world, Britain and America each jostling for bandwidth and shelf space. This has left Australians frequently looking outward for entertainment. Nevertheless, the country has a long tradition of producing bestselling, and award-winning, fiction by authors such as Peter Carey (winner of two Booker Prizes), Bryce Courtenay, Richard Flanagan (winner of a Booker Prize), Di Morrisey, Christos Tsiolkas, and Markus Zusak.
Andrea Hanke, editor in chief at Books + Publishing, a leading Australian trade magazines about the publishing industry, believes recent media coverage of authors such as Harper and Kent “has helped to build a buzz around [the country’s] books, locally and internationally.” To a journalist suggesting a trend is afoot, though, she pointed out that “you can’t generalize about Australian fiction, and if you look at our recent international success stories each of the books is very different.”
Like Hanke, Alice Lutyens, one of Curtis Brown’s agents, sees what’s happening with Australia writers as less a trend than a happy coincidence. “We were fortunate to see a cluster of great writing emerge within a small time frame,” Lutyens said. She saw an opening chapter of The Dry and, she said, immediately wanted to read the finished novel. “What [sets Harper apart] is her writing. It’s so taut. It’s like a new violin string.” She also believes another factor is at play: competition driving buyers to care less about an author’s provenance and more about possibility. “All editors and agents want is a damn good book. It doesn’t matter where it comes from; it just needs to be good in this terrifyingly competitive market. I think the fact the author is Australian is, frankly, by the by.”
Lazar, who now represents some Australian authors directly, as well as selling their books on behalf of local publishers and agents, is clearly hooked. He is working hard to cultivate new contacts, and skipped this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair while planning another visit Down Under. He loves the humor and style of Australian fiction, though he allows there’s a vernacular which doesn’t travel, particularly when it comes to kids and YA. But the Outback, he believes, fascinates like the American West, and he feels there could be a wave of strong thrillers coming out of the country: “Psychological suspense in an Australian rural setting has a very special flavor—it’s the remoteness.”