Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s favourite genres

A week or so ago I received an email from an organisation called Studying in Switzerland. Their main focus, as their name suggests, is helping students who want to study in Switzerland, but it seems that they also do some research of their own. A recent project was to identify the most popular book genres – in countries where data was available. 

Their methodology was to analyse Google search queries on genres from different countries, and the results are intriguing. I haven’t found much discussion of their analysis to know how others view the effectiveness of the methodology. Does it match up with borrowing or book-buying data? Or, is what we read different to what we research?

Study in Switzerland says that:

Books continue to be a significant part of our lives, with reading being a popular pastime for many people. Indeed, a typical person reads 12 to 13 novels each year, and how people choose what to read has long piqued the curiosity of researchers. As a result, book publishing has a huge market size worldwide, with revenue reaching $112.5 billion in 2022.

Anyhow, here is what came up for Australia – they identified that Australians search most for Adventure and Classics! Is this what you would have guessed? If I’d been asked, I would have thought Crime. Indeed, I probably would have said “Crime, hands down”. And, of course, as I questioned, what is searched may be different from what is actually read.

We are not the only country interested in Classics. This genre was also popular in Sweden, Hong Kong, USA, UK, Ireland and New Zealand.

Worldwide, they say, Romance, Classics and Poetry are the most searched for genres but, drilling down, there are some interesting preferences. Asians and Canadians, for example, had Poetry first, while overall Europeans (like the Russians, Poles and Finns) go for Fantasy, although some of them (like the French and Spanish) searched more or Romance! Not surprisingly, Belgians, the Dutch and the Norwegians seemed to prefer Crime and Thrillers.

Study in Switzerland makes some assumptions about the reasons for the various preferences they found. Those assumptions make some sense, but they are not based, I believe, on this research.

For their report, please check out this link.

Meanwhile …

There is other research to look at. Back in 2017, a survey conducted by the Australia Council and Macquarie University of Australians’ reading habits, found something closer to what I expected, which is that

The most popular fiction genre is crime/mystery/thriller, with 49% of Australians having read a book of that genre in the last 12 months … followed by historical fiction on 36%, contemporary/general fiction on 33%, science fiction/fantasy on 32%, and classics on 31%.

However, they also found that just over half (51%) of Australians were interested in “literary fiction”, which they described as fiction “eligible for prizes like the Man Booker and Miles Franklin”. They also found that it’s generally older readers who are most interested in this fiction. Interestingly, they found that these “older readers also tend to be more interested in work by Australian authors”.

I did report on this survey back in 2017, and posed some questions at the end. Some of these might have been answered by …

A report on bookselling published by ArtsHub in 2019 which confirmed Australians’ interest in “home-grown authors”. They found “a 30% jump in local authors featured in the top 25 fiction titles” over the previous two years. Further, bookseller and Book Club coordinator, Jennifer Stephens at Brisbane’s Avid Reader Bookshop, Brisbane, reported that “we are reading a lot of Australian women writers”. (Music to my ears, of course.)

Overall, this report, which drew on two years of Nielsen BookScan data, concluded:

Australian readers’ priorities and interests are evident: self-help and finance, a taste for home-grown writers, an eye for feminist writing, curiosity about sexuality and gender, a fascination with crime and mystery, and a deep need for First Nations perspectives.

I wonder if things have changed much since then, particularly given the pandemic? Either way, it’s interesting to ponder whether there is a significant difference between what we search for online and what we actually buy, or, whether, Study in Switzerland has identified a big swing in our interests over the pandemic?

Any thoughts?

50 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s favourite genres

  1. As you say there is nothing in the report to explain the methodology or the time frame of their research so it’s hard to know how accurate this is. I’m not surprised to find so many countries reading crime – the only surprise is that it supposedly is not the most popular genre in the UK. judging by the books people donate to second hand shops and charity stores here, crime is really big

    • Thanks Karen. Yes the Crime one interests me too re here. It makes you wonder about the methodology. Is it simply that there is not a strong correlation between what people search and what they buy to read? You would think there would be but maybe not.

  2. Yes – like BookerTalk I’m surprised that crime isn’t the main genre in the UK! I wonder about how they classified genre? After all, “literary fiction” can be of many genres, and there are a lot of cross-genre novels – it would be interesting if they’d written about their methods in more detail to know about that type of thing.

    • Yes, Lou, I’d have liked more detail in the methodology. In Study for Switzerland my assumption is that they didn’t define the genres but used the search terms people used. They might have had to concatenate synonymous terms eg some people use “mystery”. Did they include those under Crime or count them separately? If the latter that might have split the count and account for the fact that Crime did not appear as high as it might?

      • I also wonder if, in the UK at least, people borrow crime from the library based on whatever’s available, but look up and buy specific classics? It’s the genre (other than romance) that my local library has in greatest abundance, and I imagine a lot of readers just pick up a new crime novel every week, and don’t bother googling about it.

  3. I wonder if the search results are skewed by school students searching for the books they are studying? Which might inflate the figures for classics… Also, interesting that the ArtsHub report says there is a “deep need for First Nations’ perspectives.” Is that need reflected in sales? Asking for a friend, lol.

    • Yup, that’s exactly what I was thinking…
      I already know that this year Patrick White’s The Burnt Ones is on a reading list somewhere this year, because there was a massive surge in my stats for that page, (over 1400 in one day) and it was no surprise to find that title in the search terms listed. And there are all the other usual favourites (classics, and First Nations perspectives) which burst into my stats at the start of the academic year and again when exams start and papers are due.
      Nobody needs to ‘search for’ crime novels. They are impressively marketed, and we have to push them out of the way in the bookshops. They get word-of-mouth recommendations and they’re on prominent display at the library.
      A flawed study IMO…

      • All good points Lisa, but as I replied to Michelle, why is this not the case in all countries? They say Classics rate high in English-speaking countries. Don’t, say, French students also study classics? They have an impressive literary history. I don’t think we are meant to take the study as more than indicative of interests … at least, that’s how I’m reading it, and as an opportunity to thing and discuss reading habits a bit more!

        I’m glad The burnt ones is on reading list/s. They are a good intro to our Patrick!

        Good point though about crime novels being well marketed so you don’t need to search for them!

        • I can’t answer your question about non-English speaking countries but I would say that there isn’t the same availability of reviews and articles in other languages, possibly not even in French, despite all the Francophone countries around the world. Emma could perhaps tell us?

        • I think Study in Switzerland feels that it’s not just reviews people look for but, lists, say, of books they might want to read next? It would be interesting though as you say to have Emma’s perspective. I might ask her if she doesn’t reply here. She may not think from the title that this post will be relevant to her.

    • Yes, that’s a good point Michelle, that there would be an element of school students. The only question, then is, why is this not the case in all countries? They say Classics rate high in English-speaking countries. Don’t, say, French students also study classics?

      The article on ArtsHub said that First Nations writers were selling well – like, then, Dark emu and Terra Nullius – but I don’t know how anecdotal that is, ie from one or two booksellers?

  4. Hi Sue, I think the survey by Australia Council and Macquarie University were pretty spot on with their conclusions. Crime does rule the world! Crime/mystery/thriller is very popular with my friends, though not mine. And, most of us seek out Australian novels to read, and it is an unwritten law in my book club that we have to read a classic in the year. I think, if someone was analyzing my googling, they would get the wrong impression in what I read.

    • Ha Meg, I like that comment about analysis of your Googling giving the wrong impression. What impression do you think they’d get? (Don’t answer is you don’t want to.)

  5. ” just over half (51%) of Australians were interested in “literary fiction”, which they described as fiction “eligible for prizes like the Man Booker and Miles Franklin”. They also found that it’s generally older readers who are most interested in this fiction. Interestingly, they found that these “older readers also tend to be more interested in work by Australian authors”.”
    Very pleasing: many {…} Booker Prize-winners are among my favourites.

  6. Oh pooh ! – I forgot to say what was the more important thing. 😡
    It’s the CATEGORIES that cause misconceptions to arise, I reckon: they’re not specific enough.

    • I know the feeling, M-R. I do this a lot too when commenting on blogs.

      Yes, it would be interesting to know how they defined their categories, and how simple or complex their analysis was.

  7. Interesting and somewhat surprising. I guess if the starting point was ‘What genre do you prefer – crime, poetry, romance etc’ then I can understand the results – the ‘genres’ I prefer (contemporary literature and memoir) don’t rate a mention. And who knew there were so many poetry readers in the world…?!

    • Thanks Kate. I suppose there were searches on those “genres” but they just weren’t the top one or two in any countries. And yes, poetry really surprised me – which probably says something about Australians?

  8. You never hear about U.S. bloggers reading the books of their own country because so many books come from the U.S. to begin with. However, every once in a while my brain remembers that by reading locally I could choose novels from my state. A book by a Louisiana author set in that state will be incredibly different from one Hawaii or Alaska or Maine. When I do read a local author, I feel like that writer KNOWS me.

    I wonder why older Australian readers are more concerned with local writers.

    • Melanie, it has always interested me that you very really categorise what you read/review by state. Yet another of our friends, Emma/Book Around the Corner who is from France, has a special love of detective (and fishing) novels from the states on the inland slopes of the Rockies.

      • I know of Emma but not much about her. While she does write some delightful blog posts, I could never get her to visit Grab the Lapels, and I’m looking for more of a back-and-forth relationship in blogging. We simply have a different goal in blogging, from what I gather. That is interesting that there are enough fishing novels set in the Rockies for it to have stuck in your mind!

        • I know what you mean. I am less assiduous about visiting bloggers who don’t visit me , but then there are some who visit me and I don’t visit them as often as I’d like. And I feel bad! Time!

        • I know I have blog friends who don’t read every single post, and that’s fine. It all depends, of course. But people have to visit SOME time for me to reciprocate!

        • Melanie, I didn’t mean you should follow her. I just find it interesting that there are regional differences throughout the US and you rarely comment on them. But then WG rarely comments on regional differences in Aust. – just a difference in approaches I guess.

        • Oh! No, I was just clarifying that I don’t know her well and why. Now that you mention regional differences in Australia, I just realized that I don’t know much about the different “flavor” of each states and territories in Australia. Is the western side drastically different from the eastern, and why — that sort of thing. I ended up doing some Googling and learned that Victorians love coffee and sports, that Western Australia “seems like another world,” South Australia is growing grapes and having a wine Renaissance, and that everyone must see the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, which opened in 2011. Oh, and you guys claim a large chunk of Antarctica??

        • Haha, Melanie , love all that. And most of it is true, but it does really amount to the same degree of regional differences that you have in the USA. Linguistic and food variations are far more minor here , and while we do have some state jealousies etc they are less powerful than , say, your North-South divide.

  9. Interesting point, Melanie re US bloggers. Makes sense to me. Even here there is a preponderance, I’d say, of American books in the bookshops.

    Good question re older Australians. I don’t exactly know, but my guess is an increasing awareness of the richness of Australian culture, and a desire to support and enjoy it. We’ve had a cultural cringe here for a long time, where we have thought our own culture – our own arts – aren’t as good as those of bigger countries. I think this is changing, and perhaps it’s particularly amongst the older Australians who grew up with that older attitude. But, really, I don’t know.

  10. I was in a charity shop today which advertised itself as specialising in books, but they were all crime and romance and I came out empty handed. Now I know why. Australians are a literary people who love Classics and hang on to them instead of reading them once and putting them back into circulation,

  11. Thank goodness someone has done a study like this, so I know where to move once I’ve finished reading all the poetry!

    As for the question that Bill raised about why people do and don’t include more specific regional information, I don’t think most people know what those regions are in Canada unless they live here. On an American podcast I listen to regularly, the hosts joked that they couldn’t remember if Ottawa was a province or a city. And I kinda get that (but not with two countries so close heheh). Just recently, I was looking at a globe I inherited from my mother; I’m fond of it but the borders have changed so much that I rarely consult it, but I was amused to see that it had all the provinces/districts in Australia labelled (or seemingly so) and also in North America but not in South America for instance. If even the makers of globes aren’t always troubled by detail, how are we supposed to know all these things? Heheh

    • I divide Australia into its component states and the states into regions because that’s the way I think about them. I sometimes wonder what my readers think about my detailed geography of Geraldton (pop.38,000) for instance. I am surprised that other reviewers don’t seem to think geographically at all (hence the howlers Jane Harper gets away with) with the exception of course of Naomi and her Atlantic coast.

      But others of our friends give me no sense of what it is like to live in Wales, or the south of France, or the US midwest. Or Canberra or Toronto.

      • Hmm … I think about regions in Australia a lot, because I love exploring it, and have lived and travelled in some variety – from (near) coastal country towns to inland ones, from coastal cities to inland ones – and I do write about place sometimes, but I don’t think regional variations are that huge in our literature, not like you get in the USA between north and south, or east and west. The accents and vocabulary, the foods, for a start can be very distinctive.

        I think most litbloggers are writing about the books they read rather than the places they live in? You write your journal posts, which are quite different.

        What would you expect from a Canberra litblogger who doesn’t get to read a lot of books set in Canberra?

    • Haha, love your opening line Marcie. I used to love globes too Marcie but as you say, they date too quickly. That globe-maker sounds rather “western” ethnocentric?

      I think that’s pretty hopeless for an American podcaster not to know “what” Ottawa is. I mean really … neighbours as you say.

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