Monday musings on Australian literature: The Miles Franklin Rights Project

Some months ago, I became aware of The Miles Franklin Rights Project, and of course, it piqued my interest, so I flagged it for a future Monday Musings. The project apparently commenced in early 2021, and is still continuing. Before I describe the project, though, I need to explain for non-Aussie readers here that the Miles Franklin Award, though no longer Australia’s most valuable award in monetary terms (albeit is still generous), is arguably our most prestigious literary award. It is also one of our oldest, having been first awarded in 1957. That first winner was Patrick White’s Voss.

So now, the project …

It is led by Dr Airlie Lawson, who is “a literary sociologist and cartographer, a Visiting Fellow at the ANU’s College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Postdoctoral Fellow on Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project (on which I posted earlier this year) at the University of Melbourne”. The project intrigues me because it asks some questions that are dear my heart. Here is how it is introduced on the AustLit website, which is funding the project:

Alexis Wright Carpentaria in Chinese
Chinese edition of Carpentaria

Over the last 21 years, the Miles Franklin Literary Award has been won by many acclaimed Australian novels including Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, Michelle de Krester’s Questions of Travel, Tara June Winch’s The Yield, Peter Temple’s Truth and Tim Winton’s Dirt Music. But which of these novels has been published internationally—where and in what languages? And shortlisted titles—have they had international success? Is there a discernable gender difference? Associations between publishers? What about change over time? How might we find out?

The site goes on to say that

Globally, publishers and agents report a strong association between literary awards and prizes in international interest in a novel and, subsequently, the licensing of the publishing rights internationally.

The problem is that there’s been little research into what impact awards and prizes have had on rights transactions. A prerequisite for such research, really, is “a comprehensive set of international editions” of Miles Franklin Award winners, but this has not been easy to find. Consequently, the aim of this project is “to create such a list—and to create an efficient, accurate international edition identification model that can be used for other AustLit projects”. They are focusing on the novels which won or were shortlisted for the award from 2000 to 2020. This list, which comprises 22 winners and 93 shortlisted titles, will provide, they hope, a basis from which the global impact and value of this award can be explored.

As you can imagine, it’s not easy tracking down the editions, but they are starting with two major international book databases: WorldCat (library-supplied data) and GoodReads (crowdsourced). As you would expect from an academic project, the information obtained from these databases, and elsewhere, is then checked against multiple sources, including authors, agents and publishers.

You can read about the project on the AustLit website. In fact, this website was my major source for this post, but I did find information about a paper given (via Zoom) by Airlie Lawson in May this year. The paper was titled “How Global is Australian Literature in the 21st century? A story of gender, genre and the international literary field”. The talks’ description says that the “paper draws primarily on data produced for the Conditions of Access (COA) project*, supplemented by data from the industry report Success Story (Crosby et al) and AustLit’s The Miles Franklin Rights Project. Specifically, it draws on data relating to what the COA project models as international rights ‘transactions’ for adult novels first published in print between 2000-2020″. The description also says this:

Analysis of this data reveals several rather different accounts of international access over a twenty-year period, but all have one element in comment: in contrast with the domestic field, they tell a positive story for women authors. 

Interesting, but not wholly surprising, because anecdotally-speaking, at least, my sense is that many of our women writers are finding their way to overseas readers. We are seeing it in posts by international bloggers, for a start. Presumably Lawson explored why this might be the case. The point she makes here is not comparing our women with our men authors overseas, but our women authors overseas versus them at home.

I also found a Q&A with Lawson. The first question concerned the inspiration for the project, and Lawson responded that

There’s been a lot of discussion in Australia about literary prizes in recent years—the cost of entering, the type of books more likely [to] win them, their proliferation—but there’s no question that a prize win can boost copy sales. I wanted to find out if there was a similar effect on international rights licensing.

Anecdotally, she said, Australian industry professionals claim some do have an influence, and her own research has supported this, but there’s no “reliable comprehensive data set of international editions” to enable this to be properly proved (or not). On why she chose the Miles Franklin Award as her basis, she said that

  • it is often described as Australia’s “most prestigious literary award”;
  • it’s long running (though they are starting with a 21-year period); and
  • it stipulates Australian content, so “examining the international publication records for works associated with it can tell us something about how Australian literary culture is valued internationally”.

As for who the research is for, it’s broad: it’s for other researchers (of course), students, readers, book clubs, and publishers.

Certainly, as a reader and book-club member, I am fascinated by the publishing environment within which authors work, and what can help them reach more readers. Moreover, as one who loves to read works from overseas writers, I am also keen to see overseas readers read our writers. Consequently, I love the idea of this project.

Does such research interest you – and why, if it does?

* The Conditions of Access project is another Airlie Lawson project. Its aim was, said the talk’s description, “to better understand, from a data-driven and conceptual perspective, where, when and why Australian novels have travelled in the early years of the twenty-first century”.

33 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: The Miles Franklin Rights Project

  1. Oh this is really interesting, thank you. It amazes me in this era of globalisation how splintered the book world is and how publishers don’t take advantage of print on demand. I would be happy to buy a slightly print-on-demandy version of an Aus or Can book here rather than not being able to get it / paying a fortune / having to have the Kindle version / having to have someone send it to me, for example.

  2. It do. For the obvious reason, I’m obliged to admit, ST: I want to know if the Award to my beloved Peter Temple paid off (as it were) ! 🙂

  3. I think it is likely that they will discover that award winners are more likely to be published overseas than similar works which did not win awards. But do the awards matter to overseas readers?
    The obverse of that question of course is do we buy overseas books because they are national prize winners? I don’t. I see Giller winners and so on discussed by our friends but I can’t say it inspires me to read them.

  4. I’ll predict one finding from this research project: there will be a drop-off during the pandemic year because our books couldn’t be promoted at the Frankfurt Book Fair. That’s where everybody goes to spruik their books and it’s a springboard for trading international rights.
    I find it frustrating that my international readership often expresses interest in books that are not available overseas and (who could blame them) they’re not willing or able to pay Australian prices plus postage.

    • Spare a thought for we crocheters (and knitters, I suppose) wanting to buy yarn from .. just about anywhere, Lisa: the shipping costs are jaw-dropping.

      • Oh, I know. We used to have a marvellous yarn shop not far from me, which stocked all the beautiful yarns that they make overseas from our fine merino wool. (Why don’t we manufacture them? You tell me, I’ve never understood it.)
        So then there was a lovely lady in my local shopping centre, and she had a good range and helped me with tricky knitting projects, The shop kept going until she was into her 80s, but then, I think forgetfulness became a problem and the day I had a farewell coffee with her and her daughter was a sad day.
        So now there’s only the big chains, stocking cheap, horrible yarn that pills and never knits up properly. And they keep changing the colours so that if you don’t buy enough, you can’t get what you need to finish your project. I have balls and balls of baby yarn in different colours because now I always buy too much, just in case.
        One good thing… there is a yarn social media site called Ravelry, a bit like Goodreads for yarns, and people request and share leftover quantities to finish off their projects. I got advice from them about how to finish off a shawl for my mother in her last days… it was supposed to have a crochet edging but I can’t crochet, I wish I could but my mother never taught me.

  5. I wonder if certain publishers are better than others at using the blogging world to get their authors out there, than others. I noticed during the week, that Text Publishing has got a proof copy of Robbie Arnott’s new book, Limberlost into the hands of Cathy @746 Books (or whoever is publishing it in the UK).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s