Although it is roughly the same size as the U.S., Australia—the world's largest island or smallest continent—has a population of only around 20 million. Which means that you have to remember to multiply by about 15 when comparing Australian statistics with U.S. figures. And when you do that, Australian book sales stack up pretty well: last year the total value of the Australian retail book industry was around one billion U.S. dollars.

Books are sold in Australia through several local chains, the largest of which, Angus and Robertson, is now owned by WH Smith. Its roughly 170 stores are half company stores and half franchises. Its main competitor, Dymocks, is made up of 75 stores, all franchised. A couple of smaller chains, Collins and Book City, have been joined in recent years by Borders, which now has 10 stores in Australia.

Of the many independent bookshops across the country, 140 have combined under the Leading Edge Group to enjoy the sort of discounts that publishers give the chains. But chains and independents alike are under heavy pressure from the major department/variety stores (e.g., K mart, Target), which grab huge stocks of lead titles such as Harry Potter and sell them below cost to draw customers. Of course they carry no backlist, but many book chain stores don't carry much either.

Children's specialty bookshops come and go; there are currently around 15 across the country and an additional dozen educational suppliers that combine sales of children's trade titles with school text sales. In regular stores, children's titles are often still at the back of the store despite evidence of their significant contribution to sales.

The school library market is dominated by a unique operation known as Australian Standing Orders. For an annual subscription, they supply participating schools with selections of books eight or nine times each year. Books can be returned or replaced if the subscriber is unhappy with a particular selection, but a majority keep the books for their libraries. ASO's Ron McCarthy claims the service reaches 70% of the country's schools, so their selection process is clearly working.

Nielsen BookScan, which covers 85% of the Australian market, reports that children's sales make up 29.9% of the total market and 18.3% of consumer dollars spent. In 2003, 12,804,730 copies of children's books were sold, contributing A$180 million to the retail book industry. By no means did these books all originate locally—especially while Harry Potter mania is still raging—but there remains a very healthy children's publishing industry, comprising a mix of branches of U.S. and U.K. companies and a handful of independent local publishers, such as Koala Books and Five Mile Press.

Cutting Back

Asked to comment for this article, several of the larger publishers acknowledged that, although last Christmas produced exceptional sales, they are cutting back and focusing on the most successful parts of their lists. According to Eva Mills at Random House, that means fiction series for the 8-12 age range. Belinda Bolliger at Hodder, agrees: her humorous fantasy series Lily Quench has been enjoying excellent sales locally and was sold recently to Puffin in the U.S. Random and Hodder have both cut back on full-color picture books and young adult novels.

It's never been easy in Australia to publish an upmarket picture book without signing up a co-edition with a U.S. publisher—and it's getting harder. That provides a quandary for those eager to publish uniquely Australian books in terms of local issues, viewpoints or settings (there is, of course, little American interest in books focusing on, for example, indigenous Australia, cricket or the Australian outback).

Gone are the days that saw the launch of a picture book titled Possum Magic. The first book written by Australian author Mem Fox, illustrated by Julie Vivas, and published in March 1983 by the tiny new company, Omnibus Books, Possum Magic was the publishing phenomenon of its day. Its first print run sold out in weeks, and it was reprinted 10 times in the first 12 months—all for the Australian market.

In 2004, celebrations for Possum Magic's 21st birthday are being held all over the country. At the end of March, 1,000 children gathered in Adelaide for a huge Possum Magic picnic with lamingtons, pavlova and vegemite, all local delicacies referred to in the book. It's estimated that two million copies of Possum Magic, in its various editions, have been sold to date.

Not all Australian publishers are pulling back from the picture book market, however. Laura Harris at Penguin and Rosalind Price at Allen and Unwin are both excited about forthcoming lists, which include books in all categories. Price is very upbeat about Garth Nix's The Keys to the Kingdom series, but also about several new picture book projects, including a book by award-winning artist Greg Rogers, The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard, which she described as a wordless tour de force.

Gordon Jackson of Koala Books is convinced there is still a solid market for picture books, although he acknowledges that hardcover numbers have dropped. Some 80% of Koala's list is devoted to picture books, 40% of which originated in Australia. He believes it's time to rethink the style of illustration being used, given that children and their book-buying parents are exposed to so much animation on TV and the net, as well as in computer games.

New Kids on the Block

Relative newcomer Little Hare has grown rapidly in its four years of existence and, according to publisher David Francis, will soon need more staff. Its list is mostly illustrated books, dominated by novelty picture books for the very young. Kiss Kiss by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Bridget Strevens-Marzo, was picked up by S&S for the U.S. and was a bestseller at Barnes and Noble for Valentine's Day. Using international authors and artists, Francis is attempting to take maze and puzzle books to a new level of sophistication. With titles such as The AmazingJourney of Charles Darwin and Astounding Astromaze, these books may well have an audience beyond the eight- to 12-year-olds for whom they're intended.

Another newcomer to trade publishing has brought with her a few ideas from educational publishing. Several years ago illness forced Margaret Brownie to sell her successful educational packaging company. With that illness behind her, but contractually restrained from re-entering that field for the short term, Brownie started a trade imprint called Ibis. She'll publish her first list of 12 titles in May. All are for the three-to-six age range and are groups of picture storybooks, some with novelty features. But the really special feature is a Web site set up to help parents assist their children and turn the reading experience into a broader learning event.

It may seem strange to call Egmont a "new kid," but its Australian operation is just 12 months old. The decision to publish in Australia resulted from U.K. managing director Susanna McFarlane's decision to return to her homeland. The focus of her new list is nonfiction for the under-12s, with "boy interest" very much the emphasis. McFarlane's son's newfound enthusiasm for reading when he finally found some factual books that held his interest made her more aware of the shortage of good material for boys.

Reaching the International Market

Most writers are excited by the prospect of being published internationally, but for most Australian writers it is almost the only way to earn a real income. A small handful write enough books to live comfortably off earnings from the Australian market, but most have to rely on a "real job" to support themselves unless their work is published overseas and particularly in the U.S. Graeme Base and Mem Fox are a few of the Australian children's book authors who have been enjoying substantial U.S. success for quite some time.

More recently, Emily Rodda's Deltora Quest series, which has been an outstanding success in Australia (and internationally), has been published by Scholastic in the U.S., where a Web site was created to help promote it. Scholastic's Craig Walker is happy with initial sales of the first books in the series, and is finding that the titles are backlisting well. Meanwhile, Rodda's hardcover series Rowan of Rin, published in the U.S. by Greenwillow, has attracted some very positive reviews.

Two other Australian writers picked up by Scholastic U.S. are as different as the proverbial chalk and cheese, but both are selling very well. Walker believes Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series is "shaping up as one of the best things he's ever done." Meanwhile, Scholastic is about to launch a new book by Andy Griffiths, Zombie Butts from Uranus!, following the success of this author's The Day My Butt Went Psycho.

S&S is getting ready to launch another Australian author into the U.S. market. Brenda Bowen, until recently publisher of hardcover books at S&S Children's, started reading a copy of James Valentine's middle-grade novel JumpMan on her flight back from Bologna last year and found herself laughing out loud. After acquiring the book at a "spirited" auction, S&S brought Valentine over in early February to meet potential trade buyers. A June release is scheduled for what Bowen described as the best foreign novel by an unknown author she's seen since Harry Potter.

Countrywide Promotion Planned

The Australian publishing fraternity read with interest about the BBC initiative in England known as The Big Read, which did a good deal to promote books and reading throughout Britain. The Australian equivalent of the BBC, the national television/radio network known as the ABC, has been persuaded to launch a comparable promotion in October and November this year. A four-week television series, screened across the country and also covered by radio, the Internet and through bookshops, will invite Australians to help determine the top 100 books, then top 10, and finally their choice of the number one book of all time.

The field of choice will be wide open—across fiction and nonfiction, foreign and local writers, children's or adult titles. Mark Macleod, former children's publisher at Hodder/Headline, is project manager for this massive promotion, so it's fairly certain that children's titles will not be kept "at the back of the shop." This is the kind of reality TV that booksellers and publishers will be more than happy to support.