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The Return of Print?: Contemporary Australian Publishing


Women, Akubras and Ereaders

Romance Fiction and Australian Publishing


Romance publishing in Australia is profitable and innovative, nationally distinctive and globally connected—and strikingly understudied.1 Consider this example of a Queensland author who remains virtually unknown in broader Australian literary culture: in 2012, Kylie Scott submitted a post-apocalyptic zombie romance manuscript to Momentum, the digital-only imprint of Pan Macmillan Australia. Her debut novel, Flesh, was released by Momentum and was quickly followed by two sequels. Scott—who also published two titles in 2013 with American erotic romance publisher Ellora’s Cave—has said that she explored the option of working with an American digital publisher, but decided that Momentum was the ‘best fit’ for her first novel: ‘the very first Australian digital imprint—how could I resist?’ (Shapter). In July 2013, Momentum released Lick, the first novel in Scott’s four-book adult romance series, Stage Dive. It became a USA Today bestseller. As of August 2015, Lick had 4,110 reviews and 45,586 ratings (with an average rating of 4.18/5) on the reader-review site Goodreads. Print and ebook rights for the series were acquired by Macmillan Trade Group and, in August 2014, the third novel, Lead, reached number four on the New York Times ebook bestseller list. The story of Scott’s career to date illustrates not only the potential reach of popular romance publishing in Australia, but also the high level of innovation amongst the genre’s writers and publishers, who have entered the digital realm more readily than those from any other sector of Australian book culture.

This chapter describes the contemporary environment of romance publishing in Australia, and is interested in both the publishing careers of Australian romance writers and the ongoing development of Australian publishers of romance fiction. Our analysis suggests that while romance publishing in Australia in the twenty-first century is part of a massive international commercial and cultural enterprise, it retains important connections to a national culture and economy. Both the American and Australian romance writers’ associations may define romance through ‘the presence of two basic elements: a love-story that is central to the story, and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending’ (Romance Writers of Australia), but it would be a mistake to describe Australian romance as a subset or satellite of American romance. As the emergence of Australian rural romance as a distinctive and wildly popular subgenre shows, romance is not a homogenous form around the globe; its publishing contexts are also nationally inflected.

This chapter begins with an overview of profitability and digital adoption in romance publishing, before mapping some of the key players in its publishing ecology, beginning with the large multinationals and their Australian divisions. Case studies of both Harlequin and the rural romance subgenre (RuRo) illustrate the ways in which even multinational publishers can respond to national contexts. The chapter then considers contemporary developments in the publishing models of local independent romance publishers and Australian self-publishing romance authors. We argue that recent and ongoing changes to the conventions of romance publishing mark a new era in the specific history of this genre’s production, dissemination and consumption in Australia, while also reflecting and shaping larger movements in the publishing industry.

Profits, Digital Adoption and Romance Publishing

Romance fiction publishing comprises a significant share of the publishing industry, both in terms of volume of books published and sales figures. Globally, romance is the most profitable popular genre fiction and by a large margin (Regis, xi). In the United States, industry statistics from the Business of Consumer Book Publishing indicate that in 2012 the romance genre represented 16.7% of the US book publishing market and generated $1.438 billion in sales (Romance Writers of America). Olivia Tapper shows that, even in light of romance’s history of market dominance, ‘its commercial performance in recent years has been remarkable’ (249). Her analysis of publishing output and profit data leads her to conclude that romance is ‘not merely surviving but flourishing’ in a ‘publishing sector experiencing what may be its most significant transitional period since the era of Gutenberg’ (250). While comparable figures for Australia are difficult to source, the profitability of the genre in Australia is evidenced in a number of ways: erotic romance’s recent domination of Australian bestseller charts following the global success of Fifty Shades of Grey; a seemingly unquenchable appetite for RuRo; and the international successes of Australian historical romance authors such as Stephanie Laurens, Anne Gracie and Anna Campbell. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the rate of publication for Australian romance novels as recorded by the Australian Literature Database (AustLit)—the most reliable and accurate source for data about Australian fiction publishing—has almost tripled, from 110 titles published in 2000 to 351 published in 2013.2 These figures are a telling indication of the growing significance of Australian romance fiction in commercial terms.

In the twentieth century, romance fiction in Australia and elsewhere was often identified with the subscription-based publishing model of Mills & Boon and Harlequin. Many Australian romance writers were published overseas, either in foreign rights deals after first Australian publication or in first publication internationally, usually in the United States. In the twenty-first century, however, the conventional routes for Australian romance authors have been transformed; romance fiction is now published through an increasingly diverse range of channels, and it is at the forefront of digital participation and technological development. While all sectors of the industry, including literary publishing, have embraced digital formats to some extent, romance publishing has been particularly innovative. As the director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, Lisa Dempster, observed: ‘We know romance is one of the biggest growing genres and that’s because they were one of the first genres to move to digital, and the audience went with them and is quite savvy about how they buy and read their books’ (qtd. in Harford). Tapper offers three reasons for the relative health of romance in a volatile industry: diversification of content through support for multiple subgenres and hybrid genres; publishers’ cultivation of online channels for reader feedback and engagement; and early adoption of ebook technology. She writes that the brand Harlequin has become ‘virtually synonymous with e-book innovation’ (257).

The highest sales for ebooks come from genre fiction, suggesting that ebooks are a replacement for mass-market paperbacks for many readers. The signs of romance fiction’s uptake amongst ebook readers began emerging around 2012. In that year, Mills & Boon UK reported a ‘surge’ in ebook sales and were already releasing 100 ebooks to every 60 printed in paperback (Oliver and Flyn). Ebook sales of romance fiction in the United States proportionally doubled between the first quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012, from 22% to 44% of all romance titles sold (Romance Writers of America). Across the whole publishing industry, Nielsen Bookscan data from 2014 shows that while literary fiction accounted for only six per cent of fiction ebook sales, romance accounted for 24% (Nowell). These figures represent a five per cent increase in the genre’s share of fiction ebook sales since 2010 (Nowell). In 2014, Nielsen’s Book and Consumer Survey found that just under 40% of new romance books purchased were ebooks, while only 32% were paperbacks (Nielsen).

The 2014 survey conducted by the Australian Romance Readers Association suggests that the preferred format for reading romance in Australia is now the ebook. Among the Australian romance reading community, print book sales have declined from 68.8% in 2009 to 26.7% in 2014, alongside a corresponding rise of ebook sales from 10.2% in 2009 to 58.9% in 2014 (Australian Romance Readers Association). The survey found that ebooks overtook print books as the preferred format for the first time in 2013. While a large proportion of these are likely to be digital versions of traditionally published books, it is significant that two digital-first (which, in practice, often means digital-only) romance imprints of existing publishers were established in 2012—Penguin Australia’s Destiny and Harlequin Australia’s Escape—potentially accounting for the larger number of ebooks sold in subsequent years. As sales of ebooks increase, publishers of romance fiction face the challenge of ensuring their profitability given the lower average price point of ebooks compared to print books. This has been a particularly acute issue for large, multinational publishers, and their Australian imprints and divisions, who have been forced to adapt their publishing models for romance fiction.

Multinational Publishers and Romance Fiction in Australia

Most romance fiction is published by large multinational publishers, which operate through a range of imprints (in many cases, these imprints bear the names of formerly independent presses). The apparent diversity of the long list of names in the following paragraph is belied by a history of acquisitions that has led to a remarkable consolidation of romance fiction publishing in the hands of US and European media conglomerates.

HarperCollins purchased Harlequin in 2014, becoming the biggest romance publisher in the world. Harlequin is discussed in more detail below, but it is worth noting here that HarperCollins also acquired the romance imprint Avon in 2010, which was originally founded in 1941 by the American News Corporation, and has other romance lines including William Morrow, Zondervan (Christian romance) and Eos (science fiction/fantasy/romance). While HarperCollins leads the field in romance publishing, Penguin Random House remains the largest publishing company in the world. It owns NAL (New American Library), a mass-market publishing group which includes the romance imprint Signet, as well as the Berkley Publishing Group, which includes romance imprints Jove, Berkley, Berkley Heat/Sensation, Berkley Jam, and Amy Einhorn Books. Penguin Random House also owns Ballantine, which combined with Bantam Dell in 2010 and now incorporates the imprints Ivy, Delacorte (YA), Dell, and Bantam Press. Penguin Random House’s division Cornerstone Publishing includes the imprints Century and Arrow, which publish some romance. Similar maps of imprints and acquisitions can be sketched for Hachette Livre, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster.

These multinational publishers are acutely aware of the need to adapt to a changing digital publishing landscape, and the success of romance fiction titles in ebook sales means that romance publishing is an area where publishers experiment with digital initiatives. The current romance publishing activities of large multinational publishers are thus embedded in complex organisational structures and are at the cutting-edge of technological development. Avon’s imprint Impulse publishes original ebook romance fiction at the rate of two per week; Avon’s profits increased by 72% in 2012, mostly due to ebook sales (Publishers Weekly, ‘HarperCollins’). In 2013, Macmillan children’s imprint Feiwel and Friends launched Swoon Reads, a crowdsourced teen romance imprint and online community where highly rated manuscripts are reviewed by editors from Macmillan. In 2014, Bantam’s revived Loveswept imprint partnered with the online writing site Wattpad to debut a new novel, encouraging readers to interact with the author and help choose the cover—Bantam Books is owned by Penguin Random House. An Australian example of a digital-only imprint owned by Penguin is Destiny, which had published 53 romance titles as of October 2014, all by Australian authors (Fairhall).

As this overview of the romance publishing activities of the major multinational publishers shows, stakeholders in Australian romance are participants in an immense and complicated commercial and cultural world. To tease out the connections between these international structures and national publishing contexts, the next section offers a brief case study of one particular publisher, Harlequin, focusing on its activities in the Australian market and its transformation in the twenty-first century.

Harlequin: The World’s Most Iconic Romance Publisher and Australia

Harlequin, which wholly owns its erstwhile competitor Mills & Boon, is the largest romance publisher in the world, releasing more than 1,320 titles each year in 34 languages across 110 international markets (Harlequin). Harlequin is well known for its series or ‘category’ romances, shorter books that are released each month in lines such as Harlequin Blaze and Harlequin Medical Romance. Harlequin also publishes single romance titles and digital-only lines. Harlequin publishes romance across a range of formats and sells these through multiple channels, including retail outlets, mail order and e-commerce. In 2014, it made over fifteen thousand titles available through the subscription service Scribd (Paul)—although many of these have since been removed by Scribd, with one industry professional suggesting that ‘Scribd’s business model, as it’s set up now, simply can’t sustain the high readership of romance readers’ (Coker).

Like other large publishers, Harlequin’s digital sales are increasing. In 2013, 24.1% of its global sales were digital (Milliot, ‘Harlequin in 2013’), compared with 20.7% in 2012 (Milliot, ‘Harlequin in 2012’), 15.5% in 2011 and 7.7% in 2010 (Milliot, ‘Earnings Dip at Harlequin’). However, Harlequin’s overall net profits have declined every year for the past four years (Milliot). This suggests that the transition to increased digital publishing has had some impact on Harlequin’s profitability.

Harlequin published its first book by an Australian author in 1955, set up an office in Australia in 1974, and only hired its first Australian Commissioning Editor in 2006 (Vivanco). Its most recent Australian initiative is Harlequin Escape, a digital imprint based in Australia which published 178 titles in its first two years, 142 of which are by Australian authors (Cuthbert). Escape’s titles sit in a wide variety of subgenres, bearing out managing editor Kate Cuthbert’s assertion that the imprint caters to a variety of tastes: ‘We publish anything from 5000 to 250 000 words, any genre, subgenre, crossgenre, or new genre, as long as it’s romance, and we’re actively seeking stories that haven’t been able to find a home in print: that is, riskier titles, niche titles, experimental titles’ (Litte, ‘Interview’). The publisher’s tagline—‘A Novel Approach’—also relates to Escape’s demonstrably different publication model. With only two in-house staff for 178 titles, and a turnaround of just ‘three months from acceptance to publication’ (Litte, ‘Interview’), there is clearly neither time nor resources for the editorial workflow of conventional publishing models.

The most successful Harlequin Escape author has been Jennie Jones, whose rural romance title was so successful in digital form that it was re-released as a print book and went on to sell a further 10,000+ copies (Jones)—a bestseller by Australian standards, where successful authors often only sell 5,000 to 7,000 copies (Northover). Eighty per cent of Harlequin Escape’s digital sales are through the US Amazon store (Cuthbert), meaning that the initiative is implicated in global economics. At the same time, it maintains a local focus. Escape’s publicity material clearly identifies the publisher as Australian, explicitly addressing an Australian readership through author profiles and a focus on romances with Australian settings and characters. This is most obvious in Escape’s description of its RuRo line: ‘From sleepy small towns to the red dust of the outback, these stories bring you to the heart of Australia, and the communities that thrive on love of the land’ (Escape Publishing).

The Case of RuRo: Australian-Made Romance

Although multinational publishers are enmeshed in global economic structures, they are still sometimes able to respond to and produce locally inflected work—and even to export it. This is evident in the short history of one of the most prominent subgenres of Australian romance fiction in the twenty-first century, the ‘RuRo’ or rural romance. These novels are set in regional and rural locations, where the love story unfolds amidst the concerns of the agricultural and small-town experience, specifically focalised through a female viewpoint. As well as romantic love, some key themes repeat in these novels. One of these is a woman’s ability to own and manage a farm, especially in contravention of her father’s opinion (for example, The Family Farm by Fiona Palmer 2009 and Jillaroo by Rachael Treasure 2002). Equally important are family secrets, especially surrounding paternity (Absolution Creek by Nicole Alexander 2013; Ryders Ridge by Charlotte Nash 2013). Many of the novels deal with city girls coming or returning to the country in order to redeem or improve themselves (Eliza’s Gift by Rachael Herron 2011; Charlotte’s Creek by Therese Creed 2014). RuRo works also often feature fatal or permanently disabling accidents related to rural or regional life (Red Dust by Fleur McDonald 2009) and richly detailed descriptions of landscape. What is evident in many of these tropes is the rootedness of the stories in the Australian rural experience. Using the names of local landmarks and features, flora and fauna, the authors ground their novels in place, using the lived experiences of rural life to create narrative interest and build characterisation.

The jackets in this subgenre are of an almost uniform design featuring women in country wear, especially Akubra hats, in front of landscape images. Consistent jacket design points to one of the ways in which the publishing industry operates, where a significant success in the market can lead publishers to acquire and present books to what it perceives are existing audiences. Ground zero for this subgenre is widely acknowledged to be the 2002 publication of Rachael Treasure’s Jillaroo (Thurtell; Murray; Wright). Treasure has since amassed ‘sales of more than 289,000 for her four books’ (Northover). Treasure’s success is certainly at the root of Australian publishers’ active acquisition of similarly themed novels. Louise Thurtell, publisher at Allen & Unwin, confirms that Treasure’s high sales and her ‘clear appeal to a cross-section of readers were part of the reason [she] wanted to publish rural fiction’ (Thurtell). The subgenre’s sales tripled between 2008 and 2012 (Northover).

What is distinctive in the case of RuRo is that the text being replicated was not an international sensation that spawned Australian copies (for example, the erotic novels of Indigo Bloome and Natasha Walker in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey’s enormous popularity), but a locally bred genre grounded in the real lives of Australian rural women writers: a significant number of RuRo authors are also working farmers, including Rachael Treasure, Fleur McDonald, Nicole Alexander, Fiona McCallum, Mandy Magro and Margareta Osborn. Love stories set in the Australian outback are considered a hard sell in the US market (Brooke; Crompton; SB Sarah) but RuRo has begun to show some export potential, with a number of authors recording international sales. RuRo authors who have recently been published in the United States include Rachael Johns, Charlotte Nash, Fleur McDonald, Fiona Palmer and Jennie Jones; Rachael Treasure has sold more than one hundred and fifty thousand copies in Germany and the United Kingdom (Wright). Germany has proved to be a solid market for RuRo, perhaps because of the existing category of ‘Australienroman’ (a term used on and by some publishers), which caters to an interest in Australiana. However, the chief market for RuRo is Australia itself. RuRo is a highly visible expression of Australian romance’s local and international impact.

Small, Independent Romance Publishers

The launch of Harlequin Escape and the Australian publishing industry’s whirlwind affair with RuRo testify both to local investment in the genre and to the responsiveness of multinational publishers to national market conditions, but the dynamism of romance publishing is perhaps best represented by small-scale independent publishing. Independent publishers have long been part of the romance fiction publishing ecology in Australia and overseas, with long-term players including Kensington Publishing Corporation and Scholastic. This is an area of the publishing industry that experiences a great deal of change, with small publishers sold to larger companies and new start-ups emerging on a regular basis. It is difficult to map all of these small publishers, but a few examples illustrate some of the ways contemporary independent publishing interacts with romance fiction.

A number of the newest independent romance publishers focus exclusively on digital publishing. Internationally, one of the most prominent romance ebook publishers is Ellora’s Cave, founded by Tina Engler in 2000 as a website selling her unpublished romantic erotica manuscripts in digital format. This very early digital publishing initiative involved payment through PayPal, and distribution of romance fiction as PDFs via email. Ellora’s Cave was incorporated in 2002, and now distributes its ebooks through online and print-on-demand retailers as well as its own website. It currently lists around four thousand digital titles by 800 authors, and releases between eight and ten titles each week in four different series: Romantica, Blush, Exotika and EC for Men. In 2012, Ellora’s Cave estimated that they sold two hundred thousand books per month and, in 2013, the company grossed $15 million (Pilon).

The model established by Ellora’s Cave has been replicated and modified for Australian publishing. In Australia, the newly established Steam eReads is ‘a boutique Australian online publishing house specialising in romantic fiction’ (Steam eReads). Publishing ‘all genres of romance on a steam scale from 1 (sweet) to 5 (scorching!)’, Steam claim to offer ‘something for everyone’ (Steam eReads). Its first title was launched in May 2013 at the Australian Romance Readers Convention in Brisbane. Other new Australian independent romance publishers include Pantera Press, founded in 2010 in Sydney, and Clan Destine Press, which publishes crime and romance, specialising particularly in the romantic thriller.

The crossover between independent publishing and self-publishing is highlighted in the case of Tule, a publisher founded by US romance novelist Jane Porter in 2013. Its list of 29 authors includes nine Australians, including Marion Lennox, Sarah Mayberry and Carol Marinelli. Tule’s publicity material emphasises that its writers each have an ‘established fan base’, and the site presents as something of an author collective (Tule Publishing). This independent digital publisher brings together the international networks of romance publishing, building affinities between distinctive national publishing trends: one of its first imprints was the RuRo-esque Montana Born line.

Self-Publishing Romance from Australia

The publishing models of Ellora’s Cave and Tule gesture towards the new opportunities open to romance authors in the area of self-publishing. Self-publishing, sometimes described as indie publishing, is the most significant structural innovation in the current romance publishing industry and an increasing number of romance writers have embraced this route to market in recent years. A growing industry of web-based companies facilitates the process of self-publishing, including Smashwords, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, and Author Solutions Inc., which was acquired by Penguin in 2013 and has partnership agreements with other publishers including Harlequin’s (now defunct) DellArte Press.

Industry interest in self-publishing has been galvanised by a number of high profile bestsellers, many of which are romance fiction. Erika Leonard (E.L. James) wrote an early version of her novel Fifty Shades of Grey as fan fiction based on Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series. It was published online in instalments as Master of the Universe in 2009. A small Australian company, The Writer’s Coffee Shop, published the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy as ebooks and print-on-demand in 2011, selling around two hundred and fifty thousand copies (Quill). James then secured a contract with Random House in the United States, and the first trade paperback was released in June 2012. The trilogy has sold more than one hundred million copies worldwide (Flood).

Australian authors have also been interested in exploring the possibilities of digital self-publishing. In May 2014, HarperCollins signed a three-book contract with Perth romance author Lili St. Germain after she sold nearly a quarter of a million copies of her self-published romance series, Gypsy Brothers, on Amazon Kindle in only five months (Books+Publishing). Anna Valdinger, commercial fiction publisher for HarperCollins Australia, described St. Germain as ‘a highly successful and proactive author’, but anticipated that joining the list of an established traditional publishing house would expand her audience internationally in print and digital markets (Books+Publishing). Similarly, Melbourne author C. S. Pacat began as a writer of an online fiction serial. After self-publishing her serial as a book, she was approached by a New York agent and sold the series to Penguin US in a three book deal (Pacat).

Self-publishing is not just for debut authors, however. A number of established Australian romance authors have become self-publishers, releasing backlist and new titles as ebooks through websites such as Smashwords and Amazon. Successful Harlequin novelist Sarah Mayberry obtained the publisher’s permission before releasing her first self-published title in 2012, Her Best Worst Mistake, which features characters that first appeared for Harlequin in her novel Hot Island Nights (2010). She explains her decision to self-publish after writing over twenty novels for Harlequin as the consequence of a ‘revolutionary shift’ in fiction publishing in the first decade of the twenty-first century, which ‘has opened up a world of possibilities’ for genre writers (Mayberry). Australian romance superstar Stephanie Laurens has been less public about the reasons behind her move to self-publishing in early 2014. According to Jane Litte, founder of romance review website Dear Author, Laurens ‘has struck an innovative deal’ to co-publish her novels with Harlequin, with Laurens releasing some titles as ebooks under her own banner while Harlequin continues to release print and ebook editions (Litte, ‘Harlequin’).

The appeal of self-publishing is the high degree of control it offers authors over their own work, including the typesetting, cover design and price point. Self-publishing also offers higher than average royalty rates: for example, authors earn 70% royalties on titles published with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. Self-publishing allows authors to publish much more quickly than traditional publishing, and can also be an effective way of reviving backlist titles that are out of print. As part of The Guardian newspaper’s self-publishing showcase, romance author Talli Roland commented: ‘I had a very satisfactory experience working with a traditional publisher for my first two novels, but with hardly any distribution in print and 99% of my sales in ebooks, it made more sense for me to pay a one-off fee to an editor and cover designer, and keep the remainder of the profits for myself ’ (Roland). Self-publishing can support publication in multiple formats and outlets, and can be used to release a variety of content including short stories and novellas.

Ultimately, though, high profile successes are the exception rather than the rule. Stephanie Laurens may well see success in her self-publishing venture, because she is able to leverage an already large audience, but many other self-published authors do not earn large sums. Self-publishing holds a number of challenges to authors: self-published authors may need to source and pay for services such as copyediting, typesetting and design; and they must also shoulder the entire responsibility for marketing, which can be time-consuming and laborious. The trend for successful self-published authors to subsequently enter contracts with major publishing houses suggests that traditional publishers still offer considerable advantages in the publishing industry, including editorial expertise, access to distribution channels, networks for selling foreign translation or adaptation rights, and the marketing value of their reputation. The self-publishing of romance fiction, then, does not necessarily occur outside the traditional publishing system, but becomes part of a complex web of national and international publishing structures.


Romance fiction is the highest selling genre in the publishing industry, with a proactive community of writers and readers. Romance publishing leads the industry in innovation, and is also a striking exemplar of negotiations between national and international markets and cultures. Our chapter has offered both an overview of romance fiction publishing in Australia—its entanglements with global economic structures and its pockets of independence—as well as more in-depth case studies of publishing moments with particular significance for Australia in the twenty-first century: the evolution of Harlequin, and the emergence of rural romance.

Romance fiction publishing in Australia is embedded in a globalised industry dominated by multinational publishers, whose growth includes the purchase of formerly independent publishers and innovations with digital-only imprints. At the same time, the low cost and ease of digital publication has opened up new opportunities for small publishers and for authors who want to self-publish romance fiction. In the current publishing environment, Australian romance fiction can find multiple routes to market, from serial publication on an online forum, to self-publication digitally or as print-on-demand, to publication by an independent or large multinational publisher. These channels can be combined to create hybrid publishing trajectories for Australian romance authors and a diverse, rapidly developing Australian romance publishing sector.

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1The romance publishing sector changes rapidly. All information in this chapter was accurate as of 27 August 2015, however there have been several significant industry developments since that time. The chapter should be read as a snapshot of the Australian romance publishing as of mid-2015.

2These figures were calculated by conducting an Advanced Search on AustLit for all novels and novellas classified as ‘romance’ (excluding children’s fiction) for every year from 2000 to 2013. AustLit is ‘the definitive virtual research environment and information resource for Australian literary, print, and narrative culture’ (

The Return of Print?: Contemporary Australian Publishing

   by Aaron Mannion and Emmett Stinson