On International Women’s Day in 2011, a group of Australian writers and editors appeared at a literary fair and spoke about their frustration with the male-dominated book industry. The following month, when Miles Franklin’s shortlist was released with only male authors, these women decided it wasn’t enough to talk about the gender disparity they were seeing – they had to do something.
A decade later, the Stella Prize, whose title uses Miles Franklin’s first name, has become a heavyweight in Australian literature. Open to fiction and non-fiction since its first prize was awarded in 2013 – and since its expansion to include non-binary identification authors and, starting this year, single-author poetry collections – the Stella is now having a profound effect on the Australian literary landscape.
“It wasn’t just an award on women writers, it was actually an award that sells books,” Louise Sherwin-Stark, CEO of Hachette Australia, told Guardian Australia. “It effectively linked these books to readers. From a publisher’s perspective, the Stella has become more and more important to us.
Jane Palfreyman, editor at Allen & Unwin, agrees. “The Stella and the Miles Franklin are the two awards that turn books into bestsellers, and the Stella did that in its first year, so it’s a huge achievement,” she says.
Stark and Palfreyman’s comments are supported by data provided to Guardian Australia by Nielsen BookScan Australia. Among the nine Stella Prize winners since its inception, an average volume sales increase of 875% was recorded the week the winner was announced compared to the previous week. For The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text Publishing) by Claire Wright, which won the Stella in 2014, sales increased by over 1,800% in one week.
Compared to other winners, Charlotte Wood was already selling an average of four times as many copies of her 2015 book, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin), in the week leading up to her victory. In the week of the announcement, sales were up another 235%. To date, the book has sold over 51,000 copies, more than 10 times Wood’s previous bestseller. Her 2019 follow-up novel The Weekend (Allen & Unwin) has sold 58,000 copies to date.
Palfreyman believes that the success of the Stella Prize has also had a ripple effect on other literary prizes.
“The whole price landscape has opened up completely since the start of the Stella,” she says. “Until 2011, 39 men had won the Miles Franklin and 11 women. And after 2011, two men won it and nine women. It’s a fantastic example of what an award like Stella can do to encourage other awards to think about fairness, how they judge their prices.
Cate Blake, editor at Pan Macmillan Australia, says that although the Stella Prize is the most publicized aspect of the organization’s work, it has also carried out other activities which have contributed to greater diversity in Australian literature. over the past decade.
“Stella goes to schools, they work on things like Stella Count, which takes into account the diversity of book reviews and newspaper coverage. Stella has set herself a mission and I would say they are achieving it.
Palfreyman says the Stella Count has been a driving force in persuading literary editors to review more books written by women and commission more female critics.
An ongoing study by Vida, a US-based organization created to advocate for women in literature, found that although women buy two-thirds of the books, reviews in US and UK journals and newspapers fall short. still mostly focus on male authors and reviewers.
The London Review of Books, for example, had 527 male authors and reviewers in 2014, compared to just 151 female.
In Australia, the statistics are less gloomy. When the first Stella Count was published in 2012, 40% of all reviews surveyed were for books written by women. In 2018, a survey of 12 national, metropolitan and regional publications, print and online, found that the figure had risen to 49%.
The Stella Count 2018 also found that eight of those 12 posts had more reviews by women than by men.
The 2019 and 2020 data are expected to be released later this year and will be the first tally to assess the effect of Covid-19 on the problem.
Natalie Kon-yu, one of the Stella counters and senior lecturer in Creative Writing, Literature and Gender Studies at Victoria University, told Guardian Australia that she would be surprised if the numbers had changed significantly since A 2015 Macquarie University study found that 65.2% of literary fiction writers and 76.2% of genre fiction writers were women.
“Australian women have been well represented for quite some time – they just weren’t well represented in the award culture or the culture of critics,” Kon-yu said. “What Stella has done really well is raise the profile of women and non-binary writers and publicize their work.”
According to Nielsen data, 40% of Australian writers in the Top 50 Best Selling Adult Fiction in 2011 were male and 60% female.
In 2020, 31% of sales by volume were made by male authors and 69% by female authors.
The most profound change Kon-yu says he has observed in the Australian publishing industry over the past decade is the heightened awareness of writers of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
However, this has yet to translate into adequate representation of people of color and First Nations writers in the literary award culture, she said.
“Our whole system, the way we rate literature, is outdated,” she says. “We come from an English canonical idea of literary fiction which is narrow… and I don’t think there can be so many entries [in literary awards] by writers from different cultures and languages or by First Nations writers, because there are [by] white writers.
“When I was part of the VPLA jury [Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards] price of unpublished manuscripts, I was avidly seeking the work of various writers and it just wasn’t there… and it broke my heart.