While, absent some actual figures on how an average (or even most) New Zealand fiction - as distinct from the top 10 - sell, Stephen can’t prove his point, the pithier point seemed to me to be: - as we probably all knew already, New Zealand fiction is a slight proportion of overall bookbuying (from these figures, 4% of New Zealand-published (see p 32) and so just under 1% of total book sales (see p 31)) - which does not, incidentally, compare well to the 25% share for fiction of all book sales (p 17); - of the top 10 (for the first half of 2011), 4 were also bestsellers for 2010 and at least 2 (Mr Pip and The 10pm question) were bestsellers in 2009; and -from these figures (see pp 30-32), there look to have been something like 25,000 NZ fiction sales in 24 weeks and (from p 35) something like 10,000 of those were of the top 10; so - it’s hard not to get the impression that not only is hardly anyone reading New Zealand fiction (and far fewer than are reading fiction generally), but even that number is substantially dependent on a small number of comparatively highly successful books that sell well and keeping selling and, in turn, on a still smaller number of highly successful authors; and so -it is quite possible that N&S are right in saying that most NZ books sell so few copies; and - it’s also quite possible that the broader N&S theme - that public funds are being spent on numbers of new books that almost no-one then reads - is correct too; and - and, perhaps reinforcing that point, New Zealand fiction marked a decline in sales against the previous year, even though overall book sales improved (p 32). It’s no embarrassment, Stephen, to take the position that these books should be funded because, even if unread (or unreadable), they are culturally crucial. But the suggestion that, well, somehow, most NZ fiction is selling even remotely well (as some sort of justification for that funding) just isn’t borne out. To be outsold by Stieg Larsson is unfortunate; to have the top ten fiction books almost outsold by Paul Henry’s bit of drivel (which didn’t even go on sale until part way through the period surveyed) indicates a profound and worsening disconnection between the authors/funders and so forth and anyone who actually stumps up their own cash to read the results.I can’t tell if Max has read the North & South article to which all my posts on this have been a response. It makes a difference if a) he/she did and accepts its arguments, or b) he/she didn’t and is just going by my account of it. In what follows I’m assuming b).
1. “absent some actual figures on how an average (or even most) New Zealand fiction - as distinct from the top 10 – sell”
a. An average is the least informative of statistics. Even if it were useful it would be impossible to get. It would be the total number of novels published divided by number of copies sold. There are many fiction titles self-published or printed through (can’t remember the polite term) a vanity press, and these probably sell in the dozens at most – but no one knows because they are not stocked by the major chains so they don’t show up in the Nielsen stats. They are invisible. In short, we cannot know the average.
b. The top 10 and the PDF I linked to give all the “actual figures” that those of us outside the book trade have data for, so this all we can talk about.
2. “so it is quite possible that N&S are right in saying that most NZ books sell so few copies”
a. No it isn’t. Certainly some books sell so few – but alarm bells go off at the publisher’s if they do and authors get dumped. Sales at this level may be normal for author-funded publishing but that’s not what N&S was on about.
b. The claim that “most” sell 300 copies is unsupported by any evidence other than second-hand gossip. Which, call me old-fashioned, isn’t evidence. It wasn’t when I was a journalist and I don’t believe that standards have fallen so far. North & South is not a Murdoch publication.
3. “it’s also quite possible that the broader N&S theme – that public funds are being spent on numbers of new books that almost no-one then reads – is correct too”
a. Yes it’s possible but where is the evidence? Which books have been publicly funded and which haven’t? Which ones have sold and which haven’t? Do the funded ones sell markedly less than the unfunded ones? If I was a journalist and getting paid I’d look this up – all grants are public information and searchable at Creative NZ’s website. It would be interesting to know, for sure. But N&S did not investigate this.
b. N&S didn’t consider the different sorts of funding – some writers get public money directly as a writing grant from Creative NZ; some publishers get public money (via a bulk grant,often for poetry) to lower the retail price to a commercially acceptable price point, which is in a way a subsidy to the reader. There is a lot of private funding too, via trusts like the Sargeson, Michael King, Foxton fellowship etc. There is a problem for both public and private funders (I’m involved with both so see this up close) with opportunity cost, where people don’t deliver so have taken money that someone more productive might have delivered on, but that’s another story. Again, N&S did not investigate this
4. “the suggestion that, well, somehow, most NZ fiction is selling even remotely well (as some sort of justification for that funding) just isn’t borne out.”
a. There are many novels that sell in pitiful quantities but there are loads that have sold way more than 10,000 copies. For example, Anne Maria Nicholson’s Weeping Waters, published in May 2007, was on the best-seller list for months and is still available in my nearest Whitcoulls. It had no public or private funding at all – which is probably true of all NZ crime fiction, chick-lit and romance. Some authors even invest their own money in getting a manuscript assessment (disclosure: I do this work) which can cost many hundreds of dollars. From what I see there are more writers backing themselves like this than there are recipients of public funding.
b. I can’t find a source quickly but when I was writing about this stuff for Metro 20 years ago a successful first novel in NZ would sell the same number of copies as a successful first novel in the UK – 3000 or so. Recently I saw some comparative data (can’t remember the source) and they were about the same. It seems that our numbers are very respectable by international standards. This is a Very Good Thing, something to be celebrated, and not what any reader would have taken away from the N&S article.
5. “To be outsold by Stieg Larsson is unfortunate; to have the top ten fiction books almost outsold by Paul Henry’s bit of drivel (which didn’t even go on sale until part way through the period surveyed) indicates a profound and worsening disconnection between the authors/funders and so forth and anyone who actually stumps up their own cash to read the results.”
a. I can’t see being outsold by Larsson or Henry as unfortunate. The Larsson books aren’t very good, imho, but they obviously work as entertainment, just as Dan Brown’s do. I have no idea about the Henry book and complacently assume it’s rubbish. But rubbish always outsells quality whether in books, movies or music. James Hurman in this week’s Sunday Star-Times (not online) points out that Radiohead’s OK Computer, widely regarded as one of the Best Albums Ever!, if not the Best Album Ever!, has sold 4 million copies worldwide. Backstreet Boys’ debut album sold 32 million. Crap wins. It was ever thus, and ever shall be.