Saturday, December 7, 2013

Sport and Creative New Zealand

Sport, the sportingly named literary magazine that began in 1988 as a biannual but for the last decade has been an annual, has lost its funding from Creative New Zealand. Its editor, VUP’s Fergus Barrowman, will be on National Radio at 2.35pm tomorrow (Sunday) to talk about what this means – as far as one can tell, it’s the end.

I hope not. Sport introduced me to Ashleigh Young, Tina Makereti and many other terrific writers, alongside new work from more established names such as Andrew Johnston, Bill Manhire, Kate Camp, Bernadette Hall, Elizabeth Smither and Vincent O’Sullivan. It has always been a good mix with great quality control. (Apart from the time it published me.)

But now it is endangered. There has been coverage about it on Stuff here and here, and a Twitterstorm – Fergus is good with old and new media, and also the magazine is held in great affection and regard.

Creative NZ has been subsidising Sport for 25 years so it came as a surprise that this latest application for funding was declined. The money involved isn’t much in the scheme of things – $5000, tiny compared to what dance and theatre companies get, let alone literary festivals. Nothing at the magazine seems to have changed: the quality is as high as ever, Fergus still takes no money from it, the writers still get paid. Not much, $15 a page I believe, but it’s something.

Actually, it’s more than something – it’s a lot. For a poet or short-story writer, being published anywhere is a big deal, and being paid even a token amount is hugely validating, for want of a better word. It’s a confidence-booster, and the fact of publication also helps when talking to mainstream publishers – or, I suppose, when trying to promote your self-published e-book. Publication in a magazine run by a serious editor carries a lot more weight than publication in an e-zine.

So, what went wrong? I have no inside information but I have been involved in similar decisions in the past because I was on the funding panel for 15 years off and on. Which I’m not allowed to talk about, Chatham House rules, etc. But the hell with that. Here goes.

I have no idea about Sport’s sales and costs, but I saw the budgets for other literary magazines. It amazed me what they spent and how little they earned. One journal spent $20,000 an issue but sold only 275 copies (80 copies retail – yes, 80 copies in bookshops throughout New Zealand). That made a unit cost of $73 (I am rounding these figures heavily to obscure the title in question) – and I could see from other grant applications that a novel might have production costs of $12,000 and a print run of at least 3000, expecting to sell 2000 copies. To put it another way, annual production costs of that magazine were about the same as for seven medium-size novels. And from memory $3500 is a standard subsidy for a literary novel, so $5000 isn’t out of line for an issue of Sport, which at 288 pages or so has been bulkier than most novels. And better-written.

On the other hand. . . I know people who make a strong argument for no funding of the arts. They say, if you want to consume it, pay for it yourself: why should taxpayers in Taumarunui subsidise seats at the ballet or opera for rich people in Wadestown? There are holes in that argument (one is called Lotto) but it is possible to make a coherent case against subsidising literature and the arts that the literary luvvies™ need to answer.

Almost no one in the arts/literary world thinks about opportunity costs – that is, if we fund Project X, we can’t fund Projects Y and Z, or possibly even A, B or C. This may be a factor in Creative NZ’s decision – that there could be bigger bangs for the 5000 bucks that might have gone to Sport. Without knowing the numbers, it’s impossible to judge and the people at Creative NZ are infuriatingly discreet. If Sport was selling only 50 copies, fine – but I think we should be told. Is there a journalist out there who can dig this out?

On the third hand. . . I can’t remember the numbers exactly but Quote Unquote usually got a grant from Creative NZ and every year we paid out to contributors, almost all of whom were authors, more than 10 times what we received in the grant. So there can be a multiplier effect with these grants. And, as above, there is a confidence boost to any writer, not just the beginners, when they are published in a magazine that is actually read.

I can’t see a commercial sponsor taking Sport on – but I have every confidence that it will survive. It’s too good not to.

So here are Godley & Creme with “This Sporting Life” from their 1978 album L:

Kyle Mewburn, president of the NZ Society of Authors, comments on Facebook:
Literature is, sadly (and rather short-sightedly, if you consider the wider social impacts), at the bottom of the CNZ priority list. It receives less funding than interpretive dance. The rapid growth in the number of “literary practitioners” over the last decade (which, I’d suggest, has been far greater than in any other cultural sector) has not been matched by any substantial increase in funding, rather the reverse. There is also no broader, long-term strategic planning – it’s simply a narrow box-ticking exercise exacerbated by the fact the boxes have more to do with cultural pretentions than literatrure, and nothing whatsoever to do with underpinning a vibrant literary scene. So ad hoc decisions/choices are made and the icing spread ever thinner.


Fergus said...

I want to hear Creative NZ’s view too! On the one hand there’s their official media statement that Sport missed out to better applications; on the other hand there’s the feedback email I received, which is a series of what seem to me to be quite minor questions about the way I filled in the form and provided budget information, which is baffling because I didn’t do it any differently from previous applications.

One thing we know is that CNZ haven’t turned away from the idea of literary magazines entirely. Half a dozen have been funded this year, including in this round Takahe, at a similar per issue level to my application. So I wish they’d tell me what it is about Sport they don't like.

Sport’s current paid circulation is about 350, although some issues do rather better than that, and contributors’ & review copies, Schools Poetry Competition prizes and other comps and gifts add up to about 100 (I know, I shouldn’t give it away so easily).

This year’s issue cost 11,234.37 and made 12,260.23 (incl $5000 from CNZ), and the big German issue of 2012 broke even on 16,500. On the other hand, 2010 and 2011, when to get it out of a bit of a rut I was spending a bit more, cost me 4800 (don’t tell my wife). But the operating principle is that over time the unders and overs balance out and it doesn’t cost me anything except time.

But I must stop speaking in the present tense.

Fergus said...

Me with the correct url

Andrew Johnston said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stephen Stratford said...

Thanks, Fergus. That's very useful information. It looks very respectable to me, and given the quality of contents and production it remains baffling why CNZ would decline to fund it. All such funding is contestable, but still...

For other readers there is more comment at the Pantographic Punch,

Fergus said...

But what happened to Andrew's excellent comment?

Stephen Stratford said...

He asked me to delete it - you'll have to ask him why. I've asked him to replace it cos it was good. Watch this space, I guess.

Mike said...

Just another comment on the shrinking pool of CNZ funds.

After some years of not making CNZ applications, I recently tried again. An interesting change I have noticed is the funding of university residencies (for writers, composers, artists, etc.) through the Arts Grants. I would have thought the universities would have supported such residencies themselves.

It seems strange and a little unfair to me that individual writers/artists must in effect now compete against universities. Such institutions undoubtedly carry a level of prestige that helps their applications, and which individuals would be hard-pressed to compete against.

There may also be an element of "passing the buck". Seemingly, CNZ is deciding to fund such residencies without choosing the resident. They are funding a funder, in other words, thus creating yet another layer of administration. Surely, if an institution wants the privilege of choosing the resident they should be paying for it themselves!

Stephen Stratford said...

@Mike, last time I was on a CNZ panel the fellowships were a 50-50 joint venture, with the unis putting in say $10,000 and CNZ matching it. The selection was up to the uni - don't know if CNZ had to approve the choice of fellow. You'd think they would have a say, but maybe not. One year we did decline a certain uni for funding their fellowhip - it was a serious thing to do but came after a few years of inadequate performance, and warnings. And I've talked to a few fellows from around the country who had wildly different experiences - some were welcomed and encouraged to be involved in the department; others were just ignored. One was told not to bother to come in, just stay at home.

I agree about the layers of admin. There's a bit of grizzling going on around the place about literature funding - if I have the energy after the break I'll see if I can bloggit.