Wednesday, August 4, 2010

New Zealand fiction: the sequel

A while back I queried Listener book guy Guy Somerset’s statistics on sales of New Zealand fiction. It just looked odd to me that only 6.1% of NZ-published books that we bought were fiction, when overall 25% of the books we bought were fiction. Plus the book trade is insanely complicated, and what we see in bookshops is just a fraction of what is actually published. So, I asked the question. And I’m glad I did – I don’t mind asking a dumb question if the answer sheds light.

I know this defies all the rules about blogging, which essentially entails hysterical responses to stuff in the MSM, but I have talked with/emailed two publishers, a bookseller and a stats person from the industry. And Guy’s figures are right. So why the discrepancy between NZ fiction sales and total fiction sales?

Two words: Dan Brown.

Not Dan Brown alone, but he is emblematic. JK Rowling, Lee Child, Paullina Simons, Stephenie Meyer – that is the fiction that sells here in vast quantities. So of course overseas fiction has a bigger share of the total market than NZ fiction does of the local (i.e. locally published) market. D’oh.

But I mean, 6.1%? That is tragic. I suppose what surprises me is that no one has pointed this out before, at least that I know of. People in the book trade know it – and it makes me admire even more the independent booksellers such as Unity Books that devote a disproportionate amount of shelf-space to NZ fiction.

What I find depressing is that I have spent a lot of time in recent years on committees deliberating on fellowships, awards, grants and competitions, not to mention my professional work assessing and editing manuscripts – that is, general support of fiction writing. And now I honestly do not know if it hasn’t all been a waste of time. What is the point of funding New Zealand literature if New Zealanders have so little interest in it?

On the other hand, maybe this is precisely why we should be funding it.


Will de Cleene said...

It was my understanding that most NZ book sales were sports biographies and recipe books. I'm comforted by the fact that I can now blame Dan Brown for this phenomenon as well.

Keri H said...

I have often read polls where ANZers say one of their favourite leisure activities is reading: I cant recall such an opinion poll then asking "what do you like reading?"
Because the answers are pretty clear from the limited bestseller lists we see published: not only Dan Brown et al, but as Will de Cleene notes, sports books (not just biographies) and cookery books in general. And crime fiction, romance fiction, and non-fiction.

Your time on committees hasnt been wasted Stephen: without government patronage, there would be *very* little ANZ fiction (not to mention poetry!) EVER published.

And, sometimes, ANZ fiction travels much further afield than our archipelago. A recent example is Lloyd Jones.

Surely, even a very small nation has an obligation to nurture and encourage the arts? More especially so, when that small population size means *most artists* (writers included, and yes, I include myself) simply cant make a living from their work.

Fergus said...

There are some things too painful to talk about.

But it would be interesting to see some reliable figures on any change there might have been in the share of the NZ market held by NZ-published books.

homepaddock said...

There's literature specifically and books in general.

Do we read a higher percentage of other people's literature than our own?

I read widely but if I'm looking for light reading it's rare (though not as rare as it used to be) to find it from NZ authors.

Another question: why don't New Zealand authors write the genres New Zealanders like reading?

Keri H said...

One of the best-selling ANZ authors ever was the romantic novelist Essie Summers, and there a number of writers in that genre working today.They sell here, but majorly overseas. I'm not au fait with ANZ crime writers but I do know several writers have been very successful, especially overseas (Germany, in particular, likes them.) Science fiction & fantasy writers - especially for young readers - are wellknown here and overseas (Maurice Gee, Gaelyn Gordon, Helen Leach, for examples.)

Note that refrain - overseas. The ANZ market for buying any kind of fiction, genre or otherwise, is very very small.

Keri H said...

O, I'd add another couple of points: writers are drawn to different parts of the craft. I'm very fond of fantasy & science-fiction, but I dont write much of it (it crops up in my short stories every so often.) I dont like the crime genre to read (and there's no way I'd attempt writing it.)
I really dislike romantic fiction - which is why I've never read any Essie Summers.

What I write does sell here - and especially, it sells overseas. I've staggered along as a self-employed writer for 27 years, but I certainly havent made a fortune and do find finances increasingly difficult.
But - like so many other ANZ writers - I keep on doing what I love.

Fergus said...

The latest bestseller list tells the story. Note that one good Unity launch can propel two poetry books into the top 10.

homepaddock said...

Wonder what would happen if New Zealand books were in with general fiction - which is usually at the front of book shops rather than in the NZ section which is always further back?

Stephen Stratford said...

HomePaddock, I think that is what Borders does, or am I thinking of Dymocks? One of them, anyway. I don't know which system generates the most sales for NZ fiction.

I'll be talking to someone from PaperPlus later today so may have more info. (Yes, I know, this sort of thing is not what real bloggers do.)

Max said...

I'm with homepaddock and, at least in part, with Keri: leaving aside (and perhaps resolving altogether) the funding issue, there seem to be two related points:

- most New Zealand readers don't want to read most New Zealand fiction authors; and

- healthy sales of non-fiction suggest that that's not parochialism or - to respond to Stephen's charming Dan Brown reference - a commitment to lowbrow schlockbusters, but simply that, well, most New Zealand authors aren't very readable.

Lloyd Jones is a good, and rare, contraexample: he writes well and, particularly, for those (that is, most) readers who lack an intense interest in acid and allusive descriptions of Auckland dinner parties (however wry and jolly amusing), intense narratives about personal discovery following an unhappy childhood (been there, done that), unfulfilling marriage and traumatic divorce (heard it) and, of course, the wisdom of age/menopause/cancer/whatever (wisdom it might be, literature it almost never is), or - oh, yes - the insight that Oxford/central Europe/Japan/London brings upon return to these shores (see above). I don't, in this regard, quite get Keri's premise that there's an obligation to fund books because no-one's prepared to buy them.

I don't profess to have an answer, though I can't help but think of Ann Mallinson's (paraphrased) comment that anyone who has children thinks that they have a children's book in them, but most just don't, and Kay Boyle's famous comment that creative writing courses are "ridiculous. Go out and live. Do anything. I flunked kindergarten. Actually, I never went to school at all." I rather suspect that one or both comments apply to many, if not most, New Zealand authors of adult fiction.

Keri H said...

Max - that is an unfair assessment of what funded ANZ fiction is all about: a *lot* of people (comparatively speaking) are prepared to buy fiction that originates here - but that *lot* is - a very small number of readers compared to the situations overseas. We have (roughly) 4.4 million people: of those who are keen readers of ANZ fiction, you are looking at about 5% of that number - and a lot of those will not buy books - they'll get them from libraries, or share them with their mates. Which is why ANZ publishers routinely have a print run for a novel or a collection of short stories of
(correct me here, Fergus) 2000-4000.

It's not that NO-ONE is prepared to buy them - it's just that the marketplace is tiny. And the obligation (I think) for Creative NZ to fund both the writer and publisher is fairly bloody obvious: every so often, a book does make it in the wider world - I mentioned Lloyd Jones as an example (I dont like or read much of his work, but that's a matter of personal taste.) I could've mentioned the facts that
a)one of my books has sold more than any other book of ANZ fiction here;
b)it wouldnt have been completed without 3 (not large) Literary Fund & Maori Fund grants, and
c)it wouldnt've been *published* except for the work of, and grant given to, Spiral Collective 5.

And your last comments are irrelevant as far as I am concerned - never been on a creative writing course,
and waua! Not only lived but done quite a lot as well...

Keri H said...

Another matter that should be seriously looked at is -advertising in msm.
Fergus sort of hinted at this "One good launch at Unity Books" - with accompanying publicity, right? And not just in the trade journals, or writers' mags - out there in public, in msm.

Which is what the bestselling o/s titles do all the time...