Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fisking North & South on New Zealand novels

The good news is that ACP’s flagship magazine North & South devotes six pages of its August issue to New Zealand novels. The article asks why they don’t sell better and raises some discussion points well worth discussing.

The bad news is that the article is wrong or at best misleading and because it is in North & South readers will believe it.

“The (not so) Great New Zealand Novel”, is not available online – ACP’s CEO Paul Dykzeul is no fool – so I can’t link to it to let you see for yourself. It starts by pointing out that local TV, movies, music and even theatre do well commercially but fiction struggles. Evidence for this comes from the January editorial in N&S’s ACP stablemate Metro:
Most New Zealand fiction sells a mere 300 copies, I’ve been told by someone in the business who should know.
So, no name for that statistic, just “someone”. Whoever “someone” is, they were wrong. Totally, utterly, spectacularly wrong. Most New Zealand fiction does not sell a mere 300 copies. Some novels – name authors, major publishers – have sold so few copies but that is highly unusual. Last time I interviewed publishers about this, sales of 3000 were regarded as OK. In the 300s was not normal, it was a disaster.

Next up, we hear from Debra Millar who used to run ACP’s magazines but now runs Penguin’s publishing so she is a proper source. At this point we get another confirming instance of the Stratford Theory of Numbers:
According to Millar, New Zealand fiction accounted for only four per cent of all fiction sold in the country last year, both in terms of dollars and volume.
But are we talking about all fiction, i.e. including children’s fiction, or specifically adult fiction? N&S doesn’t think to ask. Fortunately, Guy Somerset of the Listener did think to ask last year, and found that of New Zealand-published books sold in 2009, 6.1% were adult fiction. Yes, this sounds bad – but there is another question that N&S doesn’t ask: how does this compare with Australia, Canada or England? Is New Zealand adult fiction uniquely disadvantaged: is this unusual in an Anglophone culture? (It isn’t.)

Then comes the big one:
over the past five years Creative New Zealand has handed out $824,640 in direct grants to novelists (and another $227,983 to a handful of short-story writers, graphic novelists and novella writers) as well as direct grants (usually $2000-3000) to publishers for publishing novels. Writers’ residencies are also mostly publicly funded.
You might think, in fact, that the taxpaying public has a right to be told what sort of return it is getting on its investment.
I can tell the taxpaying public how much return it is getting on its investment: 0%. That is because the grants do not come from tax revenue. The money comes to Creative NZ from Lotto profits. Admittedly Lotto is a tax on the stupid, but that’s not what N&S means. Maybe $1,052,623 to writers over five years seems like a lot of money, but it’s $210,525 a year. Piddling when you look at what goes to dance or music, let alone sport. A comparison might have been interesting.

And the writers’ residencies are not “mostly publicly funded”. Each university fellowship is jointly funded by Creative NZ (i.e. with Lotto money) and the university (public money). The Michael King residential fellowship is funded by the Michael King Trust in partnership with Auckland University. The Sargeson, Foxton and Russell Henderson  residential fellowships are entirely privately funded.

Then we turn for comment to Gordon McLauchlan, an author who complains that no one is writing novels that are “socially or politically challenging, or even about the true downside of New Zealand life”. On the next page N&S gives an example of a novel that didn’t sell as well as it should have, Carl Nixon’s Settlers’ Creek:
It is a provocative tale of Maori and Pakeha families squabbling over a dead man’s body [. . .] the novel’s sales, I have heard, are far from brilliant. Unfortunately, I can’t say what that figure is exactly because neither Nixon nor [publisher Harriet] Allan would tell me, even though he was given $36,000 by Creative NZ to write it.
What a non-sequitur. It is not public money so why should they?

We come now to Tim Wilson’s Their Faces Were Shining, a finalist in this year’s NZ Post Book Awards. It’s a very good novel and had great publicity but:
by early June the novel had sold around 1300 copies. And it’s hard to argue that the subject matter was inherently unsaleable given that the Left Behind series on the same topic has sold 65 million copies in the US.
Another non-sequitur. Tim’s novel was published in NZ and the Left Behind series was published in the US. Two very different countries with very different cultures.

The next paragraph claims that the sales may pick up if Tim wins on 27 July:
although winning hasn’t guaranteed sharply higher sales for many previous winners.
That’s not what booksellers say but could well be true. It would be nice to have some examples, wouldn’t it, of books that won the big prize and didn’t sell more as a result. You know, evidence.

The wonderful Sarah-Kate Lynch is quoted as saying that popular genres like chick lit, crime, thrillers, historical fiction etc, are never taken seriously in the awards. Wrong. Two words: Maurice Shadbolt. Season of the Jew won the big one in 1987. He very nearly won another big one for a later novel in that trilogy.
And then:
Lynch says she was told the theory behind the Montanas is that “commercial books get their rewards in high sales” while literary works generally “need the exposure the awards bring”.
She was told? This is untrue, it is hearsay, and why would N&S refer to the Montanas in the present tense? But Lynch is right to be annoyed that her publisher didn’t enter her books. 

There are some good points in the article about whether arts funding is monitored for results, over-generous reviewing and our fiction’s lack of compelling stories – but hang on. That may well be true of some literary fiction but it is not true of crime writers Paul Cleave, Paul Thomas, Vanda Symon and Alix Bosco – and it is especially not true of Paddy Richardson. Her Hunting Blind, about two small girls who are abducted, has haunted me since I first read the manuscript in 2009. Our house has six external doors and every night I neurotically double-check that all six doors are locked. If that’s not compelling I don’t know what is.

Latest information on sales of NZ fiction in later post here. No numbers, but the ranking may surprise.

The new post has been updated with some anonymous but (I promise) reliable numbers.


Helen Heath said...

Nice one Stephen. Yes, a much smaller population base means we can't compare figures but percentages. That coupled with our love of all things not NZ (thankfully slowly changes) has a big impact. It would make more sense to look at Australian percentages to make comparisons rather than the US or UK.

Paul said...

Not just fisked but fiskerated; well played.

I particularly like the comparison between Their Faces were Shining and the Left Behind series: " it’s hard to argue that the subject matter was inherently unsaleable given that the Left Behind series on the same topic has sold 65 million copies in the US." The Gallic Wars and the Asterix books are on the same topic but nobody chides Caesar for not selling as well as Goscinny and Uderzo.

Dave said...

Who wrote the article?

I'm out of the country at the moment so can't see a copy.

Knowing who the writer is is very important when judging any NZ journalism.

Daphne Moran said...

Thanks heaps for this. It's great to see some critical thinking about the article and the issues.

Denis said...

This could explain why I stopped reading North and South somewhere north of a decade ago

Dave said...

It's never been the same since Rosemary McLeod and David McLaughlin disappeared.

Since Robyn Langwell's sacking, it's been awful.

Stephen Stratford said...

@Dave: "Who wrote the article?"

North & South's sub-editor Graham Adams.

Keri h said...

An interesting article Stephen - will, next time I'm in a town buy a copy of "N&S" and sharpen my literary claes on it. I suspect there a huge amount they/Graham Adams have left out - not least the success of genre fiction (you've touched on crime fiction but there are also other successful areas. But - that wouldnt quite stack up with their premise = literary fiction is over-resourced (SNORT! At 4% of all Creative NZ funding?!)
and underwhelmingly productive on the sales front...

Chad Taylor said...

From The Age, 2005:

"Last financial year, literature received $6.9 million, or 5 per cent, of the Australia Council's funds, only higher than the now-defunct new media (2 per cent) and way behind the leading art form, music (51 per cent). Taking in state and local funding, though, literature has gradually risen from 2 per cent in 1968-69 to 6 per cent in 1988-89 and 17 per cent in 1998-99."

Keri H said...

Response to Chad Taylor-
what, if anything, do those figures have to do with
funding of literature in ANZ?
And - if nothing - which I suspect is the answer- why bother to post them?
Cheers n/n Keri

Chad Taylor said...

Keri – The figures were in response to the first comment by HH ("It would make more sense to look at Australian percentages to make comparisons"). 2005 figures show Australian percentages for literary funding are higher.

Dave said...

Who wrote the article?

North & South's sub-editor Graham Adams.

Thanks. Graham should really have known better. He's been around since Christ was a cowboy (to use a quote from Big Norm).

Keri h said...

Chad Taylor - thanks.
I find the total ANZ state funding for all literary endeavours a pretty exact mirror to the general esteem all literary endeavours are held in here.

Graham Adams said...

Your criticisms of my North & South article centre on your claim that Creative NZ does not rely on taxpayers’ funds for grants and that such grants are not “public money”. You assert: “I can tell the taxpaying public how much return it is getting on its investment: 0%. That is because the [Creative NZ] grants do not come from tax revenue.”

Unfortunately, to use your own words, you are “totally, utterly, spectacularly wrong”.

Forty per cent of Creative NZ’s funding comes directly from government taxes through the budget’s Vote Arts, Culture and Heritage and 60 per cent from the Lotteries Commission. And the commission, of course, is a Crown entity, which spends roughly 20 per cent of its revenue funding various sports, charitable and cultural bodies, including Creative NZ. Everyone who buys a lottery ticket pays for this levy as a de facto tax incorporated in the price — in much the same way drinkers, drivers and smokers do, since a tax is incorporated in the price of alcohol, petrol and cigarettes. The major difference is that by not routing the money from state lotteries through the consolidated fund, the government can create the illusion of the lottery grants not being funded from taxation but it is only an illusion. And the fact that these taxes can be avoided by not drinking, driving, smoking or gambling does not make them any less a tax.

Also, a proportion of each lottery ticket’s price goes to the government for GST and gaming taxes, bringing the total tax take from the sale of each ticket to more than 30 per cent. Lotto and Keno players are, indeed, taxpayers, even if unwittingly.

With the 40 per cent direct government subsidy and the taxpaying lotteries player accounting for the remainder of Creative NZ’s money, I was entirely correct to state that “the taxpaying public has a right to be told what sort of return it is getting on its investment”, that writers’ residencies are “mostly publicly funded” and that Carl Nixon was paid with public money to write Settlers’ Creek.

If your readers want to decide whether to believe North & South or Quote Unquote on how Creative NZ is funded, they could always ask Creative NZ itself. The figures it sent me regarding its funding were: “Approximately 60 per cent from the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board and 40 per cent from the Vote, Arts Culture and Heritage, ie Government funding”. Quote, unquote.

Stephen Stratford said...

Good to hear from you, Graham. As a mathy kind of guy I do like to get the numbers right and am always happy to be corrected when I am wrong, as happens - can you quote a person at Creative NZ rather than "it" so I can check? With whom did you talk?

Re that 40/60 split - maybe that 40% government funding goes to overheads and the 60% Lotto money goes to grants? What I have always heard is that grants money comes directly from Lotto. Is this not the case? I'm meeting a senior CNZ operative in a couple of weeks so I'll ask her and update here.

Leaving aside what seemed to me to be inaccuracies about the fellowships and the Montanas, which you don't address, can you give a named source in publishing for that figure of most NZ novels selling 300 copies? Because everyone I have talked to, whether publisher, bookseller or author, snorts at it. I think we should be told.

Simon Wilson said...

Hi Stephen
The reference to 300 sales being common for NZ novels, was, as you note, quoted by Graham from an editorial of mine in Metro. The figure comes from a very senior figure in the NZ fiction publishing world, someone well placed to know, and I have no reason to doubt its accuracy. I'm sorry I can't tell you who it is, but they spoke to me in confidence. I have published it more than once and discussed it with many people, and contrary to your own experience, have invariably been met with sad heads nodding. Your own assertion that the true figure is closer to 3000 copies has, to my knowledge (and I used to work for a leading book publisher) never been remotely true.
The unfortunate, troubling reality for NZ is that at a time when our fiction is, overall, better than ever (personal view), more supported than ever in academia and schools, and given more support by the state and private endowments than ever, it is selling much less well than it used to. It's a crisis that needs to be talked about.

Stephen Stratford said...

Thanks Simon.

I didn't say that most NZ novels sell more like 3000 than 300, I said, "Last time I interviewed publishers about this, sales of 3000 were regarded as OK." My co-authored novel sold about that number and as soon as it did the publisher relaxed.

No offence to you or Metro, but I don't think it is best practice for N&S to quote one of its stablemate's editorials quoting an unnamed person as evidence of anything. I can't imagine that you would let a Metro writer do the equivalent - you'd make them a) get their own source to verify the number and b) quote them. This stuff isn't secret, or shouldn't be.

Funny thing is, I bet your unnamed source is our mutual friend who was always one of my sources in Metro and elsewhere and is the source for me saying, "Some novels – name authors, major publishers – have sold so few copies but that is highly unusual." It may be less unusual now, probably is, so it would be good to have some comparative stats. I bet they are out there somewhere.

I agree with you that low sales are a problem that needs to be talked about, and Graham's article has certainly got that ball rolling. What I'd like to see is reliable data from official sources that is properly analysed. Booksellers are pretty vocal about this - I would have loved to be at last weekend's conference.

Marion said...

Low book sales is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed by New Zealand Publishers and the first people they need to go to are the public,the readers.I would buy a huge number of books every year and you could, apart from the Coffee table type count on 1 hand the number of New Zealand novels I either buy or read and why is this...I simply don`t like what is written or published and before you all jump up and down,I don`t read Mills and Boon,most of my books come via Unity Books in Auckland,surely if you want people to buy it and read it,you`d find out what they actually want,you`d ask the book buying public what is it you want.Both Nicky Pelligrino and Sarah Kate Lynch sell well here and have a certain market covered and that speaks both to their ability and to what their readers want,you can have as much data as you want,as many meetings as you like,as many promotions and kindly reviews as you like and yet if you don`t have a product that appeals to the reader,you won`t sell.My best New Zealand fiction read so far this year,Owen Marshall`s The Larnachs,which would appeal to most readers of historical fiction and will probably do very well because it is so well written yet easy to read.A good question for New Zealand Publishers might be to ask themselves where are our Jodi Picoult`s and Anita Shreve`s,they sell by the truck load and we must have our own out there,I would guess that they wouldn`t be considered high brow enough.North and South`s article might make certain people uncomfortable but it spoke quite soundly to the readers who don`t want to waste money on uncertain reads,although you can`t always get it right!

P Dant said...

Space bar, Marion. Space bar.

Paul said...

This "taxpayers getting value for money" thing is totally hatstand. If some areas of the arts and sport did not need public support, then we would not need bodies like CNZ. Such bodies distribute public money to individuals and groups which need it to make a contribution to our culture. That money comes either from the government's general funds or from the lottery. It seems a good use of public money to me.

Nobody complains about money going to sporting bodies and individuals, because sport is supposed to be both good for us and popular. But arts funding often attracts criticism, because it is supposed to be elitist and high brow, as if they were bad things.

Nicky Pellegrino does not need public help to produce her awful books. That we do not have a Jodi Picoult - who churns out middle-class anxiety sagas on an industrial scale - is a good thing. But we do have many good writers who can do with a bit of help to produce works which develop and renew literature.

Marion said...

It may very well be your opinion that we don`t need a Jodi Picoult,but lets face facts,she would outsell any New Zealand Novelist that you could name and the only New Zealand published books that do well here are Sport,Cooking and Crime Fiction,New Zealand authors in other genres do well overseas including Sarah Kate Lynch and the young lady from Mt Roskill who writes Paranormal Romances plus certain Mills and Boon authors,you may consider Nicky Pellegrino`s writing to be awful but her readers don`t and their reading tastes deserve to be respected,not necessarily liked but respected.Trashing authors and their readers serves no good purpose at all.The point in this country should be to make reading available to all and not just to the few who think their tastes are better than others.If this involves using tax payers money so be it.

Paul said...

I do not respect Nicky Pellegrino or Jody Picoult, not because their books are rubbish but because they are insincere. Besides, respect is a vacuous notion.

Yes, Picoult and co sell a lot of books, but so what? Throughout the history of the novel there have been novelists who sold a lot by writing trash that nobody reads anymore. And that sort of writer does not need any financial support, so it is hardly worth talking about them in this context.

Marion said...

Wow! Jodi and Nicky are insincere and you`ve been appointed to judge their sincerity or lack of...amazing!I was suggesting that readers tastes be respected not any particular author but never mind.I wonder how you would judge their sincerity as opposed to those you would wish to see funded,mentored and promoted.I`d like to see you name any hidden authors we may be harbouring that could sell thousands given the right(in your opinion)guidance,we may throw millions at the RWC,doesn`t mean we will win it!Far better to fund those who will be read.

Paul said...

Breaking news: man holds opinion; accused of judgement.

There are many authors who might sell gazillions of books given the right help; but we cannot be sure they will - the readers are fickle - and the sales figures are beside the point, which is to promote literature (a Good Thing).

Marion said...

There is a big difference between holding an opinion about somebody and being judgemental but judge away!! Certaintly we agree that the point is to promote literature but alas I fear we may not agree on what good literature is,then again who knows we may! While we would like to think that the sales figures are beside the point,they are not,they are what drive publication worldwide,once you cease to sell,you cease to be published especially with the big publishing houses and in a country our size you need to be able to achieve a reasonable sales point to be considered viable.For me one of the best reads so far this year has been the Larnachs,had never read Marshall before,took a punt and it paid of.There are some good(in my opinion)Crime Fiction writers out there who are getting published and promoted but did I read in that magazine article that the tend to form cliques and exclude others from Festivals childish and petty if true,far better to get people buying and reading books than to fight over trophies!

Helen Heath said...

I just can't agree with that figure of 300. I've worked in the book industry for 20 years and that figure is not at all typical in my experience. Some novels do only sell that few but they are certainly not the average case. Quoting figures like this just helps continue the myth of how crap NZ fiction is.
Nz fiction is varied and lively. Why can't we support it?

Marion said...

Why can`t we support it?Because it appears that most New Zealanders don`t like NZ fiction,its in the shops,its in the libraries but it doesn`t get read and it doesn`t get bought.Children get plenty of exposure to NZ fiction in Schools but their liking for it doesn`t appear to transition into their adult reading choices.NZ fiction might sell better if it appealed to the mass of the reading public.

Helen Heath said...

Marion it is getting bought and there is room in the market for ALL types of fiction - mass appeal and literary fiction.

Marion said...

Helen,I defer to your knowledge on weather or not NZ fiction is bought or not as your knowledge is probably greater in this regard than mine.As a big buyer of books I buy very little NZ fiction but plenty of Non-fiction.
I do agree with you 100% that there is room in the market for All types of fiction be it mass or literary,I think we would agree that we want readers,buying and reading and if we don`t like what they are actually reading,thats our problem.

Lindsay Shelton said...

All the secrecy seems so unnecessary. The film industry publishes its box office figures weekly. The NZFC publishes details of the theatrical results of all the films that it finances. The information shows that some movies do very well, some get an average result, and some - surprise, surprise - fail to find an audience. But there's never a need to guess at the results,

Stephen Stratford said...

Hi Lindsay - good point. I imagine the difference is that, broadly speaking, movies are a collective enterprise and a book of fiction is personal to the author. That is, the success or failure, saleswise, of a movie can be attributed to the director, scriptwriter, actors and so on, whereas for a novel it is one person, the author, who is seen to be responsible.

Which isn't entirely true because good novels have been marketed badly or had rotten covers or been otherwise ill-served by the publisher, but I think it may be one reason why sales figures are so closely guarded. I wonder if they are so secretive about stats in the US, UK or France.

Marion said...

I don`t think they are particularly secretive in the U.S.I wonder if Publisher`s Weekly publishes the actual sales figures for a book on its lists.I think that you are quite right in saying that one of the reasons for such secrecy may be because if a book doesn`t sell particulary well,the finger gets pointed squarely at the author(hurt feelings etc) and as you so rightly pointed out there can be a combination of factors that lead to poor sales,equally all the best promotion,great covers and whatever,will not make a badly written,poorly told tale resonate with the reader and unless you are a world famous writer with a fan base that would read your power bill,you won`t sell.It is great to see The Larnachs up there with Jodi,it deserves to be.

Craig Ranapia said...

The passage in the story that really pissed me off was this from Gordon McLauchlan:

"Can you think of a recent novel that was in any way socially or politically challenging, or even about the true downside of New Zealand life? Are most New Zealand novelists writing about middle-class relationship problems and angst that don't cut deep? Is this partly because many of the best writers are women who are more concerned with close inter-personal relationships?

Did I really just hear Gordon say writers with lady-parts are effete, middle-class twits who need to stop crapping on about their emotions and deal with "real issues"?

I'd also suggest Gordon check his own white, middle-class bullshit at the door and realise that the "underclass" don't exist to give people like him the thrill of playing socio-cultural tourist.

Then to concern troll the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, Gordon plaints:

And what of the overclass? Novels are pouring out of the United States about greed and arrogance. No one has taken on business figures in this country in fiction, or anywhere else.

FFS, Gordon, I didn't think much of The Night Book but Charlotte Grimshaw isn't a figment of my imagination. Maurice Gee ring any bells? I could run off a list of New Zealand novels that have "taken on business figures in this country", but I don't want to let facts get in the way of a tendentious rant.

Stephen Stratford said...

Heh. You could add Gordon's friend Kevin Ireland to that list, Craig - his 2010 novel "Daisy Chains" is a satire aimed squarely at "business figures in this country".

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