Sales of New Zealand fiction are dismal. Why and how to fix it?
The publishing house I work for wants to change the perception of New Zealand fiction. To that end, we’re putting our money where our mouth is and launching a new prize, the Allen & Unwin Commercial Fiction Prize, which offers a $10,000 advance to a potential novelist. Registrations close at the end of the month.
One of the surprising benefits of Covid has been the noticeable increase in reading – and sales – of books in New Zealand. One would think that fiction, as an escape into another world, would resonate in these end times, and it does, but with significant nuance. We read international fiction, children’s fiction, local and international non-fiction, but sales of New Zealand fiction continue to occur at what can only be called a dismal level, despite the proliferation in recent years of fantastic, crossover genres. , local novels, such as that of Becky Manawatu AuēKirsten McDougall’s She’s a killerr (oddly not on the shortlist for this year’s Ockhams), Sue Orr’s Loop tracksRebecca K. Reilly Greta and ValdinNicky Pellegrino’s To Italy with loveand Catherine Chidgey Sympathy from a distance (who missed the jackpot at the Ockhams last year but has just made the UK Women’s Prize longlist).
According to Nielsen BookData, the New Zealand book market grew by 8.6% year-on-year from 2020 to 2021. New Zealand fiction represents only 5% of the total market. Compare that to Australia, where Australian fiction accounts for around 30% of total sales, according to Nielsen BookData.
The most successful Australian fiction title published last year is that of Liane Moriarty apples never fall, which sold nearly 200,000 copies in Australia (and well over 10,000 copies here). But it’s not just this much-maligned genre of “commercial women’s fiction” that resonates in Australia. Christos Tsiolkas, best known for his tour de force novel The slapregularly sells over 50,000 copies of his novels. Damascus – a novel about the establishment of the Christian church – sold some 50,000 copies and won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.
Turn to the detective genre and former journalist Jane Harper has sold nearly 400,000 copies of her much-loved novel The dry in Australia (and one million copies worldwide). That’s more than enough royalties to quit the day job, and she did.
But here, how many New Zealand fiction titles were in the top 50 best-selling New Zealand titles of 2021? Ten? Five? No. Of them: Chez Becky Manawatu Auēwhich was released in 2019, and Nicky Pellegrino In Italy, with lovereleased last October.
Most New Zealand fiction titles would be lucky to sell over 2000 copies
Even more depressingly, while a very successful New Zealand non-fiction title can sell over 20,000 copies, and many regularly sell between 10,000 and 15,000 copies, most neo-fiction titles Zealanders would have the chance to sell more than 2,000 copies. Even the most successful among them would have the chance to make 10,000 sales. There are exceptions, like that of Elizabeth Knox Winegrower’s LuckEleanor Catton The lights and Jenny Pattrick’s historical novel The Denniston Rosepublished in 2003.
A few recently released novels and authors have also bucked the trend, including Auckland-based Rose Carlyle. The girl in the mirror, which has now been released in several countries, including New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom; the now New Plymouth-based Jacqueline Bublitz’s Before I know my name, who was the subject of a bidding war and secured several deals in different territories (and who was ignored by the Ockhams, but nominated for the Dublin Literary Award) and Kiwi expat JP Pomare, a writer writer who now lives in Melbourne and has published several bestselling thrillers. They were all released in Australia.
For New Zealand authors published by New Zealand-based publishers, what is (not) happening?
According to Joan Mackenzie, book buying manager at Whitcoulls, “I think the key word in all of this is ‘commercial’. For many years our local fiction seemed to come from a pretty dark place – much of it was very dignified, not very accessible to a lot of people, and was firmly rooted in the literary community, as opposed to the wider world of reading books. . From memory, that didn’t really start to change until Jenny Pattrick wrote The Denniston Rose and Deborah Challinor came on the scene – and there have been other examples since, but there is a long legacy of many people who feel that New Zealand fiction does not speak to them and it takes time to change that.
Best-selling novelist Nicky Pellegrino (who I suspect would love to emulate Jane Harper and have the option of quitting her day job as a journalist) agrees.
She says: “I think there is a perception that New Zealand fiction is dark, literary and difficult. Obviously that’s not the case, there’s a huge variety now, but the image problem still persists. Many readers, when they want a book to entertain themselves, will choose the latest Liane Moriarty or Marian Keyes because they feel assured of a good read. But hopefully things change because there are certainly plenty of New Zealand writers producing entertaining mainstream fiction: Charity Norman, Sue Copsey/Olivia Hayfield, Nalini Singh, Rose Carlyle and new talent coming along.
I wonder why so many people in the publishing industry think that any book that sells in large numbers is unworthy of cultural recognition. (Don’t get me started on the Ockhams)
It’s easy enough to blame readers, but I wonder why so many people in the publishing industry have a hard time accepting that we can appreciate and accept both high art and escapism when it comes to it. it’s about our choice of movies, television and music, even food, but think that any book that sells in large numbers is unworthy of cultural recognition. (Don’t get me started on the Ockhams.) Almost every serious reader I know (and yes, they’re mostly middle-aged women, who have been the backbone of publishing ever since the presses first started to boot) read beyond a genre. It is the joy of reading; it opens the mind.
It also ignores the fact that commercial publishing companies depend on publishing enough bestselling books to be able to order other books, which may sell well below the general threshold of what is needed to achieve break-even (about 4,000 copies in New Zealand, depending on quantity production costs). This is a different situation from university presses, which operate on a subsidized funding and grant model, and are able to publish poetry, literary fiction and scholarly books that have taken years to research and write. All power to them. We need all kinds of publishers in New Zealand.
As an industry, we publish a large number of books in New Zealand every year (as we do in most other countries). A big part of why this happens is that a huge bestseller effectively subsidizes several other books. We need all kinds of books to publish all kinds of books.
There is also a ripple effect when the books do well. It supports an industry of independent publishers, designers, photographers and illustrators. Writers are paid more. Successful books allow publishers to order other books that may not be selling strongly. This is the publishing ecosystem. But why isn’t this happening in local fiction publishing?
“I don’t think as an industry we’ve done a good job of publicly supporting our most commercial [fiction] writers and help build public confidence in their work,” says Joan Mackenzie. “I’m seeing more and more – and almost exponentially – that Australian writers and publishers are doing a great job of storytelling about their landscape and the people who inhabit it. There’s an explosion of new Australian talent on the scene and they’re showing what can be done when their work is taken seriously.
She’s right. So what are we doing about it as an industry? To begin with, recognizing that there is a need for literary and commercial fiction (and a wide range of non-fiction) and that as an industry we should support that.
Allen & Unwin wants to see all writers – in all genres, literary and business – read in meaningful numbers. Yes, that means investing in writers, but also in marketing, advertising and support for booksellers – but wouldn’t it be nice if we got to a point where the best-selling novel in New Zealand every year was the one who told our own stories?
Our Commercial Fiction Award is open to all New Zealand residents and citizens. It may be a first attempt at publication, or the winner may be an acclaimed author. (And yes, it’s a novel, not a short story, poem, or nonfiction.) The $10,000 advance is against royalties.
So what are we looking for? Well-written, propulsive, character-driven novels. We are open to all genres: contemporary, historical, detective; but which can appeal to a wide readership. The kind of book that if you have to put it down, you just want to pick it up, and when you’re done, you’ll tell all your friends about it.
Who wouldn’t want to read this?
Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: David Young’s beautifully illustrated Easter Island book