How hard is it to set up your own book publishing business? It’s not impossible – and those doing it may just keep New Zealand’s literary culture alive. by Mark Broatch
Last year Tina Shaw published her own novel, The Children’s Pond. She did it, she says, because she’d spent a year approaching mainstream publishers and getting knocked back. She was sure the manuscript was good, so she used an Auckland printing company, got a hired gun for the editing and typesetting and had a friend design the cover. Bateman distributed the title to shops nationwide, and the e-book is available from Amazon and meBooks.
Why couldn’t Shaw get the book published? She’s written several novels for adults, books for children and young adults and short stories. The problem was that in the past few years the industry had changed hugely – the merger of two large publishers into Penguin Random House New Zealand, the reformatting of Hachette New Zealand and HarperCollins New Zealand, and the loss of Reed Publishing, Mallinson Rendel, Longacre Press and Hazard Press – and she found confidence to be so low that nobody seemed to want to risk taking the novel on.
But Shaw had the last laugh. Her novel went on to be No 2 on the Nielsen Weekly Bestsellers List for local fiction, and has just been longlisted for the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel.
Would she want to repeat the exercise again, though? It wasn’t hard, she says, but the attention to detail can be intense.
A growing number of people are willing and able to put in the dollars and hours in the form of new independent presses, such as Rosa Mira Books, Steam Press, Upstart, Makaro, Paper Road Press and Paul Little Books. They join the likes of long-standing independents Awa Press, Exisle, Oratia Media, Halcyon Publishing, the university presses and the local arms of overseas firms such as Allen & Unwin in nipping away at the heels of the multinationals.
Former Hachette executives Kevin and Pat Chapman and Warren Adler founded Upstart Press in 2013, with the intention from the get-go to publish commercial titles, its speciality being sports biographies and thrillers. It’s a traditional publishing model, with an Auckland team that covers design, editing, distribution and marketing. It has so far released 16 books and four e-books, including Loose Amongst the Legends: A Memoir by Phil Gifford and Swimming in the Dark by Paddy Richardson.
Journalist Paul Little set up Paul Little Books in 2013 and describes himself as a “publisher of mass-market non-fiction titles”. Among his first projects was a satire on John Key, and he’s just published Grumpy Old Men 2. A female version is due out later this year.
Makaro Press was also launched in 2013, with Eastbourne: An Anthology. Wellington author Mary McCallum and son Paul Stewart are publishing work such as young-adult memoir The Book of Hat by Harriet Rowland (released as an e-book by Rosa Mira Books) and poetry. Theirs is a “two-person business with an office smaller than some people’s cupboards”, as McCallum puts it, “and we work with minuscule margins for very long hours”. They do 95% of the editing and design of their books themselves as well as the publicity. “The rest we commission other wildly talented people to do.” They use local printers, partly because they print small runs, and have also experimented with crowdfunding, raising funds for three poetry collections. “Crowdfunding lifted our profile enormously … and created a lovely energy around the books,” says McCallum.
Author and editor Penelope Todd established Rosa Mira Books in 2011, publishing only e-books. The decision was partly financial, but Todd also wanted to have a “light footprint” and keep time for her own writing. “There’s so much good work being turned away by market-driven publishers,” she says. “I wanted to create another outlet inviting a high standard of writing and employing high production values, which are often lacking in e-books.”
Stephen Minchin started publishing speculative fiction in 2011 under the Steam Press banner. He uses local printing companies, rather than take the more complicated route of sourcing a printer in China, and does pretty much everything himself, including the editing, typesetting and most of the design. Each title costs $3000-4000 to produce. “If I didn’t do everything myself, I’m sure it’d run closer to $10,000.” The workload has taken its toll, however, and after nine books he’s putting the publishing on hold for a while. “I’ve put in over $30,000 and a couple of thousand hours of work and I can’t keep it up – physical and financial exhaustion have caught up with me.”
A MATTER OF “WAIT AND SEE”
Someone who throws out more notes of caution about independents being the saviour of local publishing is Robbie Burton, executive director and publisher of Craig Potton Publishing (CPP). He doubts total book sales from the independent sector have grown as a whole over recent years, but suspects the share of the local publishing cake has become significantly larger for independents in the wake of the multinationals reducing their activity.
“Not surprisingly, I strongly believe that in the foreseeable future it’s going to be the independent publishers that will have a key role in keeping our New Zealand literary culture healthy. Actually, I’d go further and say that those of us who care about New Zealand books simply can’t afford to leave this job up to the foreign-owned multinationals, whose focus seems to be far more on the big-selling books, which is where the money is.”
Bookshops have had an encouraging summer, he says, but he wouldn’t describe the mood as particularly confident. “We need viable bookshops to survive, and with Whitcoulls shrinking its book offering last year, I think it’s still a matter of ‘wait and see’. The colleagues I talk to all still believe we have a future, as do I, though exactly what it’s going to be seems rather unclear.”
In contrast to others, Burton thinks the options for local authors have shrunk. “Multinational or independent, New Zealand authors actually have a diminishing range of options. As an independent, I’ve noticed a significant increase in submissions over recent years. Part of that could be an increased profile for CPP, but I suspect it’s mostly that it’s harder to find a publisher.”
Independent publishing remains a labour of love as much as an act of commerce, even for a firm the size of Craig Potton, which publishes “plenty” of books because it believes in them, rather than because it thinks they’ll turn a profit. “But because a bankrupt publisher is no use to anyone, I’m totally committed to running a viable business, and so I use a mixed model, which makes sure there’s always some return on everything we publish,” says Burton. “This often means we need to find some kind of subsidy or support to make sure we don’t lose our shirt on a book.”
In the end, much comes down to that funding. Burton is optimistic about crowdfunding, and has noticed books coming through in New Zealand funded in this way. “Personally, I think subsidised publishing – whether through the indirect institutional support for our university presses or from Creative New Zealand and other government agencies, but most likely philanthropy – will need to be developed far more if our literary culture is to survive.”
Additional reporting by Tina Shaw.
Do it yourself
Publishing for dummies. by Tina Shaw
How hard is it to set up an indie press? Steam Press’s Stephen Minchin says it’s “ridiculously easy”. Auckland-based publisher David Ling says because of advances in technology, producing a book is now much easier than it was 22 years ago when he set up. However, although he has seen new independents thriving, some good companies “crash and burn”.
It does require some dosh and a professional attitude to producing a manuscript: editing, proofreading, typesetting and cover design. If you can’t do these things yourself, there are freelancers who can. Editors can be found on the New Zealand Society of Authors website, for instance, and designers usually have their own websites; a good way to find a designer is simply to check the imprint page of books you admire.
Marketing is key. You can hire a PR gun on an hourly rate, though small presses are more likely to promote books themselves via traditional review outlets such as Radio NZ and the Listener. A Facebook page helps. So does getting new titles mentioned on blogs such as Beattie’s Book Blog. Rosa Mira Books’ Penelope Todd markets her e-books via social media, the company blog and email lists.
Printing accounts for the main cost of paper book production and the local market is quite competitive. Paul Little prints half his titles here and half in China, and uses an agent to liaise with Chinese printers. Asia Pacific Offset (APOL), with a head office in Hong Kong, is one company that helps New Zealand publishers work with a Chinese printer. Printing in China isn’t necessarily that much cheaper than it is here, once freight is factored in. The price of colour printing is about 30% less than here, but the difference is negligible with black and white text. Says APOL’s Barbara Nielson: “What China does better is the big fancy things, such as colour, stitched binding, ribbon markers, embossing. It’s the small publishers that are doing hard-cover picture books a bit fancier that will gain advantages in China.”
Craig Potton’s Robbie Burton is a great believer in the value of self-publishing, and says just because a book won’t sell in viable quantities doesn’t mean it’s not important. “The reality is, however, that anyone self-publishing should never skimp on the editing and proofreading, or the design. There are specialist companies out there that do this kind of work, and specialist advice is essential. One problem I see often is short-run printing companies promoting themselves as publishers, when in reality their skill is in printing. The front-end help is crucial.”
Getting books into shops and libraries is the final step. Makaro Press uses distributor Greene Phoenix Marketing, whereas Upstart uses Archetype Book Agents. Other distributors include Bateman and South Pacific Book Distributors. Some outfits, such as Paul Little Books, set up direct relationships with booksellers.
Says Burton: “I think getting people’s attention is the great challenge we face as publishers. We need to find every way we can to get books in front of people. The obvious way forward is making better use of the online world.”
On that note, e-books also need to be created and distributed. Companies such as meBooks can help; Smashwords will format for every digital publishing platform, from Amazon to Barnes & Noble; and some writers, such as US romance specialist Marie Force, will produce files from your manuscripts. It may also be worth thinking about audio books.
None without merit
Who says literary writing is better than its commercial cousin? Catherine Robertson puts forward the case for championing our fiction in all its forms.
The most common response when I tell people I’ve enrolled in an MA in creative writing is not “Goodo” or “So you’ll be a student again, yuk, yuk”, but “Why? What’s the point when you’re already published?”
To date, I’ve answered like this: one, it will be a welcome experience not to toil away on a novel in complete isolation, only receiving critique once I’ve written – and may have to rewrite – 100,000-plus words. Two, I’m not well known enough to be chained to a certain expected style of novel; I can branch out in any direction I choose, and I choose a more literary one. And three, by November, I’ll have finished my fifth novel, one, all going well, that’s earned me an MA, a degree I’ve always quite fancied having.
That sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? So should I now confess I have other reasons that might sound less reasonable and more disgruntled, even bordering on peevish?
I’ll risk it. I trust you to judge me fairly. Here’s my confession. I want the ear of New Zealand’s book community, the people who influence which novels we take notice of. I want them to take me seriously because I want to influence what novels we take notice of. As this magazine pointed out, New Zealand fiction writers sell extraordinarily poorly in their own country. I’d like to see what we could do to change that. And the first step, in my opinion, is to close the perceived gap between our literary and commercial writers, which currently feels to me like that between the Sneetches with stars and those with un-stellar bellies.
I write commercial fiction. My first three novels were humorous stories about relationships, so they were marketed as chick lit because there’s no fiction genre called humour. There is one called satire, but that’s more Lionel Asbo than Lord Emsworth. Not funny at all, in other words.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love was described as chick lit. When she went on to write her acclaimed scholarly novel The Signature of All Things, a literary gentleman floored her by saying she must be glad to be attracting “a better class of reader”.
To Gilbert, that meant male readers, but though the gentleman may well have been a five-star misogynist, I believe he was more likely to have been expressing, Jonathan Franzen-style, the accepted divide between writing that’s meant for discerning, intelligent readers and a lesser class for tasteless thickos. The latter, of course, being most commercial adult fiction – romance, fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, crime and anything for chicks – plus poetry by Pam Ayres. “Better” writing being literary fiction and poetry that’s not about hedgehogs or teeth.
A WIDER UNDERSTANDING
Though it’s unfair and untrue to say New Zealand commercial fiction is ignored, the prevailing opinion of our book community is that literary fiction is “better”. Commercial fiction has never been shortlisted for our premier literary awards and is rarely among the “staff picks” in respected non-franchise bookshops or reviewed in serious publications other than the Listener. Our writers’ festivals are still weighted heavily in favour of literary authors. Commercial-fiction authors receive significant media attention only when they’ve made it big overseas, by which time the local market’s opinion is irrelevant to them.
The trouble is that this creates readers who avoid commercial fiction because they follow the lead of our book community. And why not? When novels are expensive and reading time is precious, a stamp of approval from a respected source is reassuring.
Perceived snobbery, though, creates reverse snobs. There are readers who won’t touch New Zealand literary fiction because they believe it’s pretentious and dull, and New Zealand literary people likewise. They care not a jot that our national book awards will not be held this year. Above all, it does nothing to sway the opinion of those who buy 97% of their fiction from overseas authors. That’s not a figure that will sustain a healthy local industry. That’s a problem.
To address it, I believe our book community needs to advocate New Zealand fiction in all its forms, with pride. We should wean ourselves off our ingrained need to categorise into better and lesser classes and encourage readers of commercial fiction to read more literary fiction and vice versa.
All fiction lies on a spectrum of high quality through to crap. The principles of what is good writing and what is not universally apply. Each genre – and “literary” is a genre – has its own conventions, and I believe promoting a wider understanding of those will enable readers to get more out of the experience. Commercial fiction junkies, discover the joys of form and theme! Literary purists, give in to the pleasure of a cracking story well told! To both of you: how do you know you won’t like it if you won’t even try it?
Personally, my bookshelf would be a sadder place if Terry Pratchett wasn’t there with Thomas Pynchon, George RR Martin with George Eliot and 1066 And All That with The 10pm Question. I’m not ashamed to admit my early Jilly Coopers have been reread as often as my Jane Austens.
As those in the advertising business know, awareness is everything. Talk more enthusiastically about more kinds of New Zealand books and more New Zealand books will sell. That’s my belief.
We’ll need to be brave. Promoting a wider range of fiction will require us to expand our knowledge and question our biases. Can we be comfortable enough in our own skin to speak confidently about the merit and enjoyment we find in all kinds of books, even those Franzen might look down on?
Our commercial and literary worlds may not want to grow closer. There’s always that. I might flunk out of my MA course, too. But there’s no point in dwelling on the negative. I’ll focus instead on Dr Seuss’s great insight – that the Sneetches became vastly better off when no one gave a fig about stars.
Catherine Robertson’s latest novel, The Hiding Places (Penguin Random House, $36.99), is out on April 2.
A growing number of authors, most recently Anna Smaill with dystopian novel The Chimes but also middle-market specialists Nicky Pellegrino and Sarah-Kate Lynch, publish through overseas agents and publishers and get distributed here. This means their sales are not counted by Nielsen as local fiction. Neither are the paranormal novels of authors such as Auckland’s Nalini Singh, which unceasingly jump straight onto the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Romance writers especially have been tapping away in the provinces for years, some making an extremely happy living. Others strike it lucky: Waikato’s Julie Thomas sold 40,000 copies of her debut e-book before HarperCollins US came calling, and historical romance The Keeper of Secrets was printed in a handful of countries. For her second book, Blood, Wine & Chocolate, she’s moved into thriller territory. Kiwi noir seems to be in rude health. Wellington-based Englishman Neil Cross and Dunedin-based Scot Liam McIlvanney regularly publish alongside a growing tribe of Kiwi authors, such as Paul Thomas, Paddy Richardson, Paul Cleave and Vanda Symon.
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