Michele Powles

by Guy Somerset / 10 October, 2009
Michele Powles is the director of New Zealand Book Month, an initiative that runs throughout October and will feature nearly 200 events. This is her second year at the helm, and first as a published author herself, after the release in April of her debut novel, <i>Weathered Bones</i>. Powles has also just been announced as the 2010 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago.

Are New Zealand books such a charity case that they need propping up with a month-long promotion? Well, it depends what you mean by charity case, really, doesn't it? When you look at sales figures from this year [the first during which Nielsen BookScan has been operating to provide comprehensive nationwide data], out of all fiction that's bought in New Zealand, only 5.5% is New Zealand-published fiction. The story's a bit better for non-fiction, which is just over 30%, and for children's books at just over 12%.

So in terms of what we're buying, New Zealand writing does need some support. But in terms of what people enjoy, I think New Zealand writing is growing in audience and maintaining the audience that it traditionally already had.

Those sales wouldn't seem to indicate it's doing that. No, definitely not. So ­I guess when you ask why is New ­Zealand Book Month important, ­what we're trying to do is increase the visibility of New Zealand books, so that people perhaps are more familiar with them and can associate with them a bit quicker, and maybe that leads to increased sales further down the track.

But Book Month isn't just about sales. Certainly, when it was initiated, sales figures were the driving outcome, but since then it has moved format slightly, where it's about com­munity engagement and participation and about getting people to celebrate New Zealand books and New Zealand writers.

The big driver, which has always been there, is about trying to create sustainable careers for New Zealand writers. So if we can continue to build that audience, then hopefully that's something that will continue to grow and the sales figures will obviously be the thing that underpins it as it goes on.

Why do you think people have such a downer on New Zealand books, or are so wary of them? It's a hard question. I was talking to one of the publishers about this, and certainly in terms of genre fiction - when you talk about crime and that sort of thing - there seems to be a bit of a cultural cringe over thinking that, "Oh, if it's a New Zealand crime novel it's probably not going to be very good compared with international crime."

But New Zealand genre writing is still relatively new as well. We don't have a huge number of great genre writers in our history. There will be a few. But they've often had success overseas prior to having success in New Zealand.

Who is Book Month aimed at? I can still remember your A Word in His Ear event in Auckland last year dedicated to "being a bloke" and handing out free beer. People loved that, didn't they!

Are you aimed at existing readers or at people you don't think are reading at all? The answer is a bit of both. There is certainly a group of book lovers in New Zealand that we still target, but we think there are more readers out there. There are lots of readers in New Zealand - the Ministry for Culture and Heritage surveys continually point to reading as the No 1 cultural pastime. So, there are people out there who are reading, they're just not reading New Zealand books.

The event got off to a pretty shaky start in 2006, but seems to have built and built. How have you built on last year? This year, the big change was making it more community focused and really about participation. Partly, it's because we've been around for four years, and the other thing is we have these people ­

in communities - we call them book activists - who have put their hands ­

up to generate noise and activity and excitement in their own communities, so it's at a much more grass-roots level, and it means there's not some distant organisation saying, "You should cele­brate New Zealand books", it's about, "How do you want to celebrate?"

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