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Kiwis still buy books – but not as much as we used to

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In 2012, Kiwis spent $142 million on books. Since then, spending has hovered around the $114 million mark. Nielsen data from last year showing we spent $122 million probably reflects an increase in the number of retailers providing data.

We tend to buy non-fiction titles, mostly biographies, autobiographies and cookbooks, making up 47% of sales. Children’s books account for another 29%, and fiction 24%, topped by crime novels, thrillers and adventure stories. Although poetry print runs tend to hover near the 500 mark, in the past year, a surprising 30% of us read poetry books.

We have stuck with, or returned to, physical books. According to Nielsen, 80% of New Zealanders read only hardcopy books and just 5% read only e-books. Readers, says Publishers Association president Peter Dowling, are returning to print, “and publishers are responding by producing better-crafted books”. New Zealand fiction is still “a bit of a challenge”, he says, but books for children and young adults are in good health, audiobooks are staging a comeback and bilingual books are flying out the door – Auckland University Press’ first fully te reo Māori book He Kupu Tuku Iho, by Tīmoti Kāretu and Wharehuia Milroy, sold out in a fortnight and has since been republished.

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The pressure put on printed books and bookshops from the early 2010s by “digital disruption” and easy access to overseas suppliers has abated. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of independent bookstores in the US jumped 35%. In May this year, the Association of American Publishers reported 1.3% growth in book sales from 2016 to 2017, thanks, it says, to the stubborn reading habits of baby boomers and book-movie tie-ins such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games pulling in a younger demographic. In New Zealand, bookshops have come and gone over the past decade, but according to Booksellers NZ, retailer numbers are beginning to stabilise as old bookshops pass into new hands and new shops open (this year’s Bookshop of the Year award went to Volume, a Nelson bookshop in operation for only two years). The Government plan to apply GST to imports under $400, the so-called “Amazon tax”, is also expected to stop bookshops being used for tyre-kicking by people who then go online to buy their reading material (last year, only about 60% of books were bought from a brick-and-mortar bookstore).

Similarly, after several large multinational publishing houses pulled operations back to Australia, a number of new, small, independent publishers and collaborative publishing enterprises have emerged. In last year’s New Zealand Book Awards, all winners were from independent publishers and university presses. “We are a smaller, leaner industry than we were,” says Dowling, “but a sustainable one, which is seeing some growth.”

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We borrow books … 

Again, not as much as we used to. The number of active public library members – those who have used a public library in the previous two years – has grown from 1.3 million in 2014/15 to 1.6 million in 2016/17. Weekend opening hours are longer and the number of e-books and children’s books issued has risen, but the number of books issued overall fell from 49 million to 43.5 million over the past two years.

But public libraries are still at the stoic forefront of our pitch for wider literacy. Waimate District Library has banned fines for overdue children’s and young-adult books in a bid to encourage more young people to use the library. Nelson Public Library hosts dementia-friendly book groups using Dovetale Press publications aimed at those with dementia or stroke patients. Auckland City Library has a new bookshelf especially for the homeless, where books can be left and easily picked up again. Although the importance of school libraries run by a professional librarian is widely acknowledged, figures released to TVNZ show 178 New Zealand schools don’t have a dedicated library, and 330 schools have less library space than they’re entitled to.

We discuss books …

Endlessly. The number of book groups involved in the Book Discussion Scheme (and there are other types of book group) has risen 22% over the past five years, from 1054 to 1290. Groups include 25 in libraries, 13 that are men-only, nine in prisons, five whose members speak English as a second or other language and five in high schools. Although retired women make up the bulk of members, scheme manager Barbara Brown says new groups are more likely to have both male and female readers in their thirties, forties and fifties. Fiction is three times more popular with groups than non-fiction, but last year’s most requested book was a New Zealand non-fiction title, The Good Doctor, by Lance O’Sullivan.

In the running for this year’s most popular fiction title are crime novel The Dry, by Jane Harper, and Orhan’s Inheritance, by first-time novelist Aline Ohanesian. Among non-fiction titles, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by US surgeon Atul Gawande, is leading the pack.

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.