A matchmaking books site gets $500,000 from the Government. Why?
A start-up headed by an American wedding celebrant with close to zero knowledge of New Zealand literature has been given a massive $500,000 grant from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage to “help Aotearoa audiences access books”.
The grant was announced on Friday, and has stunned leading figures in the New Zealand books trade. In interviews with ReadingRoom, all expressed various states of anger, concern and bafflement – and view it as a waste of a significant amount of public money.
Recommendations site Narrative Muse presents itself as a matchmaker, a kind of Tinder app that seeks to put together people with the books they’d like to read. It’s been floating around since 2016 and is headed by US-born Brough Johnson, who has worked in New Zealand as a film editor (Power Rangers, Westside) and wedding and civil union celebrant (“As a storyteller, I love working with couples to sculpt their special tale and find the perfect rituals that suit them”). Almost no one in New Zealand writing has ever heard of Narrative Muse – a position of ignorance matched by Johnson’s knowledge of New Zealand writing. Asked yesterday to name one local book or author, she said, “Um – if I’m honest I’ve never been any good at naming any authors on the spot. So obviously there’s the obvious one, which is Auē, which is by Becky, and I’m forgetting Becky’s surname right now.”
“I’m aghast,” said author Paula Morris, at the government windfall given to Narrative Muse. Morris sits on numerous boards in New Zealand literature, such as the Māori Literature Trust and the New Zealand Book Awards Trust. “I looked at the site, because I’d never heard of it, and it’s essentially what Amazon is doing already, which is if you like this you’ll like this as well. Why is half a million dollars going into that?”
“Holy f**king shit,” said Jenna Todd, when she was told of the grant. A bookseller at Time Out, and board chair of Booksellers New Zealand, Todd has a unique perspective on Narrative Muse: she’d actually heard of them, and had written a few reviews for the site back in 2016. “It was strange to hear of this thing that I hadn’t thought of for five years which doesn’t even seem to have been in the collective consciousness of books people that I talk to. It’s never been part of the conversation or ever been talked about. So when I heard the news, I was just like, ‘Wow.’ It was mind boggling.”
“I cannot see how it adds anything of significant value to New Zealand writers, and publishers, and booksellers, and readers” – Fergus Barrowman
Much of the criticism of Narrative Muse was its linking of recommended books to Amazon and iTunes. Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman searched the site for New Zealand books – he didn’t find many; there aren’t many – and came across a book of short stories by one of his authors, Tracey Slaughter. It linked straight to Amazon and iTunes, with no information on how to buy it in New Zealand.
“Obviously I looked for Ellie,” he said, meaning Eleanor Catton. Narrative Muse listed her books The Rehearsals and The Luminaries – but both were listed as their international editions, and not VUP, her original publisher. Barrowman’s assessment of the site: “I cannot see how it adds anything of significant value to New Zealand writers, and publishers, and booksellers, and readers.”
Massey University Press publisher Nicola Legat heard about the funding at a Coalition of New Zealand Books meeting. Like Barrowman, it was the first she’d heard of Narrative Muse; like him, she looked at their site; and like him, like everyone spoken to for this story, was astonished to see that recommended books were linked to Amazon and iTunes.
She was angry about the $500,000 grant. “That is such a shocking undermining of the New Zealand books sector which works so hard to support authors and publishers,” she said. “For that amount of money to leave the New Zealand economy and go to Amazon is just completely shocking to me.”
The Government’s consuming desire to give public money to Amazon is well documented in stories about the New Zealand film industry. The Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s $500,000 grant to Narrative Muse looks like another example, but Brough Johnson said the site was a work in progress. Asked whether Narrative Muse would continue to direct traffic to Amazon, she said, “Yeah, so one of our key struggles that we have here in Aotearoa is a core source for data of all of the content that’s available inside of each bookseller. We’re trying to find a way in which we can know for instance what’s at Unity, or what’s at the Women’s Bookshop, so that our readers will have an easy pathway to books that are available in their region.”
Johnson was asked if that result could be achieved by going to a bookstore. She said, “Yeah, and we’re also trying to help cross that digital divide.”
Much of the site is devoted to international books. Its “team” of reviewers, or recommenders, are based in Toronto, New York, and North Carolina. (Like Johnson, the co-founder of Narrative Muse, Teresa Bass, is an American expat living in New Zealand). But the site will now work towards shifting its focus to New Zealand “content” (to use Johnson’s constant definition of books) to satisfy the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s handsome endowment of $500,000.
Johnson said, “Yeah, so we are actually going to spend a bunch of time, the majority of our time, over the next 18 months focusing on Aotearoa content. So that is where our core interest is now. So we are talking internally inside our team right now about what growing partnerships actually looks like with content producers, and when we talk about content producers, we talk about book authors, and book publishers.”
Narrative Muse has a staff of four. She said, “We are an incredibly tiny team, and we’re trying to find ways to do the big work and the big mahi that we’re seeking to do which is to help content producers understand what audiences are seeking. So the main premise of Narrative Muse is to be a place for audiences to go and find access to content that represents their identity, and really reflects their taste and how they want to feel, so one of the things we are trying to improve in our recommendations is helping audiences find content that really reflects who they are as a person. So the way we are going about recommendations is the very specific way of identifying what are those traits and qualities about a reader, and what are books that also exist that have those same traits and qualities. So within Aotearoa what we are looking at doing is growing our content library that reflects Aotearoa but also reflects our core audience.”
So the Ministry for Culture and Heritage would have heard a version of this kind of spiel.
The $500,000 funding is part of the Government’s $374 million Covid recovery package for the arts sector. Something called the the Cultural Sector Innovation Fund was allocated $60 million over three years “to support innovative projects that improve the sustainability and resilience of the sector”. Successful applicants needed to find “new ways to add value to the economy, particularly through digital exports”.
“No one I know had been asked for input” – Nicola Legat
Fergus Barrowman commented, “The question is why the ministry is doing it directly. Creative New Zealand appear to have no role in it.”
Nicola Legat: “It did seem odd to me that Creative New Zealand staff weren’t part of the decision-making process.” Her criticism of the funding was less directed at Narrative Muse than the ministry.
“I would be really interested to know just how much research went into whether this was a thing that the sector would really benefit from….No one I know had been asked for input. There seemed to be no industry panel for feedback on whether the grants they were considering were appropriate or not, and would actually be transformational, which I think is what it’s supposed to be all about.”
Paula Morris said, “I don’t see why Creative New Zealand, which is an agency set up to distribute funding in our arts and cultural scene, and have intimate knowledge of the sector, would somehow need to be bypassed to give out this money. I don’t understand any aspect of the thinking behind it.”
All were shocked at the sheer sum of money. Inane lobby group the Taxpayers’ Union has tried to manufacture controversy by pointing to Creative New Zealand funding decisions – $8000 to a poet, $26,000 to a novelist – as examples of outrageous wastes of taxpayers’ money. But no one and nothing in New Zealand literature even gets close to half a million dollars in funding.
ReadingRoom put questions in writing to the ministry. They included, “Was anyone from Creative New Zealand invited to consult?”
A spokesperson replied, “Input and feedback from Creative NZ as well as others from across the cultural sector helped inform the high-level design of the Innovation Fund. Creative New Zealand can apply to receive Innovation Funding, and as such would not be consulted on other funding decisions.”
The ministry was also asked, “Why did the ministry pour such a massive amount of money into an unknown start-up which directs its few readers to international conglomerates? How does this benefit NZ culture and heritage?”
The spokesperson replied, “We can speak to the potential we saw in it as a start-up with a strong proposal to develop audiences for diverse content, and to enable access to diverse content for audiences. This has potential for positive impacts for Aotearoa audiences and may help NZ content producers to reach global audiences.
“New Zealand content producers have potential to increase sales of content by reaching new markets (nationally and globally) and by using insights to connect with new audiences that they may not yet have reached including Māori, Pasifika, Asian, rainbow, women, and gender diverse audiences.”
But the spokesman also replied, “As well as goals to attain these outcomes, the proposal provided by Narrative Muse identified engagement and collaboration, and strong relationships with sector representatives and organisations, as activity that would be supported by this funding.”
What “engagement”? What “collaboration?” What “strong relationships with sector representatives”? As Paula Morris said, “I doubt they have spoken to a single publisher and gone around the traps and acquainted themselves with the New Zealand books scene.”
Jenna Todd, the sole book industry figure associated with Narrative Muse, had no idea her name was still on its website. She wondered whether she might email Brough Johnson to ask that her name be taken off. As a bookseller at Time Out, she was unhappy with the site’s use of Amazon to alert readers to books. It’s why she stepped back from her involvement five years ago, and hadn’t given Narrative Muse a single thought since: “I didn’t even know the website still existed.”
Until the site introduced the Amazon links, though, she was positive about Narrative Muse. “Brough is a very enthusiastic person. She thinks quite internationally.”
“I didn’t even know the website still existed” – Jenna Todd
Paula Morris acknowledged, “If the next stage of this project is New Zealand focused, then I’d think, ‘Okay, they’re taking this model which doesn’t seem to be particularly successful but whatever, to really focus on New Zealand literature and support our writers and booksellers and publishers.’ And that might make a difference.”
And this is the way Narrative Muse are headed, albeit seemingly without much of an idea of the New Zealand book trade, or of authors such as Becky with the forgettable surname. “I don’t remember lists of titles and names,” Brough Johnson said. “It’s not how my brain works. My brain doesn’t remember titles or content. What I think about is around the needs of audiences and supporting audiences, so they can find content in our recommendation engine.”
The engine needs a bit of work. Its “team” of New Zealand-based reviewers, or “content contributors”, includes Amy Lewis, a fan of New Age literature. Her bio on the Narrative Muse site reads, “Just south of Raglan, New Zealand, Amy lives in a bus and measures her life’s success by the amount of time she has to read and number of plants she grows from seed. She loves to write, eat, do yoga, read poetry and be in the trees or sea.”
Don’t we all. Early days, then, for the nouveau riche company bestowed with the faith of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and $500,000 of public money. It has scarcely more than 500 followers on Twitter but Brough (pronounced ‘bro’) Johnson claimed it has “close to 30,000 users”. Throughout a rather testing interview, she retained the quality Jenna Todd identified and admired: enthusiasm. It can get you places, achieve great things for yourself and others, maybe.
She said, “I can tell you that we have a lot of work to do to develop relationships and partnerships. We’ve been focusing so much of our time on technology, and growing a model in which we want to connect our audiences with our content, but we have a lot of work to do on brand awareness.”
I said something along the lines that she could say that again, and she said, “I know, Steve, you have many, many, many years of experience in the New Zealand publishing sector, and I – “
I interrupted, “What makes you think that?”
She said, “I did a quick search.”