Sales of NZ fiction are dismal. Why, and how to fix it?

The publishing company 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 prospective novelist. Entries close at the end of the month.   

One of the surprising upsides of Covid has been the noticeable increase in reading – and sales – of books in New Zealand. You’d think fiction, as an escape into another world, would resonate in these end-of-times, and it is, but with a significant qualification. We’re reading international fiction, kids’ fiction, local and international non-fiction, but New Zealand fiction sales continue to perform at what can only be called a dismal level, despite the last few years seeing a proliferation of fantastic, genre-crossing, local novels, such as Becky Manawatu’s Auē, Kirsten McDougall’s She’s a Killer (bizarrely not on the shortlist for this year’s Ockhams), Sue Orr’s Loop Tracks, Rebecca K Reilly’s Greta & Valdin, Nicky Pellegrino’s To Italy with Love, and Catherine Chidgey’s Remote Sympathy (which  missed out on winning the big prize at the Ockhams last year but has just made the longlist of the UK Women’s Prize).

According to Nielsen BookData, the New Zealand book market is up 8.6 percent year on year from 2020 to 2021. New Zealand fiction makes up just 5 percent of the total market. Compare that to Australia, where Australian fiction makes up about 30 percent of total sales, according to Nielsen BookData.

The most successful Australian fiction title published last year was Liane Moriarty’s Apples Never Fall, which sold nearly 200,000 copies in Australia (and well over 10,000 copies here). But it’s not just that much-maligned genre of “commercial women’s fiction” that resonates in Australia. Christos Tsiolkas, best-known for his tour de force novel The Slap, routinely sells more than 50,000 copies of his novels. Damascus – a novel on the establishment of the Christian church – has sold some 50,000 copies and won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Turn to the crime genre, and former journalist Jane Harper has sold almost 400,000 copies of her highly regarded novel The Dry in Australia (and a cool million or so copies worldwide). That’s more than enough royalties to quit the day job, and she has.

But here, how many New Zealand fiction titles were featured in the top 50 bestselling New Zealand titles of 2021? Ten? Five? No. Two: Becky Manawatu’s Auē, which was published in 2019, and Nicky Pellegrino’s To Italy, with Love, which came out in October last year.

Most New Zealand fiction titles would be lucky to sell more than 2000 copies

Even more depressing, while a very successful non-fiction New Zealand title can sell more than 20,000 copies, and many routinely sell between 10,000–15,000 copies, most New Zealand fiction titles would be lucky to sell more than 2000 copies. Even the most successful of these would be lucky to crack 10,000 sales. There are exceptions, such as Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Jenny Pattrick’s historical novel The Denniston Rose, published in 2003.

A few recently published novels and authors have also bucked the trend, including Auckland-based Rose Carlyle’s The Girl in the Mirror, which has now been published in several countries including New Zealand, Australia, the US and the UK; the now New Plymouth-based Jacqueline Bublitz’s Before You Knew My Name, which was the subject of a bidding war and secured multiple deals in different territories (and which has been ignored by the Ockhams, but nominated for The Dublin Literary Award) and Kiwi expat JP Pomare, a literary crime writer who now lives in Melbourne and has published several successful thrillers. They were all published out of Australia.

For New Zealand authors published out of New Zealand-based publishing companies, what is (not) going on?

According to Joan Mackenzie, head book buyer at Whitcoulls, “I think the key word in all this is ‘commercial’. For many years our local fiction seemed to come from a fairly dark place – a lot of it was very worthy, not terribly accessible for a lot of people and was well-rooted in the literary community, as opposed to the wider book-reading world. 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’s a long legacy of many people feeling that New Zealand fiction doesn’t speak to them and it takes time to change that.”

Bestselling novelist Nicky Pellegrino (who I suspect would love to emulate Jane Harper and have the choice of quitting her day job as a journalist) agrees.

She says, “I think there’s a perception out there that NZ fiction is dark, literary and difficult. Clearly, that’s not the case, there’s huge variety now, but the image problem persists. Many readers, when they want a book for entertainment, will pick up the latest Liane Moriarty or Marian Keyes because they feel assured of a great read. But I’m hoping things are changing as there are certainly loads of New Zealand writers producing entertaining mainstream fiction: Charity Norman, Sue Copsey/Olivia Hayfield, Nalini Singh, Rose Carlyle, and new talent coming through.”

I wonder why so many in the publishing industry think that any book that sells in serious numbers is unworthy of cultural recognition. (Don’t get me started on the Ockhams)

It’s easy enough to blame the readers, but I wonder why so many in the publishing industry struggle to accept that we can enjoy and accept both high art and escapism when it comes to our choice of film, television and music, even food, but think that any book that sells in serious numbers is unworthy of cultural recognition. (Don’t get me started on the Ockhams.) Almost every serious reader I know (and yes, they are most often middle-aged women, who have been the backbone of publishing since the presses started cranking) reads beyond one genre. That’s the joy of reading; it opens your mind.

It also ignores the fact that commercial publishing companies rely on publishing enough successful books to be able to commission other books, which may sell well below the general threshold of what’s needed to break even (about 4000 copies in New Zealand, depending on how much it costs to produce). It’s a different situation to the university presses, who operate under a subsidised funding and grants model, and are able to publish poetry, literary fiction and academic 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 is the case in most other countries). A big part of why that occurs is because a huge breakout bestseller effectively subsidises several other books. We need all kinds of books to publish all kinds of books.

There is also a flow-on effect when books do well. It sustains an industry of freelance editors, designers, photographers and illustrators. The writers are paid more. Successful books allow publishers to commission other books that may not sell strongly. This is the ecosystem of publishing. 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 backing our more commercial [fiction] writers and helping grow public confidence in their work,” says Joan Mackenzie. “I’m increasingly – and almost exponentially – seeing 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 do we do about it as an industry? For starters, by acknowledging that there is a need for both literary and commercial fiction (and a wide range of non-fiction) and that as an industry, we should support this.

Allen & Unwin wants to see all writers – across every genre, literary and commercial – being read in significant numbers. Yes, it involves investing in writers, and also in marketing, publicity and in supporting booksellers – but wouldn’t it be nice if we got to a point where the biggest selling novel in New Zealand each year was one that told our own stories?

Our commercial fiction prize is open to all New Zealand residents and citizens. It might be a first attempt at being published, or the winner may be an established author. (And yes, it is a novel, not a short story, a poem or non-fiction.) The $10,000 advance is against royalties.

So, what are we looking for? Well-written, propulsive, character-driven novels. We’re open to any genre: contemporary, historical, crime; but one that can appeal to a wide readership. The kind of book that if you have to put it down, all you want to do is pick it back up, and that when you finish, you’ll tell all your friends about it.

Who wouldn’t want to read that?

Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: David Young’s magnificent illustrated book on Easter Island

Michelle Hurley is a publisher at Allen & Unwin. She is a former journalist, most recently the editor of Canvas magazine in The New Zealand Herald.

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