About 18 months ago, I wrote a piece for Newsroom that, along with plugging our inaugural Allen & Unwin Fiction prize, lamented the sorry state of New Zealand fiction sales at the time – despite the fact that 2021 was a bumper year for book sales generally. (Turns out that was mostly because we felt like we had lots of money thanks to those lovely low interest rates … remember them?)

Last week, we announced the second winner of that prize – Gavin Strawhan, a scriptwriter, show runner and soon to be debut novelist, whose novel, The Call, came out on top. There were about 80 entries this year (down from the 100 we received in our first year, not surprising, really, when you work out that everyone who’d had an old manuscript in their drawer had already entered). There was romance, literary fiction, historical fiction, sci-fi … you name it, we read it.

The Call was the unanimous choice of our judging panel. I was on that panel, and honestly, it’s a cracking read – a crime novel set in a remote coastal New Zealand town, that hangs on the idea of a female gang informant who forms a close relationship with a detective called Honey Chalmers. It’s not a spoiler to say they are both nearly killed for it. It seems gangs have little time for snitches or bitches (Honey is called that and a lot worse). Anyway, we ate it up and have high hopes for it. Kudos to Gavin for writing such a killer debut novel.

We launched the prize to try and foster strong local writing and to see if we could discover new writers with the potential to sell the same kind of numbers that New Zealand non-fiction sells. When I wrote that first piece, the discrepancy was dire – apart from a few standouts, most New Zealand fiction would be lucky to sell more than 2000 copies, whereas lots of local non-fiction routinely sells more than 5000 copies, and often much more.

We published the inaugural winner – Everything is Beautiful and Everything Hurts, by Josie Shapiro – in May this year, and I’m delighted to say it’s been a hit, both critically and commercially. It’s sold very strongly both here and in Australia, we’ve sold French rights, reprinted it three times, and it’s stayed in the top 10 bestseller New Zealand fiction list for four months and counting. Josie is working on a new novel which we can’t wait to publish.

But overall, have things improved? While the company that measures book sales in New Zealand, Nielsen BookScan, doesn’t generally disclose data publicly, its Territory Manager for New Zealand, Nevena Nikolic, can confirm that 2022 saw an improvement in local fiction sales. Whereas in 2021, only two of the 50 bestselling New Zealand titles were fiction, last year it had increased to six. Those novels were, in order of sales, Kāwai: For Such a Time as This by Monty Soutar; Harbouring by Jenny Pattrick; Greta and Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly; Eddy, Eddy by Kate de Goldi; Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka and The Leonard Girls by Deborah Challinor. Six out of 50 is still not great but is empirically better than two.

And that’s last year. Yesterday’s news! 2023 looks like it might be the annus mirabilis of New Zealand fiction. Eleanor Catton, Nicky Pellegrino, Fiona Farrell, Stephanie Johnson, Emily Perkins and Catherine Chidgey have all already published novels this year and Catton’s and Chidgey’s in particular have done fantastically well. It’s also been an exceptional year for debut novels, with Megan Nicol Reed, Anne Tiernan, Josie Shapiro, Claire Baylis, Margaret Meyer and Airana Ngarewa all making the top 10 bestseller charts. Ngarewa’s The Bone Tree deserves special mention for making it to number one for six weeks.

Nikolic says the New Zealand General Fiction category – which takes in post-1945 fiction and doesn’t include Genre Fiction (crime, thriller & adventure; science fiction & fantasy; historical & mythological fiction; horror & ghost stories; romance & sagas; erotic fiction; war fiction; westerns) – is up a phenomenal 130 percent in value year to date to September 9. As Nikolic says, “New Zealand fiction is going to blow it out of the water this year.”

Happy days are (maybe) here at last! And, handily, Allen & Unwin will open entries to our 2024 Allen & Unwin Fiction prize on October 1. It’s open to all New Zealand residents and citizens and the winner will receive a $10,000 advance against royalties. It might be a debut novel, or the writer may be an established author. Just remember, it’s for a novel (not a memoir, short story or poetry). Go here to enter.

What are we looking for? Well-written, propulsive, plot-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 when you 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 – a book like The Call by Gavin Strawhan, to be published next year.

Everything is Beautiful and Everything Hurts by Josie Shapiro (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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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