NZ Books needs a better story

Every now and again you come across an article that is so annoying, so half baked, and so lacking in investigative depth that you have to take a moment just to stop seething and get over your annoyance.

That happened today when I read Elisabeth Easther’s appallingly spoon-fed bit of ‘journalism’ in the New Zealand Listener. The story is built around a bit of research done by the New Zealand Book Council which claims that New Zealanders don’t like New Zealand fiction, and don’t know much about New Zealand fiction either.

As one friend acidly observed “rich, coming from the Listener that slashed their book review pages.”

But it goes further than that. So much further than that. It goes to the very rotten heart of the infrastructure of New Zealand literature of which the NZ Book Council and the Listener are a very culpable part.

So let’s have a look at what the NZ Book Council thinks passes for research — the report. Fundamentally the Book Council got eleven focus groups together and asked them what they thought of New Zealand fiction. The first thing any self respecting researcher asks is ‘were the focus groups representative’?

The report doesn’t say much about the demographics other than they were drawn from book groups and there was a preponderance of older women. The only information about the reading habits of the New Zealand population cited for comparison is White (2012). But White’s survey was not representative of anything much either; consisting of a typical M.A student’s snowball survey using questionnaires placed at bookshops, and recruitment by friends, and friends of friends. This yielded 497 replies which is borderline (at best) for a fully random sample, and for a snowball simply isn’t. So there is no way of knowing whether the Book Council’s group’s represent anybody other than themselves.

All the NZ Book Council really has here is a big pile of anecdotes. Anecdotes are anecdotes. They represent the people who offered their opinion, and that often says as much about them, as what they are opining about. From the report it seems those sampled were clearly pretty old. Their frame of reference was a collection of authors from the 1970s. Vincent Ward’s “Vigil” was cited twice as an example of New Zealand literary grimness. But, Holy Crap! Vigil came out in 1984! That was 32 years ago.

There is also an interesting concordance between the Book Council’s report and Pia White’s 2012 Master’s thesis. Many of the themes explored are very similar. Indeed the report even says at one stage (p4) “The reaction of our groups backed up the White study”. As one who works developing surveys for consumption by older people the most important consideration is confirmation bias. Old people, generally, tend to respond to surveys more and reflect any bias they detect. Whether this happened is unclear. The study simply isn’t documented very well enough, nor is it’s authorship recorded, to make it possible to tell.

Whatever the case none of this is good enough. The NZ Book Council should know much more about New Zealand readers than that.

What business is it in? Well, it tells us Our mission is to champion the lifelong engagement of New Zealanders in reading, and to lead the promotion and nurturing of New Zealand writers, writing and books.” So knowing what New Zealanders want to read should be pretty close to core business — and yet here we are, in 2016, with one rather dubious collection of anecdotes from old women around the country serving as illumination.

Any professional research company could have conducted sound quantitative research to get a representative sample. Any professional research company could have constructed a research methodology that avoided confirmation bias. There’s only one reason the Book Council won’t have done that — budget. We’ll come back to that later.

But let us, for the sake of argument, accept the findings of the report (p17).

  1. New Zealand lit is seen as grim and dull (citing Man Alone etc)
  2. It’s associated with teachers compelling classes to read
  3. It’s all Pohutakawas and jandals with no action
  4. The only Kiwi writers the researchers refer to hark back to the 1970’s (though it seems unlikely that was what the young focus group in Wellington focused on.

What does that tell us?

Basically that the Book Council has failed very badly to do it’s job for a long, long time.

Consider this from CE Catriona Ferguson:

“ Our Writers in Schools programme has been running for over 40 years! In that time, we’ve reached one million students at over 10,000 events.”

Except it turns out according to the research the readers don’t recall NZ fiction as a good experience. They see it as worthy and dull.

“Booknotes Unbound … gets 2,000 hits a week and our associated newsletter has a 45% open rate — almost double that of most arts and not for profit organisations”

Except none of the ordinary Kiwis in the focus groups could recall many modern Kiwi books except the Luminaries because it made the news. In short the Book Council’s own research suggests it has completely failed to connect with New Zealand readers (these book group readers) for generations.

Did they never once think to ask New Zealanders what they read before?

They did all this work over forty years and never monitored their progress. If it were a commercial enterprise it would be dead. Why the fuck would you not do market research?

Here’s my hypothesis: they didn’t care, they were getting paid anyway out of the public purse.

Because New Zealand “literature” is a cliquey little club run by a certain group of writers for the benefit of that certain group of writers. They give each other gongs, awards and prizes; they give each other trips; and they subsidise each other’s collections of poetry. They have their own little publication (NZ Books) in which they celebrate one another or pass snide (and some believe actionable) remarks about pretenders to the club. And now we discover they never appealed much to New Zealanders anyway!

By contrast I know New Zealand romance writers who sell by the bucketload, who get zero funding from Creative New Zealand, and make good money exporting New Zealand stories to the world. The romance writers aren’t alone. New Zealand has YA and science fiction writers, fantasy writers, crime writers, all sorts of writers, even writers of trashy erotica, who are part of this country’s inner life and expression. I bet none of those focus groups had any idea of that.

But then these are writers who will never appear in NZ Books, or get cited in English Master’s theses, or the Spinoff, or the NZ Herald or appear in the Listener or on Nine to Noon. And what does the New Zealand Book Council do for them? The body that has a mission is to champion the lifelong engagement of New Zealanders in reading, and to lead the promotion and nurturing of New Zealand writers, writing and books? Fuck all. They are finally proposing to offer a pathetic array of mentorships, paltry grants and opportunities to get some of the trips and shit that they used to give the old boys and girls. For this they are meant to be grateful.

I say the problem with the New Zealand Book Council is that it has completely failed to keep up with the times. Why? Because the 70's crowd hung on to power for too long as the world changed around them. And the influence was remarkable. Even as late as five years ago New Zealand publishers would sniffily decline to consider Romance, Fantasy or Science Fiction. If Hollywood acted like that it would be bankrupt. No Star Wars? No Lord of the Rings? And not surprisingly a lot of New Zealand’s sniffy old publishers have gone.

Inadequate as it is the Book Council’s attempts at research are, however, at least something of a start in the right direction. But the research it undertakes is poor and not part of any clear strategy (and don’t get me started on the Infometrics economic value of books study). Worse it still doesn’t connect with kiwi writers or readers. What’s wrong? The answer is incredibly simple.


Consider how much Creative New Zealand gives New Zealand On Air. Money for radio stations, money for track development. But let’s look at that money for new songs. Every year 1,000 tracks are produced by NZonAir funded musicians to the tune of $4,000 each. In total NZ music gets $4.6 million.

And don’t tell me music costs more to produce than books. Books have editing costs, graphics costs, marketing costs. If a thousand writers of all genres could get $4,000 per title per year not only would the quality improve hugely but so too would the quantity. Coordinated with the same cunning as the music or film sectors across all genres that would be a pretty hefty entre into global publishing.

Now let’s look at the New Zealand Film Commission. It gets $27 million from the Crown. Film funding is pretty complicated but with films like Dark Horse, Deadlands and What we do in the Shadows grossing between $1 — $2m, it’s pretty obvious that there is a fair amount of money around for film.

But film looks tiny compared to the money thrown at TV. $68 million gets spent on TV.

Meanwhile the Creative New Zealand funding programmes “for individual writers and illustrators to research and create work had significantly decreased — from $667,150 in 2003–04 to $328,138 in 2013–14” (CNZ lit Review 2015 p24). And even in this age of Indy publishing the CNZ review is still sniffily against self-publishing. If those rules were applied to music there wouldn’t be fucking any NZonAir. So why one rule for one art and a different one for the other?

Easy. Because “New Zealand “literature” is a cliquey club run by a certain group of writers for the benefit of that certain group of writers. They give each other gongs, awards and prizes; they give each other trips; and they subsidise each other’s collections of poetry. And apparently it doesn’t connect to New Zealanders.”

Literature has been about wine and cheese for the patronising Minister and a bunch of literati chickens ferociously henpecking each other for chicken feed.

By contrast music has sold the story that music is a broad-based cultural export which gives us national identity. Film has claimed it’s an adjunct to the tourism industry. Between them they have taken off with the bulk of arts funding.

The Book Council’s efforts to gather data are, unfortunately, undermined by the quite shoddy research they are funding. Nor does announcing so loudly that they have been wasting their time for forty years strike me as clever strategy. The “next steps” effort to collect data by asking authors what their New Zealand sales are is slipshod and haphazard at best. Much better data will be available by default next year when GST collected by Amazon and the like starts showing up on IRD’s radar.

Because no matter what they’ve been told it wasn’t data that sold music or film to the Governments of the day that gained the industry more funding. Back in the 90s and 2000s there wasn’t much data linking expenditure to outcomes. No, what they had was something far better — a good story.

And that is ultimately my challenge to the New Zealand Book Council. Stop undermining yourselves with bad research. Join up all the genres just like NZonAir supports everything from death metal to brass bands. Flush the snootiness. Would the literati have supportedthe equivalent of Peter Jackson making “Meet the Feebles” the same way the Film Commission did? I rather doubt it.

Here’s the most important thing they have to do: help everyone. Not just ‘award winning’, not just academic darlings, not just your mates. Help all the writers in all the genres. Enlist the country (via big prize competitions) as reviewers. Connect the readers. Connect the government departments.

Every year the National Library hands out thousands of ISBNs. Every year it collects in copies of every book published. What for? Where does the data go? How is all this fed back to the producers? What’s the connection between the Book Council and all that information? Nothing! Why not?

For too long our literature infrastructure has languished in the hands of librarians and academics who have shushed voices of dissent, accepted sinking lids, and desperately held onto their own status rather than build an industry. It’s failed. We need a new way of doing things. A way that integrates rather than divides; supports the many, rather than lionizes the few: collects information and feeds it back; recognises the multitude of markets and connects with all of them; and sells itself in a coherent and fresh way.

But most important of all we need a literature community that can tell the government with one voice a better story about why writing (for export) is important and a part of our cultural exports to the world.

SEE PART TWO: Starting a better story

Like what you read? Give Peter King a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.