Booksellers respond to NZ Book Council's report on local reader attitudes

by Rachel O'Neill

The NZ Book Council's recent report on Reading Attitudes and Behaviours has its limits (more on that in a bit), however data that provides insight into some of the key challenges facing the local book industry is sorely needed. The report aims to answer some broad questions; How are we and do we connect more local readers with more NZ books and stories? Where and how do NZ readers find information about NZ books and writers? Why are only about 3% of fiction sales in NZ of New Zealand books? What are the general perceptions readers have about our books and stories?

Booksellers are at the crux of our reading lives. They help grow a community of readers while also responding to external forces. Challenges to advocating for and selling New Zealand books include everything from the way technology impacts where and how readers discover or access information about local books, to what New Zealand book publishers are offering, or not offering. I spoke to booksellers Chris Baskett (co-owner, Books A Plenty), David Cameron (owner, Scorpio Books) and Karen McLeod (NZ Buyer, Unity Books) to gauge their thoughts on the NZ Book Council's report, the questions raised and insights offered. 

A change in sales technique?

I asked Chris Baskett, co-owner of Books A Plenty in Tauranga if the report reaffirmed for her the value of certain existing approaches the bookshop has for advocating and selling NZ books, or will she be doing some things differently in the future?

“If we take anything away from the report, it is to encourage the buying and reading of NZ fiction even more proactively than we do now. I think we are the pivot on which our regular customers rely for credible recommendations, and as such need to keep our own (NZ) fiction reading up to date. Then it is hand-sell, hand-sell, hand-sell… this is made easier by relating characters, settings and plots to our own NZ environment and upbringing. It is so very vital and exciting to see ourselves reflected in our stories. The very best recent example of this is Fiona Kidman’s All Day at the Movies, in which the people and places belong to us."

The key take-away point from the report for Baskett was that “While we have a separate NZ fiction area in the shop, all books compete for the reader’s eye. The best of NZ fiction is as good as any international selection and the worst can be equally as bad. So, encourage reading, judging, discussing and maybe the reader will be surprised. The report did point out the pleasant surprises received by readers who did take the plunge!”

Limits of interpretation

Much debate has ensued since the release of the report last week. The report is the first of three proposed phases of research that the Book Council aims to undertake, to measure the reading attitudes and behaviours of New Zealanders. This research is geared ‘to support the sales and readership of New Zealand books.’ The report is transparent about the limits of its research methods and sample groups, and other writers and book representatives have discussed these in depth. It is disappointing and frustrating to me that this data set is largely composed of older Pākehā women readers, with minimal representation of Māori readers, and no representation of pasifika readers and people of colour. Young readers were also underrepresented. These are the readers that represent the future of our reading community. 

 

We approached Catriona Ferguson with this concern, and she noted “The next phase is to look more closely at some of the issues which came out of the irst report and to examine those in more detail. We’re also broadening the demographic scope of the research.”

Who our readers are, also extends to who our writers are and how we categorise them. Karen McLeod, NZ Buyer at Unity Books, shared some key points to be aware when interpreting findings in the report. She said “When I look around at our lunchtime browsers, it’s a much wider catchment than captured in the survey – yet the results still stand. This has brought into focus our in-house reporting – which doesn’t always capture the full range of NZ authors as NZ authors, because we have sometimes categorised their books as ‘Crime’ or ‘Science Fiction’ and they become lost in the general sales.”

The report also picked up on reader perceptions that Aotearoa fiction is “grim”. McLeod said, “The perception problem regarding grimness… alas, I had thought we were over this but it’s hard to shift. But just to give an example of reality and expectation not necessarily aligning, Victoria University Press (VUP) have a reputation for literary fiction but, Dad Art by Damien Wilkins, the two books by Danyl McLauchlan, and Hera Lindsay Bird’s debut book of poems – all of these are really funny books, not grim. Hera’s [book] might be dark, but still very funny. I think there’s a weird expectation that light means funny, which means happy, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think you often need a bit of dark for comedy.”

Thinking about solutions to reader perceptions, she added, “There is less and less public and philanthropic money available so it needs to be well spent. I don’t know if trying to change people’s perceptions is necessarily the best way, because it seems they’ll cling to them even in the face of strong opposing evidence. Maybe a better way would be to present what IS out there and let people decide whether they like it, fun or not.”

 

A question of quantity?

I asked David Cameron, owner of Scorpio Books in Christchurch, if the report has made him think differently about the key ways they advocate for and sell NZ literature, or by the same token, reaffirmed existing approaches? He said, “It all takes a bit of digesting and though many of the points made are familiar to me, it has given me pause for thought. This report will be disseminated among our staff and I expect some useful suggestions.

The report points out that “People discover new books in numerous ways” and that “Older readers cited mostly local sources for book news and reviews”, while younger readers look to international sources. David Cameron keyed into this area of the report, “We do sell a number of overseas literary journals but the NZ journals such as New Zealand Books and Landfall are too infrequent to influence book sales significantly. There is so much competing for people's attention and I have no answer to this.”

McLeod reminded me, “There is far less NZ fiction published now which naturally results in fewer sales. Self-published works are increasing, but there is not the marketing budget or expertise, and these authors are largely invisible to the public, even in bookshops like ours where we do try to give them some exposure.”

Cameron made a similar comment, “Something not touched on though referred to in Next Steps [in the report] are self-published or published on behalf of (once called 'vanity publishing') which is now some sort of bête noire for the time poor bookseller.” He went on to reflect on other time-sensitive aspects of core business that relate to the challenges of selling New Zealand books, “A visit from a major distributor's rep will usually result in an order for over 100 new titles, a call which may take up to a couple of hours. However the sell-ins from 100 authors might take two weeks! I made that up but there is a quantum difference.” 

So what’s next? 

Can we move forward with a conversation on what readers in Aotearoa want and need based on data that doesn’t represent the full reading community? Who is prepared to resource and push for thorough research over time that can be useful for the whole community? How can we improve collaboration and relationships across the sector to ensure the future health of our industry, an industry we pour our passion and energy into? These are the questions I am asking our industry after reading the Book Council's report and responses to it so far, as I imagine many others are. 

Speaking to booksellers has reminded me that years of experience and responsive attitudes and business strategies are key to success; alongside nourishing relationships with readers and all those invested in the New Zealand reading community. Relationships which enable successful strategic decision-making and the resourcing of the best programmes and activities that will lead to real traction in tackling our most challenging problems, are what it’s all about as we try to create a thriving reading community.

by Rachel O’Neill

* Please note that the opinions expressed within this article are those of the author and her respondents, rather than the official position of Booksellers NZ.