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For the love of publishing

Tuesday 20th May 2014

Where Parsons Books & Music stood for decades, there’s now an empty window, waiting to be filled with something new.

No one wanted to buy a bookshop in the internet age. The store on Wellington’s Lambton Quay - once called “the most beautiful bookshop in the world” by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky - in February closed its doors after 66-years, one of countless brick and mortar causalities of the internet age.

Beyond the changed shop fronts, the book industry is in flux. Booksellers NZ reported that sales declined by 15 per cent last year. Of the ‘Big Six’ international English language publishers, only Penguin and Random House maintain a full-blown New Zealand presence, and they are in the process of merging.

Many publishers and booksellers see this not as the beginning of the end, but rather as a pivotal point in the development of the industry.

There are still students studying publishing courses and young people dedicating their working hours to actual real-life bookshops – not to mention the constant flow of fresh new writing talent entering the market.

Melanie Govender moved to Auckland from South Africa when she was 19, and described the allure of bookstore work as “something familiar in an unfamiliar place”.

The reality of the publishing process is a mystery to many, even those with a dedicated interest in books and the industry.

Melanie struck it lucky, and found herself employed by Whitcoulls, later moving into an independent bookstore and working as an academic book buyer, where she works behind the scenes, curating the collections of books that each store carries, making sure that the shelves are full of that which is current and appealing to their specific demographic.

The reality of the publishing process is a mystery to many, even those with a dedicated interest in books and the industry. “I was hugely interested in working in editing… [though] now, after getting a taste for the course, the other aspects have really begun to intrigue me,” says Whitireia Polytechnic publishing student, and part-time Gecko Press employee, JD Nodder.

The image of sitting and reading novel after novel, tweaking them to your own tastes seems to be one connected with the world of publishing – but the reality of slush piles, typesetting and frenzied proofreading is not necessarily less appealing – just much broader. As with any industry, there is more to the process than meets the eye.

Marie Hodgkinson's Paper Road Press focuses on ebooks however, demand for physical books is still sufficient that it makes paperback copies too.
Marie Hodgkinson's Paper Road Press focuses on ebooks however, demand for physical books is still sufficient that it makes paperback copies too.

Photo: Alexander Robertson

The Whitireia course is the only one of its kind in New Zealand, and develops talent for the local branches of publishers of all sizes. As with many industries that previously picked bright-eyed young people without any kind of specific experience in the field, a qualification seems to be crucial in landing a job in publishing these days.

The programme is now in its 26th year, with graduates scattered all over the industry, at home and beyond, at all levels of the publishing process. Other programmes do exist internationally – several Australian universities offer variations on publishing/editing/professional writing qualifications – but the idiosyncrasies of New Zealand’s tight-knit industry mean that study closer to home is likely to be in the aspiring publisher’s favour. In an interview on Radio New Zealand National, John MacIntyre of The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie described the course as consisting of “a committed group of industry trainees giving 150 per cent”.

Marie Hodgkinson is one such former student, now working both for an international legal publishing firm, as well as her own independent company, Paper Road Press. Formed last year, her company is about to release their first novel, Paul Mannering’s Engines of Empathy, and has already released Baby Teeth, an anthology which recently won the Best Collected Work award this year at New Zealand fantasy and science fiction writing’s Sir Julius Vogel Awards.

Crowdfunding can be an extremely valuable tool for small presses, with the ability to draw in interest from all over the internet, and by extension, all over the world.

Paper Road Press focuses on ebooks however, demand for physical books is still sufficient that it makes paperback copies too. Print runs for the New Zealand market are organised locally, whilst Amazon’s CreateSpace print-on-demand service providing a means of access to an international market that would otherwise be financially unfeasible to enter.

Marie got into digital publishing before the boom had hit New Zealand, starting her own webzine Semaphore in 2007 when “kindle” was still just a verb to most of us.

The digital potential of the publishing world encompass more than just ebooks. Crowdfunding can be an extremely valuable tool for small presses, with the ability to draw in interest from all over the internet, and by extension, all over the world.

Paper Road Press raised almost $2000 on Kickstarter to help to fund the release of Engines of Empathy. Most of the money came from local readers, but substantial donations were also made by backers in the USA.

Likewise, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s first poetry collection Autobiography of a Marguerite was supported by a PledgeMe campaign. “Aside from the money aspect, it’s a good way to promote your work and to engage with the community directly, and to create a kind of “buzz” or anticipation around the forthcoming work,” she says.

While digital publishing may be on the rise, the market is not yet ready to give up on hardcopy. Rosina Woodroffe, previously a bookseller in Auckland before heading overseas says while convenience has pushed her towards e-books “I personally like to mix my consumption of physical books with a dose of digital works.”

Another concern is the near-monopoly that Amazon has over digital bookselling and publishing. “It homogenises the field of creativity – and digital publishing handled the wrong way can cripple and choke the publishing industry,” one bookseller told me.

Others also have mixed feelings on the matter.

JD says “the industry has done a pretty good job of integrating digital publishing into their traditional publishing practices”, she herself is “averse to reading anything of length on a screen.”

Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle says crowdfunding helps create a buzz around a new book, as well as raise money for its release.
Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle says crowdfunding helps create a buzz around a new book, as well as raise money for its release.

Photo: Supplied

Melanie says the trend of educational publishers providing limited time periods in which online components of textbooks can be accessed – something that is a source of frustration for many students, and that in turn drives some to acquire the material by alternative means.

Illegal file sharing of books is a rising issue, as it has been with music and movie industries in recent years – and while book torrenting hasn’t had quite the same huge profile, stories have cropped up in the media, such as last year when Kim Dotcom’s Mega website was snapped with digital copies of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries available for free download. 

But at the same time, others are optimistic about the future. Marie has noticed a trend towards what she referred to as “adorable” books – novellas, or other small books, with a lower production cost, and a level of collectability about them, which both add to sales potential.

Some doors have closed, but others have opened – Parsons Auckland still provide services to libraries, even without a store front, and Medical Books have shifted their focus to online sales.

Many independent stores thrive on events, from book launches to festivals – Unity Books in Wellington oversees sales during the NZ Festival Writers Week, while their Auckland sister store joins forces with the Women’s Bookshop to organise stock for the Auckland Writers Festival.

Some doors have closed, but others have opened – Parsons Auckland still provide services to libraries, even without a store front, and Medical Books have shifted their focus to online sales.

Digital disruption to the book industry is provoking major changes to how it functions, the generation coming into the industry now are moving with the evolution.

If the words are still being created, and there’s an audience for them, people will be needed to get the stories out. The book is dead; long live the book.

This content is brought to you with funding support from New Zealand On Air.