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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The literary scene in New Zealand

Carter Jefferson, of Internet Review of Books, got in touch with me with the following questions:

What is the literary life like in New Zealand?

What are people reading?

Who sells books?

Do you read the British newspapers, or only the local ones?

Are there lots of writers?

Any local publishers?

What are the local industries?

Are there universities?

Feeling somewhat inadequate to the task of answering all of these, I approached a few local book reviewers, literary luminaries, and writers for their reactions.

Lydia Wevers, who featured prominently in the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week, which is run in conjunction with the biannual International Arts Festival in Wellington, said that audiences of 500-1000 at many of the events is a testament to the fact that there is huge interest in literature here. After participating in the Going West Book Festival last year, and the Auckland Writer's and Reader's Festival this year, I can emphatically affirm that this is right. Biographer and theater historian Sarah Gaitanos pointed out that there are lots of book clubs, and that reading is considered a top leisure activity. Another remark gleaned from discussions is that New Zealanders are supposed to be the second-biggest buyers of books in the world (next to Iceland).

A recommendation from Barbara Else is that the websites of the New Zealand Book Council and New Zealand Book Month ( and are worth a good look. The Book Council lists most New Zealand writers, which -- believe me -- add up to an impressive number.

It's harder to tell what people are reading. The book club I belong to chooses novels mostly, alternating between New Zealand authors and cutting-edge fiction from overseas. A bookseller told me that she sells mostly New Zealand nonfiction, particularly books about the outdoors, though anything with Maori interest sells well. New Zealand fiction writers, she says, have a hard job competing against the "big" titles brought out by distributors, which are accompanied by a great deal of publicity.

Newspaper reading is even more difficult to define. Most people I know read the New York Times online, and quite a number read the Guardian online, too. And one must not forget some fine Australian newspapers, such as the Sydney Morning Herald and The [Melbourne] Age.

Local publishers, both large and small, are numerous. Moa Beckett, which specializes in sport and outdoor books, had such an attractive balance sheet that it was bought up by Hachette not so long ago. Learning Media, which produces books for schools, finds a big market in the United States. HarperCollins, Random House, and Penguin are energetic and prominent publishers of local books as well as distributors of international ones. University presses (yes, we do have universities) such as Auckland University Press and Victoria University Press produce a large number of books with incredible speed, and feature prominently in prize-winning lists. At the other end of the scale is a favorite of mine, the tiny Wai-te-ata Press, also at Victoria University of Wellington, which produces very short runs of lovingly designed small books of poetry on antique presses.

There are four major bookstore chains: Whitcoulls, Borders, Dymocks, and PaperPlus. Administratively, this will be reduced to three when Whitcoulls takes over the Borders stores, but they may operate under the old name. PaperPlus is interesting in that each store is independently owned.

Independent bookstores have a very strong voice in the industry, with one of the greatest, Unity Books, running a store right here in Wellington. Another favorite of mine is Parson's bookstore, which sells classical music CDs and DVDs as well.


Anonymous said...

Very very interested to know what are these Waiteata titles you speak of published in, oh, the last five years? I haven't spotted anything for yonks. Yours etc

World of the Written Word said...

Come to think of it, I haven't received an invitation to a book launch there for quite a while now. Maybe that's because they are publishing so much music now? Their website is still current:

Vanda Symon said...

As a voice from the south, Otago University Press and Longacre Press are very active local publishers. Otago University publishes mainly non-fiction titles, but does publish poetry, short stories and also the literary magazine Landfall.

University Book Shop is a fabulous independent In Dunedin.