Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Talking about the write thing

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James George says competing narratives abound in the book world.
James George says competing narratives abound in the book world.

What is "publishing" exactly? Award-winning author James George sees it as "connecting writers of stories to readers of stories". Simple.

The New Zealand Society of Authors member was speaking at the Independent Book Festival held last Saturday at St Paul's, the Devonport church bought and turned into a venue and chess centre by grandmaster Murray Chandler last year. Evangelical-wing conspiracy theorist Ian Wishart was on the festival bill in this ex-Presbyterian house, and a National Party billboard graced the lawn. Chess is a political game indeed.

I didn't hear Wishart but George gave an excellent 10-minute precis of the past 15 years of New Zealand publishing. Competing narratives abound in the book world, he said. He wasn't talking about C. K. Stead vs everyone else.

Plot one: the New Zealand publishing industry is dying. Publishing lists are shrinking, multi-nationals such as Hachette and Pearson Education have upped sticks, and the global mega-merger of Random House and Penguin means one less giant.

Ergo, woe is civilisation, the book will soon become toast - or, like the scroll, a cinnamon bakery good.

Plot two: the traditional publishing industry was a load of self-generating gate keepers, and good riddance. They're only disappearing because they're no longer the only bridge over the waters of obscurity separating authors from adoring readers. In their place is the internet, a shop window for print books as well as e-books by writers publishing DIY.

Sure, writers might sell fewer copies, but after costs, they can keep 80 to 90 per cent of the proceeds instead of more measly standard royalties of 10 per cent. "Print on-demand" - when books are only printed as customers order them - has greatly reduced costs. A new age has dawned, sans middlemen.

The industry gatekeepers don't always earn their keep anyway: writers have to do more and more of their own promotion. Industry copy editing is also uneven. My issues with Witi Ihimaera's The Trowenna Sea weren't so much the plagiarism as the neon errors of fact that his editors didn't spot: characters enjoying "the latest novels of Jane Austen" 15 years after her last book appeared posthumously; a mention of penicillin in 1903, about 25 years before Alexander Fleming discovered it.

Plot two's hero is Ted Dawe, whose self-published young adult novel Into the River won Book of the Year at the NZ Post Children's Book Award last year. Amusingly, its publisher is listed as "Mangakino University Press". Thus tags of "vanity press" and "low-quality industry rejects" no longer always hold true, and what George calls the "Berlin Wall" between bookshops and DIY writers may be cracking. Behold, the new community brand of "independent publishers".

To really make this work, George recommends writers outsource their quality control and publicity. As they prefer to hide away writing in their garages, authors "are about the worst natural marketers on the face of the planet". Some things haven't changed: being a writer is one thing; being read is another.

- NZ Herald

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