Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: What's wrong with NZ novels?

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A book by a New Zealand author prompts doubts.
Photo / Thinkstock
A book by a New Zealand author prompts doubts. Photo / Thinkstock

I'm a believer in reading a book and passing it on. With infinite books out there and a finite life in which to read them, I'm not much of a re-reader. And I hate to see all those lovely words sitting unread on a bookshelf.

So, when friends come around to my house they're often pelted with novels to take home. "You MUST read this! You'll LOVE it!"

When you're giving something away it's not usually a hard sell. Even if the recipient is half-hearted they'll usually feign enthusiasm (and then probably toss the thing into the re-gifting pile).

But time and time again I've found that if I mention the book is by a New Zealand author, a cloud of doubt will pass over the friend's face. "No, no, it's really GOOD!" I say. I suspect there's a misconception that if a book is good enough to be published overseas, it must be brilliant; if it's good enough to be published in little old New Zealand, it's probably just okay. A few friends have said they've found New Zealand novels too gloomy, and/or too highbrow.

On the other hand, New Zealanders love local non-fiction. Just look at the all-time New Zealand Booksellers bestseller lists. To qualify as a platinum bestseller - the highest of the four tiers on the charts - a non-fiction book needs to sell 100,000 copies within New Zealand in its lifetime, while an adult fiction book must sell 50,000.

Even with the 50 per cent discount, only four local adult fiction books have made the cut: Once Were Warriors and What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? by Alan Duff; and Pounamu Pounamu and The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera. Three of those books were presumably propelled onto the list by the popularity of movies based on them. The non-fiction list, meanwhile, has 12 books.

I remember reading somewhere that a famous New Zealand author once toiled for two years writing a novel and made $10,000 from it.

That ain't going to pay the mortgage, but it's actually a pretty good result for local fiction. Only 43 New Zealand adult fiction titles have sold more than 5000 copies in their entire shelf time, going by the bestseller lists.

In an article posted on the Booksellers website, Jillian Ewart calculated that two local novels published last year - Charlotte Randall's Hokitika Town, and Owen Marshall's The Larnachs - would have netted their authors between $2.25 and $3.50 a copy in royalties, assuming they had standard contracts.

Even if the books hit the lowest-tier bronze bestseller list (5000 copies sold), the authors will just scrape together a five-figure return for possibly years of effort and angst. When I published my first non-fiction book with Random House eight years ago, the company had recently taken a risk with a historical novel by an unknown author. One of the commissioning editors told me others in the publishing industry had thought them mad. New Zealanders weren't supposed to be interested in historical New Zealand fiction.

That book, The Denniston Rose by Jenny Pattrick, and its sequel, Heart of Coal, are now among New Zealand's bestselling novels of all time, just behind the Ihimaera/Duff duos mentioned above. In New Zealand they've each sold between 20,000 and 50,000 copies, and trans-Tasman sales for Denniston have topped 100,000.
Around the same time as The Denniston Rose arrived at the bookshops, Waikato historian Deborah Challinor released her first historical novel, Tamar. It's now right up there in the gold bestseller lists with Pattrick's Denniston duo. Of the 43 adult fiction books on the bestseller lists, eight are historical fiction by Challinor.

Now, it seems, every New Zealand novelist is going historical. As well as The Larnachs and Hokitika Town, in the last year we've had Rangatira by Paula Morris, Sarah Quigley's The Conductor, Ihimaera's The Parihaka Woman and Hamish Clayton's debut Wulf. Stephanie Johnson's Open World is released next month.

I certainly had no trouble passing on my copies of Rangatira and The Conductor last year. Perhaps the historical craze is going to do great things for the demand for local fiction. I hope so. Otherwise I might have to buy another bookshelf.

The Booksellers top New Zealand adult fiction bestsellers

Platinum (more than 50,000 sales)

Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff
Pounamu Pounamu by Witi Ihimaera
The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera
What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? by Alan Duff

Gold (more than 20,000 sales)

Both Sides of the Moon by Alan Duff
Heart of Coal by Jenny Pattrick
Kitty by Deborah Challinor
One Night Out Stealing by Alan Duff
Potiki by Patricia Grace
Some Other Country, a short story collection edited by Marion McLeod and Bill Manhire
The Denniston Rose by Jenny Patrick

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