Editorial: a bumpy revolution in NZ publishing

By The Listener In Editorial

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There’s a revolution going on in publishing, and it has little to do with books sitting on screens rather than shelves.

HarperCollins has proposed closing its local distribution operations at the end of next month and moving them to New South Wales. This doesn’t mean it will stop publishing local books, but most functions – including editorial, but not sales and marketing – would be done from Sydney. In the same week, Pearson, the British multinational that owns Penguin and produces educational titles here, announced it is in “consultation” on its education business and says the Auckland office may close. Consultations and proposals sound friendly and inclusive, but in these days of unyielding bottom lines, they are usually synonyms for fait accompli.

The Pearson move comes as Penguin gets the nod from the Commerce Commission to merge with Random House, owned by private German company Bertelsmann.

Photo/Thinkstock

What does the merger mean for book fans? Almost certainly that fewer New Zealand titles will be produced. Penguin, home to Joy Cowley, Anne Salmond and Maurice Gee, and Random House, home to Al Brown, Owen Marshall and Witi Ihimaera, don’t compete head to head on every niche and genre, but the overlap is considerable. Some 2000 books are published each year in New Zealand, although for many years Penguin and Random House, followed by the other publishing multinationals, have produced most of the country’s chart-toppers – fiction and fact – that you see in the dwindling number of bookshops.

The Commerce Commission, looking mainly at local authors getting access, book distribution and supply, said the new entity wouldn’t breach its market-concentration guidelines. But the simple truth is that authors will have one fewer place to send their popular fiction, gardening guide and cookbook manuscripts. More decisions will be made across the ditch, which will be of particular concern to local mass-market authors, as Australian publishers are widely perceived in the industry to not have a clue about our likes and dislikes. And publishers of literary fiction such as VUP must be flinching at the rising wave of words heading their way.

The scores of smaller local publishers without the potential cross-subsidy of a Dan Brown or Lee Child generally focus on niches and genres, such as non-fiction or poetry. Perhaps they will pick up discarded publishing staff and dip a toe into such areas as fiction – although probably not. More foreign publishers could publish local authors, but it’s unlikely. Text Publishing in Melbourne is a rare bird that releases a handful of New Zealand titles each year. Other global publishers, such as Simon & Schuster – or Amazon, Google and Apple – could come into the market. But why would they enter such a tiny market?

The Commerce Commission notes that the number of books being published was falling before the merger announcement. E-books, print on demand and self-publishing are all growing. But publishing moguls such as Annabel Langbein are few and far between. E-books make up about 3% of the market, but thanks to the shrinkage of serious media, the number of publicity and reviewing opportunities for digital and self-published titles is vanishingly small. Self-published authors are all but invisible.

There is some room for optimism. Any withdrawal or reduction in production opens the way for other publishers, at least in theory. More distribution from efficient Australian warehouses could improve the flow of global books to readers. Prices of books won’t go up, the combined company has said. Just as well, say frequent buyers, who rightly complain about the price of imported books – although they might not realise prices may be set in London.

Not all revolutions end well, and time, as usual, will tell whether this top-down, bibliocrat-imposed one is in the interests of New Zealand’s literary culture. It’s possible our producing 2000 books a year is out of kilter with other countries. It may be we have been publishing above our weight for some time. Perhaps we don’t need five celebrity cookbooks a year. Perhaps it will make life easier for author-funding schemes such as that provided by Creative New Zealand. But given the potential of these changes to lessen the number of vital New Zealand stories being told, we should already be asking hard questions of our new literary gatekeepers.

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