American literary juggernaut John Grisham and Kiwi author Les Allen: carbon copy wordmakers, both lawyers who turned their legal skills into thrillers set in rustic rural landscapes, now writing in their mid-sixties.
But their differences run into the millions, both in dollars and in the lines of frustration on the face of Allen, a business law partner in Auckland with Gaze Burt.
As Grisham rakes it in from Charlottesville in the US, Allen finds no place in local bookstores for his thriller If That’s What It Takes, with its All Blacks, 4 Square logos, rusty utes, No 8 contractors and his sneaky back. stabbed bastards.
It was also unable to find a local publisher (it self-published in July), despite a positive review from RNZ by Lynn Freeman and three media interviews. He mails out copies sold on his website and sells the e-book on Amazon.
* Announcement of the finalists for the Ockham New Zealand Book Award 2022
* National Library signs ‘historic’ deal to donate 600,000 books to online archives
* Coronavirus: readers turn to books on self-care, well-being during lockdown 2.0
* Author Beware: Fraudulent publishers charge up to $15,000 for shoddy work
David White / Stuff
Melinda Webber, a professor at the University of Auckland, and Te Kapua O’Connor, a PhD student, wish they had heard of their iwi heroes at school. Now they’ve written a book that does just that, diving into stories from Te Tai Tokerau.
“My book can’t be purchased at a bookstore near you because some bookstores are too busy selling teenage vampire fiction, paranormal romance, a genre I’ll have to steer myself into if I can’t. not sell enough legal thrillers,” a frustrated Allen said.
“My sales have been pretty good for self-published New Zealand fiction by an unknown author, but the number of paperback sales would probably have been much higher if bookstores had stocked it.”
And this is the story of budding novelists, here and around the world. For every Grisham there are many Allens, chasing a dream marked by dark wake-up calls and meager rewards.
There are many reasons, but at the heart of New Zealand is a small local market of which novel readers are a subset, so publishers and booksellers tend to be commercially cautious.
Very few New Zealand authors would earn above our average income ($56,000), says towering literary figure Dame Fiona Kidman Things.
“It depends a lot on film rights and international markets. I have a small international market and that made a difference for me.
More could be done to help, she agrees. Prime Minister Norman Kirk led the way in 1973, introducing the first public lending right in the English-speaking world, to compensate authors for the free use of their books in public libraries.
“The current government increased the kitty in its last term, but it’s still very modest,” she said. Children’s authors are not paid for their books sent to school libraries, nor does the pool cover e-books available for library loan.
“They got a lot of use during the pandemic, I was told,” says Kidman.
So budding novelist, don’t give up your daily work; even Nicky Pellegrino has so far been unable to do so, and she is cited as an industry success story by many, including novelist and University of Auckland Associate Professor Paula Morris (Ngāti Wai).
“If you’re a commercial novelist rather than a literary writer, like (say) Nicky Pellegrino, you have no trouble publishing here,” says Morris.
“There is room for more fiction publishing in New Zealand, but the numbers are low due to our population. The business model is terrible. Sometimes I think we have more people writing novels here than reading and buying them.
Kiwi writers are not alone, she says.
“In the United States, there’s a reason why so many great novelists are somehow associated with a university, even if it only teaches one semester a year,” says Morris .
“They need a regular income and to pay for their health insurance. Publishing a literary novel once every 5 or 10 years, even if it is acclaimed, will not bring in enough guaranteed revenue year after year to support you.
“In New Zealand, even commercial writers need overseas sales (eg genre e-books sold through Amazon) to get the big numbers and a steady income.”
While most New Zealand fiction would be lucky to top 2,000 sales, there are exceptions. Michelle Hurley of publishers Allen and Unwin cites novels such as The Vintner’s Luck (Elizabeth Knox), The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton) and The Denniston Rose by Jenny Pattrick,
“Just because you want to be a published author doesn’t mean you unfortunately will be,” says Hurley. “There are many, many, many people who want to write a novel, so it’s a very high bar to get published. It’s almost like wanting to be a professional athlete.
“There are so many people who want to be professional athletes or professional writers that not everyone can succeed.
“New Zealand non-fiction generally outsells New Zealand fiction. That’s not to say there aren’t bestselling New Zealand novels, there are, and their prevalence seems to be increasing.
Tilly Lloyd, co-owner of Unity Books Wellington and a strong supporter of local writers, says books published in New Zealand have accounted for 25.4% of total book sales over the past 12 months, self-published books included.
Just inside Unity’s front doors are two tables dedicated to New Zealand.
“Everything looks damn beautiful,” she says.
“Grisham is a brand, like (the Toyota) Hilux,” she says. “We doubt many writers make the average salary from their writing. Getting grants these days is a competitive sport.
And yet she’s not worried that Aotearoa’s written voice could be lost, with Hurley and Morris she sees positive signs.
Fiction writers such as Noel Hilliard, Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme and Alan Duff – and Huia Publishing – had built platforms for Maori voices and future generations.
“Our New Zealand Book Buyer, Marion Castree, says the new Mansfield must be Airini Beautrais, author of Bug Week,” says Lloyd.
But the chief executive of the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA), Jenny Nagel, seems even more frustrated than Allen, she wants a quota for New Zealand book reviewers similar to the one in Australia, where 45% of all novels sold are by Australian authors. In New Zealand, it’s 6%.
She took that battle to Parliament this month, in her memoir on the RNZ-TVNZ merger. If local authors don’t get airtime or television, their books won’t sell, she says.
“We are not the same, and we are not treated as the same kind of taonga as music and screen, inexplicably as writing underpins those other two mediums,” she says.
“Most importantly, because we don’t have a local quota for New Zealand work, we still suffer from the awful colonial feeling that if it’s written in the northern hemisphere, it must be better.
“We have the Film Commission that pours hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars into script development. Very few turn to books to adapt these stories. There is a treasure trove of local stories ready to be adapted. We don’t do that at all.
“There is a problem with the amount of shelf space that is given to New Zealand books, and there is a problem with the amount of media given to New Zealand books. TV still broadcast music awards and screen awards, for Ockham (literary) awards they are nowhere to be found.
Nagel fires when valuable book review slots go to Stephen King and “Bloody John Grisham,” rather than a local author.
“You don’t have to read a review to know you’re going to want to read the new John Grisham when it comes around. They’re all the same. So that really, really pisses me off.
Reviews lead to sales, provided the book is available; if not the interest dissipates.
“Don’t do any promotion or interviews until the book is out, I tell people, or it’s a waste of time,” Nagel says.
Other mistakes made by self-published authors are coming in squeezing their novel, at a time when booksellers have customers lined up at the counter, as well as shoddy production or poor editing. None of these failures were the case with If That’s What It Takes.
“We really make people realize that they need the manuscript to be properly edited and reviewed, and that the production values need to be top notch.”
Now back to Hurley at Allen & Unwin, who says he’s turning to commercial fiction, with a few novels due out in 2023 – one written by the Allen and Unwin Commercial Fiction award winner.
“We will be watching their performance and market reaction very closely,” she said. The award for budding authors has now reopened at allenandunwin.co.nz.
So what about Allen? Well, with a stack of books, a stack of positive reviews, close to exploding its own stack and working on a prequel.
That’s what it takes, it seems.