It’s not as a big as it was…reconceptualising publishing

I had to admit to my wife the other day the traditional publishing and bookselling industry isn’t as big as it was. Worldwide, but especially in New Zealand.

Retail book sales here have dropped a compound 25 percent in the past two years, driven by a perfect storm combination of downloadable e-books and the rise of internet-driven hard-copy imports. People aren’t ‘naturally’ moving to Kindle. They still want print. But why troll out to the bookstore when you can order a print book at discount rates from Amazon or the Book Depository, not pay local sales tax, and get it within a week or two? Combine that with the way the main book chain fell over a few years back – putting the shivers into the whole industry as it stood then – and you have a recipe for disaster.

HMNZS Te Kaha, ANZAC class frigate. The sailors in the RHIB were sponging the hull. 'Tight and tiddly', I think it's called. Flag is "Kilo" - 'I wish to communicate with you'.

HMNZS Te Kaha, ANZAC class frigate. I launched my history of the RNZN on her flight deck in 2001, a few years before I took this photo. Here she is flying flag “Kilo” – ‘I wish to communicate with you’.

The book chain recovered under new ownership, retaining 59 of its 80-odd original stores; but into that mix has come the shift to online purchase. It’s certainly hit the indie booksellers. Small wonder that the big publishing houses have been fleeing. The driver has been bottom-line accountancy as seen from the regional Asia-Pacific head office. Most of the New Zealand operations have retracted to Australia. However, New Zealand book sales are less than Australia’s, and the Aussies, as far as I can tell, don’t understand the New Zealand book trade. What it means is that (a) books with slow-but-steady trickle sales don’t get reprinted, and (b) that same sales pattern lets books that are still viable in the New Zealand market drop below the ‘pulp now’ trigger and get written off.

The old publishing culture has vanished. It used to be reasonably profligate; I remember one visit to Auckland a decade ago where She Who Must Be Obeyed and I had dinner out several nights running with different publishers – their cost, not mine. I was discussing business. Another time my publishers put us both up in a motel, got us a hire car, all so we could attend the launch of my 60th anniversary history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, at the big RNZN base in Devonport, on board HMNZS Te Kaha. For various reasons we locked ourselves out of the motel and I ended up with my wife propelling me, head first, through the kitchen window where I ended up with my head jammed into the sink. Just in case you think book launches might be glamorous.

These days, alas, catering at publisher meetings – which for me seem to always happen in the same cafe in central Wellington – have dwindled to cups of coffee. Sigh…

It’s as bad for booksellers, because instead of being able to get stock in overnight, if a customer asks, they have to wait five days or more. Usually more. That loses them sales.

Smaller local publishers are rising to fill the gap; but the repping-sales model has broken, and the number of retail outlets has shrunk. Those that are left are being cautious.

Of course we have to turn this around. Collapse? Maybe by the old thinking. By the new, it’s an opportunity. That, in turn, means thinking laterally. Thinking creatively. Not just reinvention. It means re-framing the issues.

The fact is that the online revolution has changed things, and not in the way we imagine. So to get a re-conceptualised answer we have to start by reconceptualising the problem. Are we really looking at the issue the right way?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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5 comments on “It’s not as a big as it was…reconceptualising publishing

  1. jjspina says:

    It is all a shame for authors.

    But I am still laughing over the image of your head coming through the kitchen and ending up in the sink! Sorry!

  2. bevrobitai says:

    I’m glad you’ve raised this discussion. We HAVE to find another way of connecting readers with books – one that gives a fair slice of the pie to everyone in the chain. Seeing the astonishing range of excellent books at the Auckland Independent Book Festival last week made me grieve that the public had so little access to them. The illustrated children’s books in particular were beautiful pieces of work and it would be hard to show their appeal on a website – they need to be handled and stroked and admired all the way through. So we do need bricks and mortar book stores. Now how do we make them viable?

    • It’s a difficult one. It seems to me that the problem – both online and in the ‘real world’ – is threefold: discovery, desire and availability. The author has to be known – which means being heard over the ‘noise’, both online and in real life. The book has to be available. No point promoting a book if it’s not out there in the stores. Desire is another issue; there is a ‘hard core’ of book-buyers, but the potential market is very much larger, if the general public can be persuaded to buy. It doesn’t often all come together – not here in NZ. Hager’s book, this last week, is a rare exception; but it’s also, I think, not an enduring one – once the election is over, it’ll be gone. I’ve got some thoughts which I’ll post on the blog over the next while. I hope others think about it too – I think ultimately it’s a matter of authors all working to support each other and build a bigger ‘pie’.

      • bevrobitai says:

        The organiser of the Indy Book Festival had the same thought – so many good NZ books that the public needs to now about. We’re getting her together with Mairangi Writers in a couple of weeks to brainstorm some possibilities. If all authors in NZ can find a way to work with each other I’m sure we can make things happen! We could use Smashwords as a shining example – a book distribution site built on altruism with no big commercial involvement to give orders about bottom lines and profits. http://blog.smashwords.com/2014/08/inc-magazine-names-smashwords-to-inc.html. These things can work – eventually! I’ll keep you posted.

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