Why we must re-conceptualise writing and book publishing

Last month, one of the three remaining indie booksellers in Wellington, New Zealand, closed down. Roy Parsons has been an icon for 60 years – combining books with music and a coffee shop. A winning combination. Until now.

My book Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011) spotted in a bookstore window, Lambton Quay, Wellington. Cool.
My book Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011) spotted in Parsons’ window, Lambton Quay, Wellington, back in happier days.

One reason for Parsons’ demise, reportedly, was the downturn in the CD market. But it’s indicative, too, of where books are going. In 2012, New Zealand domestic book sales contracted 7 percent. In 2013, it was 15. That’s a compound drop, in just two years, of just over 23 percent against 2011 figures.

Small wonder the international houses have been fleeing Auckland in droves.

The New Zealand experience isn’t unique. It’s been a ‘perfect storm’ worldwide, a combination of reduced discretionary spending on the back of the general financial crisis, coupled with the explosion of e-book readers, hand-held tablets and phones. Their rise wasn’t coincidental – readers didn’t have $500 to fork out annually on books, but they did have $99 for an e-reader and $3 each for titles.

For New Zealand the issue was complicated by the implosion, a few years back, of the old Whitcoulls chain. The chain was purchased and has since been reconstructed under new ownership, but for a while it looked as if New Zealand might lose a third of its book outlets. That provoked some risk-averse decision making in publishers’ editorial offices. The change was palpable.

On top of that has come the typical Kiwi rush to technology – a requited love-affair with online shopping. Book retailers here can’t compete with Amazon or The Book Depository – it’s an issue of volume coupled with the fact that overseas purchases don’t attract local sales tax.

One of the casualties has been the old publishing model with its sales-by-rep to bookstores. As a distribution and sales mechanism, that was marginal here at the best of times – the New Zealand market was always miniscule, pushing up the cover price on books.

Growth is going to have to pivot on the new principles of book publishing and selling – nimbleness, presence through multiple channels – electronic and print, and an ability to adapt quickly. It’s going to demand innovation, lateral thinking, and creativity.

As for me? I’ve been told history is dead as a genre in New Zealand – yet my history of railways sat for three months at No. 3 on the Whitcoulls best seller list last year and my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand sold better than any of my other books have in years. Dramatically so.

At a time when some publishers are shutting their doors, I’m getting approaches from others wanting me to write for them. I have four titles coming up in the next ten months. Only one of them is history. The other two are on popular science. Which, I guess, won’t be too surprising to long-time readers of this blog. And there’s a biography.

As far as I am concerned the need for innovation has never been greater. We must not just re-invent; we must re-conceptualise. I think that’s not just true for me – it’s true for all writers.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

20 thoughts on “Why we must re-conceptualise writing and book publishing

  1. Very good post on a difficult problem that’s facing all of us in the book industry. I have worked in Canada in several areas of the business over more than 3 decades and saw these changes you speak of first-hand, but they have mainly happened within this last decade. I’m now writing and publishing myself, primarily ePublishing, and have watched many new opportunities arise at the same time as the traditional business models have been disintegrating. What I have noticed is that bookstores and publishers who have managed to hang on are those that have adapted, even embraced, change. As you say, they have re-conceptualized. I see opportunities around me (on the internet) almost every day, and I am constantly rethinking how I do whatever it is that I’m doing at the moment – whether it’s promoting my own work or that of other authors, trying to find new sales outlets, or just seeking out and connecting with new readers. The benefit to me of working primarily online and ePublishing is that I spend half the year on a small Caribbean island where there is only one bookshop selling print copies of my book. Not as many copies as I might sell myself, if I were still a bookseller, but this is definitely the market for my writing so at least there is an outlet willing to stock the books. I sell far more eBooks online, and worldwide, because I now have the opportunity to reach those international readers.

    What I have always said is that we must provide readers with whatever format they choose to read. It’s our job, as authors and publishers, to provide readers with reading material. And if they prefer eBooks more than print books, so be it. Perhaps it’s time for the brick and mortar stores to take this same attitude and figure out a way, along with the publishers and the authors, in which they can also sell eBooks in their stores. It’s starting to happen, slowly, in Canada’s independent stores. But in 2012 I suggested to booksellers, who I had sold to when I was a sales rep, that they experiment with selling my eBook using a coupon method I had developed. My idea was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response and none of the stores even tried to sell the eBooks. That was very disheartening.

    So rethinking, re-conceptualizing how we approach the reading and selling of books is very necessary right now for those who have always depended upon this business never changing. The readers are out there. The problem is in finding them, and in having them find us and what we are writing and publishing. And to do that, we all need to work together and come up with some new ideas on how to attract those readers.

    Thanks for beginning this discussion!

    Susan M. Toy


    1. It’s an important discussion to have – for authors and publishers alike. I think there have been two results in New Zealand. One, from the larger publishers, is what I associate with ‘shut down’ thinking – the effect on staff of a falling corporate lid. It kills innovation because nobody is prepared to poke their head up, lest it be shot off. The other, from smaller houses, is a lot more creative. One publisher, who I’ve known for many years, told me that from his perspective this change was an opportunity, not a crisis. And I agree.

      The step then, as you point out, is to figure out exactly HOW to re-conceptualise. In this, I think, the lead has already been taken by Jeff Bezos, whose re-conceptualisation of the book industry (and a lot more besides) has been simply amazing. No pun intended there… 🙂 He’s single-handedly changed the paradigm in the face of forces that were wholly new to the industry, the world wide web, and he’s done it in a very lateral and creative way. A stunning achievement. The question for everyday authors – and, for that matter, most publishers, is how to best operate in that changed paradigm. Can we follow Bezos’ lead – not by trying to do what he did, but by applying that same style of lateral creative thinking to the issues, and coming up with something that is equally innovative in its own way?


  2. Brilliantly said, islandeditions. .

    As a hard-headed 64-year-old woman who has settled into a comfy writer’s retirement, I absolutely have, of late, absorbed and accepted the reality of embracing change. I have a tendency to be emotionally lazy about change. After a lifetime fraught with stress and frenzy and chaos, I kicked back when retirement-time came, and I coasted down that hill of leisure and nonchalance. The joys of becoming a writer late in life were overwhelming. Then, all the ‘stuff’ that presently goes along with that lifestyle became a part of my existence. I resisted, at first. I fussed. I whined. I fought it loudly and often.

    But, I finally figured something out. If I want to be a part of this big game, I must move with the current. I have to get out there and swim with the sharks. I don’t have to BE a shark. I just have to move along with them if I intend to stay with the survivors. My writing is important to me, and I’m intent on sharing it. I have a lot to say and, at my age, I don’t have too many years left to say it. So, I’m embracing whatever is new in publishing. I find it inconvenient and burdensome at times, as it cuts into my writing time. I’m on a writing mission and I have writing passion to burn. But, I do the homework. I’m working the social media opportunities like crazy. I’m learning about the technological changes that have rushed in like a tidal wave to change an author’s life. I don’t want to drown with the old-school publishing houses and big-box book stores who are dropping out of the game because they refuse to learn new selling techniques. I truly believe that there are brilliant writers out there who are enslaved on sinking ships of publishing.

    I have learned to be an advocate for change in the writing world. I have a wonderful cluster of brilliant friends who just happen to be writers with vision. And, you Susan Joy (also known as ‘islandeditions’), are one of them. One of the most blessed days in my life as a writer was the day I found you. You are a constant inspiration to me as a writer, and I thank you for all you have done for me, and for others like me. You didn’t have to help us, but you did.


    1. Yes, there’s a time to jump ship from the old model, as it were. And it’s great to find like-minded people who’ll support and move your writing forward. There’s a group here in NZ, the Mairangi Writers’ Group, who’ve been doing some similarly wonderful stuff.


      1. Hey, that’s us – thanks Matthew! We’ve got members who are trying a wide range of publishing models with an equally wide range of success, but the most consistent earnings so far are coming from ebook sales. Trying to get print sales, particularly of novels by unknown authors, in NZ’s small market is barely worth the massive effort required. But once those Amazon royalty cheques start appearing with increasing speed in the mailbox, they offer writers a real career path independent of old-school publishers and bookstores.


        1. You guys are doing some fantastic stuff & I think it’s absolutely true, these days, that if you can crack the Amazon e-book paradigm even in a relatively small way, it’ll transcend the available NZ market for most genres. I suspect, even, whether you are known or unknown as an author. Cookbooks are possibly the only exception – back in 2009 I did manage to tip a couple of those off their permanent stand on the top 5, with my engineering history book, but to this day I have no idea how that actually happened. (That in turn opened the door to my featuring in a history series turning up on Prime some time in the next few weeks, apparently my ugly mug has been used to promote the thing on adverts all this week… but the book it might have promoted is long out of print, which it wouldn’t be if it was on Amazon…)


  3. I’m going to veer a little off topic, but try and stick to the main post the best I can…..Most of us, as Indie authors, have no choice but to sell online. Pretty much all of the big book stores won’t touch any of us with a ten foot pole. Having said that, there are some great local Indie bookstores, especially here in the Denver area, that are willing to work with Indie authors and help to get them on the shelves. It is primarily done on a consignment basis, but it is an amazing opportunity to put our books on a different platform as opposed to just selling online ebooks. I have been fortunate enough to be a part of that with a few local stores.

    So it leads to the question of why can’t the bigger stores do this as well?

    Sure, it’s all about the almighty dollar to stores like Barnes and Noble, but have you been into one of their stores lately? There are display case upon display stands that have nothing but crap on them and I’m sure they can’t be moving that stuff on a regular basis. Why not take one (or more) of those display cases and put a “Local Author” display stand there. Maybe just one bookshelf that has authors local to that state so that exposure for those authors can grow a little. Wouldn’t it be prudent for B&N to want to maybe have a hand in discovering that next great talent? Even if it is on a consignment basis, the chance for one of us to be discovered by a mass of readers in this way could be monumental.

    Is B&N afraid they won’t sell as many James Patterson books because my novel is on a “local author” stand (most likely tucked away in the back somewhere) or is it something else? Maybe it’s that they are so close minded to what kind of talent is actually out there, that they truly are so out of touch with what their readers want. I believe my book and a few other authors I know have what readers want. That is not an arrogant statement on my part about my book. I really do believe it is that good. If I don’t have faith in my own work, I can’t expect anyone else to believe that it’ s good either. Do I think my book is good enough to be on B&N shelves? Absolutely? Is it good enough to go right next to Clive Cussler? You bet your ass! (Sorry, Clive is my hero and I would love to see my book next to his). My point is that none of the thousands of people that walk through B&N doors everyday looking for a good book to read will ever find out about me unless I sell to them, a friend, a family member, or a coworker online first.

    So, how do big stores like this re-conceptualize what THEY do going forward? There are always going to be authors – some good, some not so good – but the fact is that there are countless authors that have amazing books and will never get the platform they deserve. Big-name book stores are going out of business every year now, along with much smaller stores that can’t compete. While online sales of books may be playing a huge part in that, maybe it’s time to re-stock the shelves with some “new blood”. I already know what I’m going to see when I walk in Barnes and Noble. It’s the same books by the same authors in every other B&N store in the country. I am not bashing those authors. They have an amazing talent and struck the right deals to get their books out there. But what if you walked into a store and were able to find a whole section of unknown authors? What if you saw a cover that grabbed your attention so much that you picked up the book? Now, what if the description on the back made you want to buy that book? Maybe you just discovered your new favorite author. This is the re-conceptualizing that needs to take place. I thing we, as authors, need to look at the way we do things with our books, but if these companies would bend even just a little, then maybe they wouldn’t be disappearing every year.

    Reading a book is like taking an adventure from your own world for a small while. Maybe if readers had a reason to go in and find that next great “escape”, then stores like B&N might realize that they are missing out on a huge untapped market.

    Sorry, I know I veered a little off topic there.


    1. Not off topic at all! You make some excellent points, and I think you’re quite right. If some of the book chains opened up to indies, that’s a significant change of paradigm & one that I think would be of significant importance. They’re not doing it, I suspect, for the same reason that the main publishers are all veering towards ‘product’ these days – which is that the corporate structure doesn’t lend itself to risk-taking. And the decline in the market has intensified that risk-aversion. It’s leading to a homogeneity of ‘product’, which in turn is driving people further towards online and indie purchases – in effect, tightening the death spiral. Opening up to indies who meet due quality requirements is an obvious way to break clear of the problem.


  4. What I have noticed is the stores that are successful and still in business have specialized in some way (self-help, cookbooks, children’s books) and they carry sidelines that complement the books. (They also must have excellent lease agreements that prevent them from closing for the other main reason that seems plague bookstores.)

    When I was promoting authors to libraries I had a business called Alberta Books Canada and displayed both traditional and self-published books by primarily Alberta authors – because librarians had constantly been asking me, “Who is local?” I often thought then that a bookstore would do a great service to all authors in their area if they were to “specialize” in local publications, and become the experts as to what was being published. Perhaps it’s time for stores to open in each country, to only sell books written by national authors. (There was such a store in Canada a long time ago, and they were very successful, but I think had lease issues, as mentioned above, and the original owners had retired retired anyway.)

    We need people with passion on the bookselling side who are willing to back their own compatriots and help those beginning authors among us to get a leg up. Booksellers who will encourage local authors, not only by stocking and selling their books, but by reading and recommending those books, by offering space and time to promote those books to their customers, by championing ALL local writing, whether traditionally published or Indie. This could be one way for independent stores to re-conceptualize how they sell books. But this takes people who have a passion for local books, Indie authors, self-publishing, and who are more concerned with putting those books into Readers’ hands than they are with making a lot of money. You’ll never see this kind of passion on the big-box/chain store side of the business (with the exception of some individual sales clerks I know who do love books and authors), because they’ll all about the money. And, if something does not sell, it’s replaced quickly with something that will. Plus we Indies can’t compete with the practice of traditional publishers being able to afford to purchase shelf space to display their books. Straight away, we’re at a major disadvantage.

    When we do find these independent stores willing to take a chance on us, I believe it’s then up to all of us to help those stores by driving Readers in their direction. The more we promote the bookstores willing to take a chance on our writing, and that of other local and Indie Authors, the better it will be for everyone. If you find a store like this, promote them on social media, on your blog and website, and encourage Readers to patronize them, That way, they’ll be more likely to remain in business.

    By the way, I’m personally interested in reading books written in English by authors living in countries foreign to me. I would love to find out more about New Zealand authors, for instance. And perhaps that’s another area of specialization for someone to consider (just as Shakespeare and Company has done for decades in Paris) – to champion new authors from around the world who are writing in English … http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakespeare_and_Company_%28bookstore%29


    1. New Zealand has a lot of authors and a significant number of books, even now, are locally published. Most, inevitably, reflect local interest topics. Sales typically match the scale of the market. There is a good deal of clique in crowd behaviour in some circles, extending to some quite vicious territorialism in some genres. Military historical writing for instance. To this are added a far smaller number of authors who have broken into the overseas market and are not usually known in New Zealand. One of the scriptwriters for Dr Who lives in the same city as I do, for instance.


  5. Incidentally I think I’ve heard for the last thirty years that history books don’t sell any more, and that there is no appetite for history on TV. The industry is consistently proved wrong of course but don’t seem to learn their lesson. Witness a typical Whitcoulls store and try and find a copy of something like “Changing Times” at the moment for instance (probably one copy tucked away in the larger stores). Also James Belich’s NZ Wars series (historiographical disputes aside 🙂 ) was a phenomenal success, but the drought continued on TV afterwards.


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