Them writing times, they’ve been a changing

I can’t help thinking about how times have changed, of late, for writers. Back in the early 2000s, I sold quite a few titles to publishers – most of them on the strength of a few pages of synopsis and proposal relative to the likely market.

Inside the Green Dragon, Hobbiton movie set. Would Tolkien have been publishable today? Probably not...
Inside the Green Dragon, Hobbiton movie set. Would Tolkien have been publishable today? Probably not…

It was a vigorous time. Lots of books were shifting through shop fronts. I had a few hit the best seller lists, and when that happened a bottle of Bollinger would usually appear on my doorstep, couriered down from my publishers. There was the time I turned up in Auckland for a two day visit and managed to get dinner out, via two different publishers, two nights running. Another time I was ferried across the city, by taxi, to give a pep talk from an author perspective to a meeting of my publisher’s sales reps.

Today it’s harder, certainly in New Zealand. Dinners out have dwindled to coffee meetings and there’s a good deal of risk aversion. Understandably, given the shake-up. I’m working at the moment, for instance, on a proposal that involves actually writing at least one full chapter. And that’s fine, though it ups the stakes a bit. If the title isn’t a starter, that’s a big chunk of time to go west. But that’s how it goes, and the plus side is that it’s always fun to learn new stuff.

What’s happened? It’s not just the Amazon effect. There’s been a perfect storm: New Zealand’s world of book retailing was turned on its head a few years back when the biggest book chain fell over – taking with it about a third of all the outlets. (It got better, but the new owners reduced the exposure and today run a combo toy-and-stationery chain that also sells books.) Combine that with the ‘Amazon effect’ and the result was a string of closures. In central Wellington, the ‘golden mile’ down Lambton Quay – the country’s top retail street – once had seven big bookshops. Now it’s down to one. And there is just one independent bookshop left in the central city.

But there are rays of sunshine. Retail book sales were up nine percent in New Zealand this year, which is a positive shift, and there’s a positive feel in the industry. The sense I get is that the ‘Amazon effect’ has played through – it’s reached the point where it’s structurally part of the industry – and the churn-over of the retail outlets has also bottomed out.

All good stuff and we’ll see where that goes.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


12 thoughts on “Them writing times, they’ve been a changing

    1. Glad to be able to offer a bit of info. The health of the business here is of deep interest to me for obvious reasons!🙂 It’s certainly had a bit of a hit lately, but there’s a bullish mood with some of the publishers I talk to and there’s good reason to see a positive future ahead for the industry.

        1. It was almost not publishable even back in the 1950s – Rayner Unwin was reluctant because he didn’t think it particularly saleable, and split it into 3 books to spread the commercial risk. He was right, too – early sales figures were dismal. I posted on it here: https://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/how-j-r-r-tolkien-became-a-best-selling-author/ – the thing being, of course, that had the book not been published, the world would have been so much the poorer!

  1. It’s always good to hear that book sales are up. I’m not a writer, but I encourage people all the to read – comic books – anything – read!!

    1. Absolutely true. I hope the increased sales will flow into bigger stock holdings by the main shops – currently the main chain runs only about 1/3 stock as books, the rest is stationery and toys.

      1. If only, if only… I understand that Whitghouls allows only 18% of its product range to be books in its A stores, and that more lower-ranked stores are to be closed and ‘folded into’ Farmers stores as mainly kids-based kiosks…..

  2. Similar trends here in Canada. Small publishers of “Can Lit,” subsidized by the government, are hanging in. Many independent bookstores have vanished, but here in Victoria, B.C. and the nearby town of Sidney (known as “Booktown”) there are still a few left. I’ve heard there appears to be a return to print books, but somehow I doubt tradpub is ready to welcome indies to the fold. Parallel streams will probably continue for a while yet.

  3. Do you think ending the Net Book Agreement had any additional effect on sales? Presumably, retailers reducing the price of books would have cut margins to publishers making them more risk averse. And then the online stores move in undercutting high street retailers… Unintended consequences perhaps.

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