Nearly two decades ago, now, I was on interview on National Radio about a book I’d written: Quake – Hawke’s Bay 1931 (Reed, 2001). Why, oh why, the interviewer asked, in a fairly big build-up to what he imagined was the clincher of the interview, why had I written something about a tragedy of this scale – at the time (and, still), New Zealand’s most lethal natural disaster. What attracted me to it? ‘Easy,’ I explained. ‘It was commissioned.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, crestfallen.
National radio listeners would have heard it at the time, but I’ve not otherwise shared that story until now. There’s a common misconception that books emerge because an author gets a Good Idea and then sells it to a publisher. And that does happen from time to time. But a significant number – especially in non-fiction – are actually initiated by publishers, who have a stable of authors they know will be interested. That was the case for me – as it happened, I’d always wanted to write a book on the 1931 quake because, even when I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the ‘big thing’ for Napier, where I grew up. But the initiative came from the publishers – Reed New Zealand – because they knew I had a solid track record as a writer, and in Hawke’s Bay history. Of course I agreed; I knew it was going to be a great book to research and write.
The point is that this mechanism – in which the publisher initiates a project – is actually true of a lot of books, not just many of mine. It doesn’t make authors mercenaries or, as somebody once alleged about me, a literary prostitute; it’s actually how the system works. And when it works well, authors end up being able to write the book they’ve always wanted. Publishers also end up being able to publish what best works for their lists and marketing approaches, and everybody’s happy.
That was true of Quake: Hawke’s Bay 1931. It went through two editions (2001 and 2006) and sold out in all of them. It’s long out of print now, of course, and I don’t know whether it will ever be available again. One of the issues is financial: it included a lot of photos which will have to be re-ordered, and that’s a substantial cost which, in this day and age, isn’t likely to be recoupable. The author, you see, always pays for content costs, and hopes to earn the money back with the royalties on sales – plus, naturally, enough on top to pay the grocery bill.
Still, in the past three or four years, I’ve been able to get a fair number of my back-list books back in print – both actual print and electronically – and over the next few weeks I thought I’d run a series highlighting them, along with the stories behind them. Including the way I managed to get some of them titled with some really bad Dad-joke style puns.
Watch this space. And if you want a preview, go check out my Amazon page.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019