Last weekend’s Sunday Star Times had a several page spread about New Zealand Book Month. Amongst the items there was one in which prominent writers, publishers etc were asked to comment upon the lack of sales for local books. Many reasons were canvassed and suggested.
But I was surprised at two that were overlooked. One was reviewing. I admit my experience is limited to the newspapers and magazines I read. But my feeling is that there has been a steady decline in the reviews of locally produced books. Certainly the Sunday Star Times seems to be doing so. So is the Dominion. The syndication of weekend supplements hasn’t helped. If books are not drawn to people’s attention they are more unlikely to be sought.
The other reason is Whitcoulls. A large conglomerate it has the lion’s share of the market. New Zealand picture books for the tourist trade and lives of sports and media stars on are its displays. There must be a life of Richie McCaw in the offing. It’s not that these don’t have a place. Brian Turner’s book about Colin Meads is a classic of its type and I loved Jeremy Coney’s The Playing Mantis. But local fiction, non-fiction and poetry hardly rate shelf space.
Unless of course you’re a name – Michael King, Janet Frame and Patricia Grace. The hype from overseas – the Da Vinci Code springs to mind – means that a few international bestsellers, promoted and pushed with all the marketing gimmicks, dominate display space.
There is also salesmanship. Michael King’s History of New Zealand was discounted from day one. This undercuts other smaller booksellers. I accept that the book trade is into the profit and loss business. But struggling writers trying to make a living out of writing are at the bottom of the pecking order. Bookshops where the owners love books and are knowledgeable about them are becoming rarer.