Tuesday, October 28, 2014

New Zealand literature open letter

Open Letter to Creative New Zealand Literature Review

October 2014

Dear Creative New Zealand

Let me start by saying that I greatly welcome the opportunity to contribute to this review, even if I doubt that my contribution will itself be welcomed, considered, or even read.


My pessimism is based on my twenty years of experience in public policy. I have noticed that those elements of any consulted community which has traditionally benefitted from any one state agency’s largesse are best placed to influence that agency so that their source of taxpayer funding continues unabated.

They do this, typically, through being initially consulted on the terms of reference of the review long before other parties even get notified that a review is in train. Typically these “interested parties” then write submissions which while acknowledging changes in the environment, ultimately recommend the same self-serving policies they have taken $2.4 million from. This is, what I shall term, the “vested interests” view.

There are always, of course, other parties. Those who are not vested interests. Such parties typically are not known to the state agency and therefore regarded as dubious and suspect. Quite often such parties indulge in nakedly jealous agitation for a slice of the “vested interests” pie. Sometimes, fearing some sort of political or media agenda, the state agency tosses them some form of sop to mollify them and bring these “wannabe vested interests” inside the tent, where they can be taught the etiquette of standing politely in line.

And then, finally, there are the “idealists”. People, like myself, who have no vested interest, nor any real ambition to be vested interests, who lob ideas into the mix which cause initial splutterings of discomfort and embarrassment but who can be shut down by appealing to the “consensus” (meaning the vested interests) and their associated gravis. By this means the agency can resume pandering to its vested interests, pick up the threads of business-as-usual and ignore the unpleasant suggestion that they are indulging in arrant cronyism.

That, at least, is the political drama of any “review” and I have seen it played out frequently enough to have a great deal of difficulty believing that this review will be any different.

And yet, despite this -- perhaps because I am indeed an idealist -- I will persist in tilting at windmills which in the heat of the moment give the impression of being capable of shifting.

Why? What is my interest? I am what is now termed an “indie” author. That is an author who, taking advantage of the technological eruptions shaking the publishing industry, has eschewed the conventional route to publication and instead published himself. This was not particularly difficult as in my professional career I have been a journalist and editor for 35 years. However the reason I became an Indie author was more due to circumstance than choice, and those circumstances are core to the issues I wish to bring to the attention of Creative New Zealand because they will affect most new New Zealand writers (i.e. the ones Creative New Zealand doesn’t give much help to).


For it can hardly have escaped Creative New Zealand’s notice that globally Amazon has tilted the playing field of global publishing. Large publishing corporations revenues are falling and they are merging to survive. Most of the large international publishers which have traditionally formed the infrastructure of New Zealand literature have now closed their doors and withdrawn across the Tasman. Indeed the New Zealand publishing scene is fast contracting to the University presses, small (and often part-time) niche publishers and the few remaining large presses which tend to focus on sure-sell non-fiction typically focused on sports or hobbies.

At the same time there has been an explosion of creativity by independents who have taken their literary ambitions directly to market via Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo and more recently the Apple iStore and Google Play. Not needing the permission of anyone these independents are “unknown” to the conventional publishing establishment, even as some bring home foreign exchange from international markets which the “vested interests” writers would struggle to match. It is notable too that the focus of the Independent movement has been completely different to the conventional one. It reflects the global market for stories.

Prior to Amazon and the Independent movement it was impossible to find a New Zealand publisher interested in romance, fantasy or science fiction (the largest genres in world publishing). There is no question that romance, fantasy and science fiction can appeal to the immature who in turn regurgitate it in, the form of turgid prose, emotionally crippled plots and unoriginal ideas. On the other hand Jane Austen wrote keenly observed romances, H.G Wells wrote science fiction and Shakespeare wrote enough about witches, fairies and ghosts to qualify as a paranormal fantasy author. What we were, rather, seeing was a patronising snobbery perpetrated by a small cabal of New Zealand academics and their acolytes. This literary establishment is not interested in stories people read but in its own prestige, it’s pecking orders and being subsidised to the tune of $2.4 million by Creative New Zealand.

Somehow this literary establishment thinks being a Writer is to be a celebrity. The New Zealand Books Council even has writer “pin ups” for God’s sake.  It isn’t to be someone who just feeds their family by writing, but to be the conscience, the wit, and the soul of a nation. It is to be a rock star (and typically with the same dubious royalty arrangements). In this model it is the role of commoners to raise themselves like Daedalus on wings of aspiration and fine prose into the refined air of their elect judges in glamorous literary competitions so that a few might be selected to join their heavenly throng watched on by adoring masses who wistfully applaud their genius assisted by suitable quantities of chardonnay. Those deemed less worthy would crash back to the harsh confines of humdrum employment and plot their rise for another day. And now Amazon is pissing all over that so Creative New Zealand needs a review.

What I expect this review will do is continue with the notion that literature is some form of celebrity industry because it is in the interests of those running the review and benefitting from it to do so. However I would point out that the seriously more glamorous film industry does not operate that way in this country. The film commission deals with an art form which is extremely expensive to create. The cost of creating a book is, by contrast minimal. Most writers do this as equity partners. Traditionally it was the cost of post-production, marketing and distribution in publishing which was expensive. With the advent of electronic books distribution costs are now minimal too.


So let us turn then to the grimy and thoroughly unglamorous business of making a living from publishing. Typically when an industry body carries out a review it starts from first principles.Unfortunately Creative New Zealand’s review has not established a robust policy platform for reassessing the reasons for any state interventions in the literature market. It has simply asked the “vested interests” how they would like their menu of existing subsidies re-drawn. The result will of course be business as usual. But why should taxpayer and lottery funds be spent on the literature market at all? Why should literature receive subsidies and not our computer software industry or underprivileged kids? What is the purpose of investing in New Zealand literature if it is not cronyism?

Creative New Zealand’s governing legislation “Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa Act 2014” Section 7 States:

·        The principal functions of the Arts Council are to—

·        (a) encourage, promote, and support the arts in New Zealand for the benefit of all New Zealanders:

·        (b) promote the development of a New Zealand identity in the arts:

·        (c) allocate funding to projects for professional and community arts, including funding for—

·        (i) Māori arts; and

·        (ii) the arts of the Pacific Island peoples of New Zealand; and

·        (iii) the arts of the diverse cultures of New Zealand:

·        (d) uphold and promote the rights of artists and the right of persons to freedom in the practice of the arts:

·        (e) maintain relationships with other agencies and organisations:

·        (f) give advice to the Minister on any matter relating to or affecting the functions of the Arts Council:

·        (g) perform any other functions conferred on it by this Act, any other enactment, or the Minister.

Although 7(a) says the Council supports the arts for “the benefit of all New Zealanders” it is not made clear whether this is meant in a participatory, economic or consumer sense.  Parliament has not seen fit to stipulate whether “all New Zealanders” benefit from the mere existence of arts (i.e. underprivileged kids should be grateful that subsidies go to artists), or whether the Council is bound by an egalitarian duty of equal opportunity. Section 7(b) gets a little clearer by stating the Council is for “...development of a New Zealand identity in the arts”.  Identity is not defined in the Act but is generally a person's conception and expression of their own self-identity and others' individuality or group affiliations. In short, taxpayers fund arts (or in this case, literature) which helps identify what makes New Zealand and New Zealanders different.

Literature examines qualities of character, conflicts of beliefs and mores, history, the effect of location, and language. Therefore to be New Zealand literature at least one of these elements must refer to New Zealand in some pivotal way. Is it New Zealand literature if a New Zealander goes back to ancestral Finland and writes about reindeer? No. It wouldn’t benefit all New Zealanders and it’s not about any aspect of New Zealand self identity. Why should such literature receive taxpayer funding just because the writer is a New Zealand citizen? It would have been nice to see a little more clarity in the interim document on what Creative New Zealand actually uses as rules for finding because the list it offered precluded projects only on the basis that they could be funded by another state agency. Once again this smacks of cronyism.

The only legitimate reason for any taxpayer assistance to any industry is market failure in the pursuit of a social outcome deemed valuable. If there was no New Zealand literature our conception of self-identity would be inevitably shaped by non-New Zealand literature. According to the Act a New Zealand literature is worth subsidising if it explores a sense of New Zealand self-identity which might not, due to market failure, otherwise be explored.

Therefore the key question is where does market failure occur in the New Zealand literature market?


First it cannot be gainsaid that New Zealand has a healthy supply of writers (poets, novellists etc).  Every year dozens of new New Zealand writers add their efforts to the world-wide glut of stories and poems whether it is through Amazon or on Wattpad, or via conventional publishing. In my view there is no justification whatsoever for a state agency to choose any one individual writer over any other writer or writers.  The reputation of all writers and poets must be tested and established in a market, whether we are talking about Ngaio Marsh, Margaret Mahy, Janet Frame or Narlini Singh. They may be wildly different markets but a state agency has no business in subsidising their business.  If their books lose the interest of their audience this is not a concern of the New Zealand Government.

I therefore reject all forms of personalised benefit such as writer’s residences, travel etc.  This will appeal to the “vested interests” but is scarcely for the benefit of “all New Zealanders”.  Nor does it have much to do with the New Zealand identity. It is simply a reward for other forms of success approved of by the state agency. It is undeniably a form of state funded cronyism.

There is also very limited justification for any kind of state subsidy for the distribution (by which I mean printing and distribution) of any book. Every book can now be rendered electronically, replicated and distributed for virtually no cost. These skills are taught in publishing courses in New Zealand and can be acquired by any reasonably intelligent person on-line.  Why should the state subsidise printing a book of poems rather than housing an underprivileged child just because the poet thinks it would be nicer to have their poems in print rather than on a free website? The only possible justification is where the book is an art work in and of itself. This will generally be because of the quality of the illustrations and their composition into a book form of physical artifact. These cases are rare and do not really constitute literature so are not really within the scope of this review.

There are, however in the fields of marketing and post-production some extremely serious areas of market failure which I would hope Creative New Zealand will now turn its attention to.

When I completed my manuscript all the sites advised me to find a literary agent. The lists on all the authoritative New Zealand websites were all wildly out of date. At that time there were none.

There are, of course, literary agents in other countries, but from experience I have discovered that there really is a big cultural difference in the outlook of Australian, Canadian, English and American literary agents. They simply aren’t interested in New Zealand stories as such. They are interested in selling their own culture’s stories.

So the first and most crucial market failure was the massive hole in the New Zealand literary agents market which occurred when the Ray Richards Literary Agency folded. A huge body of industry wisdom effectively evaporated as former staff scrambled to find new jobs. Only Frances Plumpton managed to rescue a business from the embers and her focus is far narrower than that of her predecessor. Even so if Frances fell under a bus New Zealand would lose a career’s worth of industry wisdom.  Not only does New Zealand need more literary agents, it also needs an on-going system of literary agent development.

I should also add I have absolutely no time for “manuscript assessors”. A literary agent assesses a manuscript with an eye to sale. They know who might buy it and for how much if they can pitch it. A manuscript assessor essentially takes a writers money and (at best) tells the writer someone else “ought” to buy it. At worst they do nothing for the writer but feed their inadequacy while milking them for money.  Publishers do not rely on manuscript assessors views (some are quite blunt about this). Manuscript assessors are simply parasites on writers with more money and lack of confidence than sense.  Only an agent with skin in the game can provide a writer with any meaningful feedback.

It is notable that the Film Commission is effectively a literary agent for New Zealand films.  Lindsay Shelton played a pivotal role in the development of early New Zealand films due to his knowledge of the international market. Shelton was not affiliated with any particular production house (publisher) but all relied on his international contacts and market awareness.  Creative New Zealand has historically sent writers to events like the Frankfurt Book Fair but these are effectively mere junkets.  What is needed is the development of a body of industry expertise in international book markets available to “all New Zealanders”.  Working out the balance between private business and state agency is likely to be difficult but this would provide a vital resource for all New Zealand writers.

But marketing to the traditional publishing industry is only part of the solution. The electronic book market is a completely different animal and it has very different dynamics. Given that this market is growing rapidly where traditional industry is shrinking Creative New Zealand urgently needs to gain a better understanding of how this industry works. This is not a one-off project it is an on-going job and it will require a formidable skill-set.


A new book is added to Amazon literally every five minutes. The discoverability of new (or indeed any) book on these markets is very, very difficult.  New Zealand’s self identity in this environment is in danger of simply being drowned.  This is not a problem if Creative New Zealand is solely interested in pandering to its coterie of vested interests. Creative New Zealand can create and celebrate its literary celebrities as a happy little bubble divorced from the nasty reality of global publishing simply by using its taxpayer funding to do so.  This would be contrary to section 7A of its Act but I doubt if there are many lawyers waiting in the wings to take this to judicial review. But in the long term such a bubble will eventually be popped by technological change and New Zealand literature will have been swallowed up in the meantime. Therefore Creative New Zealand really does need to challenge itself and address this issue.

The response many authors are taking to the discoverability issue is to create “launch collectives”.  A launch collective works by authors banding together to buy and five-star review each other’s new books as they are released.  Because the great mass of new books on Amazon vanish into the purgatory of being ignored a concentrated burst of attention to a new book will send it up the rankings attracting the interest of genuine readers.  Similar backscratching techniques also exist on new literature sites such as Wattpad and Authonomy.

While they are ethically dubious launch collectives exist for good reason. The simple fact is that lost in an ocean of options even excellent books will be drowned. The  need for momentum in discoverability is critical to overcome the sheer size of the global market.

The traditional response to discoverability has been the New Zealand Book Awards. While organisers love it for 97% of  authors however this is an expensive waste of time.  If we take a hypothetical award with one hundred entries at $120 each. There will be one winner, and one, maybe two runners-up who are immediately ignored. That means that for 97% of participants there has been no return on investment because only the winner will have any form of promotional focus.  Now if we apply a normal curve to the quality of those entries at least 50% of them were better than average. Some 16.5% of them are above the first standard deviation for quality and five of them are very good indeed.  In the end the judges will make their selection from the top 16.5% based on their own predilections which another set of judges would probably not replicate. So at the top end the final winner is selected largely subjectively. Why should the virtues of all those other writers be ignored and their money taken simply so that the Minister of Wine and Cheese and the top judge can have their picture taken with the winner? How has that whole ediface benefitted all New Zealanders? It doesn’t. It benefits vested interests.

There is a better way.

In the world of electronic publishing the review is critical. It doesn’t matter whether the review was as simple as “it was good” or “it was dumb”, in an environment of low discoverability any review has a huge effect on the sales of any writer. Some reviewers are genuinely interested in writing while others appear to be trolls who serially bag (other) writers.  The motivation to review New Zealand writing is therefore an area of potential market failure Creative New Zealand might address.

Now as a former book reviewer myself (The Dominion, NBR) I believe that there is something to be said for investment in the book review as a literary art form in its own right. First, reviews are short, and don’t need the huge amount of planning and time as either a short story or a novel. Second the qualities of a good review, are also the qualities of any other good example of literature. Third, the perception of the reviewer in appreciating the skills of another writer also provides the insights needed to help train the reviewer also to write.  And finally, but most important, a good supply of reviews is precisely what writers need to sell their books if they are not to stoop to the deception of the launch collective.

Therefore, in my view, what Creative New Zealand needs to do is provide funding to encourage reviews of New Zealand writing.  This would benefit all New Zealanders far more than awards for a handful of books. Because reviews are a short form of literature it would be easier to generate more reviews than more literature. 

While ideally one would reward all reviewers this is not feasible or indeed desirable as some reviews have little insight. This suggests that a competition would be required. The only entry criteria would be publication, preferably in a site or journal where other potential readers might read it (Goodreads etc). Entries would be lodged as links on a New Zealand literature website.   While the reviews themselves would be on existing sites voting on and discussion about the qualities of the reviews would be on the New Zealand literature website.

An obvious target for such a competition would be school and University students. The prizes for students would be a year’s course fees for English at a New Zealand University. There is also no particular reason why foreigners should not be incentivised to review New Zealand books either. This would encourage consumption of New Zealand literature and potentially provide a tourism benefit for literature in the same vein as film claims one. The incentive of a holiday in New Zealand for the winner of a review competition might be expected to hugely improve the chances of foreigners choosing to read and review a New Zealand book.

Such a site would have the benefit of being a focus for the entire New Zealand literary scene as not only would authors seek to have new works reviewed it would become a journal of record of New Zealand works and what audiences thought of them. Those who entered the competition would log their review links and could then vote up or down others reviews (although obviously not of their own books). Because the prize is for the best reviews, not the best works, the writer is less incentivised to gerrymander the outcome. Such a resource would rest most naturally in the ambit of the New Zealand Books Council.

In my view this is as much as Creative New Zealand needs do to address the market failures surrounding the marketing aspect of New Zealand publishing. They are not small and would make a considerable difference. This brings me to the other remaining point of market failure: post-manuscript production.


As I stated before the Copyright Act effectively makes a writers copyright the equity which any author brings to the publisher’s table. But as traditional publishing royalty percentages indicate this equity is not the bulk of the expense of producing a book. There is usually a need for structural editing, copy editing and proofing.  A book needs to be designed and, even if only on the cover, illustrated. There are permissions to manage, facts to check, rights negotiated and contracts drawn. This is the equity the traditional publisher puts into a book even before the costs of marketing and distribution begin.

For Independent authors the costs of post-production can be significantly onerous and the difficulty of finding competent help considerable. Some simply don’t bother and publish work which is wanting for published quality. In some books I have seen (traditionally published too, I might add) the post-production effort of attention is solely on the initial chapter which is all that the buyer sees before committing to purchase. Once sold very few retailers offer refunds on the basis of poor editing. This then is a potential market failure. There is little to incentivise authors to outlay significant sums of money on quality when a suitable cover may, in itself, sell more books.  Certainly online writing forums are full of complaints by professional editors that their skills are being neglected in the publishing stampede. Even I (and I have had “editor” in my job title for 21 years) could not justify the expense of paying for my novel (at 636,000 words) to undergo professional post-production because the family budget simply could not stretch that far.

To my mind there are two separate problems here. One is incentivising the use of editors at all, and the second making their work affordable.

There are a number of schemes around the world for validating the quality of the final proof. It seems to me that the support of New Zealand libraries (local government and school) for a grading scheme would be extremely useful. If books were graded into five star quality gradings based on a simple statistically robust and objective tests for inadvertent grammatical and typographical errors libraries would have a useful guide for the purchase of local New Zealand literature.  Such a grading service would operate on a full cost recovery basis with charges for each test. The test would have the acceptance of a large and influential community of buyers and provide a useful guide to would-be self publishers and their customers. It would also provide a useful quality assessment tool for those wishing to validate the value provided by private editors and post-production service providers.

The issue of affordability is somewhat less clear. Essentially the owner of the work is the party enjoying the benefit of improved quality. Traditional publishers invest in post production based on the expectation of a return but they have the benefit of a portfolio of works to sell.  Any other manufacturer who produced a product (for example in the fashion industry) would not expect to be subsidised by the government to achieve better quality. While Creative New Zealand has typically acted as a funding agency, effectively dispensing taxpayers funds to vested interests who know its systems and its administrators, a more appropriate structure in this regard would be a bank.

Instead of handing out funds for writers or publishers to purchase production skills Creative New Zealand would lend those funds – ideally at significantly reduced rates of interest. This would allow Creative New Zealand to have some say on the qualifications of those eligible to be engaged under the scheme. It would however also mean that the fund would grow each year as previous recipients paid back their drawings.


Finally as a new writer one of the most difficult things is finding help which does not treat you like a noob and potential muggins.  Perhaps the most helpful organisation I have found has been the Romance Writers of New Zealand who have a spirit of mutual support and sharing (even if you aren’t a romance writer) that the literary establishment would do well to emulate. It is telling that major New Zealand romance writers are not even included on the New Zealand Book Council’s biography of New Zealand writers.

Which brings me to the New Zealand Book Council. For a start the Book Council seriously needs an electronic books strategy. It obviously hasn’t got one. Most of its programmes treat books as if they are treasured physical artifacts. While the curation of artefacts is an important role, it is one for museums not an organisation which purports to inspire more New Zealanders to read more; to promote reading in general, but particularly to represent and promote New Zealand writing and writers – our own artists, stories and points of view.

For example what is the Book Council doing about the fact that the most common electronic library platform in municipal libraries in New Zealand is Overdrive, a U.S based one which makes it almost impossible for New Zealand independents to be included in its catalogues? Not much. I asked them, and frankly the whole issue was of zero interest.  What is the Book Council doing about eBooks in schools? Again, apparently not one helluva lot. These deficiencies are because the Council’s resources are devoted to programmes which it has been running for decades. Who pays for them? Creative New Zealand.

If a funder-provider split for services to New Zealand literature via Creative New Zealand is appropriate it would be nice if the Books Council was less engaged in ego massage services to New Zealand writers (it has a section on its website called ‘writer “pin-ups” - really?) and more in practical and useful services (such as those discussed earlier) for all New Zealanders and writers.

There is also a need to provide a less celebrity oriented view of writing than Booknotes. There is no practical information in that publication at all compared to the Romance Writers less pretty but far more brass tacks Heart to Heart. This provides useful contacts, and useful how-tos on everything from tax to ISBN numbers. New writers without access to this sort of support would seriously struggle.

And that is, fundamentally, the crux of the issue I put to this Creative New Zealand literature review. Is Creative New Zealand locked into the old publishing/record company style model of celebrity hype and pitiful royalties? Or is it going to address the changes to the business model Amazon, in particular has wrought in publishing? If so, it will need to emulate the film commission and devote a lot less resource to cronyism, subsidies and celebrity and a lot more to providing practical assistance to writers.

It will be interesting to see which course you choose. But as I said from the outset, and it is also obvious from the review document, your path is already chosen, and this is just a Quixotic lance passing in the hot wind.


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