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NZ BOOK COUNCIL (NOW, READ NEW ZEALAND) 1995-97

From Chapter 14 of the memoir Compass Points


In 1995 I had a ring from Philippa Christmas, executive director of the New Zealand Book Council. The chair of the council, Fiona Kidman, was standing down after three years and would I allow my name to go forward to replace her? It was an unpaid position. I was instinctively interested, keen to engage with writers and New Zealand literature, but anxious not to have a position where I spent my time on organisation and fundraising rather than on achieving the institution’s purposes. I asked to see its accounts. They looked pretty good to me, showing a healthy reserve of $20,000. And I felt Philippa to be a competent administrator.

And so I accepted the position — and found I had messed up. The honorary accountant was way behind with his work and the accounts I’d been shown were two years out of date. In the meantime the reserve had been spent and the council was broke. The situation was not improved by the Arts Council then advising it was reviewing all its annual grants and would be deciding its allocations six months later that year than normal. My first ruling was that the Book Council was never to spend money it did not have, and that every year it was to budget for and achieve a surplus, however small, and rebuild its reserve. We did that, and for all the stress around the financials I was glad that I’d accepted.

The council had a number of programmes, including Words on Wheels, Writers in Schools, Meet the Author and others which were successfully promoting reading and awareness of New Zealand writing around the country, and I fully supported the continuation of these. But looking strategically I felt the writing and publishing community was over-dependent on government grants, and that New Zealand literature would be better off if it could be more commercially viable. I looked back at how my predecessors had approached the role, and found that one early president, Keith Sinclair (1972–73), had argued exactly for this. There were two possible avenues to chase in pursuit of this: the first, to get more New Zealand books sold in our bookshops. We established the Book Council’s annual lecture at the Readers and Writers Week at Wellington’s International Festival of the Arts, extended Meet the Author sessions to include more of our nonfiction writings, and strengthened our news magazine Booknotes. Then we sought to widen the buying market by attracting not only New Zealanders but more of the 1.5 million tourists and other visitors coming to New Zealand each year. For this we produced a brochure Bookenz and made it freely available to visitors, bookshops and other firms here and overseas. Perhaps it worked: one day soon after a bookseller told me, ‘Two Swedish tourists came into our shop today and bought five books from the brochure.’

At the time I started at the council the bookshops’ front windows were full of international best sellers and most New Zealand books were in a hard-to-find corner at the back of the shop. It is pleasing to say, but I do not think my discussions with Booksellers NZ or the tourist industry or anyone else had anything much to do with it, that three years later New Zealand books filled the front windows to the extent that overseas visitors were commenting on the excessive jingoism and introspection of New Zealand as judged by its bookshops. Something happened in the national psyche around that time to lead New Zealanders to want to access their own stories better.

The other prospect in the direction of commercial viability was to increase the overseas markets for our books. There were endless possibilities here but, as it proved, it was a field difficult to tap into. I found Tradenz, the government’s trade promotion board, was keen to engage and proposed the book industry set up a Joint Action Group — a JAG — following the pattern it had used with other export sectors. Some of the longest and most difficult meetings of my time at the council took place around this project, involving the publishers, Tradenz and the council. Tradenz wanted an agreed strategic plan with market research, an examination of distribution chains, the identification of the most likely markets and so on before it would commit serious money. Their point man, Greg Walton, was remarkably capable and persistent.

But the overseas trade in books was controlled by a small group of publishers who were committed to selling the rights to New Zealand books to overseas publishers and who strongly resisted any changes to their traditional approach. Proposals to explore the direct sales of books to overseas retail chains were repeatedly challenged. Tradenz still allocated $80,000 to the project and New Zealand’s presence at the Frankfurt book fair, the world’s largest, and the Sydney book fair too, was strengthened, along with a few other steps. But the intense publisher resistance meant the exercise was never able to realise its potential.

Another arm of the book export drive was to raise overseas awareness of New Zealand writing, and this we were better able to manage ourselves. More New Zealand writers were invited to overseas Readers and Writers weeks and similar events in various parts of the world. We worked particularly hard on Australia and developed a writers’ exchange with the Australia Arts Council. Lydia Wevers was our front person on that, and we started the ball rolling with a visit to New Zealand by Australian writer Drusilla Modjeska at our invitation, and with Peter Wells representing New Zealand with significant success at a book week in Brisbane and then in Sydney.

New Zealand writers were also collectively capable of determinedly pursuing their own interests as they saw them, but in my time they were aggrieved at the Arts Council, Creative New Zealand, which had taken away a long-standing right of an authors’ group to allocate the government’s grants for literature. The meetings about this issue were torrid. We stayed neutral, although privately I felt the government’s position understandable — the avoidance of ‘capture’, as they say. Regardless, the Book Council’s projects remained well supported by New Zealand’s writers.

The Book Council never had enough clout and resources to bang heads and make big changes, but each period brought incremental gains and I felt I ended my three years with some advances. In the middle of it all, in 1977, we celebrated our 25th anniversary. The politics around the council board were a problem at times, but individually the people on it — Elizabeth Alley, Judith Doyle, Chris Price, Lydia and others — were a joy to get to know, and were totally knowledgeable and committed. New Zealand and its literature were lucky to have such people in its service. Sir Kenneth Keith took over the presidency and further widened the council’s support; I remained on the board as required as immediate past president but rarely played an active role.