Who the Hell would want to be a Writer in New Zealand?
By: Christodoulos Moisa
Whanganui Chronicle 2 February 2019
We tend to think we are progressive in regards to the arts, and maybe we are as far as music goes as the compulsory playing on a radio quota system, has done a lot to encourage New Zealand music making and create a music industry that has world renown.
However, that is not the case as far as the literary arts are concerned.
How many pages in our daily newspapers are devoted to writing and other arts in comparison to sport? Not many and fewer by the day — the Sunday papers used to have at least 10 reviews but now only one or two.
There is the assumption in our country that writers make a good living and they should put money into promoting their own books and careers.
A piece of research published in The Guardian in 2018 shows: "Median earnings for professional writers have plummeted by 42 per cent since 2005 to under £10,500 [$20,000] a year. "Women fare worse, according to the survey, earning 75 per cent of what their male counterparts do." I am sure things are not any better in New Zealand.
So, how can this be addressed?
Well, a few years ago, I promoted the idea that the New Zealand Government purchase each year a range of books written by New Zealand writers to gift to foreign dignitaries and diplomats. This was in the hope that a solid base could be established to financially help our publishers and writers. Nothing came of it.
Recently a friend sent me an article sourced from the New Republic that claimed that in Norway the government — through its Arts Council — buys 1000 copies of each book written by a local author for the country's public libraries. It is 1550 if they are children's books. I am sure that they must have some criteria for their buying selection and I can see problems if government mandarins are given the exclusive power to decide who makes the cut.
However, this initiative has encouraged small quality publishers in Norway to come to the fore and has given writers a decent income from royalties until they can establish their careers. What also has helped is that the Norwegian government, in its wisdom, has exempted books from that country's equivalent of GST.
What the Norwegian model shows is that original books and their creators are valued and their government's commitment to support its writing community gives both writers and publishers the incentive and financial support to invigorate a local and export publishing sector.
Here in New Zealand we have a shrinking number of big publishers, while small independent publishers find it very hard to make ends meet as there is an established literary cabal around the universities which, in a variety of ways, excludes many writers.
Recently, I heard someone say that a well-known academic had said if the person he was talking to wanted a writing career, they'd be guaranteed one if they signed up to his university writing course.
Now this may or may not be true, however — as one who has a long experience of the New Zealand writing scene — I can say with some certainty that the universities, booksellers and big publishers put up a lot of barriers for New Zealand writers.
For example, if one needs a writing grant from Creative New Zealand they have to have three reputable writers as referees. If someone resides in a provincial centre it is hard to find a "well known" author for such support while in the cities one brushes shoulders with such writers all the time.
At the university writing courses, it is in the interest of the teaching lecturer or professor — many of them poets or novelists in their own right — to support their aspiring student writer in this way.
Another barrier occurs when one enters a book in the New Zealand National Writing Award. One of the conditions — and, incidentally, this applies to Radio New Zealand — is that the book is available in every major bookshop in New Zealand. This even applies if the book is available on Amazon Books and Kindle.
Try, as an indy publisher, to find a distributor in this country ...
When I did find one, he gave me the following breakdown (and I must say I appreciated his honesty): "From a $38 priced book, take off 15 per cent GST; then 45 per cent to 50 per cent for the bookshop; then 6 per cent for the distributor."
I worked out that, after paying for the printing and postal costs from the United States to New Zealand and then to the bookshop, I was making about $2 on each book — and this $2 had first to pay for my design and proof-reading costs before I made anything as a writer. It is possible if I ordered a bulk amount, that this amount would go up. But to do so one has to have the certainty of sales and if it's Unity Books, they want the books on sale or return basis.
One way independent publishers are attacked by the establishment is that they are a form of vanity press. Well, many now-famous New Zealand writers have financed their first book under their own imprints — not that you see many admitting it.
And would we say William Blake, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain — all of whom were self-published — are lesser writers and unworthy of their fame because of it? Well, one thing that can be said against Mark Twain was he was an unsuccessful businessman and went into bankruptcy (maybe due to his penchant to travel and his need to see New Zealand).
It is time this inequality was sorted. I remember the shock one of my comments registered at a PEN meeting in Dunedin in the early 1980s — I said: "Writing comes easily to academics."
I then explained that a university academic gets an income, a warm office, a secretary who proof-reads their work and, many times, a publisher — their university press. At the time I knew writers who lived in grotty flats, used two bar heaters and subsisted on blue-collar jobs or some sort of a benefit.
An article titled Self Publishing by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (retrieved November 5, 2017) states: "Self-publishing is still a difficult and demanding way to go." It gives some hope, saying: "But is increasingly becoming a respectable, if alternative, choice for a writing career. Self-publishers who are savvy, motivated and hard-working, can build audiences and make money."
Not many people can pay $10,000 plus relocation costs to complete a university writing course; not every creative soul has an independent income; or a spouse who is willing to support them; or is connected to people of influence.
What we need is a clear Creative New Zealand policy that is innovative and inclusive and helps promote the art of writing and book-reading in our country. This, inevitably — as with music — will lead to a stronger literary presence in the world for our writers and a welcome tax dollar for the government's coffers.
*Christodoulos Moisa is a Whanganui poet, novelist, and artist — and is also the editor and manager of One Eyed Press