The life of a publisher

DETERMINED: Roger Steele established Steele Robertson because he wanted to publish something others had rejected.
PHIL REID/The Dominion Post
DETERMINED: Roger Steele established Steele Robertson because he wanted to publish something others had rejected.

Publish and be damned takes on a whole different meaning in Wellington where a string of small independent publishers turn out superb books with very little chance of a fortune from them.

The big, international publishers  Penguin, Random, Harper Collins, Macmillan  are all based in Auckland, their overheads large but their incomes cushioned by overseas blockbusters.

In Wellington, shoestring publishing operations turn out successful books from New Zealanders for New Zealanders, all with dedication  and the hope that something might make it big internationally and pay for the intellectual indulgences of several years past.

Pride, enthusiasm  they practically resonate from the people who run publishing houses such as Awa, Steele Roberts, Bridget Williams Books, Huia, Victoria University Press, Gecko and Phantom.

Without small publishers there would not be books like the 2010 NZ Post Book of the Year, Encircled Lands: Te Urewera 1820-1921, written by Judith Binney (who died last week) and published by Bridget Williams Books, or Big Weather: Poems of Wellington, which was published in 2000 by Mallinson Rendel (the assets of which were sold in 2009).

Big Weather, which was expected to break even, is still selling steadily into the thousands which poetry books hardly ever do.

Contested Ground, Te Whenua I Tohea, on the Taranaki Wars, 1860-61, is just one of a raft of books from Huia giving new voice to Maori and presence to Maori history.

Somewhat lighter is How to Look at a Painting, by Justin Paton, one of a how-to series from Awa, to be the subject for a television series, and Awa's The Torchlight List  of 200 good books.

Such special books keep on coming, recession or no recession.

Their publishers, pared to the bone anyway, carry on regardless.

Roger Steele, of Steele Roberts, says "when I hear of people earning the minimum adult wage  we dream of it".

In New Zealand there are about 120 publishers of all persuasions, including trade, tertiary, scientific and technical publishers, as well as the international publishers.

A 2008 survey by the New Zealand Publishers Association determined that about a quarter of publishers accounted for 92 per cent of turnover.

The money-spinners do not include the vibrant little publishers in the Capital.

Because they all have much the same in the way of difficulties and each has something of a niche market  six-year-old "baby" Gccko, for example, concentrates on translating remarkable overseas children's books  they have a sort of admiring, sibling relationship with one another.

In the past there has been tension between them, and at least one multinational publisher intent on poaching authors, but even that has settled down. The multinationals operate on a grand scale  and the independents graft away.

Enthusiasm and the lottery of new authors and new work propel all these modest businesses. Almost all of them run on a shoestring and under the steam of the one or two driven people who set them up and stay.

Mallinson Rendel was only sold off to Penguin when Ann Mallinson  with a QSM for her efforts  was 75.

There have always been very strong independent publishers in Wellington, says Tilly Lloyd, of Unity Books, where about 30 per cent of the stock comes from them. "They're world-class," she says. "Think of Encircled Lands. Such impeccable writing, impeccable production and the highest possible quality. I'm hugely grateful.It helps us to define our shop and it helps define New Zealand."

There are, Lloyd notes, many admirable independent publishers outside Wellington, such as the university presses, Canterbury, Auckland and Otago, and Craig Potton in Nelson, but Wellington is central.

She rates Victoria University Press at the top of the Capital's independents, although strictly speaking it has the advantage of some university funding, allowing it to take a punt on books.

Victoria University Press (VUP) publishes scholarly non-fiction and literary fiction and poetry. Its highlights include the novel, Gifted by Patrick Evans, and television's Tim Wilson's Their Faces Were Shining. The latter, says VUP publisher Fergus Barrowman, "is a bit of a departure for us, set in middle America, half satire and half serious. It's had good sales and good reception through blogs and twitter.

"We used to have a vague sense of how people felt about a book with reviews. Blogs and tweets give a broader sense of what people are reading and how they're finding it."

Yes, says Barrowman, VUP is fortunate to have support from the university.

"If we were independent with no funds at all it would be extremely hard. I don't know how some of New Zealand's independent publishers manage to do the books they do. University support is crucial for us. One of the great things is we can take commercial risks, like first books and short stories."

VUP established  "slowly" in the 70s, and publishes about 25 books a year, including a handful of fiction and six or seven poetry books.

"As we all know, it's a tiny market and there are big pressures on the book trade  the recession, pressures with the exchange rate. And the digital revolution has transformed publishing. We've started publishing e-books. We did 15 last year, new fiction and poetry, titles like Gifted, doing print and e-book simultaneously."

Barrowman is in the process of organising to have e-books available through bigger players than the current two small sites  "Sites like Amazon and Apple. It's a slow process." VUP appears to be in the lead in this area, he says. "Other publishers I've talked to have a wait-and-see attitude."

He believes that in the United States 10 per cent of the market is e-books, including 25 per cent of children's books.

"The evidence is children don't have our old sentimental attachment to paper and print. The question is how quickly will New Zealand follow on. I'm a paper person. I read on the computer for work. Part of the pleasure for me is shifting that environment to a book in a comfy chair. But trying to catch up with manuscript reading  I prefer to read out of an iPad than print them out on paper."

VUP and the other independents engage in "friendly competition rather than cut-throat competition".

There is, he says, always a pattern of small publishers, such as Longacre and Hazard Press, disappearing because of retirement or business difficulties.

"In the past they've always been replaced by newer ones.

"I'm not sure that's happening any more. Significant starters have been Mary Varnham and Awa Press and Julia Marshall and Gecko Press."

Awa Press has been driven by Mary Varnham since she started it to produce the best in contemporary non-fiction seven years ago.

"Wellington is such a vibrant place to run a publishing company. The designers, typesetters, everything we need is within walking distance."

"I had the belief when I started that there might be Wellington writers not being noticed and picked up by the multinationals based in Auckland." Writers, she discovered, like Rebecca Priestley and Gillian Turner.

She's positive about the future for books and says there is a "re-love for the book happening".

"The popularity of Professor Jim Flynn's The Torchlight List is testament to this. He makes a persuasive case that you can learn more from great books than going to university."

Awa is part of a national digitalising project but she'll see how digitalising takes off. "E-books have been talked up a lot." Awa, she says, treats every book as "a treasure and we put our heart and soul into it".

"That's because we can. We aim to produce 10 books a year, the multinationals about 200. They have the money to do it. We're at bedrock."

Because of their "imports" she says, the multinationals are not under a lot of pressure to make their New Zealand books pay. At the same time, it's overseas sales, like those of Antarctica Cruising Guide, by Peter Carey and Craig Franklin, that keep Awa afloat. Varnham has hopes for art writer Justin Paton. "He's someone I want to be an international writer. He could be the next Simon Schama."

Publishing, she says "is really not about books, it's about authors, trying to find and encourage fantastic authors and keeping them".

Money is not the overriding object. Still, Varnham says, it would be pleasant if Creative New Zealand would help a bit. "Creative New Zealand gives money to the multinationals. We don't get a cent. It's hard to get Creative New Zealand to understand New Zealand independent publishing is worth supporting. It is a labour of love but it's a fantastic exciting life. I find working with writers terrific, and, it's corny, but it's really rewarding  tough financially but creatively rewarding."

Gecko Press is the brainchild of Julia Marshall and is younger than Awa by one year. Other independent publishers were very generous when she started up five years ago, Marshall says.

"As far as competition with international publishers, we have a partnership relationship with Random House. They are responsible for our sales and distribution." The international publishers are "incredibly important".

"We don't think too much about competition. We are just trying to do our own books as well as we can."

So far, that's very well, in literary terms at least. Gecko's first book, Donkeys, from Austria, translated by Catherine Chidgey, sold out.

Gecko has gone on to publish some New Zealand children's books.

"The chance to publish Snake and Lizard by Joy Cowley and Gavin Bishop was a lucky break for us, especially when it won NZ Post Book of the Year in 2008. It opened a lot of doors for us. We've sold it to nine territories internationally.

"Publishing," she says, "is a tough business. In the children's book industry, we say we are very rich in soul."

Huia Publishers was set up by Robyn Bargh 20 years ago to promote Maori writers, Maori language and Maori perspectives. Her husband, Brian, works with her. Huia has a staff of 18, making it the biggest independent publisher in Wellington, its size largely to do with its educational publications.

Brian Bargh says Huia began at a time when there was little in the way of Maori or Pacific literary voices in New Zealand apart from those of Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace and Alan Duff.

"Robyn saw stories of growing up Maori in New Zealand didn't exist."

It wasn't easy, they found, to tap into Maori storytelling. The introduction of the Huia short story competition in 1995, now the Pikihuia Award, identified new Maori writers such as James George and Paula Morris.

Brian believes most independent publishers are "hanging on by the skin of their teeth and huge conviction".

Bridget Williams began publishing books in the 70s. "There have been bumpy times and this is certainly one wave of recession."

She has always concentrated on New Zealand history, Maori experience, contemporary issues and women's studies and is a determinedly intellectual publisher interested in books solidly based in research. They tend to sell well, become mainstream, and change the country's view of its history.

Williams has her own niche, with some crossover with the university presses. She has no problem with other independent publishers, though she's aware "lots of big publishers would have liked Encircled Lands or Treaty of Waitangi [Claudia Orange, 2004].

"I don't feel any of us [independent publishers] are cutting across each others' paths."

She has yet another ambitious new book in the last stages of publication: Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History, with Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris.

"We've always done big books," Williams says. "Our list is very much based on long relationships."

Photographer Grant Sheehan started Phantom Books because, in the mid-90s, he couldn't find a publisher willing to go with a book featuring black and white photographs of New Zealand's burgeoning cafe culture.

"I thought how hard would it be to do it. I did do it. It was hugely harder than I thought."

He dreamed up the name Phantom Books because he envisaged it as the fleeting vehicle for one publication. He optimistically printed and then sold 3000 cafe books, then calendars from the images "and thought what next?" "Cafes of the World. I did a colour version and that did particularly well. I hadn't expected to make money so I thought I'd carry on. I did Hotels of the World after that, the first that was a global hit, really the right place at the right time."

It has sold more than 120,000 and he has sold the rights to other publishers  "so not major dollars, but still very good".

Sheehan went on to produce about 25 books, "books that I knew wouldn't make a fortune but were good to do". They included a series of motoring books, with a successful one on Possum Bourne, who died while it was being produced.

Sheehan's working on "a beautiful, upmarket, black and white landscape book". "It's extravagant and foolhardy of me."

Yes, he's feeling the effects of the recession, "but having quite a lot of fun doing things". "With a recession you really have to carry on. You can't go backwards or stop. Independents can only survive if their overheads are low and they're running a tight ship."

His relationship with the other independent publishers? "No-one's ever trodden on my toes." The relationship between the independents and the multinationals, however, can be a bit of a David and Goliath thing.

"They can offer authors more and better conditions." But they also have bigger overheads "and the pressure on them must be huge".

E-books, he believes, "are definitely the way everything is flowing, definitely the future, but not the next-month future in New Zealand".

Like Phantom Books, Steele Robertson was established because Roger Steele wanted to publish something other publishers had rejected. In his case, in 1996, that work was the least profitable in literature  poetry  by Hone Tuwhare and Jackie Baxter. Baxter  overshadowed by her husband, James K Baxter  had unsuccessfully tried to get a manuscript published elsewhere. When she showed it to Steele: "I looked at it and said it was so good, brilliant, I'd do it." Tuwhare had had numerous publishers when Steele visited him in the leaky shed where he wrote and found poems he entrusted to Steele for publication.

Steele  giving up a comfortable income  started the publishing business. There is, he says, "so much good stuff people are producing that needs to be presented and circulated".

Steele Robertson publishes 30 or 40 books a year. Steele says publishers generally need 30 per cent of their titles making money to finance the rest. "Three per cent of our titles are economic."

Steele Robertson employs four people and their wages are "minuscule".

The Dominion Post