Eleanor Catton's stellar success

KIM KNIGHT
Last updated 10:35 04/08/2014
Eleanor Catton
ROBERT CATTO

STELLAR RISE: Eleanor Catton's novel The Luminaries has turned the New Zealand publishing world upside down.

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A man walks into a West Coast pub and sells half a million copies of a literary fiction novel constructed according to the astrological alignments of the planets.

This year, for local book retailers, fact was stranger than fiction.

"We deal with hard data," says Nevena Nikolic, sales and marketing manager with Nielsen BookScan. "I can't comment, except to say it is unprecedented to see a New Zealand fiction title take out of the honour of the biggest-selling book in New Zealand."

It is exactly one year since the release of Auckland author Eleanor Catton's second novel, the Man Booker prize-winning The Luminaries.

Figures just released to the Sunday Star-Times show 560,000 print and digital copies of the book have sold worldwide (excluding Canada). Twenty per cent - 117,430 print and ebooks - were bought in New Zealand, according to Catton's local publisher Victoria University Press.

Trying to put those numbers in perspective? VUP's previous blockbuster, Elizabeth Knox's The Vintner's Luck, shifted 40,000 copies in its first year and 60,000 across its lifetime. More common NZ fiction print runs, however, are around 1000 to 2000 books.

The Luminaries' success pushed sales of locally written fiction up 168 per cent on the previous year. It's been the No 1 best seller on the NZ adult fiction list for 51 straight weeks. The book looks like a long, and possibly difficult read, but that hasn't stopped us devouring it in record numbers - elderly tenants in one apartment building in Wellington have, reportedly, chopped it down the spine into easy-to-manage (and share) sections.

Translation rights have been sold into 24 countries and 26 languages, from Bulgarian to Hebrew to Turkish. Only a few of those, however, are currently available. As a spokesperson from Catton's United Kingdom publisher Granta said this week, "it does take rather a long time to translate".

The Luminaries is a six-centimetre thick, 832-page epic set in Hokitika during the 1866 gold rush. It literally begins with a man - Walter Moody - entering a bar and encountering a congregation of 12. The book's characters are influenced according to the astrological phases of the day, but at its simplest, Catton told a sold-out Auckland Writers Festival audience, "there's the narrative, which just involves guns and prostitutes and people taking opium".

Still, even retailers had their reservations.

"When it came in as a proof copy, about six months before release, I just thought ‘oh my goodness, this is never going to sell', because it was so big," says Jenna Todd, manager of Time Out Bookstore in Auckland's Mt Eden. "And then it was long-listed, so that sparked a little bit of interest."

Todd remembers the day she met Catton. "She said ‘hi, I've just moved to the neighbourhood, and this is my new local bookstore'. I knew who she was, because she was the writer of The Rehearsal [her first novel] and that was a big favourite for a lot of our staff."

Time Out, initially, ordered five copies of The Luminaries. They pushed that to 50 when their new neighbourhood author asked to have her Auckland launch there. Last week, they confirmed sales figures of 1100; when it won the Man Booker, 100 copies went in a single day.

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"I was so hung over," recalls Todd. "I'd been to the Silver Scrolls the night before - it was when Lorde won for Royals - and my cellphone was dead and I'd organised to have the morning off."

She was in her car, listening to National Radio when Kathryn Ryan reported the win.

"I drove straight here. There was Moet, everybody was crying and rewatching the video . . . customers were coming in and saying ‘I want to get that book' they barely knew what it was called. People were like, ‘it's ours - she won'. I don't watch rugby, but I did think, maybe this is what it's like when we win the World Cup? Maybe this is what it feels like."

Todd, like Catton, was born the same year a New Zealander last won the Booker. Keri Hulme's The Bone People took out the prize in 1985, propelling the Okarito-based author to cult figure status. Todd has watched black and white television footage of that ceremony. "There's cigarette smoke . . . there was a woman, and she's wearing a tuxedo and this man talks for like, 15 minutes or something …"

On the morning of Catton's win, says VUP publicist Kirstin McDougall, Twitter had the news about five seconds ahead of judge Robert McFarlane's announcement on BBC World News.

"F..., she's done it! She's won," shouted McDougall. "Shut-up!" shouted everyone back.

McDougall wrote the moment up for the Star-Times: "I'll never forget her face. It was white and blank. I don't think she blinked for 10 seconds and then she seemed to rummage around in her handbag for an hour. TV producers were probably screaming in the camera operators' earpieces for more action, but this was compelling TV.

"Writers were hugging, crying, pouring champagne over the floor. There was the Duchess of Cambridge and there was Ellie, wobbly-voiced and visibly shocked, talking to the world about worth and value. She had the world's attention."

It was the longest book to win the prize and at 28, Catton was the youngest author to win it.

"Most writers," said Catton two Fridays ago (folding laundry with one hand, holding the phone in the other), "when they get to a position of being associated with the Booker Prize, even on the long list, are more used to already being a public figure and an authority".

Post-fame, she says, "you learn to put the mask on . . . the weird thing about having a public image is it's not owned by anybody and it's a collective thing, so if you don't like the image you're seeing, there's no one place that you can go to lodge a complaint."

She says the book has given her multiple firsts. After the laundry folding, was the packing, and a flight to a festival in Brazil - the book has just been translated into Portuguese - and Catton was excited. "I've never been to a country that's at that stage of development."

Her publicist confirms that "most mornings" her email inbox will contain invites, requests and occasional astrological graphs for the author. At the end of this month she'll be at the Christchurch Writers' Festival. The biggest portion of the book was written when Catton was the Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence at the University of Canterbury. The city wound its way into the text - Catton's bicycle route from her father's home in Cashmere took her past a strip of businesses whose names she borrowed (take a bow, Raxworthy Panelbeaters).

"I don't know what the book would have looked like without that residency. This idea of unstructured time - there's nothing like it."

And yet, Catton has kept a day job. She teaches at the Manukau Institute of Technology's School of Creative Writing: "I want to still have a normal existence and be working a job. I guess that I feel to relax, to get too comfortable, would mean that my ideas would suffer.

"I think that complacency is just the absolute enemy of art. If you're complacent, why are you doing it? Art should be this expression of what it is to be alive, and complacency is so not about being alive - it's about being comfortable and being comatose."

The Man Booker prize carries a £50,000 (NZ$98,800) cheque. Did she buy anything nice?

After the win, she says, she went to a book festival in Canada, the country she was born in (McClelland & Stewart publish her novel there - they wouldn't release sales figures, but confirmed they had 100,000 copies, in various formats, across their marketplace).

"My agent [Caroline Dawney] came with me. We had one day on Vancouver Island. I really needed a winter coat and we were being really silly and giddy and we were walking around fancy shops. Caroline said ‘wouldn't it be the ultimate gangster thing you could do with your money to blow it all on a really expensive coat', and then we found one. I'm not going to tell you how much it was, it was absolutely ridiculously expensive. It's made from lambskins. It's furry."

Anyway, says Catton, firmly: "You only need to buy one coat like that in a lifetime. So that's me, done."

She doesn't talk about money easily. Her publishers say author royalty deals (reportedly usually around 10 per cent) are confidential.

"I know that I've definitely changed tax brackets," says Catton. "My tax return was extremely complicated this year . . . the way contracts work is so staggered, I've only seen one round of royalties and things will taper off.

"I do feel incredibly supported. Even if people haven't read the book or will never read it, they make a point of talking about it. That makes me feel like a million bucks."

Things to watch, a year on: "When I've kind of expected somebody will know who I am and then realised I have to introduce myself. Then I think, ‘oh no, what am I doing? This is the first step down the road to becoming a complete dickhead' . . ."

If The Luminaries made Catton rich and famous, what did it do for local publishing?

Physical book sales in New Zealand are on the decline - Nielsen BookScan data shows that in the 12 months to July 19 this year, Kiwis purchased 739,000 fewer books than we did in the year prior (those figures exclude Whitcoulls, which stopped providing data to BookScan in September 2011).

"Sales were down anyway," says Sam Elworthy, Publishing Association of New Zealand president. "But if you'd taken away The Luminaries, life would have been rather horrid."

How important are books to New Zealand's bottom line? A recently released report from accounting firm PWC says that in 2011, the publishing industry directly supported 2940 fulltime jobs and was worth $160 million to our GDP. Comparative figures put the music industry's contribution at 1670 jobs and $205m.

The Luminaries employed people - from the writer, to the additional editor VUP was able to hire, to the printers brought on board to rush 6000 copies on to the local market when the hype began to build, to the workers in the Random House distribution warehouse who did the heavy lifting on the novels that weighed 900g apiece.

"The biggest thing that's changed for me," says Catton, "Is my relationship to my publishers . . . in the sense that I am an asset to them."

She says it's not a "film-star sunglasses; I call all the shots" difference.

"But it puts the focus of the relationship back on why we're doing this in the first place. A book that makes money for a publisher is a wonderful thing."

Last Friday, as The Luminaries officially turned one year old, VUP's publisher Barrowman confirmed the unprecedented New Zealand sales total of exactly 117,430 books.

"We started with 3000 imported from the UK, and then we did two quick reprints of 3000 each in New Zealand. The next reprint was in Australia, and we did 60,000 copies in a month . . ."

VUP's profit margins ranged from $1 to $7 on the $35 book. "We decided early on it had a chance of being a popular hit, and in order to make that happen we had to have a really attractive retail price. Our margins were really tight and shifted from reprint to reprint."

The Luminaries was the second in a two-book deal for VUP and UK-based Granta. The Rehearsal was completed when Catton was 22 (she had, in the previous year, won this newspaper's short story writing competition). "It's really nice when your risks pay off like this," says Barrowman.

According to Man Booker rules, entries must have a UK publisher (The Bone People became eligible after Hodder & Stoughton picked it up from local independent, Spiral Press). Max Porter, Catton's primary editor at Granta, said the company's faith in the author had been rock-solid since an editor read the first paragraph of her first book.

"We never had any doubts about the literary quality of what she would write but as the vastly complex structural innovations and glorious plotting of the book grew and came together, we sensed that The Luminaries would be a novel to win prizes."

It is now also, officially, the best-selling book in Granta's history. "But we would be as impressed by it, and as proud of Ellie, had it sold a dozen copies."

Porter went to Hokitika with Catton in March, when she packed out the town's Regent Theatre. Local bookstore Take Note has sold more than 1000 copies of the novel.

The summer before last, New Zealand read 50 Shades of Grey. Store co-owner Claudia Landis sold her share of the bondage and discipline-themed bodice-ripper.

"Women especially, were wolfing it down," says Landis, without judgment. "And in the end, reading needs to be pleasurable. But there are bits of fluff and there are things that last a long time. The Luminaries will last forever in my heart and head - the bits of fluff just get you through the hard times!"

Barrowman can't remember what they served at the posh dinner the night Catton won the Man Booker. About half an hour before the announcement, he had noticed a small discreet spotlight trained on the author, "and it just started to feel like it was going to happen".

Plus, as someone else pointed out, they were sitting at table 28. It had been 28 years since The Bone People. Catton was 28. And astrologically, the Saturn Return, when humans are said to begin their next major life stage, kicks in around 28 years.

This entire year, says Catton, "feels like a huge blessing" but it is "slightly baffling". She wrote a book, and then it won a prize and then her life changed.

"I'm really pleased that it has happened, but I didn't organise it, you know?"

- Sunday Star Times

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