Frankfurt's book bonus
The publishing industry in New Zealand is anticipating a multi-year economic gain from its guest of honour status at the world's largest book fair.
But the president of the Book Publishers Association is frustrated Kiwis haven't cottoned on to the magnitude of the opportunity.
It's been a tough few years for New Zealand publishing, so being named guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in a two-horse race with Australia has brought welcome excitement. But association president Kevin Chapman said the New Zealand media and public don't seem to understand what a marvellous showcase it is for the country.
The last few years has seen publishers facing up to competition from online booksellers unencumbered by GST such as Amazon, the rise of ebooks, and a drop-off in book-buying. Also they have had to absorb bad debts from the collapse of Red Group, the former owner of Whitcoulls.
Despite the challenges, Chapman said the industry remains in good health, and in the run-up to the Frankfurt Book Fair ran a measuring tape to gauge the industry's size and success in preparation to front the German press.
It was a task that was easier said than done.
The association estimates annual total book sales to New Zealanders to be running at about $350 million, but that is an estimate because giant retailer Whitcoulls, now owned by the Norman family, keeps its sales close to its chest and many books are imported via the likes of Amazon and the Book Depository, which also do not share their figures, though Kiwi online retailer Fishpond does.
Similarly, there are no comprehensive figures on how much foreign earnings the publishing industry generates for New Zealand, though the export value of books and rights is probably in the vicinity of $100m, Chapman says. Last year alone, the rights to an estimated 600 titles were sold abroad.
It's a number the industry feels pretty good about, Chapman said, but the Frankfurt Book Fair, which runs for five days from October 10 to October 14, offers the chance for a multi-year improvement on that.
About 60 New Zealand authors will be heading to the show, and Chapman is hoping that the spotlight in Germany will result in greater notice of Kiwi talent from surrounding nations and set up a ripple effect that will be felt for a few years.
But he says it is wrong to think of the book fair as being a purely literary event, especially for the guest of honour.
"One of the challenges has been to get New Zealanders to understand this is not just a book industry show," Chapman said.
Not only is the show one of Europe's biggest cultural events, it is now a place where books and film meet, and for the guest of honour it goes wider than that.
New Zealand is using it as a platform to demonstrate its talents in a number of areas including film, tourism, performing arts, as well as wine and food. The country will have a prominent place at other festivals, which are being colonised as part of a programme of events to capitalise on the book fair.
In August, New Zealand will have booked out about 100 metres of the food and stage strip running along the embankment of Frankfurt's river Main as part of its annual museum festival, said Chapman. It'll also have a big presence in film festivals in Berlin, Munich, Cologne and Frankfurt.
Germans have something of an idealised view of this country, Chapman said.
It seems a place where Germans imagine they could come and kick back, and that space New Zealand fills in the German collective psyche was a big part of why it is this year's guest of honour.
Actually, there is an untold story to how New Zealand bagged the guest of honour spot.
"What really happened was that the book fair had not had many English-speaking guests of honour, and they were particularly keen on getting one."
Australia and New Zealand made up the shortlist, but the Australian publishing industry dropped the ball.
"We responded more actively and more positively than Australia," Chapman says.
The timing is good. New Zealand publishing feels like it needs room to grow overseas.
"We used to think that books were recession-proof. That hasn't been true for some years since we were driven into recession by high interest rates prior to the GFC," said Chapman.
"The New Zealand market for print books held up until the last 12 months really, and it has really dropped off since then," he said.
The previous year print book sales were flat, but Chapman does not believe the "amateur futurologists" who see print books disappearing to be replaced by cheaper digital ebooks.
In America, some areas of publishing have seen 20 per cent drops in printed book sales as people have switched to ebooks.
But physical books remain important to readers who plan to keep and reread books, and also as gift items, which makes up a significant portion of book sales.
For New Zealand publishers, ebooks make for easier exports, and they mean publishers can earn from their back catalogues even when it is impossible to keep all their books in print.
They've had some help from Government grants getting ebooks made up of some of their back catalogues, and these are now available for purchase, but there is another challenge they'd really like Wellington to help them with: finding a way to bring the likes of Amazon in under the GST rules.
"For all New Zealand businesses selling to consumers to know that they have competitors that are substantially advantaged over them and for the Government to sit back and allow their tax base to be eroded is astonishing," Chapman said.
One of the challenges facing the publishing industry is a lack of hard data on sales and growth.
Exactly how many books are being imported from offshore e-tailers such as Amazon? How many ebooks are being sold – and at what prices and margins?
Adding to the uncertainty, the Whitcoulls chain withdrew from Nielsen Book Scan halfway through 2011. All of that has contributed to an apparent, but perhaps not real, decline in sales numbers.
For what it's worth, 9.7 million items were sold in 2010, according to Nielsen. That was up from 9.4m in 2009. But sales then fell to 8.1m in 2011 (not including Whitcoulls).
Total revenue fell from $243.6m to $193.2m from 2010 to 2011.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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