Slow readers, Tim Hazledine

Economist and member of the 2000 Heart of the Nation Taskforce on the Arts Tim Hazledine asks if we’re feeding public money to the wrong end of the literary food chain. 

The New York Times once ran a competition for “Book title most likely to be remaindered in a Manhattan bookshop”. The winner was Canada, Our Friendly Neighbor to the North. Living then in Canada, I thought this quite funny, and I also thought, as I often did when there were jokes and comparisons between Canada and the United States, about the possible counterpart for another small/large country dualism, New Zealand and Australia.

What if The Age asked its readers for the name of the book most likely to end up on the table in a Melbourne bookshop? How about: Kiwi Cuzzies: Our Little Friends Across the Tasman Sea? Never mind. My point here is that while a book about New Zealand might have a good chance of being remaindered in Melbourne, a book by a New Zealander would have virtually no chance at all, because, of course, it wouldn’t have got onto the shelves in the first place.

This is the central fact of life for the book business in New Zealand. It is almost entirely production for local consumption. Almost no-one outside our country has the slightest interest in reading our novels, non-fiction prose, poetry and plays. With a few very honourable exceptions, we are telling our stories to ourselves. And since there aren’t very many of us, and since the book trade is unusually subject to economies of scale, so that small print runs mean high costs and small royalties, and since the local industry faces the heavy competition of cheaper imports from larger markets, writing and publishing books is always going to be a marginal economic activity in New Zealand.

This difficult situation does not in itself justify instructing our government-supported arts-funding agency Creative New Zealand to put public money into books, but it surely does mean that if we do give support, it should be done as prudently and effectively as possible. Yet I believe that our funding of the arts in general and books in particular is fundamentally misconceived. To put it most succinctly, our present system is biased towards getting books written, and it should be about getting books read.

To see this, we need first to ask the basic question: just what is it about books that warrants public support in the form of taxpayer funding? It can’t just be that books are a Good Thing. Toothpaste is a good thing, but we don’t subsidise it from taxes. Why not? Because we figure that private citizens are capable of sorting out brushing their teeth for themselves. So why can’t they, or we, sort out the book trade for ourselves, too?

Well, to a large extent we can and do, which is why the business of books is predominantly carried out privately, in a myriad of market and non-market transactions between readers, booksellers, publishers, printers and authors. But there is something different about books, and this does justify, in principle, the confiscation (taxation) and redirection by the government of the (quite modest) sums that fund Creative New Zealand’s programmes. Books – more precisely, the engaged reading of books – generate what economists call externalities or spillover effects.

When someone reads a book it becomes more likely they will read another book – we call this “rational addiction” – and when they talk about the book it makes others more likely to read, too. And the sum of all the reading and talking and engaging with books is an essential contribution to our culture, our civilisation, our sense of nationhood; even to our economic capabilities as an intelligent, well-educated, literate citizenry.

And that, basically, is the justification for injecting public funds into the book trade. What is not a justification is that someone – anyone – wants to write a book. There is absolutely no shortage of such people and nor even of completed manuscripts. What is scarce and precious are the efforts and skills that produce readable books and that get books read.

Yet if we examine Creative New Zealand’s funding policy, we see that it is heavily biased towards getting books written (which is not the problem), rather than getting them read (which is). Most of the money – about $600,000 in the 2004/5 funding year – is handed over directly as grants to individuals. For example, the largest grant in a recent round was to James George, who will receive $32,000: “towards writing a novel”.

First, let us be quite clear about the nature of this grant. It is not, like a publisher’s advance, some sort of payment in advance for a contracted work. Mr George doesn’t have to refund Creative New Zealand if he doesn’t produce a publishable novel, nor if he does write a novel but honestly admits that he would have written it anyway, without the handout. It is just giving James George $32,000 which he can spend (in the words of Tug McGraw) on women, wild living and Irish whiskey, or which he can simply waste, as he wishes. He probably does intend to use the money to “buy time to write”, as they say, which will be nice for him, and if it results in his next novel appearing six months sooner, that will be nice for his fans. But only a small part of the $32,000 could be reasonably expected to contribute to the socially justifiable goal of public funding; namely, to get more books read. And this is quite apart from the distress that these grants cause to all those authors or would-be authors who, inevitably, don’t get a lick at the pot.

What about the publishers? They get a lot less than authors – around $150,000 this past year, nearly all dribbled out in tiny grants of from $2-5000, each earmarked “towards publishing” a specific book, the merits and neediness of which the publisher must convince Creative New Zealand’s panels. This system is cumbersome, demeaning, and open to abuse – for example, it is heavily biased towards works of fiction and (especially) poetry, and against almost all forms of non-fiction, except literary biographies. It does not even encourage publishers to get out and sell the books, because the grant may allow them to achieve a sort of miserly budget balance on a particular work even if it barely disturbs the bookshops’ cash registers.

Okay, so what do I think would be a better way of spending Creative New Zealand’s allotment for literature? There is already one exemplary programme under its care. This is the Authors’ Fund, which distributes about $1.5 million each year to New Zealand writers whose books are held in this country’s public libraries. Although justified officially on intellectual property grounds, the Authors’ Fund also rewards the publication of books which, in the expert judgement of librarians, are worthy (or at least not utter trash) and likely to be read, and that, I have argued, is to the public good.

Indeed, if we were given just 10 seconds to come up with a policy for disbursing all our public funding to literature, we could simply say: “Put it all into the Author’s Fund”, and that would not be a silly idea. However, we have more than 10 seconds, and we can do better.

We have in the industry an agent key to the whole process of choosing, nurturing, producing, marketing and selling books: namely, the publisher. I would boost the Authors’ Fund, but I would give most of the rest to publishers as block grants. A publishers’ fund would work rather like the Authors’ Fund. Each publisher would get a single payment every year based simply on the sales they have achieved. Sell more, get more.

Like the Authors’ Fund, the payment could be capped, and so too could the total sum to be shared out. Unlike the Authors’ Fund, there would probably have to be some discrimination built in, to exclude various genre categories judged unworthy of further public encouragement: cookbooks, textbooks, sporting books and so on. Overall, though, this fund (for which there are good precedents; for example, in the Canada Council block grant system), would trust the judgement of publishers and give them a straightforward incentive to move more books, and all with a minimum of bureaucratic fuss.

We probably don’t want to keep a sense of perspective about this. If we did, we’d despair. The funds doled out to books and writing are trifles, dwarfed by the sums handed over to the “glamorous megafauna” of the arts landscape – Te Papa, the symphonies, the opera, Peter Jackson – which hoover up millions, or, in the case of The Lord of the Rings, hundreds of millions of tax expenditures. But these have their reasons, and the fact of a modest budget for literature certainly does not excuse spending it through a system that is excessively costly to operate and fails to follow the basic rationale for public funding of books in a small country.


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