High noon, Barbara Larson

In our ongoing debate on literary funding, Barbara Larson of Longacre Press looks at the issue from a publisher’s point of view.  

Reading Tim Hazledine’s “Slow Readers” (NZB, Dec 2005) made me think of a time in another life, when my then-partner received a Scholarship in Letters from Creative New Zealand (CNZ). It arrived like a gift from above: a gift of recognition that one was worthy of such an honour, a gift that said writing is a legitimate thing to do, an acknowledgement of past achievements along with a kindly nod towards future work. It was also a year’s salary. How good is that! Who else would give you a year’s salary? The news had us dancing round the kitchen, overjoyed and relieved at our good fortune.

And it was our good fortune. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Living with a writer, a poet at that, meant I was the chief breadwinner. But at that time, along with two others, I was involved in setting up a new publishing company. As with any new business venture, we were facing no income for at least a year, maybe two. The gift from above took the financial pressure off and ever since then I’ve been grateful to Creative New Zealand for in-directly helping me get through that first lean year. Were those responsible for the grant aware of the fact? I have no way of knowing. But I like to think so.

Tim Hazledine claims, among other things, that more money from the public purse should be going to those who choose, nurture, produce, market and sell books: “namely, the publisher”, as opposed to the larger portion of the pie going to writers by way of grants. (All publishers please sit down, now. This is not going to happen. You run commercially competitive businesses. Repeat. This is not going to happen.)

If you extrapolate the above scenario across the wider spectrum, then obviously others benefit when a writer receives a grant or a fellowship (or a book award, free wine, kindness, flowers, a good review). Certainly their nearest and dearest do, but so does their publisher. I am so pleased when our writers receive grants from CNZ: as publishers we can’t afford to pay writers to “go write a book”. And writers’ incomes don’t allow them to either: I’m only too well aware of authors’ royalty payments and the sum total of their advances. (Recently, while negotiating one such advance, a writer said, “I’ve worked for two years on this.” And I said, “Well, it’ll be another two years before we see any return on our investment; we can’t afford to have sums of money tied up in advances.” And we both said, “Why are we doing this!”)

If writers weren’t supported by way of grants and fellowships, we publishers wouldn’t have much to publish. Or put another way, we’d be publishing a lot more cookbooks, sports books and books about movies. The very books Tim Hazledine thinks unworthy of further public encouragement. Or perhaps we’d be publishing only the very best of the inspired, challenging and brilliant writers. Would that be such a bad thing? Aren’t there too many mediocre books taking up shelf space out there? But that raises the question: how do you get to be an inspiring, challenging and brilliant writer? Perhaps a very few are fortunate enough to be overnight successes. But it’s been my experience that most serve a long apprenticeship, pay their dues and work in solitary confinement honing their craft for years and years. Perhaps a masterpiece will appear after 10 or 20 years: a masterpiece which is an “essential contribution to our culture, our civilisation, our sense of nationhood”, as Tim Hazledine so aptly puts it.

Creative New Zealand not only contributes to the health of our literary culture by way of grants to writers, it also contributes to several fellowships and residencies, four of which are overseas: the Katherine Mansfield fellowship in Menton, France; the Berlin writers’ residency; the Sanskriti Foundation, New Delhi; and, the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writers’ Residency in Hawaii. CNZ helps fund two major book awards, New Zealand Post and the Montana New Zealand; there are the writers’ bursaries, assistance to literary festivals around the country, assistance for travel and tours for writers, assistance to the New Zealand Book Council and to Playmarket, the Prime Minister’s Awards, and the list goes on. It assists publishers to the London Book Fair, helps bring overseas agents to New Zealand … . All these activities indirectly benefit not only publishers, but, in turn, the book trade, the wider reading community, the education sector and so on.

So I for one think publishers do very well from the public purse by way of Creative New Zealand, albeit indirectly. Where I do agree with Tim Hazledine is in his criticism of the way publishers are funded by CNZ. He says it’s “cumbersome” and “demeaning”; it’s also speculative, full of uncertainty and, yes, let’s be honest here, cumbersome and demeaning.

When applying for production grants for high-risk, marginal literary books, publishers must present a cogent and intelligent analysis of each manuscript, make a case for it, point out the weaknesses but list how the editor will help fix them, list the reasons this particular author is worth supporting and then present a budget which proves the book won’t pay its own way (this is the easy part), fill in forms, send a biography, perhaps some support material if it’s available, include a reader’s report, photocopy the whole lot twice and mail it off by high noon. This is done for each and every manuscript. That’s one hell of a lot of paper. And while we’re reinventing the wheel, everything else that needs to be done is put on hold.

On the days when I’m putting together our funding applications for CNZ, my colleagues here at Longacre give me a wide berth. It usually takes me two and a half to three days. By the end of it I’m grumpy, very grumpy. My grumbling goes like this: haven’t we as publishers served our apprenticeship? Haven’t we proved ourselves yet? If not now, then when? Is this the best use of my time? Isn’t our skilled editorial team the best judge of which risky literary books we should be publishing, how we want to develop our list, support our writers?

Last financial year we were awarded $5000. The year before it was $8000. For a publishing company our size, sad as this may seem, the difference makes a difference. We comply with the requirements of the grants but don’t take the “this book was awarded a production grant, that one wasn’t” seriously. Usually the money goes into a common pool, so all books are assisted. Could this be a block grant dressed up in a threadbare cloak?

Please don’t get me wrong. We’re grateful to CNZ. Who else would give us money to help publish “contribution(s) to our culture, our civilisation, our sense of nationhood”? What we as publishers would prefer (and this is my view only, I don’t represent anyone but Longacre) is to be recognised as a publisher with a proven track record, and to apply as such. And for consistency in what we receive. And not have to apply for each and every manuscript that we’ve already decided to publish. In other words, a block grant: a lump sum to put “towards” our publishing list.

If anyone needs to plan and schedule well in advance, it’s publishers. The book trade now expects us to present our books six months in advance. This means title, cover, recommended retail price, specifications and, yes please, a reading copy would be nice. Being able to apply to CNZ as an RFO (recurrent funding organisation) would be a help for starters.

There must be a better way. I for one volunteer to sit on a committee to help find one. So thank you, Tim Hazledine, for raising this issue. Perhaps it will be looked at again. And, hey, in five, maybe 10 years, you might find a copy of a book by a New Zealand writer remaindered in a Melbourne bookstore.

 

 

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