Andrew Mason: The challenge continues
You may have been expecting to read this December issue of New Zealand Books in A4 format and on lighter-weight paper – and certainly, after the ‘Notice to Readers’ announcing these and other changes in the September issue, you would have been entitled to do so. Two things, however, changed our minds for us.
One was that the claimed advantages in cost turned out to be illusory. The A4 format is now almost universal for magazines, and such are the expectations it arouses that to make New Zealand Books compete in that format it would have cost just as much (or even slightly more) to produce.
The other reason was for us equally significant: reader response. Many people went out of their way to volunteer an opinion on this move, and almost all opposed it – some with great vehemence or dismay and urgent pleading not to change. The appearance of New Zealand Books was widely appreciated as being distinctive, even beautiful, and a reflection of the magazine’s commitment to high standards. We would abandon this at our peril, was the repeated cry.
But magazines are intended to be read, not merely admired as objets d’art, and there have from time to time been complaints that the tabloid format is awkward to handle and confusing to read. Both of these perceived shortcomings have been addressed in this issue: the page size has been trimmed horizontally as well as vertically to make the magazine easier to hold, and the page grid redesigned to make the flow of material clearer and more accessible.
The September issue also foreshadowed a move from quarterly to bi-monthly publication. That will now take place from the start of Volume 3, with the June issue next year. Publishers’ programmes in New Zealand are heavily weighted towards the second half of the year, when the trickle of books for review swells to a torrent. Launching the bi-monthly publication in June will enable us to ride that torrent; it will also give the new permanent paid editor (for whom negotiations are continuing) time to establish themselves before the deluge. In the interim, the March 1993 issue will be guest-edited by Nelson Wattie.
New Zealand Books is a unique venture: as far as we can tell, no critical review journal like it has been attempted in this country before. So naturally, after only six issues, it is still evolving. For new readers, especially, it might be useful at this stage to reiterate the aims and principles that inspire us.
The magazine was founded in 1990 in the belief that, while New Zealand writing was coming rapidly of age, critical evaluation of it has been lagging behind: there is a widespread and important community of readers whose needs have hitherto been neglected. New Zealand Books exists to serve those readers by providing national coverage of all significant New Zealand books recently published, with thoughtful, well-informed and independent appraisal which will foster debate not only about individual works but about their contribution to our cultural life. The emphasis on fiction in this issue should not, therefore, be taken as an exclusive focus: it so happens (partly as a result of the torrential nature of New Zealand publishing, as outlined above) that in the past few months a remarkable amount of very interesting fiction has appeared which bears directly on our cultural life, and the issue inevitably reflects that.
How far New Zealand Books has succeeded in reaching its aims is for you, the reader, to judge. Magazines become public property in a way seldom matched by books: every regular reader of a magazine has an opinion, whether good or bad, and suggestions to make. Often the various opinions and suggestions are in direct conflict. We are very interested in your opinion of us, and would like to know what you think. We don’t guarantee to follow it – as events elsewhere in New Zealand’s national life demonstrate, there are dangers in being overly ‘market-driven’ – but it will certainly help us define our niche.
New Zealand Books faces many challenges in establishing itself on a professional footing. If it is to be viable, your continued support is vital – and not only as readers and subscribers. If you like what we are doing and want to do more to assist, a group called the Friends of New Zealand Books has been formed to foster the journal’s growth. You can contact us to find out more about the Friends.