Shaping the Women’s Book Festival for a future, Rachel Lawson

For most of us the Listener Women’s Book Festival appears without question each September. Women crowd to events all over the country to put a face to their favourite authors, ask tricky questions about their lives and characters, and splash out on something from the Festival bookstore. But those who recreate the Festival each year have a difficult and time-consuming task.

The Festival’s size and popularity continue to grow (there are now forty regional committees compared to sixteen five years ago, encompassing more and more small townships like Rawene and Hokitika), yet it has no ongoing source of money and only one paid worker. Every year Penny Hansen, the national co-ordinator, must build up anew the patchwork of sponsorship and voluntary labour which have sustained the Festival so far.

In some regions, such as Dunedin, Festival committees get smaller each year, leaving the stalwarts to carry the burden. Some volunteers put in hours of work even though they have no financial interest in books. Hansen acknowledges the difficulties of relying on voluntary labour: ‘Because it’s community based, based on enthusiasm, you can’t avoid that element, it’s a question of keeping it in proportion – trying to be sure people feel rewarded for what they’re doing.

Most of those involved, says Hansen, belong to an institution which benefits from book sales: ‘I don’t want the Festival to be a good cause – I want it to be something that works for people. ‘She cites the Hillary Commission’s 1991 survey on leisure, which showed that many New Zealanders – male and female – are happy to do voluntary work. Men are almost twice as likely as women to work without pay for sports groups, while women concentrate their voluntary efforts in recreation and education. Perhaps the Women’s Book Festival is our equivalent to time spent at the rugby club.

The co-operative nature of the Festival is built into its philosophy. Begun in 1988, it was modelled on the Feminist Book Festival in England, but with a more wide-ranging ambition. The New Zealand Festival was not to be solely a book trade promotion of exclusively feminist literature; it was designed to celebrate a varied selection of women’s writing, and to be based firmly in the community – run by readers, librarians, publishers and booksellers, for their own benefit. Hansen describes the Festival’s catalogue as ‘a selection of good reading’ by both New Zealand and overseas authors, which stimulates interest in writing that may otherwise be pushed aside by more mainstream books (cooking and gardening books are the only ones excluded).

A festival set up to help put women’s writing in the limelight may seem redundant in suffrage year, when writing by and about New Zealand women is prolific and public – some say the market will already be well saturated by the time of the Festival. Hansen doesn’t think so; she sees each event building the other’s profile. Suffrage Centennial funding has enabled many of these books to be published. In turn, the Festival itself is ‘a very effective vehicle’ for promoting them. Nor is Hansen threatened by the growth of local book festivals. Any publicity for books creates more readers, she says, and the Women’s Book Festival is still the only national festival in New Zealand. ‘I don’t think one cancels out another,’ she says. ‘Two generate more interest … the more book events there are out there, the better.’

A more pressing problem is the annual search for sponsors to supply the $ 100,000 needed to run the Festival. The Listener is the most visible sponsor, but for the last three years its contribution has been in advertising and editorial – not cash. Other sponsors need to be sought each year. When Telecom pulled out last year, Hansen was lucky to replace that contribution with Suffrage Centennial funding: ‘If we hadn’t had that we would’ve been in real trouble.’ But it was yet another one-off measure. Hansen says that the lack of ongoing support – ‘limping’ from one year to the next – creates ‘no certainty for the future’. With overseas writers needing to be contacted up to eighteen months in advance, that’s a serious disadvantage. She has to rely to a certain extent on inviting writers who happen to be at Melbourne’s arts festival, ‘were passing by and would have popped over anyway’, rather than on creating her own shape for the Festival.

Hansen is currently meeting potential sponsors for next year (‘Each year we’ve been able to pull off something that’s enabled us to keep going’), but acknowledges the possibility of drawing a blank. If so, they ‘may have to look at other ways of doing it’. She is cagey about whether the Festival will ask to come under the wing of Booksellers New Zealand (the organiser of most other national book promotions), but says ‘that would certainly be something that we may need to look at’.

There’s no doubt that the Festival sells books. Publishing New Zealand writing is notoriously unprofitable, so Hansen’s seemingly low-key assurance that a book in the catalogue means publishers ‘can be reasonably assured of selling it’ is a valued one. The catalogue is specifically designed in strong, glossy paper to last in bookshops from September until Christmas, and booksellers confirm that it generates interest for all of that time.

But this publicity doesn’t come cheaply. The publisher pays up to $750 if their book is chosen for the top twenty and contributes to the travel costs of touring authors. If anyone did the sums – taking in publishers’ expenses, the voluntary work to organise events, and the reliance on sponsorship – the Festival may not be the great commercial success it seems on the surface.

However, the Festival was never designed as mere advertising. The original idea placed equal emphasis on creating an event to celebrate women, and on bringing the arts to communities all over New Zealand. As women buy more books than men, read more and use libraries more than men (56 per cent of the women surveyed in the Hillary Commission’s report nominated reading as their most common leisure activity), it doesn’t appear outrageous for the book trade to acknowledge where much of its income comes from.

In a July issue of the Listener, Stephanie Johnson called the Festival an outdated ‘women’s literary ghetto … backslapping behind closed doors’. But far from marginalising women’s writing, the Women’s Book Festival continues to raise its profile and reach out to women in increasingly remote parts of New Zealand.

It could even be seen as a well-earned reward for the people who support the book industry in New Zealand.


Rachel Lawson is a freelance writer and editor and a student at Whitireia Polytechnic’s publishing course.


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