The Honourable Maggie Barry, Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, addresses the state of the literary nation and looks to its future.
New Zealanders have always been voracious readers. From the early colonial days, there has been a constant demand for books and reading material.
Our literature has been an important way of shaping our identity as a nation, and it remains so. As Michael King once wrote:
If we want to remain New Zealanders, to feel like New Zealanders, to act like New Zealanders, to present ourselves to the wider world as New Zealanders – then we must be able to listen to our own voices and trace our own footsteps; we must have our own heroes and heroines to inspire us, our own epics to both uplift and caution us; we must persist in building our own culture with our own ingredients to hand.
Our writers, bookshops and literary world are an integral part of that vision.
As the use of digital media expands exponentially, the global book-industry is in a period of rapid change which is being felt here in New Zealand as keenly as anywhere else.
While some pessimists sound the death knell and declare the end of books, it is clear that the printed novel is far from an anachronism today. Online sales of books and magazines in this country actually fell last year, which has been linked to a rise in people heading to shops to buy physical copies. It may even be true that the allure of digital alternatives like Kindle and Kobo is waning, and the resurgence of printed literature has begun.
The Guardian also noted a surprising trend in 2014. It reported that “millennials, the generation supposed to be glued to their screens, still buy paperbacks”, highlighting a nine per cent increase in British sales of children’s literature.
Richard Mollet, the chief executive of the United Kingdom Publisher’s Association, said recently that “the big debate for publishing is no longer about electronic versus print, because the clear answer is ‘both’. ” Perhaps more appropriately, the answer is “all”. The number of ways you can access books has multiplied and will no doubt continue to do so. Readers can get books on their iPad, Kindle, Kobo or mobile phone, enabling them to store entire libraries.
However, while bookshop numbers have regrettably declined in the past few years, there is still a strong sense of their importance as cultural hubs, an important part of life in our communities. Many independent bookstores continue to thrive because of their devoted following of loyal and avid readers and their ability to adapt to the new reality of the book market.
In New Zealand, it has been a tumultuous year for the book sector. Lottery profits, the source of much arts funding, have fallen, and are forecast to continue to decline in the next few years, causing Creative New Zealand to revisit its budgets.
The difficulty of securing corporate sponsorship for sector awards and scholarships has also had an impact, with direct implications for the New Zealand Book Awards, the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship and New Zealand Book Month. In the face of these challenges the sector has shown commendable tenacity and resourcefulness in supporting and promoting our local writers and illustrators.
A new Book Awards Trust, supported by Creative New Zealand, was set up last year to secure the future of the prestigious awards and a new partnership with the Auckland Writer’s Festival will see them resume for 2016. The Awards were also boosted by the generosity of an anonymous donor who provided $50,000 in perpetuity for the annual fiction prize. The revitalisation of the Book Awards is an outstanding example of the wide-ranging benefits of cultural philanthropy, and testimony to the power of collaboration between different organisations in the arts sector.
Another excellent example of a productive alliance is the new partnership between the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship Trust and the Arts Foundation of New Zealand, which has secured the future of the Fellowship by creating a capital fund. The Trust has also successfully sought funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to support a three-month fellowship in 2015.
Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters’ use of a crowdfunding campaign to enable the reinstatement of the National Schools Poetry Award is another model worth emulating. Its success was partly due to generous support from the private sector, in the shape of Ogilvy & Mather and Weta Digital.
This government has strongly supported increasing New Zealand’s attendance at international literary events. We know they are an important way to shape our country’s reputation and affirm our standing on the world stage. This policy has had significant benefits for the sector. As Guest of Honour at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, we successfully showcased our books and authors to the international literary and publishing communities. This year, in addition to its annual support for New Zealand publishers, Creative New Zealand will help three local authors attend the Frankfurt event, and support a New Zealand-German publisher exchange, building on those friendships established in 2012.
In February this year, a contingent of 22 New Zealand writers and illustrators, along with 17 publishers, attended the Taipei International Book Exhibition with Guest of Honour status. It was an invaluable opportunity to promote their work and engage with the burgeoning literary community in Asia. Many of the authors appreciated the value of being able to meet and connect with international colleagues and there were tangible results with more than 300 indications of interest or requests for information on New Zealand titles from international publishers.
Events like these build the international profile of our writers and provide a welcome boost to sales, but writers also need platforms for support and recognition at home.
Creative New Zealand’s 2015 review of the literature sector was accompanied by a newly defined role for literature in this country, focused on increasing sales as well as readership at home. The review recognised literature has become a more inclusive and diverse field. It also acknowledged the rise of independent publishers and the need for audience development here and abroad.
Recent discussion and policy work about GST on low-value imported goods and digital downloads is particularly relevant to the literature sector. Customs and Inland Revenue are currently working on a coordinated approach to the issue.
Even in times of difficulty we are drawn to the written word. Throughout the ages, people have turned to books for education, guidance, fun and comfort. In order not only to survive today but also to ensure future sustainability, publishers, writers and booksellers need to continue to be flexible and adapt, collaborate and innovate to meet the challenges of their evolving business. This can only be achieved through effective partnerships, and with the support of the public and private sector.
As the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage and former chair of the Book Council, I assure you that this government has the best interests of the book sector at heart, and we remain very committed to ensuring our nation’s literary talent is recognised and supported.