Is the book launch dead? Graeme Lay

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Auckland novelist Graeme Lay muses upon book launches past, present and future.

There was a time when a book, upon publication, had to be launched. The venue was usually a much-loved bookshop, chosen in the hope that love for the shop would rub off on the book being launched. Favourite venues were Unity Books in Wellington and Auckland, Time Out in Mount Eden, and Paradox Books in Devonport. Whitcoulls rarely featured.

In recent years, however, the formal book launch seems to have faded away. Authors no longer regard a launch as de rigueur; many books just appear in the bookstores without fanfare. As publishers find their margins squeezed – but not squeezed nearly as hard as those of the authors on whose works they depend – a launch is seen as something of a frivolity. “Just free drinks for the author’s friends”, as one bookseller put it to me. Often, the launch refreshments – usually crackers and cheese and vin ordinaire or, at the high end, sandwiches and sausage rolls and vin ordinaire – would be provided by the author.

There’s some truth in the argument that book launches don’t count for much as far as book sales go. I have been to many where, after rousing endorsements by the launcher and much raising of glasses, guests queue to buy a signed copy of the book, usually at a slightly discounted price. Sales at a decently attended launch can exceed 50 copies. And then … and then … the rest of the world receives the book mostly with indifference.

Yet the book launch era is not yet dead. Last year, I attended two first-rate launches. The first of these was held at a cafe in Wellesley Street, Auckland. The book was the memoir Driving to Treblinka, by Diana Wichtel, and the publisher was the small-but-perfectly-formed Awa Press, of Wellington. Well-known as a journalist, Diana’s launch doubled as a Listener staff reunion. It was a crowded, jolly event. One had to struggle to get to the bar. Sales of the book were brisk, and it’s subsequently been very successful, winning a prize at this year’s Ockham book awards. So, an example of the launch and the book complementing one another perfectly. 

Memorable, too, was the launch of Simply by Sailing in a New Direction, the biography of distinguished poet Allen Curnow, a massive volume published by Auckland University Press (the venue was the foyer of the university’s clock tower, a suitably majestic setting), which was written over 16 years by Professor Terry Sturm, and completed by his widow, Linda Cassells. The book was admired rather than purchased, however, as its price – $125.00 – put it beyond the reach of all but the academics present. But the food and wine were splendid. 

The art and books magazine, Quote Unquote, which to readers’ immense regret ceased publication in 1997, ran a regular column on book launches written under the nom-de-plume, “Sir Launchalot”. The writer – Denis Edwards – attended most local launches and rated them with frankness and wit. Marks out of 10 were allocated for “Sense of occasion”, “Food and drink”, “Standard of behaviour” and “Sales at the event”. The column was one of the magazine’s most popular features. There was a Sir Launchalot report of a novel that featured a male lead who gave a female character 15 orgasms. The report concluded, “Presumably he managed at least one of his own.”   

A big name to launch the book provides an advantage. A prime minister, a governor-general, a city mayor, a media celebrity – launchers such as these give a book the kiss of life as it struggles into the world. Of the eminent launchers, none was better at the job than David Lange. In 2001, he was invited to launch a book of poems written by his one-time law school teacher, Bernard Brown. The venue was lovely Old Government House, in the grounds of the University of Auckland. At the podium, Lange waved his copy of the book. It became obvious to the large crowd that it had been damaged. Its cover was ruckled, the pages stuck together. Lange explained: 

I was reading Bernard’s book while bathing my little daughter, Edith. I dropped it in the bath. Hence its sorry condition. So I haven’t yet read it. But I can say that this is the first time a book has been floated before it was launched. 

In spite of this handicap, 148 copies of Unspeakable Practices were sold. Bernard explains why: “Because the many lawyers present thought the ‘unspeakable practices’ referred to their own firms, and so they wondered if they could sue in defamation.”  

The most dramatic Auckland book launch I ever attended was the one in 1997 organised by writer Michael Morrissey for his novella Terra Incognita 1526. The narrative postulated that, in 1526, a Spanish ship fetched up on the shores of New Zealand. The ship’s crew of conquistadores makes friends with a Māori tribe, and assists them to fight a rival iwi. An enterprising promoter of his own work – he once invited several other identically spelt Michael Morrisseys to attend the launch of a book of his poetry – Morrissey decided he would organise an event that would re-enact the Spaniards’ arrival in New Zealand, and the greeting of them by a local Māori war party. 

Planning the launch took six months. Morrissey chose Narrow Neck beach, on Auckland’s North Shore, as the Spaniards’ landing site. The Wakatere Boating Club, above the beach, would be the venue for the reception. A 53-foot boat, Breeze, was hired from the Maritime Museum, along with a team of “conquistadores”, an historical hobbyist group called the Knights Draconis. Morrissey found them willing to participate. Their helmets, armour and swords would be real, although the weapons would be blunted. As for a Māori war party to greet the conquistadores, a group from the Hoani Waititi marae was hired. 

The cost of all this? About $8,000. So, not your usual cheese-and-crackers launch. The Spaniards’ boat alone cost $2,000 to hire, and the Māori party charged $1,500. Venue and catering charges came to $3,500. The author certainly couldn’t afford these costs. Astonishingly by today’s parsimonious standards, generous contributions were made. Barry Colman of the National Business Review donated a princely $5,000. Television presenter Suzanne Paul gave $1,000, and the publisher – HarperCollins – stumped up another $1,000. Interestingly, Morrissey found that the super-capitalists he approached, including Michael Fay, Graeme Hart and Andrew Krukziener, did not deign to contribute anything.

The 12th of June dawned fine and clear, perfect for a 16th-century Spanish discovery of New Zealand. Narrow Neck is my local beach, so I made sure I attended. And the publicity generated by this unique launch worked; friends and I joined a crowd of about 800 alongside the beach’s boat ramp. All our eyes were on the headland south of the beach. And, right on cue, there appeared the long boat, crammed with Spaniards, their helmets gleaming in the winter sunshine. The crowd buzzed with expectation. A Māori sentry blew a conch to signal the arrival of the strangers. At this point, too, the crowd was awaiting the arrival of the hired Māori war party, whose entry had been rehearsed. But they did not appear.

Instead, a solitary, bare-chested Māori man descended to the beach. He wore shorts and was wielding a taiaha. As the putative Spaniards disembarked, the man rushed forward and began attacking them with his staff. The crowd was at first impressed; this was very realistic theatre. When the man began to whack the visitors more wildly, we became uneasy. The blows were obviously hurting. Helmets flew off, blood spurted from the Spaniards’ noses. This was not in the script, this was something more than pretence. A Spaniard cried out in pain, but the Knights Draconis didn’t retaliate.

Watching with the rest of us, Morrissey recalls: 

At first I was paralysed, I just did not know what to do. Then I trotted down to the beach and asked the man what he was doing. Without a word he lunged at me with his taiaha – it’s only a simple wooden staff but can be used to kill an opponent. Since he obviously wasn’t talking, I rang the police.

The attacker was Arthur Harawira, a member of the Far North clan whom Helen Clark once called “haters and wreckers”. Morrissey explains: 

A couple of days before the event I had a phone call from a woman who I later learned was Titiwhai Harawira. She said there had been concern expressed on the marae about my impending launch. But I didn’t know who I was talking to and was in no mood to listen. My high-handed treatment of her probably prompted her to send her adopted son Arthur along to sabotage the event. I subsequently learned that there had been three meetings on the marae concerning my launch. 

So, it is likely that the volatile matriarch, offended by Morrissey’s dismissive attitude towards her iwi, instigated Arthur Harawira’s assault on the function.

Before the police arrived, the crowd on the foreshore became angry. Several of the Spaniards had been injured. People in the crowd, mainly book-loving Pākehā, were condemnatory of Harawira’s actions. But a Māori woman standing next to me was also furious. “Bloody radical!” she shouted at him. 

In response to Morrissey’s phone call, the police arrived and arrested Harawira and three of his companions. 

We all then repaired to the Wakatere Boating Club. The mood was sombre. Few of us genteel North Shore-ites had witnessed such brutality up close. Because he had been busy speaking to the police, when Morrissey arrived every bit of food had been eaten. But, in his speech, the author gamely praised the novella, as did Ian Watt, for HarperCollins publishers. The book was then launched by the West Auckland local body politician, Bob Harvey. This provided more anguish for the author. Morrissey comments: “Harvey shocked me by speaking with approval of Harawira’s actions, violent as they were.” 

So, the launch of Terra Incognita 1526 turned out to be a lamentation more than a celebration. Books were bought, more in sympathy than enthusiasm. Nevertheless, 60 copies were sold at the launch, and extensive media coverage of the assault ensured that many more copies were sold after that. 

Why did Harawira stage this attack on harmless people and so wreck the launch? On the television news he said, “If you say the Spaniards conquered us then you can take it up somewhere else.” Morrissey thinks: “Harawira believed my book was a work of history, not a novel. In any case, in it the Spaniards didn’t do any conquering. They sided with one tribe, fought another, then left.”

As a postscript, the police charges against Harawira were resolved under the restorative justice system, rather than the traditional jury and judge form. Morrissey did not attend, though. He explains: 

I couldn’t stand the idea of sitting opposite Harawira while he presumably stated some excuse for his multiple assaults. I submitted a statement of my views, with the request that it be read out in my absence. Harawira was fined about $600, mainly to pay for the restoration of the armour that had been damaged by salt water when a knight fell into the sea – shoved over by Harawira. 

They don’t launch them like that any more.

As for the literary career of Michael Morrissey, he has continued to have his prose and poetry published, albeit sporadically. In a 2014 interview, he stated modestly that, at the age of 71, he “still hasn’t peaked”. As evidence of his continuing ascendancy, he said in praise of his fantasy fiction work Tropic of Skorpeo (Steam Press 2012) that it is “unlike anything that’s ever appeared before”. It was not launched at Narrow Neck beach, however. 

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