How authors in New Zealand publish is similar to how authors the world over publish their books but living in a small country on the other side of the world comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities.
Reading on digital devices is trending up
The adoption of devices on which to read ebooks only occurred a few years ago and in terms of ebook reading we are probably 3 to 5 years behind a country like the USA where giants like Amazon and Kobo quickly infiltrated the market and started the ebook trend. However ebook reading is on the increase and more and more people are reading ebooks. Because New Zealand was a little slower to the ebook phenomenon, readers are trending towards reading on tablets and smartphones rather than dedicated ereaders especially now that the iBooks app is automatically loaded onto any new Apple device. Therefore the Kindle and its association with Amazon doesn’t have the significant market share here that it does in the US. The Kobo ereader was our first device to make market penetration and, while this device is now in decline, the gap is being filled by tablets rather than the Kindle, meaning as authors we tend to see Amazon as just another distributor rather than the only distributor; a balanced view in my opinion.
In spite of this, most readers in New Zealand still say they like to read physical print books which means that as an indie authors, we have to consider both ebooks and print books in our production if we want to have any market penetration locally.
Apart from the independent bookstores, there are two major chains that stock books – Whitcoulls and PaperPlus. Getting into these stores is almost impossible without a distributor as their accounting system does not make it easy to accept small independent publishers. This means that to a large extent, if we want maximum penetration into the print market in bookstores, authors have to engage a print distributor of which there are two major companies – Nationwide Book Distributors and South Pacific Book Distributors Ltd. Both take a significant cut from the recommended purchase price (RPP) – in some cases as much as 70%. This is offset by the countrywide distribution which occurs with no further effort by the author. Authors have to weigh up the cost of visiting every bookstore in the country (which is possible in a country as small as ours but would take a significant amount of time) or letting the distributor do it for them.
It may seem strange to start an article like this by talking about distribution but I regard it as important to determine how you intend to sell your book before you write it, then you can determine how you will write it. Which sort of seems to be putting the cart before the horse, but let me expand on that.
As an author we have two choices when considering a book – do we write for the New Zealand market with a distinctly New Zealand theme, or do we write for an international market. Taking into consideration the above paragraph about distribution, we may decide that writing for an international market makes more sense as we can publish in digital format and not worry about print. But then we have to compete with the rest of the world and the glut of ebooks – a small fish in a big pond.
But write for the New Zealand market and we restrict ourselves to low volume sales and low profit margins. We do, however, get more of a chance to be seen – a bigger fish in a smaller pond. It can be used as a promotional ploy – being successful locally before venturing abroad. However this may mean that we have to do a print run for our books either on POD or by producing a print run.
Local printing companies do provide book printing services and prices can be negotiated favourably while being weighed up against the cost of a POD service like Createspace. Because of the distance from some POD services, it is often the cost of freight that adds significantly to the final cost of the book – often being more than the print cost of the book itself. It can be cheaper to do print runs in Asian countries but they usually require a significant print run which is not always cost effective.
It pays therefore to seal the deal with a local distributor for a confirmed order of books before setting the print run and avoid the old-age problem of a mountain of boxes of books sitting in the garage. So therefore it may pay for a NZ author to think about distribution before writing the book, or before finalising production.
So taking these into consideration, we write a book set in New Zealand. Now how to publish? In this respect we are very much like the rest of the world – we have to find an editor, cover designer, proof-reader, formatter, produce a good blurb, decide on distributors whether they be digital or print, build our platform, think of marketing and promotion. How we do that depends on our connections and our preferences but there is no difference in the process internationally. In this respect belonging to an international association such as Alliance of Independent Authors is invaluable as we can use the same resources as anyone else in the association whether they be local or international.
Challenges and Opportunities
What comes next is our particular challenges and opportunities as New Zealand Indie Authors living in a country so far away from everywhere else.
With digital formats, we are exactly the same as other authors; we can upload, format, promote and sell as do other authors on digital platforms such as Amazon, Smashwords, Draft2Digital, etc. How we do that is the same as other authors worldwide.
However in reaching this market, we have to conscious of out use of language within the book. We tend towards UK English being a former British colony and still part of the Commonwealth so if we are writing for a US market, have to skew our language accordingly, not too hard considering the amount of US TV shows and other entertainment that we ingest. This does however, mean that it is preferable to engage a US editor to edit our books but finding one can be a challenge, and finding the money to pay for said editor another.
We also need to avoid using our particular brand of slang and colloquialisms even when setting a book in New Zealand. I once had a US reviewer give a bad review of a book because she had to look up what a “Maori” was even though the book description clearly stated that the book featured a “Maori warrior”. We cannot therefore assume that foreign readers will know or understand our unique New Zealand flavour. It would be nice the think that overseas readers would read our books because they want something different but then they don’t want anything so different that they don’t understand it. In this respect a glossary if often required when using particular vernacular as I did with “Three Times Dead” which featured the Maori warrior and used a lot of Maori words.
Our problem comes with payment, if we make enough to reach the payment thresholds with overseas distributors. Without a US or UK bank account, we are forced to accept a cheque, in US dollars from Createspace for print books which takes some time to clear through the bank and the amount will depend on the exchange rate at the time. The other issue is having an EIN or ITIN for the purposes of calculating tax in the US, usually a simple process of phoning the tax department in the US but, because of the time difference, has to done in the middle of the night, about 2am. This appears to be the best way to do this.
I formed a company to publish my books and my company registration number was accepted for the purposes of tax.
Now, as with the rest of the world, we have to contend with VAT which skews our pricing. But we have no control over this.
Reaching a global market
So how do we reach our global market from this far corner of the world? Much like any other author – through social media. Most NZ authors have websites, blog sites, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ accounts and like all authors struggle to keep up with the latest trends. Some are used more than others and some authors struggle to use any at all. As a nation it is not within our culture to promote ourselves and our achievements. I’m not sure where this attitude has come from but it may have been from our humble and rural beginnings as a colony. Regardless, the concept of “Tall poppy syndrome” is an acknowledged New Zealand condition which makes it hard for any author to motivate themselves to actively promote themselves and their books within New Zealand and consequently throughout the world. It is just not ‘done’. This attitude is unfortunate as it prevents many a great author from actively and positively promoting their books both locally and worldwide, and even stymies them when looking for ways to promote their books. A statement I often hear from NZ indie authors is that they hate the marketing and promotion side of producing their books and I think the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ has some influence on this. Geographical distance also has a great influence in terms of attending book fairs and conferences. What seems like a pleasant sojourn to attend a book fair or conference in America or Europe for a northern hemisphere based author is a major undertaking for anyone living ‘down under’. The airfares alone are prohibitive and with a doubtful outcome of acceptance of a New Zealand author with a New Zealand book, do not make a good return on investment. A few years ago New Zealand was the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair and from what I have heard, the returns on this investment by our government were very dubious, if non-existent.
There are few conferences and book fairs in New Zealand and tend to be run by established organisations with a traditionally published focus with a few indie publishers begrudgingly included. I am at this moment, working with an organisation who runs a children’s book festival in order to get more favourable terms for the indie authors as the current terms do not represent a good return on investment and are different to what other stallholders would pay.
Thus, at the moment, unless we have an abundance of money, sticking with social media sites and building an on-line platform is our best strategy for reaching a global audience.
This all sounds like doom and gloom from a marketing perspective but conversely, most schools, libraries and bookstores (especially independent bookstores) actively seek books with a New Zealand flavour and will accept those that are independently published. As more of our NZ publishers amalgamate, consolidate and withdraw from our small country, the scarcity of NZ themed books becomes more apparent. Increasingly buyers are turning to indie authors to fill the gaps left by the departing publishers. In this respect we have an edge. While sales can be small in terms of what we could achieve internationally, sales are sales whichever way you look at it, and boost confidence while establishing a marketing strategy that can possibly duplicated when considering the international market.
We are fortunate in this respect to have companies such as South Pacific Book Distributors (print books) and Wheeler (digital books) who are willing to accept works by indie authors and distribute within New Zealand on their behalf. They also they pay regularly, accurately and directly into nominated NZ bank accounts.
The New Zealand publishing scene is currently in a state of flux and while this is occurring it may seem that the situation is dire but conversely there are a myriad of opportunities for a New Zealand indie author if they are willing to persevere and do the hard work. Who said that a writing career was easy? This has been true across the centuries and is no different now, not even in our small corner of the world.
On a recent visit to New Zealand, Joanna Penn commented on how expensive print books were in the local bookstores. She was right. Our adult trade paperbacks sell for about $35, equivalent to 17.72UKP and USD$26.20, and children’s chapter books for $20 equivalent to UKP 10.13 and USD15.00. This price point is maintained by our biggest discount chain The Warehouse which has recently expanded into the paperback market. It is little wonder then that a lot of book buyers purchase their books from on-line stores such as Amazon and the Book Depository. Even with the exchange rate and the freight, the book still lands here cheaper than buying it from the local bricks and mortar bookstores. As a consequence, bookstores are closing down, and Whitcoulls, once our biggest seller of books, is reducing its book stock and concentrating on other product lines. You would think that with this high price point, authors are getting a corresponding large slice of the pie but this is not the case. Authors average about $1 a book in a traditional publishing deal. The lion’s share of the RPP appears to be going to the publishers and the distributors. And the reason for this high price is not immediately clear but may be related to our small population meaning a publisher/distributor has to sell at a higher price with fewer units sold in order to break even.
The disruption comes with readers increasingly turning to ebooks as a cheap source of books, delivered immediately to their ereader devices. While New Zealanders have been late to the party on the uptake of digital reading, remaining loyal to the idea of a print book they can touch, feel and smell, the attraction of cheaper books appears to be turning the market, making New Zealand an emerging market for ebooks. Something that Joanna rightly remarked on when she returned to the UK at the end of her visit. Reading is still a popular pastime here and I hope will remain so, whatever format we choose to read those books. Reading is the third most popular leisure activity in New Zealand but appears to be more popular in the older age groups. A trend seen in most developed countries I believe.
Source: Statistics New Zealand
Other income opportunities
Besides sales of books, indie authors can make income through school visits and speaking engagements although these can be limited. The school visit programme is largely managed by the NZ Book Council and I believe that, as of writing this, the Book Council only accept traditionally published authors for their Authors in Schools program. Authors can organise their own school visits but negotiating payment from a cash-strapped public school is a process fraught with obstacles. Likewise speaking engagements with our limited number of conferences within our boundaries is also limited and not very lucrative when taking into account costs of accommodation and/or travel. Sometimes the only best outcome from these sorts of events is book promotion which may translate into sales. At the moment these speaking opportunities appear to be reserved for our author superstars and the small indie author is under-represented in these engagements.
While traditionally published authors bemoan the lack of publishing houses in New Zealand, indie authors are reluctant to tear themselves away from the idea of print books in bookstores. At the moment the publishing scene in New Zealand is in such a state of flux and it is difficult to know how or what to publish. There are opportunities for indie authors in New Zealand if they embrace the digital and global aspect of publishing. One of Smashwords most successful authors, Shayne Robertson, is both a New Zealander and is writing New Zealand historical fiction so it can be done. It does however involve a different mind-set, and one that can be slow to take hold. For such a small country, we often punch above our weight in many areas and I believe that we can do it too with independently published books.