Getting Science Fiction And Fantasy Published In New Zealand. Part 2: Novels

This was going to be a post for NZ Speculative Fiction Blogging Week 2010, but Real Life intervened, and I don’t have Sandeep Parikh’s Bollywood-style fight moves (from 1:50) to drive it away.

So, where were we? In Part 1, I talked about the options for getting short speculative fiction published in New Zealand. In Part 2, it’s time to take on the longer stuff: novels.

New Zealand publishers have a track record of publishing speculative fiction novels for children and young adults – indeed, some of our most popular and successful writers in the field, such as Margaret Mahy, write speculative fiction.

But, rightly or wrongly, most New Zealand publishers believe that New Zealanders will not buy adult speculative fiction novels written by New Zealanders. I heard this at first hand from Larain Day, then of HarperCollinsNZ, while taking part in a discussion on RadioNZ (which also featured Helen Lowe) about New Zealand SF and fantasy.

We ran out of time before I could ask the obvious question: if publishers don’t publish NZ speculative fiction, how do they know New Zealanders won’t buy it?

Part of the issue, I think, is that, because New Zealand publishers don’t usually have speculative fiction specialists on their staff, they don’t really know the range that modern science fiction, fantasy and horror encompasses. Ironically, this also means that works that I would classify as science fiction are sometimes published in New Zealand as general/literary fiction. This is especially true of near-future SF, social SF, and satirical SF.

On the other hand, your galaxy-spanning space opera or your continent-spanning fantasy would be doing very well to find a home with a mainstream New Zealand publisher; then again, those are the novels that you have the best chance of selling to an overseas publisher.

But all is not lost! The estimable Random Static Ltd, far from resting on their laurels after publishing NZ short speculative fiction collection A Foreign Country, are now about to publish sf novel Barking Death Squirrels, by Wellington author Douglas A. Van Belle. (What a great title – I wish I’d thought of it! Give it to Smeagol – I wants it! It’s mine, I tells you, my precious!)

I hope Barking Death Squirrels sells lots of copies, both for the sake of publisher and author, and to show that yes, it can be done: SF written here and published here can be sold successfully here. I’m going to interview Doug Van Belle for this blog… just as soon as I get round to sending him the questions.

Incidentally, Random Static has also put out a call for novella submissions. Can they do no wrong?

On The Other Hand: A Defence Of New Zealand Publishers

I’ve been critical above about NZ publishers’ reluctance to publish adult SF. But, when you look at the economics of the publishing business, a certain level of risk-aversion is understandable. It costs publishers a lot of money to publish a book: it has to be bought (i.e. the author has to be paid, which in NZ usually entails a modest advance plus a royalty of around 10% of retail); it has to be edited, and a good editor can make all the difference; it has to be designed; it has to be printed, which involves making a difficult guess about the size of the print run; and it has to be sent to reviewers so they can review it by the release date, and to bookshops so that the eye-catching displays of the book greet the eager buyer’s eye at the time when publicity for the book is at its maximum. (I can tell you from experience that a good review won’t do you much good if your book doesn’t reach the bookshop until a fortnight after the review was published.)

Most books won’t be hits. A few will, and they subsidise the rest. And, in my experience, distribution – the physical process of getting the printed books out of the warehouse and into the bookshops at the right time – is the part of the process that is most likely to break down.

The current model of publishing, distribution and sales has been around since the Great Depression. It still makes surprisingly little use of new technology. NZ publishers are beginning to take steps into print on demand technology and ebooks, but at least until these methods are more established, the big publishers have little option other than to be cautious about the books they choose to publish. There’s a reason so many books are published here about All Blacks, kitchens, and gardens.

If you are interested in these issues from a publishing industry point of view, check out the Weekend Web Reading posts on Helen Heath’s blog. Helen is a poet who works as a publicist for Victoria University Press, so she sees both sides of the story. She also has some very good advice on the use of social media.

Guest Post: Book Publicist Helen Heath Answers Questions From Twitter’s South Pacific Book Chat (#spbkchat)

Hello, for those of you that don’t know me my name is Helen Heath. I’m a book blogger, Facebook user and Tweeter. I also work for a small New Zealand publishing house as a publicist.

I came late (i.e. the next morning) to the recent Twitter conversation about book bloggers promoting their blogs and working with booksellers and publishers but I thought I could provide you with some feedback. I pulled out some questions and statements from the thread to form a kind of interview between you, me and the South Pacific Book Chat participants.

Here’s a question: do publishers put too much weight on newspaper/magazine reviews, and not enough on book bloggers’ reviews?

I think that old school print media are good at providing publishers with statistics about readership, whereas we have no idea about what the readership of most blogs are. Some book bloggers are taken very seriously in New Zealand such as Bookman Beattie and Quote Unquote.

Having worked many years in bookshops I can tell you that there are a few traditional media reviews/interviews that really make sales for your average New Zealand book. Kim Hill, the New Zealand Listener, the weekend papers, North & South magazine and Metro magazine are the ones that immediately come to mind.

However we are watching the blogosphere carefully and are interested in working with bloggers, especially with “Long Tail” publications.

Would like to see publishers taking us more seriously. I buy most of my books on the recommendations of other bloggers.

I think you will find this will start to happen, it already is to a small extent. Part of the problem is bloggers need to unify and make it easier for publishers to find them and provide readership statistics for them. Often we just don’t know who you are or how to find you.

More than that, I think perhaps we need an Asia-Pacific bloggers mailing list/directory (runs and hides too).

Totally! I know it’s a big ask for someone to set one up but a professionally put together directory with links, specialist areas and readership statistics would do you all a lot of good and show a united front. Strength in numbers…

What counts as your blog’s profile? Visits? Links? Followers? Link retweets? Comments? Is there one metric that sums it all up?

I think all of those things together along with the kudos you hold in your blogging community. There is no one tidy metric.

I imagine publishers (booksellers/consultants) find it hard to measure the ROI (Return On Investment) on social media use. Is that an issue for you?

Yes it is. We look at click through rates, website stats and the general level of interactivity. We do want to primarily be part of a community though and that is hard to measure, it’s more of a feeling.

Twitter is definitely very good. I have met people on here when I wouldn’t have found their blogs easily.

Yes, I agree. I’ve met a lot of book people and journalists through Twitter and it only seems to be growing. What I’d really like to do is meet more Tweeps who are purely readers.

I also find that linking blog posts here helps. Well, a little bit …

Yes, for sure. I check my RSS feeds less frequently these days as more people link to their updates. You don’t want that to be your only tweets but some of the best reading I find on the web comes from tweeted and Re-Tweeted links now.

Following non-USA publishers and interacting with them on Twitter is definitely good.

Yes, please! It’s hard for publishers to know you exist if you don’t say hello. I know some are more responsive than others but smaller publishers seem to be more so.

I know there was an Aukland Writers and Readers festival last May — is it yearly? Can bloggers hook up with that?

That’s a good idea, the more you do things like that, especially as a group, the better. Just make sure you let the publishers know so they can be suitably impressed! 🙂

An Asia-Pacific event, properly marketed, may also help publishers take bloggers in our region seriously.

Anything like that is great. Even a blog carnival is start.

So do you have authors local to you? Maybe start a feature on NZ authors.

That’s another great idea. Also what about getting in touch with the New Zealand Book Council? They have a very well visited independent website promoting authors and a regular newsletter with a large readership.

Don’t forget your local bookstores. If they have author event, attend and blog about it; send link to publisher.

More and more independent bookshops have their own websites, use social media and want to make contact with bloggers and tweeters. So yes, make contact and let everyone know what you’ve written. Maybe they might even want to host a tweet-up?

Well, thanks Tim for the opportunity to belatedly partake in the discussion. I hope these answers shed some light on the mystery of the publisher’s brain! Feel free to ask me more questions or contradict me on Twitter. I always follow back booky tweeps and I don’t bite 🙂

Tim adds: The South Pacific Book Chat book discussion takes place on Twitter each Thursday evening at 6pm Japanese time/8pm Eastern Australian time/10 pm New Zealand time. If you join Twitter, you can then join the chat by adding the hashtag #spbkchat to your tweets at that time, and searching for other tweets with the #spbkchat hashtag. You can also see recent #spbkchat tweets online.

Book Review: Watching For Smoke, by Helen Heath

Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover.

Paekakariki poet Helen Heath’s chapbook Watching for Smoke, recently published by Seraph Press and available from Seraph Press or on Etsy, is a beautiful package both inside and out, with its card cover featuring an inserted knitting needle and its coloured and textured end-papers.

The epigraph to Watching for Smoke is:

Family is a waiting fuse
watching for smoke.

Family is the subject of these poems: partners, children, parents, seen from the point of view of a daughter, a lover, a parent. Parents are ambiguously loved figures, sometimes too close, sometimes too far away, their lives brought into perspective by their daughter’s giving birth to and caring for children of her own:

The hills are my father
with a shotgun
as I write you a letter. (“Evidence”)

my mother’s brow, her heavy lids,
there, in my new daughter.
I am home now and she will leave me. (“Homing”)

I enjoyed the precision of the language and the viewpoint in these poems. The language is subtle, appropriate to the subject matter, well chosen. And the viewpoint is equally precise: each poem takes a stance, while not denying the right of other stances to exist.

“How We Disappear” both ends and summarises the chapbook, its nine short stanzas thumbnails of a woman’s life moving through time. I think it’s the best poem in “Watching for Smoke”, but I enjoyed each of the eleven poems, and only one, “Infallible Father”, did not quite possess the satisfying completeness which is a hallmark of the other ten.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I like “Watching for Smoke” a lot. It has been produced in a limited edition of 100 hand-bound copies. There are copies still available. I recommend that you get one soon, and watch out for Helen Heath’s first full collection when it appears.

Paekakariki City Limits

I spent several hours today engaged in a poetic expedition to Paekakariki, which is a small town on the Kapiti Coast north of Wellington – a rather beautiful small town nestled in the sandhills by the sea.

Helen Rickerby, Harvey Molloy and I travelled up in Harvey’s car to rendezvous with Helen Heath at the Paekakariki School Fair and give a joint poetry reading. Helen Heath set up the gig, and the rest of us were pleased to have the chance to take part.

I had very little idea what to expect, but I thoroughly enjoyed the day – though the heat was a bit much for my cold-adapted blood; the Kapiti Coast is usually hotter than Wellington, and by the time we got there just after 11am, Paekakariki was sweltering. The fair was big – I’ve never seen a fair with three different types of bouncy castle before, though I’m sure you city slicker types see that all the time. We moved through the fair to the hall, and set out our stall. We all had things to sell:

Helen Heath: CD “Seven Paekakariki Poets Reading”

Harvey Molloy: New poetry collection Moonshot

Helen Rickerby: New poetry collection My Iron Spine; previous collection Abstract Internal Furniture; and JAAM 26 – Helen publishes JAAM.

Tim Jones: Recent poetry collection All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens and first poetry collection Boat People; new short story collection Transported and first short story collection Extreme Weather Events.

We did two reading sessions, half an hour apart, with a fine performance by a Thai dance troupe in between. I found the first session hard going, because most of the notional audience were actually in the hall to eat their lunch; but, by the second session, more of the people in the hall were paying attention – and if they weren’t, Harvey got their attention with the first poem he read! The sales table ticked along well, each of us met some people we knew whom we didn’t know would be there, and afterwards, we had a good time checking out Helen Heath’s craft stall and haunting the book stall, where it was lovely to see Dinah Hawken again.

Doing a solo reading can be stressful, and if the audience isn’t responding, there’s really nowhere to turn. Doing a joint reading with friends was fun, supportive, social, and as it turns out, profitable as well. If you’ve got an event coming up in the Wellington region which could benefit from a visiting poet or three, please get in touch!