A view from down under

By   Tim Inman 2 min read

To illustrate how the fragmentation of the traditional publishing industry is a global experience, look no further than (or I should say look as far as is possible to) New Zealand.

In a relatively short period of time, less than a year, long-held fears have been realised as the multinational publishing companies familiar to many took the decision to shed staff and operations in New Zealand, some scaling back to Australia.

To various observers (especially British, whose industry’s scale lends it a robustness that makes comparisons with New Zealand difficult) it appeared to be a fatal series of events; the New Zealand publishing industry was on its way out. A national newspaper piece last month sensationalised the doom, with a curious range of prognoses from significant figures.

There are many reasons I disagree with such a bleak, broad assessment, and could proselytise, not least about the brilliantly dedicated and creative work of many of the independent publishers over here. Recent changes and trends, regardless of how out of our control they may feel, will not prevent the ongoing creation and consumption of many fantastic New Zealand titles – there is too much ingenuity and appetite from readers for it to come to that. However, with an eye firmly on the evolving publishing landscape being identified and addressed by whitefox, it is worth emphasising one aspect in particular – that the more the traditional industry fragments, shrinks, adapts and modernises in New Zealand, the more opportunities arise for talented freelancers (editors, designers, techies, specialists) to plug traditional gaps and fill emerging roles.

New Zealand publishing, conventionally with small in-house teams, has relied upon gifted freelancers for a good while already, many of whom owe their skills to time once spent in-house. Now a new generation of publishing creative types are emerging. At Te Papa Press, the publishing arm of the national museum, we are shifting towards a multimedia publishing programme, involving specialists, skills and content that have only recently become integral parts of the publishing process and redefine what we consider ‘publishing’ to be. One of the most encouraging things I’ve witnessed in the industry here is a reluctance to sit back and wait for the UK or the US to point the way. Publishers are getting on with meeting challenges and exploring opportunities by embracing these new skills. The work of Steam Press, BWB and Booktrack are just a few examples.

Additionally, the self-publishing trend, rather than establishing a straightforward shift of power and control to the author, will actually shed light on the necessity of quality and the importance of the well-honed skills of all those involved in carrying an idea through to an excellently produced, delivered and marketed book, ebook, app, whatever it may be.

If New Zealand publishing continues to adapt and take risks, we can hopefully expect to enjoy other Eleanor Catton moments long into the future.

Michael Upchurch was formerly an editor at HarperCollins in London, now at Te Papa Press in Wellington.