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Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa

Book buying

Book buying

The inseparable forces of demand and supply mean that in many ways the pattern of buying (and selling) New Zealand books is at the same time the pattern of publishing in New Zealand, and some of the issues raised here are discussed more fully under 'Economics' in Chapter 3, 'Publishing'. Unfortunately neither perspective is well documented at a national level on a consistent, regular basis, even for the more recent period when publishing has developed into a strong local and export activity. There are many opportunities for further research and analysis of these patterns, and also of the imported book trade as part of the total book market.

Part of the explanation for the lack of national statistics and analysis lies in the history of the organisations that support the trade and represent the publishers and booksellers—groups whose affiliations have fluctuated regularly, especially over the last 20 years. A broad picture of this history can be found in part 4 ('The Issues') of the Rogers's Turning the Pages (1993). A more specific reason is the apparent difficulty in obtaining information from the book trade itself, for whatever reason—perhaps commercial sensitivity, or perceived lack of importance. In New Zealand Publishing News (1977-93) Gerard Reid, Executive Director of the Book Publishers Association, refers regularly to the difficulty in getting replies to survey questionnaires, and also to his efforts over many years to get the Department of Statistics interested in improving the quality of industry data.

Finally, in 1987, the Department conducted its first (and only) comprehensive census of book publishers, distributors and sellers, identifying a total turnover of $525 million. The Department's 1987 survey of household expenditure also recorded expenditure on publications, broken down by a range of types. Among these, the lowest level of purchasing (0.2% of households) was on dictionaries and thesauri and the highest (77.6% of households) on newspapers. Most recently, Statistics New Zealand has provided information on the book trade (termed 'Literature') within the Framework for Cultural Statistics: New Zealand Cultural Statistics 1995 (1995, 'Literature' pp.55-66), and a partial update Household Spending on Culture 1996, both published jointly with the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Some of the information is dated and data limitations are noted. Plans for further published updates are not yet finalised. However, detailed statistics on the trade are collected on a ongoing but selective sample basis (as part of the Annual Enterprise Survey) and can be supplied on request. At an aggregated level 'big figures' for the book trade can be found in Statistics New Zealand's annual Business Activity Statistics (1991- ) and the annual Official Yearbook provides a brief outline, sometimes supplemented by special topics such as (in 1995) a comparison of costs of paperback novels: New Zealand at $19.95 second only
Black and white photograph

This appropriately designed bookcase filled with New Zealand books was carved by Albert Percy Godber (1875-1949) of Silverstream in the Hutt Valley, who also took the photograph. Godber was a foreman at the Petone Railway workshops and had many other interests, including volunteer firefighting, bee-keeping and photography, and he also studied Māori language and art. He visited the Turnbull Library regularly on Fridays and on his death left the Library some 2,000 photographs, together with rafter designs in colour which are believed not to be recorded elsewhere, and manuscripts and diaries. (A.P. Godber Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, reference number G-899-1/2-APG)

to Germany ($21.13).

By international standards, New Zealanders buy relatively more of the newspapers, magazines and books they read. A survey reported on by the New Zealand Book Publishers Association, cited in the New Zealand Book Council's Newsletter no.41 for September 1981, established that in the year July 1979 to June 1980, people spent on books $63 per capita, below the highest ranked (Sweden, at $80) but twice the figure for Australia. In the 1995/96 year expenditure per household was $380.64, of which about half was spent on books. An interesting trend over the last ten years is the increase in expenditure on magazines, which now exceeds expenditure on newspapers.

One of the few published reviews of the contemporary retail trade is Harold White's 'The Distribution of Books in New Zealand' (1974). Following on from that, and despite the difficulties in obtaining data from the trade, New Zealand Publishers News remains a useful source of publishing and therefore book buying information for the period 1969-90. For example, the December 1984 issue records total annual sales of $16 million, 5.5 million 'units', and lists the seven major outlets, led by Whitcoulls. The October 1983 issue analyses New Zealand titles published 1969-82 under 25 categories, of which the most prolific in 1982 was Political Science/Political Economy (15% of the total, over 100 titles a year); by comparison, Literature was less than 10% (66 titles). In 1969 the same two categories were 13% (46 titles) and 4.5% (16 titles). 'Flat' categories include biography, travel, and business titles. Other questions arise from these figures, such as why 1,107 titles were published in 1981 but only 765 in 1982.

Other nuggets of information include: school textbook sales ($5.8 million in 1983, i.e. 36% of total sales); domestic books as a proportion of domestic sales (24.6% in 1982, compared with 42.2% in Australia); the import trade (up 86% between 1969 and 1980); the value of UK exports to New Zealand (mainly mass-market paperbacks) totalled over £12 million in 1987. The newsletter also refers to other documents circulated to members of the Book Publishers Association which would be sources of more detailed information. The most recent similar figures (a breakdown of 1993 sales) were supplied by London Bookshops for Whitireia Publishing's First Edition (rev. ed. 1995, p.25), but it is not possible to adequately identify sales of New Zealand publications from imports. 'New Age' is a new category (3%), with children's books (14%) the highest sales of any specific category.

Complementary information can be found in the publications of the Booksellers' Association and its successor (from 1991) Booksellers New Zealand. Much of the information relates to promotions (especially the Christmas Catalogue, an industry priority) and the subsidiary book tokens business. Sales of book tokens have been a major growth area, rising from $125,000 in 1973 to a peak of $2.75 million in 1993, with tokens seen as an important means of generating new customers.

The New Zealand Bookseller & Publisher (1968-72), in addition to lists of current publications and Indecent Publication Tribunal decisions, includes articles on a range of general topics such as sale or return, shop presentation, mail-order selling. A particular success reported (in 1971) was the overseas-initiated 'part works' which appeal to people who would not usually buy books. New Zealand Book World (1973-81) initially purported to continue the preceding title, but developed into a general magazine with very few articles on the New Zealand trade. Following its demise, a number of short-lived trade journals were produced in the 1980s until (after a couple of name changes in 1986-88) Booksellers News (1988- ) became established as the official newsletter of Booksellers New Zealand. It has developed into far more than its title suggests, increasingly representing publishing as well as bookselling. Since the appointment of Anna Rogers as editor in 1993 there have been many articles of interest, a recent example being Beth Davies's article in the November 1996 issue (no.102, pp.8-11, 14) on the retailing of gay and lesbian material.

Three relevant market research surveys have been published. The National Research Bureau's Survey of Book Buying In New Zealand (1977) reported its 1976 investigation for the New Zealand Book Trade Organisation (NZBTO) into the buying habits of a representative sample of adults in the four main centres. Survey of Book Buyers in New Zealand (two publications in 1979, one by Don Esslemont) reported on a study by the Market Research Centre, Massey University, for the New Zealand Book Council, of those who entered 31 town or city bookshops in November 1978.

A 1982 survey for the NZBTO, published as The Book Buyer and Book Buying Patterns In New Zealand (1983), studied 1,054 people who entered bookshops. This survey provides some interesting information on book buyers themselves. Only one third of people enter a bookshop intending to buy—and of these only a third actually purchase something; lost book sales (unavailability of the item and unwillingness to order) are a major concern for the trade. The highest incidence of purchase of children's books is among people in the 40-54 age-group, and the older we are (up to 55) the more hardbacks we buy. In terms of media impact (despite the high rate of newspaper purchase) the survey identifies the New Zealand Listener as the only magazine or newspaper to have a significant reach to book buyers as a whole. Book reviews on Kim Hill's National Radio programme are also known to have an identifiable impact on sales.

Bestseller lists have always been regularly published in the trade journals and at times in other magazines, such as the New Zealand Listener and Metro. The current largest and most neutral survey of bestsellers is compiled fortnightly by Booksellers New Zealand from a sample of 100 bookshops (out of their 400 membership) and is described in Booksellers News (October 1993, p.14). The five bestselling New Zealand books (according to the 1990 Official Yearbook) are: Edmonds 'Sure to Rise' Cookery Book (over 3.5 million copies, with 33 editions between 1907 and 1993), Yates Garden Guide (more than a million copies from 1895 to 1995), Whitcombe's Everyday Cookery (1900, 350,000 copies), The Game of Mah Jong (1938, 282,000 copies), and New Zealand Calorie Counter (1974, 266,000). Other bestsellers include school texts, such as Whitcombe's Modern Junior Dictionary, Collins' Clear School New Zealand Atlas (Junior Edition), and Whitcombe's Atlas Of Geography.

Bibliographic reference sources, including national bibliographical records (refer to section 'Access tools' in the following chapter) provide a valuable source of information on New Zealand publishing and therefore potential sales at the level of individual titles. For example, educational books bought by families or as sets by schools may be investigated through Ian McLaren and George Griffiths's Whitcombe's Story Books (1984) and Hugh Price's School Books Published in New Zealand to 1960 (1992). Fiction is dominated by overseas-originated paperbacks, but Barry Crump's back country yarns are claimed to have sold in total over a million copies.

Meaningful analysis of book buying patterns—whether print runs and sales of individual titles, or aggregated by subject area, or over periods of time—will depend on detailed searching of individual publishers' and distributors' records.