Mary McCallum found out last night that Becky Manawatu’s novel Auē, published by her tiny press, had won the richest prize in New Zealand literature.
Three of the best nights of my life have been at this country’s national book awards. The first time was 2008 when my novel The Blue, published by Penguin, was shortlisted for the fiction award. It didn’t win the big prize, but it did get the best first book of fiction and the readers’ choice awards.
We’d been warned about the first award but the second one nearly made my publisher, Geoff Walker, swallow his wine glass – you had wine at the awards in those days, important given the sponsor, and you got a bottle with your prize cheque. It was an exceptional night.
The second of those big awards nights was last year and I was in Geoff Walker’s position this time, except the drink-around-a-table ambience had been scrapped in favour of auditorium seating at the Aotea Centre. I was next to musician Bernie Griffen, who would walk up to the podium to accept the best first book award on behalf of his partner, Kirsten Warner. Her novel, The Sound of Breaking Glass, had been published by Mākaro Press, the press I’d founded in 2013 with my son Paul Stewart.
Kirsten couldn’t be there because she was in Auckland Hospital recovering from an aneurysm, but we were determined to make the best of it, and to hear her name called and see our logo up on the screen alongside publishers like Penguin Random House and VUP was an intensely proud moment for me.
Then this year I dialed into the awards from our place in the Wairarapa, my heart in my throat, champagne in hand, Ugg boots on my feet. Becky Manawatu, first-time author of Auē, did the same (possibly without the Ugg boots) at her place in Waimangaroa on the West Coast.
She was in the same position I was in in 2008, the only debut author in the fiction shortlist with the possibility of two wins – the best first book award and the overall fiction prize. The latter is now worth a life-changing $55,000, generously supported by philanthropist Jann Medlicott and the Acorn Foundation.
And there it was. That punch-the-sky moment when Becky Manawatu was announced as winner of the MitoQ Best First Book Award. I was elated for her – there is no doubt she’s a major new talent and deserves every bit of this award – and elated for Mākaro Press, and personally it felt like a fantastic hat-trick. (A quadruple, if you count the best first book award win at the children’s awards by Julie Lamb’s novel The Discombobulated Life of Summer Rain in 2017, but sadly I missed that one.)
Then it came … the news that trumped the lot. Becky had won the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize. A champagne-glass swallowing moment if there was ever one, for both author and publisher. Un-believ-able and yet utterly deserved. We’re still absorbing it, still in shock. It’s life-changing for both author and press, and I feel so proud of Becky and her beautiful book, and her gracious speeches on winning, surrounded by her whānau.
I’d never planned to become a publisher, any more than I’d planned to be a novelist, but one thing led to another. Writing The Blue brought me into contact with Geoff Walker and Penguin Books, and into the orbit of other publishers like Fergus Barrowman at VUP, who was associated with the International Institute of Modern Letters where I’d enrolled to complete my novel, and Helen Rickerby at Seraph Press, who was a good friend of one of my classmates.
Geoff was the image of a publisher to me – whisking into Wellington from Auckland, toting a fine leather satchel that seemed to be bulging with manuscripts, buying me kedgeree at Nikau while fielding calls from the likes of Witi Ihimaera and Lloyd Jones, and over two years encouraging the completion of The Blue, which he’d bought an option on when I was only 12 pages in. He had a reputation for hunting out debut writers and giving them a chance and I was one of the fortunate. I never thought for a minute I could do the job he did.
Looking back I believe it was Helen Rickerby who sowed the first seed. Here was a young woman who’d set up a poetry press on the strength of a love of poetry, her own writing, a publishing diploma and an MA in English Lit. She started with slim unbound books called chapbooks that she printed in Wellington and hand-sewed over a glass of wine with friends. I was amazed by Helen’s chutzpah and the gift she was giving poets and readers.
This concept of publishing as a gift, to writers, readers and the culture of the country we live in, is important because I think it’s what underpinned my decision, just over five years after my novel came out, to start up Mākaro Press. In the intervening time I’d continued to review books on radio and in print and tutored creative writing at Massey University, which had increased my confidence about assessing poetry and fiction and mentoring writers to improve their work.
I was also working one day a week in my local bookseller, Rona Gallery, which was important in terms of my understanding what people read and why, and had met other inspiring publishers like Julia Marshall of Gecko and Mary Varnham of Awa Press.
And I’d produced a chapbook of my own poems for a small art exhibition (Helen Rickerby had guided me in the sewing side of things). I needed an imprint for it so I decided on Mākaro Press, after the island in the sea in front of my home in Eastbourne, which in turn was named after a niece of the explorer Kupe. It felt appropriate for a nascent press founded by a woman. Although at that time I hadn’t formed any idea of going forward with it.
During this period – from 2007 when The Blue was published to 2013 when I formed Mākaro – there was an explosion in the number of creative writing courses and the number of emerging writers with work to publish, but increasingly the publishing industry wasn’t playing ball. The big publishers in New Zealand were starting to scale down their operations, and in 2013 Penguin and Random House merged and other leading publishing houses ceased operations or moved offshore completely or in part.
Geoff Walker, who was working by now as an independent publishing consultant, was not the only one concerned about New Zealand stories and who would publish them, but he pointed to the importance of the indie publishers who were stepping up to fill the gaps left by the big players.
There were some like Helen Rickerby, who were publishing books in the traditional way, where they funded the books and paid a small royalty, and there were those who collaborated financially with authors to get more books out at less overall risk. Then there were the hybrid publishers who did a mix of both. One of these was long-time Wellington publisher Steele Roberts Aotearoa, run by Roger Steele, who’d published hundreds of books in 15 years.
One day I attended a poetry launch in Wellington and Roger gave a humdinger speech that embraced the book he was launching, the author, the readers there and elsewhere, and the whole whakapapa of New Zealand books. It was smart, passionate, warm and funny.
I liked the role he was playing, captain of a ship ploughing crazily though huge waves while bigger and more powerful vessels were sinking around him or tying up at distant shores. It felt like a collaborative and pragmatic way to nurture our imaginations and share our stories, and more my style than sending graduating writers into the wilderness buoyed by hope and little else.
Around this time two Eastbourne writer friends and I decided to collect together an anthology of Eastbourne writing. We’d scored some funding, so we paid my son Paul, who was looking for work after finishing his degree, to do such things as transcribing old texts and seeking permissions. Always a big reader, he loved the work. I loved the work. When it came to deciding how to publish Eastbourne, I told my fellow editors I could do it, with Paul, even though I really had no idea how that would play out.
I approached Roger Steele, who took me to lunch and told me in graphic detail about the pitfalls of independent publishing – the long hours for little or no pay, not being able to read anything but manuscripts, not having time for my own writing – but when he saw I was undeterred (I still had his launch speech ringing in my ears), he offered me a small office with a computer to use for free for three months and help using the publishing software InDesign. If we were still going after three months, he’d charge a small rent.
Paul and I arrived the next day to find Roger building a bookshelf to separate the Mākaro office from his own. The space we had was small – you could cross it in two strides – but it became home for three months and then for five years. I worked a full week and Paul worked for me on contract, picking up independent design work as his skills grew to give him more hours. Roger gave us help with more than InDesign, proofing our first books and helping us with printers and distributors. His staff were a great support too.
Roger’s generosity seemed extraordinary. It still does. Without it Mākaro Press would never have happened.
To finance the enterprise we signed authors who were happy to fund their books in whole or in part, keeping the traditional publishing contracts for around six titles a year, which was all we could afford. These six were the literary novels and our HOOPLA poetry series, but also included one or two children’s and non-fiction titles. The author-funded novels we published under an imprint we called Submarine, named after the submarine boom that ran between Eastbourne and Mākaro Island.
On a tight budget, we kept costs to the bare minimum by doing almost everything ourselves in the way of editing and design, and began by calling on favours from friends and doing deals for artwork (you do us an illustration, we’ll write copy for your website), and where possible finding art we could lease rather than commissioning it.
We sought out proofreaders, editors and illustrators who were starting out like us and mentored them through the process. One of our great finds was Anna Golden, who became the first manuscript reader for our children’s books and is now an excellent editor.
I drew on my past life in journalism and public relations to market the books, and we employed the dynamo that was the late Paul Greenberg to sell them to the booksellers, while offering us his extensive knowledge about the book industry for free over a whisky or two.
We ran crowdfunding campaigns, welcomed donations from kind friends and made use of the friendly tax department. Our low rent and overheads were a huge help. It was a high-wire juggling act. It wouldn’t have worked, though, if my husband, Ian, had not been open to family money being used to top up the press’s finances from time to time. I’m deeply grateful to him for his understanding about this.
Since we started in April 2013 we’ve produced around 70 books: fiction, poetry, children’s books, picture books, memoir, biographies, journalism, anthologies, self-help, you name it. We hadn’t intended to go so wide, but they just kept coming. We’ve worked closely with some amazing authors and illustrators, booksellers, librarians, reviewers and festival organisers, and printed locally with excellent printers.
Three of our titles have broken the magic 2000 sales mark – Auē by Becky Manawatu (hurtling towards 4000 sales); The Book of Hat by Harriet Rowland, a collection of her blog posts while fighting cancer; and The Discombobulated Life of Summer Rain by Julie Lamb, a madcap story for nine to 13-year-olds.
Eastbourne: an anthology, Renée’s memoir These Two Hands, and the junior fiction title Slice of Heaven by Des O’Leary have also sold very well. Twelve of our titles have won and been finalists at national book awards for both adults and children, and we’ve sold the rights to overseas publishers.
Starting as we did, Paul and I never developed a kaupapa – a scheme or plan or theme – for Mākaro books, we just published what we liked, work we thought was strong, writing we believed in and authors we thought we could work with. It would be true to say, though, that our left-of-centre politics, feminist sympathies and belief in nurturing biculturalism and diversity in literature have influenced our choices.
There are probably more women authors then men, but I haven’t counted, and it wasn’t a deliberate choice. Certainly all our adult novelists so far are women, but that will change next year.
Above all else it’s vital to me as a writer myself that Mākaro Press is a platform for new voices and that those new voices put the best of themselves out there. To that end both Paul and I spend a long time working with our authors, especially new authors, pre-publication. I have absorbed the lesson from my Penguin publisher Geoff Walker and my mentor Roger Steele that new writers like Becky Manawatu need to be sought out and brought on board, and once there they need nurture and patience, so that’s what I try to do as a publisher too – the editing process for Becky’s book took a year, with six passes through the manuscript.
As a template for how to edit fiction with compassion and insight I use pre-eminent editor Jane Parkin, who edited The Blue, and later my children’s novel Dappled Annie and the Tigrish for Gecko Press. Paul, I’m proud to say, has become an excellent editor following her lead too.
And this is how we’re going forward. But there have been changes.
In 2018, Roger Steele decided to semi-retire, and for Mākaro the hire-wire juggling act of running a publishing company with just two of us in a tiny office doing everything from design to the accounts was taking its toll. So Paul and I joined forces with Sarah Bolland and Roger Whelan from Steele Roberts Aotearoa and formed a new hybrid press – The Cuba Press. It is named after one of the first settler ships to Wellington, and Sarah and I are co-directors. So far we’ve published social histories, art books, genre fiction, novellas, poetry, children’s books and memoir.
Paul and I get a corner of the new open-plan office to work on Mākaro Press books, and we’ve gone back to the place we once started – literary novels – one a year, sliding in some short fiction and poetry, if we can. We are currently working on Victory Park by Wellington author Rachel Kerr, which launches later this year, and a new edition of These Two Hands. Meanwhile, Becky Manawatu needs our full attention for a while as Auē continues to wow readers, and she comes to grips with what it means to be one of this country’s most promising writers after what has surely been one of the best nights of her life.
Auē by Becky Manawatu (Mākaro Press, $35) is available from Unity Books. Read the first chapter here, and a remarkable essay by Manawatu here. You can watch her session as part of the Auckland Writers Festival’s Winter Series from 9-10am this Sunday, 17 May.