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BooksMay 24, 2024

Why are book festivals thriving while the publishing industry is struggling?


While New Zealand writers festivals are reporting record audiences, booksellers and publishers are struggling under financial pressure. Books editor Claire Mabey looks at the challenges faced by the industry, and what can be done about it.

Last week the Auckland Writers Festival broke all attendance records with more than 85,000 visits across 167 events. The festival’s bookstore, run by The Women’s Bookshop, reported its biggest ever year for sales, with close to 11,000 books sold (almost 50% more than the year before). Lioness, by Ockham New Zealand Book Award winner Emily Perkins, was the most popular title. 

I was at the festival and am still riding the high of an Aotea Centre teeming with enthused book lovers queueing for events, queueing to buy books and queueing to get them signed. The sessions were inspiring, thought-provoking, and thrilling: I learned, I was moved. While I was in Auckland, Erin Banks filed her story on Featherston Booktown Karukatea Festival which documented venues swollen with similarly eager audiences, robust and necessary conversations, and a sense of warmth and community that makes people feel good and proud and connected. I badly want to look at these examples of success in our industry – all the people working for and coming out for books and ideas – and feel reassured and optimistic.

And yet. Only days before Auckland Writers Festival started, the industry was shaken by Penguin NZ’s announcement that widely admired publishers Claire Murdoch and Rachel Eadie’s jobs were being disestablished along with a swath of their colleagues. Only the week before that, Wellington’s beloved indie bookstore Good Books closed its doors for the last time, the second bookshop within the last two years to disappear in the capital (Vic Books closed in early 2023). And ahead of the Ockhams, Rebecca K Reilly wrote of an environment of scarcity felt by writers in the context of our major book awards, which are both essential and stressful given the rare shot at financial return that they represent. Underneath and between visible markers of success, like festivals, there are rumbles of anxiety about the fragility of the literary sector.

Vic Books, no longer with us (Photo: Supplied)

So what is the state of it? Why are publishing houses shrinking and bookshops closing?

The first thing to note is that it’s not just New Zealand. The New York Times just reported that Penguin Random House has let go top publishers Reagan Arthur (from Knopf, poet Tayi Tibble’s US publishing imprint) and Lisa Lucas from the Pantheon imprint. The article reports: “The departure of two prominent publishers comes at a moment when Penguin Random House and other big publishing houses are facing financial challenges, with rising supply chain costs and sluggish print sales. Publishers’ sales were flat in the first quarter of 2024, according to a recent report from the Association of American Publishers.”

A few weeks ago, UK publisher Galley Beggar Press circulated a transparent and insightful article called ‘What Does A Book Cost?’, breaking down the costs of making a book in 2015 compared with 2023. The steep shift is sick-making: in short, their costs have more than doubled. 

Renee Rowland, association manager of Booksellers New Zealand, echoes those challenges shared in the US and UK: “operating costs and supply chain challenges make life hellish on the daily for booksellers.” For our booksellers, the equation goes: operating and staffing costs have increased while the price of books has not. Alongside that stark maths is the cost of living crisis and the decline in foot traffic due to online shopping and the Covid-spawned uptick in working from home. 

But even the online-only businesses are struggling. Mandy Myles from Bookety Book Books, “a virtual sanctuary for the book-obsessed”, confirms that for her, too, costs have skyrocketed: “I only launched four years ago and in this time my shipping and packaging costs have both doubled and consumer spending isn’t growing in line with this. It is hard for booksellers because we sell fixed price items, the costs being set by our suppliers. We’re not producing our own products so we can’t raise prices to pass on the costs of inflation to our consumers, so are left to absorb these into our already very slim margins.”

Myles explained that the hardest part of the equation for her right now is the supply chain, which doesn’t allow them to be reactive to demand: “As a small business it means you’re either gambling and buying up stock, hoping the sales come through and then when your crystal ball doesn’t predict the flighty future for you and you miss a future bestseller you’re left kicking yourself. Bookselling is a very trend-based, high turnover industry, and when the supply chain doesn’t allow us to be reactive to demand, customers will just go elsewhere.”

Books are increasingly sensitive to trends, which means that new titles can be subject to a slim “selling window” and must be on the shelves during that time in order to find their readers. Rowland explains that when publishers moved offshore (many years ago), books had to travel to Aotearoa via planes; since Covid they’ve been arriving by big, slow boats. This slow travel means that bookshops can miss the sales window (often around two weeks) due to stock having a leisurely journey over the seas to get here (a five-to-seven-week cruise). While the books are wending their way to our shores the sales window closes and bookshops lose sales as impatient customers go to the online megaliths like Amazon that sell books as a loss leader.

So why don’t booksellers pay for air freight? Because, says Rowland, it’s expensive and impacts on already tight margins, and has an environmental impact that “nobody is talking about because it’s ugly and in a too-hard basket”.

What do we make of the fact that book sales are down?

Rowland says that while sales have dropped since the pandemic-induced book boom, they’re not the biggest factor in the difficult landscape, for booksellers at least. It’s that refrain of “very small margins” that matters: “bookshops need to sell a high volume of books to get the requisite turnover to pay the bills,” she says.

One essential, recent development in Aotearoa that mitigates the urge to veer away from buying from our indies is BookHub: an online platform that pulls data from bookshops all over the country so that consumers can tap their desired title into the site, see which bookshops have it in stock, and order accordingly. It’s a fun exercise too: a visual map of the spaces that love and care for books, readers, authors and publishers. The anxiety now though as unemployment figures increase is how many of those bookshops will still be there at the end of this year, and the next? And what is the impact of that on our publishers, our authors and our ability to share Aotearoa’s stories?

It’s important to note at this point that many writers of course do not rely on traditional publishing (like Isa Pearl Ritchie, who wrote about her move from trad publishing) and instead opt for a variety of self-publishing services, and digital tools like Substack, Amazon and Patreon, to forge their own way in the market. While self-publishing is a welcome and lucrative option for some writers, many still prefer the support of the traditional method, or a mix of both.

The halls of Aotea Centre teeming with festival goers at Auckland Writers Festival 2024 (Photo: Auckland Writers Festival)

Why, then, are the festivals doing so well?

On the success of Auckland Writers Festival, Myles says: “I think the record numbers in attendance is very exciting, it shows that the readers are there and excited to support the authors and industry at large. But on the book sales, it appears to me that audiences are using special occasions to do their spending: buying books after a moving event is an emotionally-driven action.”

The major difference between buying a book at a festival and buying a book at your local bookshop is that the festival is cultivating community through live events, and it is within that spirit of immediacy that purchases are inspired. We have a lot of book festivals in Aotearoa and they’re all different: each reflects the people who make it and who they make it for. But one thing they all have in common is that they offer real-life, real-time opportunities to commune with like-minded strangers, and listen to inspiring people who in turn inspire enthusiasm and ideas in the audience.

In an age of many anxieties these opportunities offer relief: those who spend money on tickets to festivals are, in my opinion, investing in their own wellbeing as much as they are investing in an industry, if not more so. Observing festival audiences isn’t unlike observing the arrivals zone in an airport: people are emotional and buzzy. Festivals make you feel good while keeping you informed and connected. When emotions are heightened, you make a purchase to keep that feeling alive: the festival book purchase is an extension of what you felt while listening to the author, it’s an enriching afterlife to the live event.

Some conclusions seem to be clear: 1) support your local book festival, because the impact on the industry is felt via sales, and their display of support for authors and publishers; 2) buy books locally (use BookHub) and buy as much as you are able; 3) get emotional about books and bookshops remember how much they bring to the quality of your life and your community and think about what happens when we lose them.

Keep going!