Richard Prebble: I’ve been thinking about I’ve Been Thinking, 25 years on

in 1996, as he completed his journey from Labour to Act, the polarising politician Richard Prebble wrote his bestseller: I’ve Been Thinking. Today he looks back on its genesis and impact.

It is a quarter of a century since I wrote “I’ve been thinking”, an account of how my experience in government made me rethink my values. It put me on a journey from the left of politics to the right. It was a runaway bestseller. The bestselling book of 1996.

There are more than 200,000 copies in print. If you are under 40 or you would never read a book written by me, here is a flavour.

A PARABLE ABOUT VALUES

When I became Minister of Railways New Zealand Rail was not only losing a million dollars a day it was also losing customers, freight and sometimes whole wagons as well.

A farmer wrote to me complaining that the Railways had lost his tractor. After weeks of fruitless complaining to the organisation he had gone to the length of writing to the minister.

I asked the Railways to find the farmer’s tractor. They said, “Sorry minister, we know it left Hamilton but it failed to arrive in Taumarunui.”

So I had no option but to send that letter to the farmer with my apologies. But that was not the end of the matter. The farmer wrote back saying he had given up asking bureaucrats to help him. He had got into his car and followed the railway line from Hamilton to Taumarunui, searching for the tractor himself. It had taken a week.

Eventually he had found his tractor in a siding. He also found six other wagons Railways had lost.

What does this tell us about New Zealand and the values underlying these respective actions?

  1. Governments are capable of losing something as large as a tractor.
  2. They did not care enough to find it. Nor could they be made to, even by the minister responsible.
  3. The farmer did care enough to find it. It was his tractor.
  4. One man with the right incentives outperforms 22,000 State employees with the wrong ones.

I vividly remember the tractor incident. I went home and thought about what had happened. I may be the minister but in reality I was powerless. Unless we changed the incentives Railways was going to go on losing money. And tractors.

We did change the incentives. Railways went from losing money to being the only profitable narrow gauge railway in the world. We reduced freight rates by 50%. As transport costs fell whole new industries became viable. It has been estimated for every job lost on the railway 10 new jobs were created. We achieved the reduction in railway workers by voluntary redundancy. The stories of mass sackings are a myth.

The lessons in the book are timeless. Any new minister should read it.

I was out of politics. The voters of Auckland Central had retired me. I had been an MP since I was 27. I was having great fun in business. Among other things I was chairing a Vietnam railway company, but that is another book.

Roger Douglas had founded the Act party to contest the first MMP election. While I had taken a membership I was not involved. I had no desire to ever be in politics again. 

Maurice Williamson, the National MP, was in discussions with the Act executive to leave National and join Act and perhaps lead the new party. Bolger put a stop to that.

I was asked “If Williamson joins Act how does he explain his conversion?”

“Write a book,” I replied.

“The election is less than a year away, how can he?”

“If he knows what he thinks he could write a book in a week,” I replied. 

On Boxing Day 1995 at 8am there was a knock on my door. It was my friend Simon Carr, who had been Bolger’s speech writer.

“I was having Christmas drinks with Rodney Hide,” he said. “Rodney told me you are going to write a book in a week. I have come to help.” I tried to explain I had no intention of myself writing a book. In the end it was easier to write the book.

It took eight days. I wrote over 200 pages. I had booked to go to the Solomon Islands with my wife on January 3. I gave the manuscript to Simon and left for my holiday.

When I came back he had cut it in half. It was 113 pages long.

“What about the other hundred pages?’ I complained.

“Next book,” said Simon. He knew what to say to an author.

My advice to any would be author is to get a good editor. Simon was brilliant.

We self-published. Seaview Publishing does not exist. It is the street where Simon lived. We needed a real publisher to distribute the book. Random House reluctantly agreed. “Political books do not sell” she told me. “Do not print more than a thousand copies. Books do not sell in February. People only buy books for Christmas.”

I could not influence the 1996 election by publishing after it was over. We decided on a Waitangi Day book launch. We took a plunge and printed 5,000 copies.

Act newsletter, 1996.

I asked the publisher’s for advice on how to promote the book. “Is it better to go on Paul Holmes show or TV3?” I asked.

“You will never be asked on TV,” she haughtily informed me. “The best way to get a book promoted is by Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand.” I am not Kim’s favourite politician. I knew that was not going to happen.

“I will show you,” I thought. “I will go on both TV channels.” And I did. 

We sent a galley copy to Paul Holmes. He loved the book so much he insisted on giving the endorsement that we put on the cover. 

A friend got the quote from Pam Corkery, the talk back host. He rang her radio show and said, “Have you heard Richard Prebble has written a book called ‘I’ve Been Thinking’. Quick as a flash Pam replied: “We must stop Richard before he thinks again” Gotcha. We put Pam’s quote on the back cover.

Random House told me that book tours sell books. They said, “Book tours are very tough. It is not unheard of for authors to go running screaming from a bookshop and to refuse to do another signing.” They also said that a book signed by the author is more likely to sell.

“I will sign them all,” I said. “I sign more than 5,000 Christmas cards each year.”

Apparently that is not done. Books have to be signed by the author in a bookshop. “OK, we will do a book tour.” 

I looked at a book tour as being like an election campaign. I recruited Brain Nicolle, the legendary election organiser. “Let us go to every bookshop in the country from Kaitaia to Invercargill.” I loaded my car boot with books, a roll of stickers saying ‘Signed by the author’ and an invoice book. On my birthday, February 7, I set out on New Zealand’s biggest ever book tour.

We immediately ran into a problem. Every bookshop had sold out.

I rang the publisher. “We need a reprint now.” She refused. She did not believe the shops could have sold out. “We must wait until our reps report at the end of the month.”

I told her, “I have been to four bookshops today. They have all sold out. I am rapidly using up my boot stock. If you will not authorise a reprint I will have to get another publisher.”

“Authors do not fire publishers,” she said.

“Well there is always a first. You are fired.”

We ordered the first reprint after three days. Faber agreed to take over distribution. Now all is forgiven. Random House was very helpful with my last book, Out of the Red.

Book tours are much easier than election campaigning. You met a nicer class of person in a bookshop. Independent bookshops are owned by book lovers who are so pleased to have an author in their shop. Many of those marvellous bookshops have now closed. 

While New Zealanders do not read enough books we hold authors in high esteem, up there with All Blacks. It was a new experience for me. Politicians are held in low esteem, somewhere below used car dealers and just above child molesters. As an author people were respectfully asking my opinion. Newspapers and radio stations in every town wanted my interview. It was a heady experience.

I could tell whether a journalist had read the book. The journalist from the Nelson Evening Mail asked me: “Why would the people of Nelson be interested in the viewers of an extreme right winger”? She did not actually call me a Nazi but I got the idea.

“Have you read the book?” I asked.

“No and I do not intend to,” she replied.

“Would you read one page? It will take you 20 seconds.” I turned the book to page 7, the story of the farmer. She read it. I got a front page story.

I recall visiting the Timaru Herald, a paper that had never liked me as a politician. The editor had read the book. She arranged tea and buns for me. The editor ordered the paper’s photographer take a photo of me with the book in the main street. Another front page story. It was an extraordinary tour.

The person who really got hooked by it all was me. If enough people say, “You should be back in parliament,” you start believing it. 

I came home to break the news to my wife.

She said, “I always knew you were going back into parliament. Act is going to ask you to be leader.”

The book was number one on the bestselling list for months. We were up to our forth printing. For New Zealand 20,000 is a very big print. We thought it would sell right up to the election. We investigated doing a bigger print run in Hong Kong. To my amazement if we printed over 100,000 copies the cost came down to less than a dollar a book. A full-colour election pamphlet can cost 90 cents.

In May I was elected leader of the Act party. I said, “Why don’t we print 200,000 copies of I’ve Been Thinking and give them away?” That is what we did. As a political pamphlet it was very successful. Before we mass distributed I’ve Been Thinking, ACT was at less than 1% in the polls. In the election the party won seven seats. 

Of course it had a down side. My mana as an author vanished as I morphed into a politician. I have written more books. Bookshops tell me people are waiting for their free copy. 

My friend Simon said, “Preb, you are in the wrong country. On a per capita basis I’ve Been Thinking in America would have sold 1.4 million before you gave it away.” 

I donated my royalties to fund Act. I wrote the book to explain politics is all about values. It is something I still think. To quote the last sentences:

The overwhelming question that faces New Zealand is a simple one. Surely we should vote for the parties with the best values?

And that, in essence, is what I’ve been thinking.




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