PS: if you’re finding the facts in the first bit boring then skip to where it starts being written ALL IN CAPITALS!
We thought it was a great idea: find out what might be putting people off reading, and reading New Zealand fiction in particular. Though accurate stats were hard to find – Nielsen’s Book Scan data doesn’t include all New Zealand booksellers, and it doesn’t include New Zealand writers whose primary publisher is an international one – the stats we did have seemed to show that of the fiction we buy, a low percentage is penned by New Zealand writers. Again, it was hard to know what our total share of the market was in terms of published works, but it looked higher than the number being bought. In other words, New Zealand writers seemed to be missing out on sales – on readers – and we wanted to know why.
It’s a topic that has been covered before – in the Sunday Star Times in 2009, in a 2011 issue of North and South, and in a Listener editorial last year. But the people asked for comment were all industry people: publishers, authors, reviewers. No one had gone to the source and asked the people who actually buy and read books. Huzzah – we would do that!
By ‘we’, I mean Paula Morris and I. We’d been discussing this research for over a year with New Zealand Book Council CEO, Catriona Ferguson. She’d applied for funding and got some, but it was not the tens of thousands quoted by a traditional research firm. Paula and I offered our services to her because a) we were fascinated to find out what readers would tell us, and b) we both have significant professional experience in qualitative research.
I won’t list all our credentials (although I have been really tempted to over the last few days). We know our stuff. Our methodology kicks arse – it gets to the heart of what really shapes people’s decisions and actions. It does not ask leading questions or for people to rate stuff on a scale of 1 to 10. It has been proven time and again, and it works better than anything we have both experienced in our respective careers in marketing and advertising.
First, we looked to see what other reader research had been done. Feck all: one study by Victoria University Masters student, Pia White. It didn’t ask the kind of questions we wanted to, but the reader comments tallied with the theories of the industry pundits quoted above. We were interested to see whether our study would confirm or contradict.
We set up 11 focus groups around the country with keen readers who were in book groups. Our total sample (c. 85 people) has a margin of error of around 7% or a confidence level of 93% (this is how likely it is that the findings correlate with the true population average.). We were skewed to 45+ women, but that fits exactly with the national and international research about which groups are the highest consumers of books. So – not perfect, but (we thought) pretty darn good.
Besides, we had always envisaged this research as a start, not the be-all and end-all. We hoped that it would encourage other industry participants – publishers, booksellers, author associations – to club together and fund bigger and more regular research. Clearly, we were still in a positive frame of mind.
We did the research. We gained some fascinating insights. We discussed these at length and wrote them up carefully and with great thought into a report. The Book Council published the report. We were excited to see what kind of response it would get.
Answer: SHIT STORM!
A Listener article – and other media – latches on to the least interesting but most controversial aspect of the report: DOOM, GLOOM, NEW ZEALANDERS HATE NZ FICTION. WE WOULD RATHER TONGUE KISS MIKE HOSKING THAN READ IT!
A genre fiction writer publishes a furious ranty blog: THE LISTENER ARTICLE IS A TRAVESTY OF JOURNALISM! THE RESEARCH METHODOLOGY SUCKS! THE BOOK COUNCIL IS USELESS! CREATIVE NEW ZEALAND IS SATAN! THE LITERARY ESTABLISHMENT CONSPIRES TO EXCLUDE GENRE FICTION!
MANY people share this blog, with each other and, natch, with Paula and me. They post the link on social media with comments like ‘BOOK COUNCIL SUCKS! THIS RESEARCH SUCKS! GO FURIOUS RANTY BLOGGER, YOU ROCK!’
We are attacked by the literary establishment! (They obviously decided to give genre fiction writers a break and turn on us instead.) A renowned publisher with a beard tweets: ‘If for years you tell people they think NZ books are boring then ask them if they think NZ books are boring…’
Strangely, because we are not actual cretins, we didn’t ask them that. And is the logic weird, or is it just me? Who’s the ‘you’? who’s telling people they think New Zealand books are boring? FIND THEM! HUNT THEM DOWN! IT’S ALL THEIR FAULT!
A university professor emails Paula and asks in a delightfully formal manner whether we have considered that people think New Zealand books are dark and depressing because they are, in fact, ipso facto, QED, dark and depressing? I picture Paula face-palming as she forwards this to me.
We are attacked as anti-Janet Frame!
It is like Doctor Seuss’s I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sellew. “And new troubles came, from above and below! A Skritz at my neck and a Skrink at my toe!”
No one reads the original report. No one sees that it does NOT say that New Zealanders hate New Zealand fiction. Around 75% did have an initial negative reaction but this was overcome when they read it…I could go on but I’d rather you read the report. Please. Thank you. Here’s the link, the report’s in a box on the right.
No one asks the Book Council for their opinion. No one asks us for our opinion. Everyone seems to prefer standing behind the critics, shaking their fists and yelling ‘YEAH!’
OK, not everyone. On a lone Facebook comment thread numerous people decide the furious blogger’s rant is formless and weird, and his comments about old ladies are sexist. They wonder why Paula and I would want to diss genre writers when we are genre writers (I write commercial women’s fiction and Paula writes fantasy YA). Paula and I want to hug these people.
A famous genre fiction writer tells me I am awesome for all the advocating I’ve done for genre fiction. I want to hug her.
I have a go at correcting some of the misconceptions and wrong information. I get somewhere. I tell Facebook friends who are sharing the blog that I wrote the report. They read the report. They are interested. They call it “excellent”.
Mostly, though, it is like stopping a tide. I feel depressed and beleaguered. We wanted to shed a little light on the barriers that might prevent readers enjoying terrific New Zealand books, of all genres. We wanted to get people thinking about the opportunities for raising awareness and creating more enthusiastic advocates for our work.
What we got was dumped on from a great height.
I know, poor us. But really, I don’t give a monkeys what anyone thinks of me. I do despair at the knee-jerk reaction, the acceptance of supposed truths without a shred of scrutiny – and this from people who foam at the mouth about the death of good evidence-based journalism and the crap that is spewed by social media.
I despair that what Paula and I believe is really quite a great little piece of work has been buried in a shit-pile, and the opportunities it shines a light on will be ignored.
I despair that an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality prevailed – people wanted to lash out at an enemy, whether it was Paula and I, the Book Council, Creative NZ, the literary establishment, who or whatever. People wanted to accuse, criticise and create divides, when what we need to do so very badly is join together, be united as a stronger voice and force.
I wanted to hug UK author, Chris Cleave, when he gave the keynote address at the inaugural National Writers Forum (which rocked! Unity, sharing, generosity!). He said: “My first very practical suggestion, for how we as writers can make ourselves useful in these new times, is that we should make sure we stand for something, rather than against everyone else.”
Paula and I did that research because we believed it would be valuable and useful. Despite the shower of shitty Skritzes and Skrinks, we still do.