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Everything I know about books : an insider look at publishing in Aotearoa
ed. Odessa Owens and Theresa Crewdson

On tokenism, typefaces, bestsellers and breaking up: insights into our book industry.

By November 10, 2023April 9th, 2024No Comments

When new students begin the Whitireia Publishing Diploma, the only accredited course of its kind in New Zealand, Odessa Owens and Theresa Crewdson say they give them the same warning: ‘never poo in the tiny publishing pond.’  Even our tiny pond is too large to be covered wholly by one book, but Everything I know about books: an insider look at publishing in Aotearoa gives it a shot.

An anthology of pieces from 70 writers and industry professionals, its publication celebrates thirty years of the Whitireia programme. Contributors ‘have offered their advice and anecdotes with a sympathetic understanding of you, the writer, at the centre of it all,’ Witi Ihimaera, Aotearoa’s literary giant, writes in his introduction. The book, he suggests, could serve as a writer’s ‘best mate, somebody who will help me pick myself up, dust myself off, give me some tools.’

In an overview of Whitireia and its history, editors Owens and Crewdson say the intention of Everything I know is ‘to draw back the curtain on the mystery that surrounds the industry’ and:

answer that dinner-party question ‘But what do publishers actually do?’ and, perhaps, to deflect the awkward follow-up: ‘Actually, I’ve written a manuscript. How do I get it published?’ (Answer: buy this book!)

But this isn’t really a how-to guide. If you’re looking for an explanation of how to pitch a novel, or how to understand editing marks on manuscripts, you won’t find it here. Instead this is a varied collection stuffed with insights. It travels from topic to topic, as anthologies do, from editors to defamation lawyers to book reps to reviewers to columnists to small publishers to festival organisers to self-published authors to audiobook readers. Each contributor has their own insights to impart, their own corner of the industry to illuminate.

Some issues appear multiple times, presented from different angles. One of these is the impact of colonisation on the stories of Māori and Pasifika, and implications of that loss of sovereignty. Early in the book, Pania Tahau-Hodges (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Tūhoe), publishing director at Huia Publishers, succinctly explains the loss:

[W]hen we cannot see ourselves—our language, mātauranga, realities, aspirations and world views—featured in the literary landscape, our ability to practise tino rangatiratanga and to express mana motuhake diminishes. We lose the ability to define who we are as a people, as iwi, hapu, whānau and individuals.

To restore this loss, she says, ‘we need space. We need space to tell our stories — in ways that we see fit and which resonate with our people… it means addressing the power imbalance that exists in the Aotearoa New Zealand publishing industry.’

Other contributors discuss the industry’s efforts to create these spaces. In ‘How to publish less-heard voices,’ Ash Davida Jane and Stacey Teague of Tender Press, speaking more broadly, tell us that the more ‘useful (and interesting)’ conversation ‘is about how to publish… in a way that does justice to the work and isn’t exploitative or tokenistic.’

Qiane Matata-Sipu, author of the stunning NUKU: Stories of 100 Indigenous women, writes in ‘Story sovereignty in self-publishing’ how she chose to keep control of her own project, because ‘I had a huge responsibility to the wāhine who so generously shared their experience, mātauranga and intergenerational wisdom.’ In ‘Reflections from a small Pacific publisher + a manifesto of sorts’, Faith Wilson of Saufo’I Press argues that everything ‘is open to change, growth’. Overall aspiration and generosity permeate this conversation and speak of hope and progress.

Publishers are (obviously) well-represented here. These include small publishers reaching into communities underrepresented in literature, like Adrienne Jansen of Landing Press in ‘Pushing out the Margins’ and Ash Davida Jane and Stacey Teague in ‘How to publish less-heard voices’. Large publishers examine the perceptions and reality of their businesses: Claire Murdoch from Penguin Random House contributes, ‘I learned it at the movies: What film and TV can teach us about publishing and what they get wrong’; Jenny Hellen of Allen & Unwin offers ‘How to publish a non-fiction bestseller’.

Murdoch Stephens and Brannavan Gnanalingam, founders of Wellington-based Lawrence & Gibson Publishing, describe ‘how to smash the system,’ by ‘gesturing towards a space that holds co-operative organisational views and egalitarian hopes’. In ‘Publishing Nicky Hagar’, Robbie Burton of nonfiction specialists Potter &  Burton talks of guerilla publishing and ‘furtive printing’.

Art publishing, museum publishing and academic publishing are also covered. ‘Tomorrow will be the same as this, pretty much’ by Sarah Pepperle of Christchurch Art Gallery argues that although publishing is a side-line to the gallery’s main business, it has longevity. ‘A published book – on an exhibition, or an artist or works from our collection – lasts longer and reaches beyond Ōtautahi.’

Several editors discuss aspects of editing a writer’s work, and how – in this tiny pond – how fraught and personal it can be. Poet Laureate Chris Tse contributes a hilarious poem on editing poetry, including this mock-advice:

15. Use the poem as a mirror.

16. Use the mirror as a sucker punch.

17. Attack the mirror with a mallet.

18. Hide the broken shards in the feathers of birds and instruct them to land on rooftops when the night is at its softest.

Ashleigh Young of Te Herenga Waka University Press shares thoughtful and practical insights in ‘On editing your friends’, concluding that ‘if you think of good editing as a conversation and not a series of commands… then your friendship will come out alive.’ Madison Hamill, an award-winning essayist and Whitireia grad – who has edited for the Cuba Press and Auckland University Press, among others – compares editing to a breakup: ‘it can be hard not to feel like the villain tearing apart [the author’s] great life’s work’.

Other publishers explore aspects of book production, including book covers and legalities. Kris Sowersby of Kim Type Foundry supplies ‘Why we need new typefaces: Thoughts from the front line of type’. Anna Jackson-Scott, editorial assistant and writer, gives a succinct summary of correctness, the endeavour of being exact:

We could go as far as to say that the whole purpose of the extensive processes behind traditional book publishing is to uphold correctness: of content, of language, of legality—of tradition, even.

And then there are the sales (national and international), the events, and the reviews. Writers’ festivals – the joy of them, the challenges and the despair – are covered here by both organisers and writers. Dominic Hoey supplies the poem, ‘writers festivals are fucking weird eh’:

before I put out my first novel
i’d never been to a writers festival
i didn’t understand why anyone would pay to listen to writers talk
it’s like asking musicians to be on time
or fine artists to have a moral compass

In ‘How to review a book’ Charlotte Grimshaw gives a sturdy lecture on the ideal book review, exhorting reviewers to ‘try to make your review a small work of art in itself.’ She then lays out her personal rules for reviewing:

No skimming, no cheating. Be honest and straight. Be fearless… you should never write a review with the wrong motivation: envy, rivalry, dislike, malice.

This could be a treatise on how to behave in the whole publishing industry. Or indeed life.

Paula Morris gives sardonic tips on how to approach busy professionals and the importance of doing your own research first: ‘People I don’t know like to email me their manuscripts and ask for my feedback. I wonder if they imagine I spend my days lolling around, bored, waiting for unsolicited stories and essays – or sometimes even novels – to show up in my inbox’. This is illustrated again in Mary McCallum’s ‘She had me at the cows: The making of a modern classic’. McCallum details how Becky Manawatu, author of Āue, waited months for a reply to her query:

We were flat out with no time to reply. Paul Stewart and I are Mākaro Press. There’s no one else…. Six weeks on, Becky sent the manuscript. My reply was excruciating in its brevity: ‘Ok.’ Five months later, still waiting for a response from us, she emailed three chapters she’d reworked.

In addition to the essays, Everything I know about books includes questions with various answers from industry professionals. Of particular delight is ‘what is your worst typo?’ Answers include:

I’ve printed a book with half a logo on the spine.

Best typo I ever caught was something about ‘well-maintained pubic gardens.

I wrote: ‘This is the first authoritative X’ only to have the author who made the previous X come and sue us.

The strength of this collection is its wide range of authors and voices, revealing the numerous connections in the ‘tiny pond’ of the local publishing industry and suggesting ways to negotiate its murky waters. It’s a tribute to the mana of Whitireia that so many have agreed to share their knowledge generously, and to celebrate a shared love of books.

Everything I know about books : an insider look at publishing in Aotearoa

ed. Odessa Owens and Theresa Crewdson 

Whitireia Publishing

ISBN: 9781877192630

Published: October 2023

Format: Paperback, 368 pages

Erica Stretton

Erica Stretton is the co-ordinator of Aotearoa’s National Poetry Day. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. Her work has been published in Headland, Mayhem, Flash Frontier, takahē, and others.