Quite aside from being stunningly beautiful from top to bottom, New Zealand is unique, a nation of 4-1/2 million English speakers that is not on the way to anyplace else. When you go to New Zealand, you go on purpose. And you arrive on a large boat or a large plane, not by some improvised means. Illegal entry is just about impossible. Airport entry and exit is almost entirely digitally-managed; we experienced it twice because we took a trip to Melbourne, Australia, while we were visiting New Zealand. If the government wants to know who has overstayed their alloted time, which is the way we get most of our “illegals” in the United States, they can.
From my home on the other side of the world, and, I believe, for most publishing people in New York or London, New Zealand is part of “Australasia”, some sort of a joint “unit” with Australia, a country with more than six times as many people and far more global interaction. When we planned this trip, I was stunned to learn that Australia was a four hour flight from New Zealand. That’s not nearby. That’s more like London to Istanbul than London to Paris.
How this might call for a reconsideration of the global English-language book supply chain was not evident until the final days of our five weeks in this part of the world, but we got a hint of it when we visited the Lightning facility in Melbourne, as reported last week.
Lightning can print 4 million different titles that publishers have priced in Australian currency for the local market and loaded onto the system. But they don’t do New Zealand very much good because the cost of shipping from Australia to New Zealand is very high. Many local friends in New Zealand reported it as a common occurrence that they would see an item for purchase online that might cost $100 or $150 and an equivalent amount more for shipping!
It is not surprising that publishers in New York and London see Australia and New Zealand as one market, not two. And with the Australia piece being 75-to-85 percent of it, your consolidated inventory would sit in Australia, where there are two cities (Sydney and Melbourne) that each have a metropolitan population as large as the entire country of New Zealand. And managing that inventory from Australia would make sense as well.
And, for that reason, it is also no surprise that not a single major western publisher holds inventory and supplies New Zealand directly from their home market. All of them feed New Zealand from Australia, including many who once had warehouses in both countries. There is no wholesaling to speak of in this part of the world. Booksellers and libraries here do order books from the US wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor, but that isn’t terribly satisfactory: delivery costs are high and fulfillment times are slow.
How frustrating this inefficiency can be was demonstrated through the experience of two women I spent some time talking with here: a celebrated local New Zealand author named Anne Kennedy and the books manager of the biggest chain of bookstores in the country, Whitcoulls.
Anne Kennedy is an award-winning and commercially successful writer of poetry and fiction based in Auckland. Of her nine published books, only six have been picked up by a publisher outside New Zealand, and those were only for Australia. It would make sense for her publishers to set her books up with Lightning, which would enable them to be available from known suppliers at commercially-acceptable prices throughout the English-speaking world. The barriers to that are not really economic: the same file that the publisher uses to print their books for local delivery would work with Lightning to make printed books and ebooks (which are also not done on Anne’s books) all over the world. The barrier is knowledge and procedures. Publishers need to grasp that the opportunity is meaningful and that simple procedures can enable it. Most local New Zealand publishers haven’t made that leap.
My wife, Martha Moran, who is an editor and a much more worthy judge of fiction and its appeal than I am, is an enthusiast for Anne Kennedy’s writing. She sees no inherent cultural barrier; Kennedy’s work is not so New Zealand-centric that an American (or European) is distracted. And Martha characterizes Anne as a brilliant and very funny storyteller. Her most recent book, The Ice Shelf, has a climate change theme. We will try to get a New York- or London-based agent to look at her work when we’re back home, but it is a shame that the combination of distance and the future not having arrived yet in terms of supply chain knowledge has prevented her from already reaching a much wider audience.
But Anne is “just” a writer. What does she know? Well, not as much as Joan Mackenzie at Whitcoulls, the book maven on top of the biggest chain of bookstores in New Zealand, with 55 retail shops across the country. I went to see Joan because a sophisticated bookstore rep I know told me she was the smartest person in New Zealand publishing. I didn’t meet any others, but nothing about my conversation with Joan contradicted that assessment.
Joan is sophisticated about the global book business and she’s been in it a long time. She was recently in the United States, and she asked extremely pentrating questions about Barnes & Noble, based on her disappointment at the merchandising she saw at the one she visited on a recent trip to the States. (She really went to Puerto Rico to see “Hamilton”, and her time in the US was extremely brief just going and coming.)
It was Joan who explained to me the complexities of book supply in New Zealand. The books come from Australian operations that really don’t know or understand New Zealand. And if something “hits”, the Australian chains and book trade can potentially wipe out the inventory before she or anybody in New Zealand can get at it.
The only winner here is The Book Depository, the global internet bookselling operation (owned by Amazon, although that doesn’t seem to be common knowledge) that a book reader in New Zealand would turn to if s/he became aware of and wanted a book not readily available locally.
The lack of wholesaling in this part of the world plays a part in the problem too. The local operations in Australia are combinations of publishers, one featuring Penguin Random House one featuring Hachette, and one featuring HarperCollins. Inventory supply is haphazard, complicated, often controlled by staff in Australian offices with a greater eye on their market than on New Zealand. What works there does not necessarily work here, and vice versa. Lightning in Australia offers a real potential solution to the inevitable inventory shortages for Australia, but, as we saw last week, because of the shipping costs it isn’t so effective for New Zealand.
Adding insult to injury, Mackenzie explained to me how the ebook effort from Whitcoulls was also disappointing and was phased out. They had a partnership with Kobo at one time, but it was far more trouble than it was worth. Whitcoulls had to sell and service Kobo readers, which took more time and bandwidth dealing with customer service than made any sense. And, on top of that, the ebook sales themelves were done by Kobo, robbing Whitcoulls of any visibility into which of their customers was buying what. Without data and without much revenue, the whole thing was just a costly distraction and it has been discontinued. That further cuts off New Zealand writers from any global market opportunities.
What would seem to be called for here is a joint effort from the biggest Northern Hemisphere publishers with Ingram to put some risk inventory into New Zealand. One warehouse that had big publisher books at publisher-based prices and the rest of the market as wholesaled books that cost a little bit more could transform the little New Zealand book trade.
Of course, that would call for a unique strategic partnership between one of the two big US wholesalers and the major publishers, led by Penguin Random House and HarperCollins. It is easy to understand how a tiny market of 4-1/2 million readers, where a couple thousand copies sold constitutes a great success, fails to get the attention necessary to make something like that happen.
But unless and until it does, writers like Anne Kennedy either have to push their publishers to learn how to use Lightning or, perhaps, learn themselves how to use IngramSpark to make their books available globally. They could painlessly make ebooks available that way as well, at least outside those local markets where they hadn’t sold rights to a publisher.
Unfortunately there is no such ready remedy for Whitcoulls and other New Zealand booksellers and libraries. The simple process of acquiring a printed book that is available all over the world will remain a costly and difficult exercise for them.
An esteemed book business colleague points out to me that Ingram’s Lightning is not the only print-on-demand game in the world. Ingram competitor Baker & Taylor has a deal to do digital printing with the printer Bookmasters. And, according to Bowker stats, Lulu, Blurb, and Author Solutions all deliver a large number of self-publishers to the market. Because I have worked with Ingram for years, I am undoubtedly just more familiar with their capabilities than with others. But I also believe that the 16 million titles in Lightning, connected as they are to a global distribution network which most book customers already use, is by far the biggest and most effective way for any author or publisher anywhere to reach book customers everywhere. If competitors have a solution that rivals Lightning for the book community Down Under, I’d love to hear about it. And write about it.
But it also has to be said that the Amazon-Create Space combination is the one-stop shop that gets a book without printed inventory to the single biggest chunk of readers worldwide. What Ingram, Lightning, and Spark enable is a 1-stop way to reach the entire global infrastructure that is not Amazon, as well as Amazon. Amazon has entered Australia but has not yet appeared in New Zealand. That constitutes another data point establishing just how remote this little country is!
And one more PS. The book I co-authored for Oxford University Press with my late friend Robert Paris Riger — “The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know” — publishes officially on March 1 and we’re having a launch party at The Strand on March 12 at 6:30. Meanwhile, it appears to be available NOW at Amazon (and, one presumes, other places too.)