BWB Texts and the state of non-fiction book publishing in New Zealand

BWB Texts, a prolific series of short books on serious public interest topics published by BWB Books, are finding an increasing general audience, due in part to increased public attention on inequality, the housing crisis and global warming. Henry Oliver talks to Tom Rennie, the publisher of the series, about the public appetite for public issues non-fiction and the future of publishing in New Zealand.

What's the origin of the BWB Texts series?

We launched the Texts series in 2013 – as digital-first and then at the start of 2014 we started putting them into paperbacks – as a mechanism for bringing in and developing new authors, a way for us to test out ideas and look to maybe develop them into full-length books. 

The idea for the series was in some part informed by what we were seeing online with things like Kindle Singles, which was Amazon's move for short-form, 10,000-50,000 word ebooks.

Essentially, [the Texts series] are good old-fashioned Penguin Specials. And we're finding they've been getting really good pick-up and anecdotally, we see a lot of evidence of a new, younger, readership, which is really encouraging. 

Did you expect that there would be such a receptive audience for these kind of books?

As a publisher, you always have to be optimistic that you're going to reach an audience. For example, I'm very interested in economics. Economics is so influential in New Zealand, and any western country, in policy making and governance. But one of the gaps we have in New Zealand is the lack of book publishing on economics and so I’ve seen an opportunity there and the texts we've done with Shamubeel Eaqub, Growing Apart, and the book Shamubeel did with his partner Selena Eaqub, Generation Rent, those books are an example of getting people speaking accessibly, using plain English, to economics issues in New Zealand to a general audience. So there's a proven case that there's a keen readership for that.

Image: Tom Rennie

Are you commissioning authors or are you getting pitched book proposals?

Because it's a new series, it always takes a while for authors to understand and identity with the format. So the majority of the books to date have been sitting down and identifying what we want to commission and going out and seeking authors.

But the walk up pitches that we're now starting to get from people are often some of the most well-formed works. We had one last year – Wellbeing Economics by Paul Dalziel and Caroline Saunders at Lincoln University. They immediately identified with the series and could see what we're trying to do and gave us a pitch that was bang on target. They went off and did the book and we published it and it's had really significant pick-up. We know it's read in a lot of policy areas, places like Treasury.It's also been used in conference packs at the Public Health Association conference and there's been good general readership pick up as well.

So as more authors identity with what we're doing, we'll see more of that. And with the titles that we have coming through next year, a number of those are exactly that, the work of people who have walked up. We've got work coming through on the mineral extractions debate, through to immigration in New Zealand. They're hard, hot, highly contested spaces.

The books tend to be inherently political. Is there an ideology behind the series or an advocacy component?

No. The publishing is explicitly bipartisan and evidence-lead and I'm always interested in ideas and evidence. I don't view things on any political spectrum. If you look at the range of economists we've had contributing to the series – we've had Donal Curtin, Shamubeel Eaqub, Simon Chapple, Brian Easton. I think if you got a lot of those economists in a room, you'd probably find that there'd be little consensus on anything other than the need to for public discussion and public discourse. And that's the overarching priority for us, making a contribution to public discussion and public exchange of ideas.

Shamubeel is a great example. He presented at the start of this year on Growing Apart, his regional prosperity text, at the Act party conference, and then a couple of weeks ago, he was presenting Generation Rent to the Labour party conference. And we've seen similar bipartisan pickup around Max Rashbrooke’s work – he presents to a very wide range of people. That's one of the most rewarding things as a publisher, seeing really diverse pickup on the series.

You launched the series digitally at first, but most of the recent books have been released on paperback as well. Has the series become more print-based as it’s grown?

We launched digital-first because there's an efficiency there. Financially, publishing in New Zealand is always difficult, so from the outset, we wanted to be an efficient form of publishing and the thinking around digital-first is that it would allow us to test out the response to that length of writing. And that feeds through to today. There's opportunity for us to publish digital-first to see what the response will be and then, if we see a good response, seeing it through into a print format, where the investment cost is higher.

The digital-first thinking is that it allows us to go and explore areas and talk to authors. Science is a good example. It’s an area that's new to BWB and we were able to explore that using the ebooks. When we saw the response from the science community, which was really fantastic, we could then ramp that up into a print publications and we've since worked with people like Mike Berridge at the Malaghan Institute, and Nicola Gaston, who was very recently, the president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists.

Is the series commercially viable or does it rely on other funding?

The program is explicitly non-profit. The long term aim is that the series will become self-sustaining, but that's still a couple of years away. So the program is still funding reliant. We receive some funding from Creative New Zealand for selective titles, and we have an active funding strategy through the Bridget Williams Books Publishing Trust.

Anyone publishing non-fiction in New Zealand in the scholarly or contemporary issues space often requires funding in some form to assist the publication. There's a paradox here around the commercial context for non-fiction publishing, which has had significant pressure on it through the last 5-6 years, but at the same time, the reader pick-up and media impact is as strong as it's ever been if not stronger.

If that pressure continues, where do you see publishing going? More digital publishing where the costs are lower?

People get quite fixated trying to chart the proportions of digital versus print, but my view is that that it's going to persist in being a fairly messy oscillation between the two. Trying to set out an expectation of what the growth rates will be or what the digital might become isn't that helpful, because it's subject to so many variables and preferences.

The main thing for me is that it's a hybrid future of print and digital reading. And I think it's going to be interesting the way digital formats will inform the print reading and how print will respond and visa-versa. You see that with how print has continued to shape what we experience as an an ebook.

If you're an independent book publisher in New Zealand you have to be inherently optimistic and, as a fairly young publisher in New Zealand, I'm optimistic about the audience that's there and the demand for New Zealand non-fiction. There are some real demands structurally around how you make that sustainable through the long-term, but the Texts series is a good example for the demand for high quality New Zealand non-fiction publishing. And I'm confident we can make that work using the blended model of commercial returns and funding. 

What role does the size of the books play? These are short books on serious topics, are general readers more willing to read 100 pages on inequality than 500 pages on inequality?

Possibly. But that Piketty book [Capital in the Twenty-First Century] was 700 pages and that's been a bestseller. People often say that we live in an age of information overload, but I don't buy into that thinking. I think that it's more the case with the series, that because we're able to bring in authors and topics that aren't necessarily a good fit for a full-length book, and we're also able to bring in authors that couldn't commit to a full-length book. And readers seem to be liking the treatment of a couple of ideas, full-formed, so the short format has been a benefit to attract new authors, ideas, and readers.