Elizabeth Heritage interviewed Mark Broatch, Books and Culture Editor from the NZ Listener, about the state of book reviewing in NZ. This is what he had to say:
Simply put, the books we choose to cover are those that are good and salient. If they are local, so much the better. Because there is so much for a national weekly to cover, we pick the eyes out of what’s on offer in books and culture. We know that the Listener‘s readers – our brilliantly loyal, smart, fussy readers – are fascinated by the big ideas (would anyone else put Thomas Piketty or ISIS on the cover?), and value being part of national and international conversations. Do they care if a book is local? Sometimes.
We love to see NZ authors and publishers doing well. We put Eleanor Catton on the cover ahead of her Man Booker win. We try to cover every substantial local release in some way. We want to sell books. Every week we’ll typically cover about 10 books in some way or other, either interviews, profiles, reviews or, often, upfront feature pieces. That’s 500 books a year. I doubt anyone else comes close.
Among our usual reviews and interviews, we do seven regular roundups: contemporary fiction, speculative, kids & YA, crime, overseas non-fiction, NZ non-fiction and poetry. Still, hundreds of books don’t get covered, sometimes simply because we don’t think they are any good. Having been briefed by most of the local publishers now, I am excited by many of the titles due out this year. Although sometimes we differ on the idea of what’s interesting. Occasionally I’d like to say: perhaps you want to think about that one again? We would like to see like more quality local non-fiction books, especially science. And even given the flood of overseas books I regularly have to ask if a brilliant title I’ve seen elsewhere will make it into the country – a lot don’t.
We have no separate plan for independently published books (i.e. self-published, or published by very small enterprises), and some go out to the roundup reviewers in a form of triage, but often they are let down by substandard writing, editing or production.
The reason we often want first-run or exclusive deals from publishers is because we are in competition for eyeballs and eardrums. If people have read or heard something before and they just turn the page, I have wasted my time and, worse, my employer’s money. That’s Bauer, by the way, a publisher of dozens of magazines, not the other two media groups.
What do I think of local books coverage? Judging from the Friday Preview of Reviews email, it has held up well. Our reviewing culture is surprisingly active, thanks largely to a few dedicated editors and a community of reviewers and writers. You might argue the general coverage elsewhere is wide but thin, and it’s true it could be better, but my view, as someone who has been in the business for 23 years, is that New Zealand has never been able to afford very much of the journalism we really want. As my mother used to say, we have champagne tastes and lemonade money. The internet has brought many gains, but its ability to distract attention and disrupt traditional funding models and deliver digital delights for free has only made life harder for media.
The mainstream media gets no public subsidies. Cultural journalism – as vital for a fully functioning, vibrant society as the current affairs we also run – costs money. Many in the book business talk about supporting local titles, local authors, local publishers, but local print media needs your support too. Subscribe. Advertise. Mention us in social media. Praise when you think we’ve done well, and criticise, constructively, when we haven’t. I am bored by point-scoring. In this job I get advice from every direction: more of this, less of that. But our readers’ needs always come first.
by Mark Broatch, Books and Culture Editor, NZ Listener