An open letter from Jenny Argante regarding NZ Book Month

Kia ora,

I keep thinking about the failure of NZ Book Month in comparison to the success of NZ Music Month (now underway).

For something to work it has to have a clear purpose, and the original intention, as I see it, in declaring “We’ll emulate NZ Music Month,” was to do for words what that does for music. In other words, to joyfully celebrate New Zealand writers and writing.

One month out of the 12 when the spotlight was firmly turned upon our excellent home-grown literary talent. Of which we have an abundance.

It is NOT about literacy. That is an ongoing problem that can be addressed within the education system itself and through community education programmes that are focused and meaningful, possibly led by Literacy Aotearoa and other relevant organisations.

It is not about making people read more in general. That is the work of libraries, which are extending their outreach programmes all the time; which are open all year round, and staffed by intelligent, helpful people who have no profit motive when they find the right book for the reader. That is the basic tenet of the library service: every book its reader; every reader his or her book. And we did, until 2010, have a Library Week every year.

It is not about upping booksales in bookshops. Yes, bookshops are suffering – as are all retailers – and naturally they want to increase sales, and this can be a marketing opportunity for them; I am not saying it cannot be. Yet if vouchers, etc., are offered, or if there were, for example, a trophy for the best display window during NZ Book Month, the focus would have to be on displaying New Zealand Books and New Zealand Writers. NZBM is not and never should be Book Month In New Zealand‘. Again, there are 11 other months of the year when the Booksellers Association and the Publishers Association can promote all their non-NZ books. Special campaigns already run for e.g. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, Christmas, etc.

Competition in the book world and declining sales is not a problem that can be addressed by a NZ Book Month. In fact, it is counter-productive to claim it is to increase the number and levels of readers. Because that is happening with the international accessibility of books that can be bought cheaper from Amazon, The Book Depository, Booktopia, etc., or as e-books, than anywhere in NZ. You could say that cheapness and accessibility would be the best thing to raise the number and level of readers, if that were the aim of a NZ Book Month.

Perhaps NZSA and NZBM could go back to basics and find a way to start over as a celebration of New Zealand writers and writing, clearly defined.

from Jenny Argante, President of Tauranga Writers, and editor in chief of Freelance magazine.

This reproduction of Jenny’s letter is by permission, and was responded to privately on behalf of the NZ Book Month Trust.