A Reflection on 18 months as President: “A call-out to all writers: come gather round, we need your support . . . “

It’s now 18 months since I took on the role of President of the New Zealand Society of Authors (Te Puni Kaituhi o Aotearoa (PEN NZ) Inc) and it seems a good time to reflect on the changes made to the organisation and the issues facing Aotearoa’s authors and associated creatives in this new Covid world.

I’ve been a member of NZSA for around 30 years, joining before I published my first book, filled with pride when I could transition from ‘associate’ to ‘full’ membership. Although health and time constraints have meant I’ve rarely attended branch meetings or events, I’ve always read the newsletters, bulletins and the NZ Author (our in-house magazine) with great interest, keeping up with the issues of the day. And I’ve always been hugely thankful for the people who did/do work to hold our small writers’ community together and support us. To me, NZSA is my union and, whether I availed myself of its services or not, I paid my sub in the belief that a collective voice and a sense of community is vital to any group that shares the same passion and goals, especially in the creative world, where our endeavours can be so easily overlooked by the more corporate/business-focused policies successive governments have embraced since the 1980s.

I stepped into the role at a time when the organisation needed concerted work to bring our various arms (National Office, branches, members) together and several serious issues were raising their heads, both from inside and outside NZSA, including crucial lobbying work around author incomes, in terms of the Public Lending Right, the review of the Copyright Act and the fallout of our government’s signing and extension of the Marrakesh Treaty (more on this shortly).

Shoring up processes:

But, first, there was a need to shore up our own processes, strengthen relationships and bring the organisation’s underlying values to the forefront of our founding document: our constitution. This was no easy task. Previous NZSA Board’s had done their darndest to update the constitution, the most recent attempt, in 2014, frustratingly failing at the final hurdle. This issue was pressing, as the document no longer reflected best practice or the shift in the make-up of our membership and the 21st century values of inclusiveness and diversity that we, as a country, now aspire to. It also did us no favours in terms of seeking funding; we fell short in several areas now expected by well-governed organisations.

With the generous support of Copyright Licensing NZ, which provided us with an excellent facilitator from the Directors Institute, we spent a day exploring what good governance looked like and identifying the areas we needed to improve on and develop. Following this, the Board held a two-day hui to envisage what a robust, modern constitution might look like, and we then embarked on consultation with our membership before working on a draft document with our outstanding lawyer and NZSA member, Rick Shera, which we then, again, put out for consultation.

This process was not without controversy! One of the main areas we wished to improve upon was the lack of a Māori perspective on the Board (to both reflect our commitment to Te Tiriti and enrich our practice), which had resulted in many Māori writers not feeling welcome within the NZSA family. To me, personally, this was one area I was keen to remedy, although I admit I was unprepared for the resistance among some quarters to such a move. On reflection, I see now that this issue reflected the bigger discussion in Aotearoa (and one that, to some extent, has been hampered by my fellow boomers!), with some less open to embracing a more inclusive and enriching world view. We also wanted to acknowledge that other diverse groups were welcome, including Pasifika, Asian, young people, the differently-abled, and all genre of writers and publishing models, not solely those deemed ‘literary.’ Writers take all shapes and forms, something to be celebrated.

Thanks to the support we received from good people in our branches and excellent advice from the Te Taumata Kaumatua Reference group I established (calling on the expertise and institutional knowledge of some of our most senior writers) we eventually managed to see our shiny new constitution voted into existence at our 2020 AGM (via Zoom, of course!) It took the whole year, but now we have a constitution that is fit for purpose and the Board hugely benefits from the advice and generosity of our new colleague Kim Harris (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau, Te Arawa Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Awa) as our Te Ao Māori Representative. Kim is currently helping us devise a programme called Tuhituhi Talks, which will work at building relationships with iwi around the country, offering workshops to support locals telling their stories.

The Covid Factor:

Of course, this was a year like no other, Covid shaking everyone and everything up. While we scrabbled to adapt, cancelling our biennial National Writers Forum, for instance, what at first looked like a disaster soon revealed itself to be a godsend. It changed everything, from how local groups met (Zoom providing an easier way to attend meetings and workshops by those who ordinarily lived too far away or had difficulties with access and transport), to the programmes and services we delivered.

Our National staff, ably led by our CEO Jenny Nagle, launched #NZSA Connects – strands of online content including on-line web workshops and in-depth masterclasses. We edited and released sessions from our 2018 National Writers Forum as ‘a podcast a day’ for 18 days – intimate sessions offered as a connection and a solace — and set up a YouTube site for writers to read first chapters of their books, providing a promotional tool they could link to their book promotion and personal profiles and social media.

Members’ feedback led to new and expanded services for 2021. With many not so keen to travel, surveys told us they wanted to engage regionally.  Our 2021 #NZSA Connects Learning Hub has just launched with 3 major strands:

  1. Fortnightly web-workshops and masterclasses – live and interactive;
  2. Regional Roadshows – nine days of professional conference being held in the regions to support our branch network;
  3. The launch of static online courses that can be done with branches, writing groups and hubs, or individually at home.

In addition to our existing mentorship and assessment programmes, and the awards NZSA administers, these significant new services form an impressive range of tools and new supports for Aotearoa’s writers and it’s our hope to continue to build this sense of community beyond our traditional branch structures. It’s gratifying to note that, as a result, our membership has grown to an all-time high, despite many writers really feeling the financial pinch. It’s been a comfort to many to keep up their learning and practice during such a constrained year, providing community and support.

Fruitful partnerships:

During lockdown, NZSA worked with industry partners such as The Coalition for Books, the Publishers Association of NZ, Booksellers NZ, Read NZ and Copyright Licensing to advocate for the literary sector. This involved promoting the BUY LOCAL message and advocating for contractors’ lost incomes, and for books to be considered essential items and sold on-line. The Coalition for Books launched KETE (a comprehensive website for locally authored books) and a Blokes v Books media campaign, devised by Read NZ and NZSA to encourage men to read and to emphasise the importance of modelling reading to children. With PANZ and CLNZ we launched our Creative Rights=Creative Reads campaign in November 2020.

Lobbying, lobbying, lobbying . . .

This improved collegial support is fundamental as we continue to lobby on issues that are of huge significance to all those who consider (or would like to consider!) writing as their primary source of income. The market has changed, and the swing to online ebooks, along with a surge in audiobooks, has highlighted deficiencies in writers’ compensation. NZSA was already engaged in the Review of the Copyright Act and the Review of Public Lending Right – but COVID has highlighted gaping holes in current legislation.

The Public Lending Right compensates writers for public access to their work in libraries; however, current legislation doesn’t compensate for ebook or audiobook loans. Auckland Libraries e-lending surged 60% in March 2020 and has continued to increase post-lockdown. Writers receive nothing for this.

Likewise, Aotearoa falls behind countries such as the UK, Australia, and Canada by not having an Educational Lending Right – which compensates for free use in school libraries. This particularly penalises our children’s writers and illustrators. PLR was already under review, but COVID, plus an election, has stalled action here — although it would be churlish not to acknowledge the small ‘top-up’ to the fund at the end of 2020, which helped make some writer’s Christmases a little less stressful. Yet there is still significantly more to do.

The Copyright Act is also under review, though Section 69, for access under the Marrakesh Treaty, was changed in 2020. This increased the previously mandated free access from the 8% of the population who identify as visually impaired to a staggering 24%, including anyone identifying with a disability in the last census. Blind and Low Vision NZ alone circulates 600k loans per year and now has extended a new network to all schools. This access is uncompensated. Once again, authors (including those who identify as disabled) are expected to absorb the cost of this so-called ‘free access’.

In 2018, surveys showed that our authors median income was $15.6k per annum. Increased copyright exceptions will take even more income away from our members’ pockets. NZSA supports access wholeheartedly but believes it should not be at our writers’ expense. As our new Accessibility Reference Group advised us recently: “We would like the government and publishing industry to commit to inclusive publishing by taking meaningful steps to ensure more books are born accessible.  However, readers should not have to bear any extra costs for accessible formats, and writers should not have to lose any income in order to enable their books to be more widely read.” MBIE argues educational outcomes and achievement would improve from this access and NZSA agrees. But similarly, the school lunches programme also improves outcomes, yet food producers are paid for their products.

The modern download mentality has meant people feel entitled to take a writer’s work – but copyright law and the Human Rights Act both protect ownership of intellectual property. In fact, NZSA believes the increase in copyright exceptions, mandated by government under the new NZ Marrakesh law, is in breach of both the Berne Convention and the Human Rights Act. MBIE may claim that we are overstating the case, but they provide no evidence.

As our CEO Jenny Nagle says, “It often feels like writers are singled out – theatre and dance companies do not need to give away 24% of their seats to improve outcomes for people with disabilities, nor writers’ festivals, designer frocks, or software companies – so why does government think it can requisition product from writers and publishers?”

There are other ways in which writers are disadvantaged in Aotearoa compared to writers in Australia or Canada. Our Ministry of Education refuses to centrally license schools with a copyright license (as they do for Microsoft) – which means on any day, at least 30% of schools may be breaching local authors’ copyright. $2 million per year to ensure all rights holders are compensated across music, books, fine art etc used in schools, is really not that much in the scheme of things, in terms of legality, creative rights and fair reward for all involved. The MOE is not showing respect for IP in Aotearoa and has also refused to consider a quota of locally authored content to be included in school curriculum requirements, unlike other countries overseas.

We certainly hope the current Communications Review will set a 50% minimum requirement for local content in our screen and television sector, as in Australia this has proved a great boost for the creative industries across the ditch. We also believe the small amount of reviewing on our state broadcaster, RNZ, should support local authors exclusively. There is so much untapped potential!

There is one other major issue I’m keen to see a seismic shift on in the coming months. Despite NZSA advocating on behalf of all Aotearoa’s authors, some of our most senior and/or most successful writers don’t support us through membership. When I try to dig into why this is, I get stories about literary feuds, arguments with past CEOs, personal issues, a bad experience at a meeting, many of which hark back to years ago. Yet these same writers no doubt welcomed the near doubling of their PLR last Christmas, the result of prolonged lobbying by NZSA, and will no doubt happily pocket any additional funds we manage to negotiate on their behalf.

To these writers, I’d like to humbly suggest you join us! Your involvement, timewise, while it would be welcomed, is not compulsory; you won’t suddenly have to attend meetings or be called upon to work for free! But your small annual contribution (our annual sub currently costs $130 GST inclusive) would make an enormous difference, enabling us to broaden our programmes further and fairly pay our staff and contractors. But, perhaps more importantly, it would increase our membership and, therefore, increase our clout in terms of lobbying for all writers.  I urge you to consider this and am confident if you do, you’ll be surprised by the benefits, the camaraderie and sense of shared purpose.

E ai ki te whakatauki
Paiheretia ngā wawata
Paiheretia ngā kōrero
Paiheretia ngā tāngata
Paiheretia ki te rangimarie

According to this Proverb

Bring together the aspirations 
Bring together the stories
Bring together the people
Bring all together – in peace.

Ngā mihi.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you Mandy and NZSA for the work you do in support of NZ authors and especially the recent improvements in strengthening our organisation moving forwards. This work is vital and I agree with your sentiments regarding the importance of a cohesive membership – together we are stronger!
    Kia kaha, Pip

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  2. Hi Mandy – running any organisation that has such diverse groups of writers and markets is difficult because one size doesn’t fit all. It’s also a thankless task because you can’t please everyone. So I thank you for all your work for NZSA. I’m one of those authors who left. I joined NZSA wanting to meet writers in my region and I really tried to fit in, but was made to feel unwelcome and inferior in my local area that I no longer wanted to go to meetings. Also I feel the NZ market focus of my region when my market is USA, didn’t help the relationship. So what else could NZSA offer me? As my market is not NZ, and the regional meetings didn’t work, I didn’t see what NZSA offered me as a writer. I applaud you for looking at your diversity issues and think you have a long way to go. One of the problems, I feel, is you need a fresh change to leadership in the regions if you want diversity of culture and genres to thrive.

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    1. Hi Bronwen, thanks so much for your comment. I’m interested to know how long ago you tried branch meetings and where, as in the last couple of years I’ve seen a huge change in who is attending, a much wider range of genres and publishing models. Before that I didn’t see romance or sci-fi writers as members (or feeling welcome) for instance, but that’s hugely changed in most areas and committees have changed. But I guess the point of this piece is to say that NZSA advocates on behalf of all NZ writers, no matter where they are published or what they write – and membership supports the vital lobbying that affects us all – to me, that’s enough reason to be a member, even if nothing else is personally of use.

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