We talked to Cat Connor and Caro Lankow from Writer's Plot, a bookshop in Upper Hutt devoted exclusively to New Zealand authors.
Congratulations on your lovely shop Writers Plot. Please tell us how it came to be, and what's behind the decision to stock only books by New Zealand writers?
Cat: Because New Zealand writers are underrepresented in our bookshops, libraries and schools. They are largely unknown by the reading public.
Book shops in New Zealand are full of American and European writers, just like book shops in any other country. There is nothing different: it’s the same authors, same titles, ad infinitum. And that’s not good enough. My view is that New Zealanders (being the innovators that we are) needed to upturn that model and start supporting our own talent. It’s time to put New Zealand writers first.
Caro: Thank you – we think our shop is lovely too. This is mainly Cat’s story. I belonged to a writing group at Upper Hutt Library which was run by Cat; this shop was her vision, and she was supported by many of the local authors. My contract had just finished and I was doing a full-time diploma through SIT so I agreed to help, and three and a half years later – we are still going strong.
Cat: Our plan was always to be 'Kiwi-only' because no one else has ever had the courage to say New Zealand writers are as good (if not better) than the overseas authors that fill our stores and libraries. And we are very good at telling stories!
No one has ever put us first, so we did.
Be brave New Zealand, read books written by Kiwis and marvel in the talent this country holds.
Caro: We know many of our authors and publishers because they have been to visit us at the shop, that is important. We help give them another marketing avenue with a space on our shelves and website. Our indie authors and publishers all have their own stories, we have heard why they wanted to write, how hard it had been to get published, how isolated many of them felt. By knowing our authors and their books, we love to share the information with potential customers, and would be authors.
Writers Plot is a non-profit society, staffed by volunteers. What are the challenges and strengths of this arrangement?
Cat: Being a not-for-profit seems to cause people to think we don’t want to make money, we obviously do, without it we can’t keep the shop open! We’d also like to earn a wage at some stage, working for love doesn’t put food on the table or pay school fees. Sometimes it’s hard for us to get our authors to understand that we need their support in spreading the word to get people through the door to buy books, and that they need to buy from us as well. Writers read (or they should) and we need them to buy books from us to support their fellow authors and help keep us running.
The more people hear about us and start putting Kiwi authors first on their reading lists the better!
Also, we’re always looking for reliable volunteers who love books and are able to do either a morning or an afternoon in the shop. (See our website for details.)
Caro: We knew from the start we wouldn’t be able to make a living from a new bookshop which was going into uncharted territory. The number of books per week we needed to sell was (and often still is) unattainable. Other shops have other avenues to make money, such as cafés, stationery, NZPost franchise, etc. We don’t have these options. The advantage is we have a lot of backing from our Council and have been successful in obtaining funding for projects from Creative Communities (we ran a Mini Kids Festival last year) and we get administration costs from The Lion Foundation, we also have a Give-a-Little page.
The downside is we don’t get paid, and we don’t have enough in the budget for serious advertising. Another issue is many authors have publishers that go through distributors, who want us to purchase the books, and we can’t afford to do that. Many of our authors have an arrangement with their publishers to have author copies of their books (most of the US published authors do this). They then give these to us, and we sell on consignment. We just ask our authors to support other Kiwi authors the same way: by buying their books, writing recommendations, telling people about the shop and following us on Facebook.
What do you think is special about writing from this place? Is there anything about New Zealand novels that set them apart do you think?
Cat: This is the opportune moment to remind everyone that we don’t just stock Kiwi novels. We stock Kiwi authors. They are different creatures!
Because of where we are in the world, Kiwis are travelers, and those travels influence their writing. We’re not limited to books set in New Zealand. What sets New Zealand storytelling apart isn’t the setting, but the way we tell a story. It’s the unique perspective that comes from a country of DIY-ers from the bottom of the world. If you haven’t noticed, Kiwis are awesome.
Caro: We are good storytellers, and, I think it’s because New Zealanders have grown up listening to stories. In my experience most of those stories were from overseas, and somehow, we have developed this belief that New Zealand stories are inferior. We want to change this misconception. Kiwi authors have great imaginations, are great travelers, we look at things from different perspectives, and have our own voice, for books set in New Zealand as well as those set internationally.
Tell us about the community that surrounds Writers Plot. Given that you’re staffed by volunteers, there must be a close-knit group of writers involved. Has it become a hub for literary activity in the region?
Cat: We have two adult writing groups that run from the shop on different Saturdays (details are on our website). One is an invitation-only group for published and about-to-be-published writers, and the other is for new writers or unpublished writers.
We spend a fair amount of time talking to people about writing and publishing and have enough experience to be able to offer guidance and suggestions to help writers on their journey. People come in with all sorts of questions. Our website has some downloadable PDFs for writers looking for help. We also run writing courses for young people (aimed at the 12 and older age bracket), we do adult writing courses, and periodically run workshops on publishing (synopsis, query letter, blurb, tagline and log line writing as well as how to approach agents and publishers), book trailer creation, and things I’ve probably forgotten about!
Caro: People approach us to join all types of reading and writing activities, and we direct them to various groups that we know about, which we find through MeetUp and Facebook. In the Upper Hutt community, for reasons unknown to us, several people thought we were a second-hand bookshop and people still come in with books to sell us or hunting for old, hard-to-find books. We have sent them to Liberty Books and The Book Exchange, Upper Hutt’s two main second hand bookshops, and it’s great to work with them. If that fails, we offer a service to find and bring in books, and we find many people who do not shop online or use the internet will come to us. We also have a café next door, which is the perfect place to talk books, talk about writing, or read your newly purchased book from us.
Which New Zealand books or writers have been special to you both in your lives?
Cat: Pretty hard to choose one! So I’m not going to.
Brian O’Sullivan (author of the Fionn series) because it was a conversation with him almost four years ago that started this whole New Zealand bookshop journey. He’s a friend and an amazing storyteller. (We have Brian’s books in the shop and they’re fabulous.)
Andrene Low (author of the Lost Baggage series) and I have known each other quite a few years. We were both with the same publisher and Andrene is a huge supporter of us and our shop. Also, I love her books! (And yes, we have them in the shop.)
Caro: All this started with a writing group as I mentioned earlier. We were called The Writer’s Plot, and Cat encouraged us to write and edit short stories, which were published as three anthologies. They were great stories with fresh ideas and we were all stretched right out of our comfort zone. The journey with these authors was amazing. Yes, the three books are in the shop.
If a customer walked into your shop this afternoon and asked for a book recommendation, what would you choose?
Cat: It entirely depends on the customer and what they like reading. If they’re crime readers then I start with the first book in my series, Killerbyte by Cat Connor, which isn’t something I used to do! Other than championing myself, I recommend every other book in the shop depending on interests.
We have a wide variety of genres and titles and the ability to recommend to anyone walking though the door.
Caro: Some people want to browse, sometimes just to see what we have, or to chat about books. To those that leave without finding anything, I like to remind them that all our books are available online and can be purchased there. We have people who prefer to pay this way and come to pick up from the shop, which makes it easier to find something if you don’t have time to browse, and of course, if you can’t get to the shop from other parts of New Zealand and the world.
A few come in and ask straight away what we recommend, so asking a few questions to see what they like is important and will usually put us in the right direction. I particularly like people who say they read everything and then give us a few well-known author names to give us an idea of what to start with. I had someone looking for historical novels, and we then moved on to look at thrillers and crime and they ended up buying a science fiction book from author Darian Smith.
For reluctant readers and young wannabe authors, we recommend Ben Spies' books. He wrote his first book at nine and his recent release The World of Greek Mythology came out just before Christmas last year. We have had great feedback on this book, and you can’t get better than getting reluctant readers interested in reading.
Everyone is different and we hope they will find a book in our shop that inspires them to read more New Zealand authors.
Thank you for having us and we hope more people discover the joy of reading Kiwi authors!