Despite the odds, 2020 has been good to several of University of Auckland's MCW alumni. A number of books were launched, and five writers realised their dream of becoming published authors for the first time. Between them, they've also garnered what surely must be a record number of accolades, from many excellent reviews to appearing on nationwide bestseller lists. One author won the international First Pages Prize: another has had offers from Hollywood. All this in the face of the unusual and unprecedented challenge of getting their books out there in the midst of a global pandemic.
However, timing has proved a significant aspect during this disruptive year. Sarah Ell and Rachel O’Connor’s titles were launched in the first part of 2020. The uncertainty during that period meant that Sarah’s YA non-fiction Lost Wonders: Vanished Creatures of Aotearoa “fell into a void”, she says. Although it had been released in early March and she had already done quite a bit of publicity, including an interview with Jim Mora in Radio NZ, Covid soon became the only news in town.
She says that, “I think what I really missed was being able to be excited and talk about and promote the fruit of all my labour - lockdown was such an unprecedented and stressful time that it seemed completely irrelevant to be saying 'oh look, I made a book'. Especially as no one could buy it! So, looking back, I do feel a sense of grief… once lockdown was over, the world - and the publishing schedule - had moved on so much, I'd kind of missed my window.”
A launch party had been planned on March 19, however, she decided to cancel. “It just didn't seem right to have a gathering, especially one involving older people like my parents. A few days later, we found ourselves in level 4 lockdown. With so much major stuff going on, and the kids at home with me full time once school closed, I didn't really have time to worry about the book or be disappointed.”
Sarah says she was able to do one school visit for Lost Wonders, and a Zoom conference which went out to school children. Unfortunately the Storylines Tour this year, which she was also meant to take part in, was also cancelled due to Covid.
Most importantly though, her beautifully crafted book with its strong environmental message has been well received, and has gone into many libraries and schools around Aotearoa.
“There is still so much that needs to be done in terms of educating people - kids and adults - about New Zealand's dismal extinction record, and what needs to be done if we are to stop more and more of our precious species being lost through human stupidity and greed,” says Sarah. “I was furious the other day to see Judith Collins smacking her lips over a whitebait fritter on the campaign trail - how would the public react if she was snacking on a kiwi egg, instead of on the young of endangered native fish, which are at high risk of becoming extinct if we keep scooping them out of rivers and frying them in butter? Education is the first step to change - you can't care about what you don't know about. Lost Wonders is my way of getting kids to learn and care about these amazing native species of which we are kaitiaki.”
Listen to Sarah on RNZ
Where to buy Lost Wonders: Vanished Creatures of Aotearoa
Rachel O’Connor’s launch event for her novel Whispering City, due to be held in Greece, was also cancelled. “Between the signing of my contract with Kedros Publishing in Athens and the completion of the manuscript’s translation, three years passed. There were days when I doubted the novel would ever go to press; the Greek crisis might have dropped out of the news here, but it is still very real in Greece, and many publishers have been casualties of the financial collapse. Eventually, though, the book did make it into print, and its release was scheduled to coincide with Auckland University’s semester break so that I could make the trip over. I was overjoyed at the prospect of returning to Greece, and particularly to Thessaloniki, the city that was the book’s setting and our home for so long. Friends, family and colleagues all awaited our return. Parties were planned.”
Rachel notes that the world has recently reached the grim milestone of a million dead as a result of the pandemic. “There is so much to be grateful for here in our lonesome little country that it feels churlish to bewail such petty vanities as a book launch. And yet. Writing that book was like making a baby: one moment of fireworks followed by long, long months of weight gain, self-doubt, insomnia, and exhaustion culminating in a brief period of unspeakably painful effort to get the damn thing out there. After all of which, you really really want a large and expensive glass of wine and a lot of people to gather round and tell you how wonderful it is.”
On the tenth of July, Rachel got a brief email from the office of the publishers notifying her that Whispering City would be on sale the next day.
“Some dear friends raced out and bought copies, sent me photos of it featured in bookstore windows, and a couple of reviewers wrote lovely things about it. Then the European summer marched on, all of Greece left for the beach, and we entered our winter term and lockdown again in New Zealand. My own copies of the novel did not arrive. When the publishing team got back to Athens from the beach (in September), they informed me that the parcel containing said copies was, inexplicably but entirely typically, still lodged somewhere in the labyrinthine reaches of the Greek postal system. No further news has been forthcoming. I fear they are taking an Odyssean route home.”
She has yet to see her book. “The only excerpts I have read of its Greek translation are those included in the publicity material, and what has been quoted in reviews. It seems an elegant and faithful translation. The prose is shaped and delivered in the rhythm and spirit in which I wrote it, and it seems to flow naturally on the page. It’s hard for me to tell, of course. My Greek is mediocre, and rusty. When it came to reading the reviews there were many, many words I did not recognise. Yet it was in that process that I found my reward. I sat deciphering them with the aid of my husband, my son and the dictionary, and it was brought slowly home to me that these were respected writers and readers who were discussing my work, interrogating my writing thoughtfully and intelligently in the highfalutin language of literary analysis and criticism. Albeit in Greek. And that felt damned good. So we drank some champagne, my very first Greek admirer and I, though not sitting on the walls above the city where it all began. We plan to make it back there for the next one.”
Listen to Rachel on RNZ
Where to buy Whispering City
Amy McDaid and Caroline Barron were about to launch their debut titles when New Zealand went into lockdown. Subsequent events, such as major appearances at the Auckland Writers Festival, were also cancelled.
Unable to do any traditional publicity, Caroline started her campaign by filming herself opening a box of her books in the Bateman Books warehouse.
“Unique times called for unique solutions,” says Caroline. “I remember the thrill of opening up the first box of books at Bateman—the delight flooding through me as I ran my hand over the cover, smelt the paper (weird, I know), lifted the front and back flaps.”
Publication postponed until early June, Caroline picked up a couple of boxes of her memoir, Ripiro Beach, from Bateman's Hobsonville warehouse and threw them in the back of her car, as she headed north to Ripiro with her family for lockdown.
“When it became apparent that the effect was worse than we feared—that we could not even deliver books to stores—my publishers Louise and Paul from Bateman, and I, began discussing an alternative plan. From that point, with Bateman's blessing, I began selling pre-orders via my website. This way I sold those first boxes of books, wrapped at my kitchen table at Ripiro, in handmade paper my daughters had created. In the midst of this, Bauer imploded, which meant much of the media my publicist had scheduled, such as an extract in Next magazine, simply disappeared.”
Copies of Amy McDaid’s novel, Fake Baby, were stuck in Penguin Random House’s warehouse in Melbourne. Due to launch mid April, “the disappointment I felt with festival and launch party cancellations, came with a lot of guilt,” says Amy. “People were sick and dying, the world was closing down, and I was worried about my book? I had to allow myself to feel sad for a period— I’d worked on this book for three years, but in many ways had built up to this moment for much of my life,” she says. “The hardest period was the period of uncertainty. The Auckland Writers Festival was cancelled, but maybe I could still have my book launch party. When it became obvious I couldn’t do that, Penguin planned to film speeches and champagne drinking. Then an international directive was issued to Penguin Random House staff to not mix with authors. So they sent me the bottle of champagne, some fun decorations, and I’d have to record myself on my phone.”
“Ultimately, it was a relief to be powerless. To not be scrambling. There was nothing I could do. I had a month to drink my book launch wine stash and could focus on building cardboard rockets with my daughter, hospital work, Les Mills body combat classes on TV.”
“Then we moved to Level 3 and my books were loaded onto a ship for a June release. But with all events still on hold - I was going to need to be innovative to get news out. All the usual modes of publicity had disappeared - writers festival appearances, bookshop signings, readings.”
“Steve Braunias from Newsroom kindly stepped in and offered to broadcast. So me, a Luddite of the most severe kind, managed to figure out a Gimbal and make a video using iMovie. I visited three locations in my book: the hospital, Green Bay Beach, and Waikumete Cemetery and talked briefly about them. It was put up on Newsroom. I’m perhaps a little more extroverted than many writers, so I thought I’d manage ok with the publicity,” she says. However - “I found the whole process terrifying.”
After the initial shock of lockdown, the literary community started to rally around, and new initiatives began to sprout, which worked well in Amy and Caroline’s favour. The Coalition of Books New Zealand published the first chapter of Ripiro Beach as part of their First Chapters initiative and the New Zealand Society of Authors offered a platform for authors to share their books. They found further support in social media, such as online groups promoting New Zealand Made products. And both were invited to take part in the Auckland Writers Festival online Winter Series, hosted by Paula Morris.
“The thrill of being selected as part of their programme in March, swiftly followed by its cancellation, was heart-breaking," says Caroline. "Not only for me, but for the festival team and all in our literary community… I felt panicked by it all, really. When the Festival pivoted and went online I was again delighted to be included. Through this, and the Radio New Zealand interview I did soon after with Jim Mora, led to many sales—through both bookshops and also my own website, which I continued selling through.”
For her appearance, Caroline “practiced my main points, and got some pointers from media friends. Of course, Paula Morris is a wise and kind host, which helped facilitate an enjoyable and positive experience.”
Amy says she was “stoked to be part of the Auckland Writers Festival Winter Series.” She also did a book chat via Zoom with Wardini Books in Havelock North, and will be appearing in the upcoming Whistler Writers Festival, also via Zoom.
“And I held a book launch party! It wasn’t the big deal I’d originally planned; no cheese platter, a smaller crowd, but it was relaxed and fun and there was cake with a doll on top.”
She “still practiced my reading, thought about what I’d like to say, and what I should leave out. I guess I had to tidy the segment of my house that would appear on camera. I also upgraded my internet speed and some gorgeous friends came by and they helped me set up my computer for best lighting in the background in return for a bottle of my book launch wine stash.”
Fake Baby did well, spending months on the New Zealand fiction bestseller lists and receiving glowing reviews. “I’m so grateful to all the people who stepped up in the literary world to support local authors releasing books during the Covid pandemic. It underlined to me how cool people are," she says.
Amy’s Auckland Writers Festival appearance
Where to buy Fake Baby
Reviews of Ripiro Beach have also been highly positive, and Caroline says of Bateman Books, “Sometimes you just end up with the right team, and Bateman is it for me. Lockdown reinforced that. In that unique situation they trusted me to conjure up an alternative marketing plan, and walked beside me, supporting me in any way they could. Some publishers I'm sure wouldn't let their authors 'go rogue' like I did, but I kept focussing on mutual benefits: if I was selling books, we were both making money. When lockdown finished, I visited as many bookshops as I could, offering to sign books, or to hold an event, making sure that bookshop sales were supported as much as possible.
She says her agent, Nadine Rubin Nathan at High Spot Literary, was also fantastic. “Throughout lockdown she was on the end of the phone to talk through alternative plans, and how we could reach our audience in new and interesting ways.”
“Despite a tricky labour, Ripiro Beach was eventually born into this world by a dream-team of female literary midwives!”
Caroline’s Auckland Writers Festival appearance
Where to buy Ripiro Beach
In August 2020, during Level 1, Rose Carlyle was able to have a proper book launch at the National Library of New Zealand, for her debut novel The Girl in the Mirror. And what a debut! The Girl in the Mirror has created the kind of buzz which all authors dream of.
“I did something very out of character for my launch, buying high heels and wearing a flamboyant dress. At the last minute—after I had bought those amazing pink shoes—my sister Maddie and I decided that they looked like something Summer would wear, and so Maddie would dress as Summer’s twin sister, Iris. I think it was because of the pandemic that I wanted to do something fun. It was incredible to have a big launch with so many friends present, and I wanted to make the most of it,” she says.
“Exactly one week later, Auckland was locked down for the second time and the book launch would have been illegal. I can’t believe how lucky our timing was. I am glad that we did seize the day.”
Surprisingly, Rose says that The Girl in the Mirror was always going to come out in Australasia in August 2020, in North America in October 2020, and in the UK and various translations in 2021.
“None of the publication dates actually changed. My publishers [Allen & Unwin] stayed upbeat throughout the lockdowns and were great at keeping me informed and reassured.”
They told her that book sales have been booming this year, with readers desperate for escapist reads. They were right. Rose Carlyle has become a phenomenon, her book sweeping the bestseller charts, and offers from Hollywood. Rose herself, however, says she spent the time before her novel launched obsessively checking the news, and wringing her hands.
“I worried about everything from the book being cancelled to no one having money to buy books. Of course, this was in the context of worrying about everything else about 2020, on both a personal and a global level. It’s difficult to get too upset about a book when other people’s lives are changing in much more tragic ways.”
“The one thing that was difficult because of the pandemic was that The Girl in the Mirror sold out in New Zealand and it was difficult to restock. However, that felt like more of a privilege than a problem. We sold out because sales were even better than expected. Sales bounced back when the book reappeared, with a lot of booksellers reporting that people had preordered the reprint.”
Rose was scheduled to appear at festivals/conferences in Australia that were cancelled. “I’m sad to miss out on that but lucky to have now been invited to some New Zealand festivals, starting with Yarns in Barns in the Wairarapa in October. Luckily Australians are used to Zooming, so there was still great media coverage for The Girl in the Mirror.”
“Next month, my US launch is happening and instead of flying to New York, I’ll be driving my EV around Te Ika-a-Māui for a very homegrown book tour, while talking to the US media via Zoom. It’s not exactly the jet-setting lifestyle, but I love travelling within Aotearoa and it’s such a privilege as a debut writer to be going on tour. I’ve had huge support from local readers so I’m glad to be able to meet many of them.”
For someone who considers herself to be a very private person, how has she found the publicity?
“We see a lot of depictions (fictional or otherwise) of the media hounding famous people with probing questions, but the truth is that authors are generally telling positive stories. We don’t have anything controversial to discuss or anything to hide. I have found I can be candid with the media and they seem to appreciate the honesty. Having said that, I have been stopped in the street! That did make me feel a little self-conscious because it was so out of the blue.”
Rose hasn’t had much downtime this year, but when she can, she escapes to the beach. “I live near the beach and swim whenever I have the time, or at least pop down to the beach to look at the ocean.”
Listen to Rose on RNZ
Where to buy The Girl in the Mirror
Pip McKay won the First Pages Prize 2020 in June for her debut novel The Telling Time. The prestigious award, judged by Sebastian Faulks, gave her novel a much deserved burst of momentum. Launched later that month, it has been on bestseller lists since.
“There is always the part that serendipity plays and winning the First Pages Prize (an international competition that I entered back in February) has definitely helped — it’s that sticker on the front that helps to set The Telling Time apart and that Sebastian Faulks who was on the judging panel validated my opening words. Having said this, the opening is only the hook, and I believe the 18 months hard graft spent on refining my first draft has also paid dividends because this has led to people recommending it to others,” she says.
Some moments that have stood out for Pip have been hearing people talk about her characters as real people, and that those characters have stayed with them long after the book has finished. It was also thrilling for her to have an endorsement from Lynn Freeman, and when a valued writing peer told her that she stayed up reading to the wee small hours to finish the book, Gabrijela’s letter moving her to tears.
“Emotion is such an important component for me as a reader and knowing that I have engendered this reaction in others is the most satisfying feeling of all.“
Pip’s proactive approach has no doubt played a big part in her success. In February, Pip had started shipping out her manuscript via the traditional route to publishers and was accepting of the fact that it would be another 12-18 months before she would see the book in print. When Covid reared its head, she felt panicked.
“As we were all careering towards lockdown my honest thought was 'we're all going to die'. My mum has an autoimmune condition, Vasculitis disease, which compromises her immune system and in particular the functioning of her lungs,” says Pip. “I was convinced she would be first to succumb.”
“What seemed most important in that moment was for Mum (and Dad) to be able to hold this book in their hands (me too for that matter!) My parents had been so much a part of the journey, sharing stories and photos from the 1950’s to help inspire me. And so it was in the week of lockdown that I started investigating other options for publishing and came across a local company, Your Books, based in Wellington. They assured me that they were continuing to work through lockdown, and that if I published independently I could have books by the end of June. I felt empowered to be honest and excited at the prospect of having a job to do, a purpose in such uncertain times. I made a pact with myself that if I was going down this route I had to produce a book that was professional and indistinguishable from books published by the major publishing houses.”
Not only did she achieve this goal, Pip could now host masterclasses in breaking out an innovative path to success, if she so desired.
“Some might say too innovative at times!” she says. She says that she’s tried to stay true to herself and project the enthusiasm she has for her book. “Humour has been great at times, especially being able to laugh at myself — people seem to like and respect this. I think video is something which can be utilised more by writers and that we can enjoy getting creative with this medium.”
She’s also thrown herself into social media. “I was keen to share the journey with anyone who might be interested in the steps required to publish a book and this was the premise of the [Facebook] page, of course at this stage I had no idea either what path the journey would take. When lockdown happened this took a much faster tack which was perhaps useful for generating/maintaining momentum. As an aside though, some of my earlier posts about more general things — the importance of editing, my writing routine etc — have since proved helpful to be able to transfer onto my website as blog posts.”
“In November I also set up an Instagram account — this was completely new to me and at first I struggled to see the value. One of my sons advised me to view the page as a record of my journey and not to get too hung up about what I was posting — this advice worked well for me and I’ve since come to recognise the value of this platform for authors. I’ve only just started engaging on Twitter, polako, polako as Gabrijela would say!”
Her policy throughout has been to learn from the experts. “I invested in time with Claire O’Connell from 'The Classroom’ SM [social media] courses. Claire used to work for Facebook in New Zealand and is a fabulous resource on all things SM and in particular how to get the best out of Facebook and how to utilise the functions of a business page. I also took some advice from my neighbours who are young marketers and invested in young people with design skills to help me create the most professional images, logos etc. Consistency in style/my brand has been an important learning — and once established this has helped when setting up my website which is another very important marketing tool.”
“I also decided to invest in a PR agent and Karen McMillan, from Lighthouse PR, has done an amazing job getting me reviews, onto radio stations etc. This was expensive, but as an independent publisher I feel it was important because there is still a lot of scepticism within the industry about the quality of self-published books. This investment helped me to be picked up by Bateman Books who are now distributing The Telling Time, yet another example of a job I couldn’t do easily by myself — for me it was important to see my novel in bookstores nationwide — others might argue that financially this isn’t a sensible decision but the jury is still out on this one!”
“To sum up I think it’s important to be consistent with your promotion, to decide on the frequency you can maintain so as to deliver on expectations. My next step will be to nurture and grow dedicated followers through my mailing list.”
The striking cover artwork is also a point of difference from many other books, says Pip. “I gave Catherine [Farquhar] the brief and she delivered over lockdown... Booksellers all around the country have commented on the cover, how distinctive it is, how they love the texture that’s transferred to the cover due to it being painted as a canvas.”
“Having a solid promotional platform in place to promote and to shout about any successes has also been key.”
She says that she’s also been fortunate, despite the second lockdown, to still be able to deliver on small promotional events around the country, and each group she talks to can go out and talk to others about the story. “I’ve found that book groups generally are a great resource and that these New Zealand book-lovers relish the opportunity to hear about the novel-writing process. Of course the great news is for local authors that there are so many book groups and that every author’s story is unique — a win, win!”
The feedback she’s received from her husband, three sons, and her parents, has been the most rewarding. “I received the most beautiful letter from my middle son, Alex, that moved me to tears when he spoke of this pride.”
Watch Pip McKay receiving the First Pages Prize 2020
Where to buy The Telling Time