13 March 2013
The New Zealand Book Council is a much accessed and frequently consulted entity that’s been a feature of our literary landscape for 41 years. With over 200,000 readers using the Book Council website’s writers file every year, it is clearly a valued resource. With over 500 New Zealand author biographies, writing lives and published book details, it is the first research step for school pupils and scholars alike.
The other main functions of the Book Council revolve around educational programmes in schools, an international outreach sending our authors to literary events overseas, a members-only Booknotes publication with quality reviewing and discussion of other book-related topics.
Catriona Ferguson is the recently appointed Chief Executive of New Zealand Book Council and since taking up the position late last year, she and the Book Council team have been reviewing the organisation to make sure the Council is concentrating on its core functions, and that programmes are reviewed and refreshed to meet current needs in education and in public services like the writer biographies. So it’s back to the gym and watch the diet so this middle-aged corporate body stays fit, trim and focussed.
Creative New Zealand is a significant funder of the NZ Book Council. The promotion of NZ literature is considered so important that its status, as of 2012, is that of being in the Toi Tōtara Haemata programme – one of the tall trees of our culture. This provides substantial Book Council funding, but the Council itself will be looking to improving the funds it generates from providing programmes to schools and its other activities.
So what initiatives will Catriona and team be putting in place to improve Book Council services and programmes? Especially as budget restraints are a given in the current financial situation for the sector.
“It’s clear from the enormous number of site visitors specifically accessing writer biographies and information on their titles, that keeping writer profiles up to date is a major requirement and that we must provide the resource to do this,” says Catriona.
Other educational aspects are also core Book Council services. A popular development for primary and intermediate schools is Speed Date an Author events. Earlier this year, six authors and illustrators entertained 95 children from 20 different schools at the National Library in Auckland. It was a huge success as everyone got the chance to meet with the authors and talk about books, and it builds on the Council’s earlier authors-in-schools activities.
A fresh initiative is a Books and Brekky programme featuring a well-known children’s author: a before school activity where breakfast is provided, and this time parents are encouraged to come and be part of the audience too. “Getting parents involved in their children’s reading benefits the whole family,” says Catriona. “It seems to be a good way to start a long-term interest in books for families.”
Catriona is passionate and knowledgeable about children’s lit – her first job post university was at the Children’s Bookshop in London’s Muswell Hill. As Mum to 11-year-old Noah and 8-year-old Eliza, she is kept right up to date in that area.
The thoughtful quarterly Booknotes with in-depth reviews of New Zealand books over most genres is an important contribution to intelligent book discussion. The publication is sent to an extensive list of individual, school, university and business subscribers, and is complemented by a monthly e-newsletter which you can sign up to here.
Alongside the online services, the Book Council’s twitter feed has almost 2,000 followers. Catriona hopes to extend this with author and book industry news podcasts.
Yet another strand in the Book Council’s knitting basket is True Stories told Live – “the story must be eight minutes long, have a beginning, middle and an end, and it must be true, but that’s all.” After several hilarious versions of this programme with different authors and stories, this was reprised for National Radio’s four-week Summer Noelle programme. It ran every day to the delight of listeners.
Another function of the Book Council is their International Programme, supporting writers to achieve greater success on the world stage and promote our literary culture outside of New Zealand. Grants are currently being processed for authors to attend major overseas literary festivals. Catriona says a number of our top writers are currently published internationally; she hopes the upcoming grants will take another generation of our writers to prominence in the expectation it may secure them overseas publication.
There’s a strong Board running the book council chaired by Peter Biggs, with Penguin’s Margaret Thompson representing publisher interests. As Biggs does business in Melbourne, Wellington and internationally, the fact that he’s mostly in Melbourne doesn’t lessen the day to day communication between chair and CEO at all.
Nor does the fact that Catriona is Auckland based (though she is down in Wellington at Book Council offices at least every second week) seem to phase the smooth running of the organisation. “You need to make an effort in communication, and make sure you take nothing for granted,” she says. Indeed, she likes the chance to enjoy the buzz of the busy office on her visits, but is grateful to be able to concentrate on policy and decision making without interruption at her home office.
Though Catriona is coming to the end of her review of the Book Council’s many activities, you can be sure that any changes she plans to discuss with the Board will be well considered, made within the context of the key tasks of the Council, stick to core principles and aim for depth in those functions rather than width.