A small independent Kiwi publisher of non-fiction, Awa Press gives the impression it is at the very least a middle size one! Mary Varnham, Awa Press’ publisher, worked in the publicity section of Simon and Schuster in New York early in her career and applies that experience to the company’s advantage.
Publishing an average of around 10 new titles a year, with some of their long-running titles reaching sales of 20,000 copies, Awa Press is thriving.
The company was founded in 2003 when Mary, a former journalist, public relations executive, newspaper columnist, Ministerial press officer and Wellington City Councillor decided this was the new challenge she needed.
The choice to specialise in non-fiction was deliberate; she herself was a passionate reader of narrative non-fiction and felt there was scope for development of the genre in New Zealand beyond the traditional histories, biographies and photography books. “Writers such as Mark Kurlansky and Pico Iyer were taking non-fiction in interesting directions.”
However, she quickly realised how little she really knew about publishing. “I was very familiar with writing, editing and publicity, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea about production,” Mary recalls. Fortunately she made contact with Sarah Bennett, who had spent years in London working for Penguin and Lonely Planet and was skilled and experienced in book production.
Eight years and nearly 70 books later, Mary now knows a lot more about production. Not that she needs to – Sarah remains a cornerstone of the company as associate publisher.
One of the tactics that got Awa off on the right foot was the decision to commence publishing with a series, an idea adapted from one Allen Lane found effective when he started Penguin in the 1930s. Lane used one format of paperback, with the orange and white covers alike except for the title. While that would not wash these days, Awa began publishing a series of short books with distinctive covers. This became the Ginger Series, 25,000 word essays written by excellent writers on a variety of non-fiction topics. Justin Paton’s How to Look at a Painting has been the top seller, and all but one of the twelve in the series to date are still in print. Most have been serialised for Radio New Zealand and two, including Paton’s, have become television series.
All of the series are now available as ebooks. The company has also produced a 100 Essential New Zealand series in full colour; subjects include films, music albums and famous golf holes.
Stephen Minchin, Awa Press’ tech guru, has overseen the conversion of all of Awa’s suitable titles to eformats, available for ereaders and tablets. The company’s print titles are also distributed in Australia, the UK and Europe, USA, Canada and South America.
Hand in hand with the expansion of markets, Awa is putting more emphasis on a high standard of production and design, contracting freelance book designers. Printing is done in China using two print firms that produce quality, cost-effective print runs. “They’re so particular they’ve even been known to ring us up when they spot a typo!” Mary says.
Current books that are doing business for Awa include the NZ Post Book Award-nominated So Brilliantly Clever, Peter Graham’s book about the Parker and Hulme murder, Jim Flynn’s incredibly popular The Torchlight List, and An Indescribable Beauty, the 4-part series of which is currently airing on Jim Mora’s Radio New Zealand afternoon programme. A perennial is Antarctica Cruising Guide, which was praised by the prestigious Polar Record and frequently tops Amazon.com as its best-selling Antarctica guide.
Awa Press has a pretty large output for a publisher with only two permanent staff, Mary and Kylie Sutcliffe, and dedicated part-timers Sarah Bennett, Stephen Minchin and publicist Ruth Beran.
The company also supports publishing industry awards as sponsor of the Awa Press Young Designer of the Year Award. For Mary, this is an area of particular interest, and she is pleased to note that in recent years the standard of New Zealand book design has improved astronomically.
So how about a foray into fiction for Awa Press? “We toy with the idea from time to time, but always decide to stick with what we know and love,” says this otherwise fearless publisher. And why wouldn’t you, when non-fiction is working so superbly for the company.