Frustrations of a book buyer in New Zealand


Stunning scenery in The South Island, New Zealand. But where oh where are the books????

As I headed for my long holiday through New Zealand and Australia, the burning question was not how many pairs of shorts to pack, but how many books I could reasonably take with me.

The tight baggage allowances for some of my shorter flights was one consideration. The other was the knowledge I’d have lug all these books around for weeks.

Friends who have travelled extensively in the region assured me I’d have no problem buying new books en route. Although the prices tend to be a lot higher than in the UK, second hand bookshops are plentiful and many coffee shops have used books on sale they said.

Reassured I wouldn’t be left high and dry, and viewing this holiday as a chance to expand my horizons and discover new authors, I decided to limit my bookish companions to just three physical books:

Last Man in the Tower by Arvind Adiga

Bookman, Anna Burns Booker prize winning novel

Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Myerling

In the event my trek around Australia never materialised (but that’s another story).

The promised paradise of book supplies never materialised either.

Our first stopping point was the popular coastal resort of Whitianga. No bookstore in sight. The nearest we got was this display of used books – they’d obviously been in the sun for many weeks.  Even I wasn’t that desperate (they had nothing to appeal anyway).

books for saleJPG

Two stops later, we reached Lake Taupo, another popular location for tourists. Things started to look up when the owner of the motel we stayed in mentioned he had shelves full of books other guests had left behind. He almost begged me to take them.

Unfortunately they were rather a sad collection of discarded travel guides (a few years out of date), light romances and crime. Every blockbuster crime writer was in evidence.  Clearly this is what travellers like to read …

Despite drinking more flat whites than I’ve drunk in my life, I never did find a coffee shop with a bookshelf of used books for sale.

By the time we got to what proved to be our final destination, the large town of Nelson in the South Island, I was down to my last paperback (Sixteen Trees of the Somme). I still had plenty of options on the e-reader but I really wanted the feeling of turning pages.

Nelson did have three bookshops: two chains and one independent. I headed to them in great excitement, equipped with a list of New Zealand authors I picked up at the local library.

What a disappointment to find hardly any of these authors on sale. Most of the books being promoted were by authors from outside the southern hemisphere in fact (crime fiction was once again much in evidence. )

It was a shock to find that books in New Zealand are very expensive –  a good 30% higher than prices in the UK.  As an example, I bought my copy of Milkman in the UK for £7.99 (about 17 New Zealand dollars). In New Zealand, it was on sale for 30 New Zealand dollars. Most novels in fact were in that price range and even higher. They were not hardback editions, they were what I call ‘airport edition’ size – so a soft cover but a larger format.  I’m not surprised to find that book sales are falling in New Zealand.

Volume Bookshop New Zealand

Volume: independent bookstore in Nelson, New Zealand

I got into an interesting conversation on the pricing issue with Thomas, one of the co-owners of Volume, a delightful independent bookshop in what’s called the city’s Bohemian Quarter. Prices are apparently high because the market in New Zealand is small (the whole country has a population only just over four million) so print runs are low, and thus publishers don’t get the benefits of economies of scale. Many books are printed outside the country, so prices have to include transport costs. Plus, books in New Zealand (unlike those in the UK ) are not exempt from the sales tax.

I heard a different side to this issue from Lisa at ANZLitlovers – the real issue in Lisa’s view is that New Zealand publishers don’t aggressively market their wares outside of the country. Not even to their near neighbours, Australia (population 25million). What a missed opportunity…

This helps explain why I struggled to think of any New Zealand authors ahead of my trip; if they don’t get promoted to potential readers on their near doorstep, they’re hardly going to be making an effort to get them known in the UK.

I know what you’re wondering …. did I buy anything?

The New ShipsWell yes I did, but I was restrained. I bought just one book: The New Ships by Kate Duigan. It’s been shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards 2019. It’s a layered family history narrated by Peter Collie, a partner in a prestigious  law firm. Set in Wellington, New Zealand, it moves to London, Europe and the Indian subcontinent as Collie tries to make sense of his past.

I was tempted by another of the award contenders: The Cage by Lloyd Jones but I had already read one of his novels previously, Mr Pip which was published in 2006 whereas reading Duigan  would be a new experience. Anyway it seems I can get The Cage for a reasonable price in the UK so may well end up buying that at some point.

If anyone is interested, the New Zealand authors whose names were given to me by a helpful librarian were:

  • Eleanor Catton (winner of the Booker Prize with The Luminaries)
  • Keri Hulme (winner of the Booker Prize with The Bone People)
  • Lloyd George (author of Mr Pip)
  • Ngaio Marsh
  • Janet Frame
  • Witi Tame Ihimaera
  • Maurice Gee
  • Elizabeth Knox
  • Patricia Grace

If you know any of these writers and have a recommendation, do let me know. I’ll try and get them from a UK supplier (the chances of my library stocking them are very slim).





About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on March 22, 2019, in Bookends, New Zealand authors and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 58 Comments.

  1. Try Bonnie Etherington’s “The Earth Cries Out”. when you make it back again, local charity shops are a good alternative to second hand book shops (and in good supply in most towns). Still a lot of old crime and romance novels, but sometimes you’ll come across an unexpected treasure.

    • thanks for that suggestion. I did in fact go into a few charity shops. As you say, mostly they were the same old fare but I did manage to find a Daphne du Maurier for my husband

  2. i love reading your books it brings a lot off knowledge in me a better understanding about life

  3. Oh, what a shame – at least you did have an e-reader, I was starting to panic there! I have read a bit of Janet Frame and she seems accessible here, but her books are mental illness memoirs and novels, from memory, and a bit hard going.

  4. I’ll go back and read the comments, but I’d better make my own before I forget what I want to say!

    Those prices are similar to ours here. The edition call “airport” is what we call “trade paperback” and here they range from AUD29-35 (usually of course .99 like 29.99). “C” paperbacks – the traditional penguin size, can cost AUD19-22. Most books these days seem to come out in trade paperback format (rather than hardback) and then if they are popular they’ll come out later in the “C” format. Only special books, and top authors, seem to come out in hard-back these days.

    I laughed about the advice you were given and the reality. I certainly wouldn’t have advised you to rely on those second hand sources unless you were keen on crime and “airport novel” family sagas. That’s really what you mostly see in second hand bookshops – unless you know those that specialise in literature, We all know them in our towns, but they aren’t always the most obvious ones. As for coffee shops with second hand books for sale – well, I don’t know about NZ, but while they exist here they are far from the norm, and are more the exception than the rule!

    You wrote Lloyd George in your list – I think that’s a British slip! He’s Lloyd Jones. I would add Fiona Kidman to your list. Keri Hulme and Janet Frame are musts, I’d say, if you haven’t read them.

  5. How frustrating to not find a book when you need it most! I can vouch for Eleanor Catton, her book The Luminaries was lovely, and I’ve met her as well-great woman.

  6. I have read both The Luminaries and The Bone People. I would say that both display New Zealand as a tough, wild place. Both were challenging in different ways and I was enriched by reading them.

  7. Another blogger, Margot Kinberg, is on the judging panel for a NZ crime fiction award, so each year she tells us about the shortlisted books and it aggravates me intensely that they’re usually not available here, or if they are, they’re selling at exorbitant prices. Beats me why they don’t at least put out Kindle versions of them and raise their profits a bit that way. I read quite a lot of Ngaio Marsh back in the day and thoroughly enjoyed them, but they do have that very snobbish feel of that time of writing. The only other one I’ve read is The Luminaries, and I see you’ve already reviewed it.

    • I shall have to ask Margot for her thoughts in that case. It does seem strange that they don’t do e-book versions – but from Lisa’s comments it sounds like the publishers are not that marketing savvy….

  8. Have to agree. Since arriving in New Zealand I have purchased very few books. Thankfully the Libraries are usually good and we visit our local libraries most weeks. Beyond that I have to resort to e-books and ordering via BookDepository (who I find reliable, but slow).

  9. My first thought was that the people who told you there were plenty of books probably either don’t read as much as you do, or prefer more popular stuff.
    Too bad the books are so pricey. I’ve been tempted by some NZ titles but the postage is prohibitive.

  10. unfortunately, I have only heard about the 1st author. I have read 2 other New Zealand auathors:
    and I think there’s probably a mbetter one by Chad Taylor.
    have you tried Book Depository for these? it might be a good deal

  11. I’m sorry to hear your trip through NZ has been disappointing book-wise.
    You are right about book prices. When I lived there I had to exhibit immense self-control or I would have run up a lot of credit card debt! There was a brief period where Wellington had two large central-city stores – A Borders and a Whitcoulls that competed and offered helpful loyalty rewards. When the GFC hit, the Borders had to close and I literally spent a weekend walking to and from it carrying loads of books they were getting rid of!
    Wellington is still home to one of my favourite book stores – Unity Books. It is small but has eclectic range and very knowledgeable staff.
    Unfortunately, I have not been very good a reading books by authors from my home country. So any suggestions I have, apart from those mentioned above, will be based more on reputation than experience.
    I don’t think you would like Barry Crump (not very literary) but he was very popular for his likeable characters, rural setting and cheeky humour. He seemed to write about a side of NZ neglected by distinguished writers. His most famous book is ‘A Good Keen Man’. As I say, he may not be to your taste but you should still check out a recent film adaptation based on one of his stories – The Hunt for the Wilderpeople – highly recommended!
    Janet Frame does seem to get a lot of praise from the more academic, high-brow, crowd. The words ‘Nobel Prize worthy’ even get thrown around. But I don’t think she ever achieved popular acclaim.
    I bought a book called ‘Where the Rekohu Bone Sings’ by Tine Makereti after an interesting review but have not read it yet.
    The NZ book that has created the most buzz recently is probably The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith. Also highly recommended!

    • We were meant to go to Wellington but had to change our plans when my husband became ill. I’ll skip Barry Crump on the basis of your insight but will take a look for some Janet Frame

  12. There is also an author called Aaron Fletcher who has written a series of books, one about Australia and the other NZ. There does not seem to be much information about him and I was introduced to this author by Marg, from Intrepid Reader (

  13. The situation regarding purchasing and availability in New Zealand I see has not improved. I was equally as horrified of the cost of books in Australia. There was a bookshop in the shopping mall in Wagga Wagga and every time I went in there I browsed the books and pondered on whether I could justify buying the book – they are much more expensive than in the UK. In the end I came back with a list of books to by and one book that I picked up in a rural post office, in Victoria about a migrant family. That book is still on my pile to be read, and I will try and do a review, then if you feel so inspired I can send the book to you.

    I also have a book by Fiona Kidman in my large pile of books to read – I cannot find it currently, but again, happy to forward that to you once I have read it.

    Meanwhile, I am going to make a note of those NZ and Australian authors and expand my “to read” list.

    • I wasn’t going to buy anything but then after an email exchange with another blogger came to the conclusion I would rather buy a book as a souvenir of my trip that a kiwi bird ornament. Thanks for the offer of your Kidman – let me know which book it is since I’ve found one or two available in the library

  14. I can recommend New Zealand author Deborah Challinor. A couple of years ago I read and reviewed her Convict Girls series. Challinor, from the Waikato, holds a PhD in History and the 4-book series is a rollicking historical read set in 1830s Sydney Australia. She moved to Australia while researching and writing and it was promoted here. I have no stats on how well it did in the ratings but her other novels (new one released last year) and non-fiction books have reached the bestsellers list in New Zealand.

  15. Gosh that was frustrating to be down to one book! I have read The Luminaries, The Bone People and Mr Pip, but nothing else by those writers. Ngaio Marsh on the other hand is a crime writer from that Golden age that I like very much.

  16. LOL you will never complain about the state of book merchandising in the UK again!
    Firstly, my advice to any reader who’s travelling is not to take any advice from other travellers about books. My experience all over Europe and the UK is the same as yours, anything you find that’s been dumped by a traveller is either a travel guide, crime, or tomes rightly called airport books. If you are used to reading the kind of books we like, you are highly unlikely to find them lying about for recycling. I myself have been reduced to reading Maeve Binchy in Italy…
    Secondly, your bookseller is right about market size being the primary reason for high prices, and as Kate says, it’s not quite as bad here in Australia, but it’s a fact. If 5% of a population read LitFic as we do, even though as individuals they may buy only 2-5 books a year, then that’s a sizeable market in the UK and the US and it’s barely worthy printing them in a country of 4 million people. That’s why the university presses are so crucial to NZ publishing, they subsidise the cost, and still the books are expensive. But for booklovers, I argue, a few dollars more here and there is not going to matter, if the book is enticing. It’s like buying Lindt chocolate instead of Cadbury. Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten. The problem for NZ books is that nobody knows they exist.
    A few years ago, when I found myself in the same position as Kate, i.e. having read very little NZ fiction, I discovered that their book council had developed a marketing strategy. To say that it was naïve and insular is an understatement, and I sent them some feedback saying so (more politely, of course). They hadn’t even recognised the no-cost-to-them power of the international blogging community in promoting NZ books. I had searched fruitlessly back then for someone who was a blogger who was reviewing their books, and I am pleased to say that the situation now is better, (and you can find links to Alys on the Blog and Booksellers NZ from my blogroll, I subscribe to both).
    But still as Kate will no doubt attest, here in Melbourne which is a city of literature and home to wonderful bookshops, you would struggle to find anything from NZ *even if you knew what you were looking for*.
    And even now, I have to tell you that while I am inundated with offers of books to review from Australian publishers, NZ publishers take no advantage of the fact that there’s an Australian blogger with an international audience who is keen to help them promote their books.
    On the plus side, I suspect that if you had found your way to the larger cities, it would have been a different story. I am going to the Auckland Writers Festival in May and it’s just one of many litfests in NZ, attesting to a thriving book culture. So I think Kiwis do value their authors, they’re just not very good at bragging about them:).
    Finally, (sorry about the essay length of this comment!) I loved The New Ships and I have lots more to recommend at Look out for Fiona Kidman as well, she might be available internationally.

  17. Interesting post. I have not visited New Zealand (ludicrous given that it’s next door) but what you have said about book shops and prices doesn’t surprise me – it’s much the same in Australia, although I do think independent bookshops have held ground (over chain bookstores which have declined) in the past twenty years.

    Prompted by your post, I looked over my reviews for New Zealand offerings… Just one! (And no books even set in New Zealand read as part of my Around the World reading challenge!). I have to say I was shocked to realise this and will be looking up books by some of the authors you have suggested. My offering is The Forrests by Emily Perkins – – it was recommended by Australian author Charlotte Wood, otherwise I would likely never have come across Perkins.

    • That’s reassuring to hear about the indie bookshops – hope that continues to be the case. Do Australian publishers do a better job of connecting with bloggers than their NZ counterparts do according to Lisa?

      • Yes, I think so. But they also do a good job of promoting their books through independent bookshops, so it’s a joint relationship.

  18. The first five authors are quite well known and usually available but not sure about availability in Wales. Abe books would probably be the cheapest option. Next time you travel in this direction come to Hobart in Tasmania as we are a city of readers and have about 6 or 7 very good bookshops, most of which are independent and offer good literature. My favourite bookshop here is celebrating their 100th anniversay next year. We’ll take good care of you!

  19. Faces in the Water by Janet Frame is well worth a read.

    • Astonishingly I find there are four books by her in my library system – sadly not the one you mention.

      • She wrote some volumes of autobiography – which sadly I didn’t enjoy, even though there were great reviews of them. Faces in the Water is based on her experiences of being in a mental hospital (back when they were really terrible) – I would compare it to The Bell Jar. I bought the book new and didn’t regret it.

      • Angel at my table is the first of her memoir writing. I also really enjoyed Living in the Maniototo. I just love saying that title for a start!!

        I wouldn’t be so astonished about finding her in overseas English speaking libraries, because I think she does have quite an international reputation.

  20. You might find some Ngaio Marsh in your library but they’re crime fiction from the Christie period so I don’t know if they would appeal.

  21. Goodness! I would’ve been in a state of nervous collapse!!!!!!

  22. We’ve had a couple of New Zealand authors that we’ve worked with. Nikki Crutchley and Kirsten McKenzie.

  23. Down to just one book sounds a nere wracking state to be in. I’d like to add two more names to your list, both authors whose books are available in the UK : C. K. Stead and Fiona Kidman.

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