Steam is up for sci-fi

Originally published March 6, 2013 in Capital Times. 

It’s New Zealand Book Month and Amanda Witherell talks to one of Wellington’s newest and smallest publishers about how to print quality books and still be able to feed the cat.

You don’t, according to Stephen Minchin.

“I’ve lost chunks of money. It’s kind of depressing,” says the founder of Steam Press, which launched just two years ago and has a mere five titles to its name. Still, Minchin is smiling across a black coffee at Lamason café off Bond Street: perhaps because he’s specialising in something other publishers are tossing in the slush pile – science fiction by New Zealand authors.

“I think it’s what you need to do now, have that niche that you understand and that people recognise,” he says.

In some ways, he’s not alone. Amongst Wellington-based generalists like Victoria University Press and Steele Roberts, are some very specific, and successful, niche-holders: Huia publishes Māori authors, Gecko prints children’s books from overseas, Awa and Te Papa handle nonfiction, Bridget Williams’ focus is scholarly tomes. Now Steam Press prints science fiction, an evergreen genre for adventurous readers, but not of interest to publishers, though Minchin says he’s been flooded with quality submissions.

“I came at this as a reader and an author,” says the Wellington native who studied ecology at Massey University, but decided, as he puts it, “Science is one of those things that takes something you’re interested in and destroys it.”

Science fiction, however, is another story. Or novel – he wrote two while living in Japan, with his wife Ang, teaching English. “I sent them back to New Zealand and no one would publish them. No one wanted science fiction,” he says. His suspicion was confirmed while studying publishing at Whitireia. “We had a lot of publishers come and visit us at the course and it dawned on me that none of the New Zealand publishers were interested in stuff that I was writing and reading.”

Last year, Steam Press released three books, all of which have been favorably reviewed. The first The Prince of Soul and The Lighthouse by Fredrik Brounéus, was picked up by German and Czech Republic markets. The second, Mansfield with Monsters, landed on The Listener’s 100 Best Books of 2012, elbowing amongst other short story collections by Alice Munro, Junot Diaz, and Witi Ihimaera. In it, authors Matt and Debbie Cowens rework Katherine Mansfield stories to terrifying ends. (They’ll read from the book at a New Zealand Book Month event, Words on the Wind, later this month.)

“I didn’t expect them to even look at it,” says Minchin of The Listener’s meaningful recognition. Though the book is in its third reprint, the endorsement hasn’t translated into a spike in sales.

That may be unfortunate reputation of New Zealand authorship. Kiwis like local literature in theory, but they aren’t burning through the pages, according to a 2012 Victoria University study by Pia White. Of 500 surveyed readers, only 23 percent reported often reading New Zealand fiction. The study also cited Nielsen BookScan numbers showing New Zealand books account for only four percent of the total fiction market.
Though Minchin is committed to publishing local authors, he agrees with the masses. His taste test is simple: “After I read it, do I want to buy it for someone else? It’s been a while since I did that with a New Zealand author. It’s all a matter of taste, but if a certain taste isn’t being catered to, that’s where I can come in.”

The same study found nearly 40 percent of readers are science fiction fans. Why not give them what they want? A story of Māori gods roaming Wellington streets probably wouldn’t be published if it weren’t for Minchin. Steam Press will release Summer Wigmore’s The Wind City later this year, after the launch of Joseph Ryan’s The Factory World, by another Wellington writer.

At the moment, it’s a nights-and-weekends labour of love, wedged between Minchin’s digital strategy work for Huia and Awa. He’s also a newly-appointed tutor for Whitireia’s publishing course.

“I occasionally get really down about it and then I remember that I actually enjoy it. I’m producing really cool books that otherwise wouldn’t have been produced. It’s a matter of not stressing about the money. I’m enjoying it during the day and then I’m awake all night, wondering how to feed the cat.”

Asked where he sees his business five years from now, Minchin says, “I’d like to keep putting out a couple books a year, selling rights overseas, and working for other publishers at least part time.”

Pretty much what he’s doing now…plus, feeding the cat.




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