It’s been a bad week for New Zealand publishing.  On Tuesday, Pearson Education announced the imminent closure of its New Zealand office. The global publishing giant is restructuring to focus on ‘core’ and ‘emerging’ markets, and New Zealand is neither. And yesterday, Harper Collins joined the exit, announcing its plan to move most of its New Zealand operations, including editorial, to Australia. 

Pearson Education’s sister company, the trade publisher Penguin, will probably face a similar fate shortly when it merges with Random House and chances are, even the combined entity is likely to be merged with Australian operations.

We’re now seeing the inevitable end-game brought about by digitisation. In spite of the enthusiasm of Kiwi workers to embrace digital technology, global publishers have done little to support their digital resourcing here, instead concentrating those digital efforts in bigger markets.

That makes business sense for large, global players but it’s bad for small countries like New Zealand which will continue to lose both economically and culturally — unless local players can step in to fill the gaps. 

[UPDATES as things unfold further: Hachette to close NZ publishing after 2013 list (26 July 2013)]

There’s good news

This is going to be a tough period for New Zealand publishing, and for hundreds of good people who are caught up in these far-reaching changes. But there’s potentially good news too.

Our major publishers grew by buying up successful local publishers and winning most of the top talent, so there’s only a tiny independent industry left. There’s now a chance for a renaissance, led by independent publishers — and by new ventures formed from the break-up of global publishers as they exit. Expect to see pieces sold to local management and investors, or picked over by staff to form new start-ups. [UPDATE: Pearson appointed start-up Edify as its New Zealand distributor, led by former Pearson Managing Director Adrian Keene.]

And there’s a big prize if we can grasp it. Books are a US$100 billion global industry (and will remain a big global industry post-digitisation). Yet our foreign-owned publishers have had little incentive to build an export industry here (why would they when they already publish in most key markets?)

The next wave of home-grown publishers will be much more outward-focused, thanks to the same technology that’s driving change, plus our native English language and many other assets.

Authors, it’s time to make your move

One of the first places we need to look is our own authors, especially the top talent that sells thousands rather than hundreds of books. With few exceptions, most of them publish with the multinational imprints, leaving very lean pickings for independents. But quality authors are the cashflow lifeblood of any publishing business.

The time is right for our best authors to consider the role they can play in supporting a renaissance of local publishing. I’m not advocating a wholesale exit from multinational publishers. That would be bad for everyone, and bad for the industry. But there’s plenty of room for new titles and some digital rights to help rebuild an independent local industry.

And a wake-up call for New Zealand education

The exit of major publishers like Pearson can hurt New Zealand education too. Self-determination in teaching and curriculum development goes hand-in-hand with the ability to produce high-grade support materials and, increasingly, to deliver them in sophisticated digital ways. If we rely increasingly on offshore suppliers, we’ll have diminishing influence over their content.

ExitWe need some local publishers who can operate at scale in a digital future. We can’t rely entirely on small businesses and enthusiastic self-publishers, though it’s a positive aspect of digitisation that will help education too.

The Education Ministry should plan now for the retreat of large publishers to offshore locations. Technology will ensure that others follow Pearson’s lead. Doesn’t matter, perhaps? Let’s do some research and deep thinking before making that call. My hunch is that it will probably matter to our self-determination in education, and will certainly matter to what a reinvigorated local industry can deliver.

Learning Media is one of the few locally-owned companies potentially big enough to fill gaps left as multinationals exit. But this SOE (state-owned enterprise) is facing a tough future itself after the Education Ministry cut its long-held preferred supplier agreement.

Whether the government chooses to help Learning Media through its difficulties, or let it fail, it should think carefully about how it uses its multimillion dollar spending power to build a sustainable local industry that will have New Zealand’s particular education system at its core.

It will be philosophically difficult for this government, but public education is not a truly free market — governments are the biggest funders and purchasing is dominated by government-controlled entities.

An offer of free training in digital publishing and online marketing to all Pearson and Harper Collins New Zealand staff

I’d like to do what little I can to help turn this tough time into the start of something better. If you’re working for Pearson or Harper Collins New Zealand, this week’s news will be pretty tough as a lot of good people will be forced to consider their futures in the industry. I want to offer all staff at Pearson NZ and Harper Collins NZ free access to my online courses in digital publishing at DigitalPublishing101. There are two courses, Digital Publishing 101 for Ebooks and Marketing 101 for Ebooks.

If you finish both courses (and half an hour a day for a few weeks should do it), I’m sure you’ll know enough to get started with a digital publishing business of your own, or to contribute to the digital success of the next venture you’re part of.

To take up the offer, email me at martin[at]digitalpublishing101[dot]com. I’ll send you a coupon to get both of them free with a year’s access. No hidden gotchas or strings attached, and no application form needed.

The role of multinational publishers in New Zealand

Finally, it’s important that New Zealand continues to be a place where global publishers will want to do business. We certainly need to work hard supporting ventures that are rooted here, even tipping the balance in their favour as we struggle to rebuild. But in doing this, we shouldn’t create an environment hostile to offshore suppliers.

The local industry has gained enormously from the resources, networks, and the sophistication that international businesses bring. I spent a lot of my career working for an international publisher and I know the huge benefits they can bring, both personally and to the wider economy.

And chances are, we’ll want to lure them back when the next wave of change tips the balance in New Zealand’s favour again, and our successful entrepreneurs are looking for global partners, or well-earned exits.

What else can we do?

Feel free to put any suggestions in the comments.

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