Monday, February 02, 2009


Bookman Beattie makes a punt.

As a book reviewer and book blogger I do not of course have access to publishers’ sales figures but someone asked me the other day which novel written by a New Zealand novelist and originally published in New Zealand has achieved higher world-wide sales than any other. My answer was that I couldn’t be sure but that my guess is it is one of the following three:


THE WHALE RIDER – Witi Ihimaera


And probably in fourth place would be MISTER PIP by Lloyd Jones.

Let us consider my three leading contenders.

Keri Hulme’s remarkable novel stunned the literary world by winning the Booker Prize in 1985, the only New Zealand author to have ever done so. It is 25 years this month since The Bone People was first published by the Spiral Collective, (a remarkable group of women by the way). Later the New Zealand branches of Penguin Books, Collins, and Hodder & Stoughton all competed to buy rights from the Spiral Collective with Bert Hingley, publishing director at Hodders finally winning out. Hodders are now part of the Hachette Group although the book is now a Pan MacMillan paperback in this market,(cover shown). I remember well those days as I was the one leading the bidding for Penguin Books. It was subsequently published in the UK and the US and was translated into a number of other languages.
Goodness knows what the sales figures are, the book remains in print and indeed the US publisher plans a special new edition in 2010 to mark their 25th anniversary of publishing.
My guess is that the sales will be close to 250,000.

Witi Ihimaera’s 1987 story of the legendary “whale rider’ in the tribal lore of a tribe on the east coast north of Gisborne started quietly enough and enjoyed steady but unspectacular sales until it was made into a movie by South Pacific Pictures in 2002. The movie was subsequently screened at film festivals around the globe which led to a huge demand for the book resulting in a number of translations. Reed Publishing (now part of Penguin Books NZ) published several editions of the title over the years including a new especially handsome hardcover edition in 2007 (cover shown) to mark the book's 20th anniversary.
My guess is that worldwide sales will be approaching 200,000.

Alan Duff’s first published novel Once Were Warriors had a huge and immediate impact on readers everywhere, ended up being translated into more than a dozen languages, was made into a highly successful movie which enjoyed world wide sales and sold more than 100,000 copies in NZ alone. Overseas sales may have been as high as the local sales so my guess is that this title sales will also be approaching 200,000.
Once were Warriors was published by Tandem Press (now part of Random House NZ) in 1990 and like the other titles in this list has never been out of print.

Which leaves just Lloyd Jones’ MISTER PIP which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, and has been published in a number of editions and languages. Because of its more recent publication it is hard to imagine that sales are anywhere near that achieved by the other three titles yet although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they are around the 150,000 mark.
So I’m calling the bone people in at number one, with a toss up for second and third with Mister Pip at #4.


Please post any comments you wish to make, it would be especially interesting to hear from the publishers and authors concerned.


Paul Reynolds said...

Curiously - if we consider the pulse of the education/curriculum - I would reverse the order.
Once Were Warriors
The Whale Rider
The Bone People

Vanda Symon said...

Paul Cleave has had huge success in Germany with his crime fiction thriller The Cleaner, first published by Random NZ.

Anonymous said...

I would second Vanda's comment regarding Paul. He has currently sold over 300,000 copies ... note that ... 300,000 copies of The Cleaner (Der Siebte Tod) in Germany alone. The book has sold to Australia, Czech Republic, Russia, Poland, Japan, France and England - so the 300,000 number is just for Germany alone.

I have a feeling that it's now, well and truly the biggest selling book from a NZ author.

Cheers Dave

Anonymous said...

And The Vinter's Luck?

Anonymous said...

I should also add that those figures apparently pertain to The Cleaner only, his second and third books (The Killing Hour and Cemetery Lake) have also sold internationally but CL hasn't been released other than in Australia.

To the best of my recollection.

Cheers Dave

Anonymous said...

Kia ora Graham - nice post-thank you!
I dont know what the total sales figures are for all editions (it's been published in 9 foreign languages (including Czechoslavakian!) and we're negotiating Russian rights this month.)The last time I toted things up from royalty sheets (7 years ago) it had sold just over 1.3 million had sold over 75000 copies *in New Zealand* before it won the Booker.

Beattie's Book Blog said...

Thanks for these comments.

Paul Cleeve - I had forgotten about his huge German success.His publisher has confirmed that 300,000 copies were sold in Germany.

the bone people - figures supplied by Keri Hulme prove I had way under-estimated sales and probably confirm my suggestion that it is our biggest-selling fiction title.

Vintner's Luck - can anyone help with sales figures for this one? The movie is being released this year which will give sales a further significant boost.

Anonymous said...

What about The God Boy, Ian Cross'classic? It would have had a huge sale in NZ secondary schools over many years.

David said...

Jenny Pattrick must be in with a chance of toppling all others. I recall Jim henderson telling me he sold 100,000 of Gunner Inglorious.
David McGill

Anonymous said...

I think I heard that Vintner's Luck had done about 50,000 here and 50,000 overseas. Hopefully Fergus can correct if wrong. And I imagine it'll get a big boost from the film this year.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Barry Crump!!
Over 300,000 copies sold of Hang on a Minute Mate...

Anonymous said...

I've got no idea what the actual sales figures would be, but wasn't
Stevan Eldred-Grigg's Oracles & Miracles released in Chinese translation a few years ago? It must surely be a contender.

Pamela Gordon said...

Janet Frame's Owls Do Cry and Faces in the Water have both sold well into six figures. They're not up there with the blockbusters but they should be mentioned in this context. Neither have ever been out of print and the translations have been ticking over into more and more languages ever since the early 60s. There's a new edition of Faces, introduced by Hilary Mantel, coming out in the UK this year. The Italian and Swedish translations of Owls and Faces are being re-issued soon, and Owls is being translated into Turkish and Faces into Brazilian Portuguese, and both are being negotiated for Finnish. Etc.
Faces is a bigger title than Owls overseas, and is the title that usually makes the international lists of the greatest novels ever written.
If you're going to play the numbers game it's worth recognising that literary fiction almost never outsells genre fiction. So it's great to see the success of the Bone People. Go Keri!

Anonymous said...

Problem is getting any reasonably accurate figures from the Chinese who, until recently anyway, hid or disguised sales to avoid paying royalties.
Also, what about the international sales of The God Boy, which was published in the US before it was released here? There have been many editions. Then there are the German sales of Among the Cinders. And A Good Keen Man? That's if it can be considered a novel. It's certainly fiction. I'm sure that got well passed 100,000 but how far past maybe Ray Richards would know.