Craig Potton is still the name on the masthead, and although Craig remains a co-owner of the company, it is Robbie Burton (pictured above), both a co-owner and the company’s executive director and publisher, who has driven the development of Craig Potton Publishing into New Zealand’s largest independent publisher.
“I’m the original DIY publisher – when I started, 24 years ago this month as it happens, I really knew nothing,” Robbie told PANZ News. “Craig was a friend, a photographer who moved into publishing so that he could control the quality of his work, and who realised that he needed someone else to run things, as he still wanted the space to take photos.
“As a consequence I’m largely self-taught, a rather laborious path that I would not recommend, though I have enjoyed the freedom that it has given me to develop a broad range of skills that many other publishers don’t get a chance to use, such as design and print production.”
There are a few things that set this publisher apart: their Nelson location, the quality of their production, their long-term commitment to having a sales and distribution operation, which now includes Lonely Planet and Auckland University Press, and their willingness to take risks – this year with Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics. “It left us legally very exposed,” Robbie admits.
That is not a new experience for the publisher. “We’ve published all six of Nicky Hager’s books over the last 20 years, all of which have been controversial, embargoed and risky. After Dirty Politics perhaps the best known is The Hollow Men.”
The risk paid off: the launch function at Unity Books in Wellington in the lead-up to the election campaign created a media tsunami – the modest first 3,000 sent to booksellers unordered and SOR swept out of the bookstores. “I suspect Dirty Politics was one of the fastest selling books ever in this country after Harry Potter,” Robbie muses. His decision to print digitally was another plus. The printers kept reprinting and sales to date are well over 17,000 units.
“It was an extraordinary experience. This doesn’t happen often in a publisher’s life, to put a book out there and watch it hit a public nerve in such a spectacular way.”
Grahame Sydney a sellout
A lesser risk-taking occurred with Grahame Sydney, a major retrospective of Sydney’s art over the past 40 years with an accompanying essay by Vincent O’Sullivan. Published in October in a slip-cased edition of 2500 at $100, with an additional boxed limited edition of 500 at $150, the entire print-run was committed within a few weeks once booksellers actually saw the finished book. But with not enough time to get a reprint landed well before Christmas, Robbie bemoans his own caution in not printing the quantity his instincts thought he should. To be fair however, he was influenced by the lack of enthusiasm among booksellers for stocking such an expensive art book. “It’s still as hard as ever to pick what’s going to work!”
Books on natural history, outdoor adventure and travel, art and culture, photography and social and environmental issues are the mainstay of this nonfiction publisher’s list, while in recent years CPP has also successfully started publishing children’s books.
Currently Tramping – a New Zealand History is ‘roaring out the door’ says Robbie. “At $70 it is a large, handsome production, with experienced trampers and back country historians Shaun Barnett and Chris Maclean telling the wider story of our tramping culture.
Taking a wider view
Although the reduced number of New Zealand titles coming onto the market following shrinkage in the wider publishing industry potentially creates opportunities for him, Robbie has obvious concerns for our publishing industry. “There seems to have been a noticeable decline in output from New Zealand publishers this year which is worrying. Quite apart from the bigger questions of keeping our book culture alive, New Zealand books are a really important component of the local bookselling industry, which we all desperately need.
“I also never thought I’d see Random’s distribution go to Australia, which is very sad. They set the benchmark for excellent distribution.”
Distribution a cornerstone of CPP’s business
Building a much bigger sales and distribution business has been a significant part of CPP’s success in recent years. This has been driven by managing director Emma Radcliffe (left), who moved into this role from her earlier position as sales and marketing director. “Emma has a really strong background in sales and operations, and has played a key role in getting this side of the business working really well. She was responsible for bringing Lonely Planet on board, and has got the business ‘engine room’ of the company working beautifully, for which I’m very grateful,” says Robbie.
While Nelson doesn’t sound like the ideal big-city hub, Robbie says CPP has great relationships with courier companies that means books are received in any part of the country with 24 to 48 hours. “Getting into distribution in the early days was originally done out of naivety, but the benefit to the company now has been enormous.”
CPP’s Nelson location also offers economies in overheads that bigger cities can’t match. They have ‘unglamorous’ offices and warehousing at Port Nelson with a loyal, long-serving and hardworking team of 18.
CPP are always working on improving their sales systems, and over the last year have employed a telesales operator who is in frequent contact with smaller booksellers who don’t receive calls from the sales team quite so regularly.
Challenges… and opportunities
While there are clearly plenty of challenges ahead, Robbie remains cautiously optimistic about the future. “We’re still finding plenty of demand for the illustrated publishing that I specialise in, and I can’t see that going away. Most of all though, I believe we need to work harder than ever to work alongside booksellers, and find every way we can to give the trade great New Zealand books that Kiwis want to buy.
“It will be interesting to see how Christmas goes this year,” says Robbie. “It’s not clear how the mid-list books are going to hold up, which has big implications for our future list.”
You can bet that this thoughtful industry insider will be carefully analysing how the season turned out for his company – and how to make the Craig Potton Publishing imprint an even bigger force in Christmases to come.