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Whānau can do anything

an interview with Olivia Aroha Giles
by Johanna Knox


I initially – mistakenly – thought you were a self-publisher. I think someone may have told me that once?


Ah, there is that thing … the difference between self-publishing and an independent publishing company, of which we have too few in New Zealand.

I publish through Dusky, a publishing company that I work for, and that I helped start six years ago when they asked to publish my first novel, Heart of the Tapu Stone. They’ve published eight other titles over the last four years, including historical non-fiction, children’s books, and novels.

At the moment, we’re working on an anthology with kaumātua in Ōtaki who are writing short stories about their life experiences. It’s a lot of fun – they are wonderful, brilliant people.

I’m the art director for Dusky, although I’m not an actual director – I’m an employee – which is great, as it means I get paid for all the work I do. I design the book covers, the books and also all the merchandise and marketing. (I’m an artist. I have been for 30 years, and I have a Bachelor of Applied Art and Design as well as an Advanced Diploma in Creative Writing.)

I get paid quarterly for my book royalties, like most other writers, I guess. Everything else I do is contracted separately – presentations, painting murals, designing covers for other writers, and running workshops in schools and for adults – including kaumātua – about creative writing, storytelling, art etc. Publishing is only one part of the business. We also run educational programmes and manage big events.

We caught a big break with my first novel. It was included in the curriculum at Bonn University, so I got to lecture there a couple of years ago, and they translated the novel for me. So when my latest novel is published (the third part of the trilogy), I’ll be releasing the German translation of the first book.

Luckily, the books sell quite well in Europe, and I get invited over for festivals and things, but I hate travelling in those tiny feck’n seats. I’m a goddess-like woman and they are a nightmare.


Would you ever go down the traditional publishing route now?


I’ve been published by a traditional publisher, but I found out how much money they made from my book and the pittance I got, which really pissed me off. They also bought manuscripts off me that they never published, and that really pissed me off.

I’m not contracted to anyone, so I have the option to go with more than one publisher if I want to. I’m currently deciding if I want to go with a new publisher for my next standalone book. I’ve had an offer, but I don’t know; my motivation has never been money or fame, just writing.


Would you self publish?


To be honest, I could not self publish if I tried, because that is too much work and it also costs a lot of money, and then the marketing etc. could take over your life. I also need gatekeepers to check what I’m doing is good and not let me be humiliated by producing crap. There is a lot of self-published crap out there.

Really, with Dusky, I have the best of both worlds. I have the protection of a publishing house and also the independence to write without a lot of interference. (Apart from my editors, of which I have two, and one of them, not saying which, is a vicious swine. 😄)


Do you feel, in general, that a small, independent publishing house can be more of a community affair than conventional publishing?


We are a Māori company so the way we operate is through whakawhānaungatanga – as in, we work as a whānau. We’ve helped launch the careers of a lot of our kids. They’ve all worked front of house at our events, serving, planning, entertaining and cleaning up. They’ve been actors, models, DJs. Some have typed out books that were given to us handwritten. They’ve proofread, marketed, and even gone into book shops and sold on our behalf. All of these things are work experience for the real world and goes on their CVs.

Our motto is, ‘Whānau can do anything,’ and it’s true.


How is the company doing?


Dusky is doing okay. We’re still making a profit, which is amazing, as most companies crash and burn in the first two years.

We put a lot of research into the New Zealand publishing world for two years prior to starting Dusky. We talked to people like Brian Bargh from Huia, Kay Hancock from Learning Media, Dr Claudia Orange from DNZB, Nathan Gray, and of course Whitireia’s Escalator Press.

We picked everyone’s brain about the viability of starting a boutique publishing company to specialise in New Zealand fiction and non-fiction. We don’t specialise in Māori writing, either. Our latest book is the memoir of a Pākehā child growing up in 1909 in Wanganui called Bid, by Bid Tyler.

We could be called ‘indy’, as we’re a small, independent company who only publish two or three books a year, but the amount of work that goes into each book is enormous.


I love what you wrote on your trilogy’s website about the process of producing your audio book. Could you talk a bit more about it?


The audio book was amazing. I am very lucky in my whānau; there are a lot of talented people. It costs a lot of money for a recording studio and luckily my cousin Maaka McGregor, who is an international star, also has a recording studio in Tītahi Bay.

When we were arranging everything we talked to him over Skype – he was touring Germany at the time – and it was so exciting. He gave us a huge discount on studio time but it’s still very expensive.

Most artists take a day to record a three-minute song. We were recording close to 11 hours of story. We couldn’t do many takes. So people had to rehearse and be pretty word perfect when they came in. (That’s when you find out whether people do their homework or not.) We brought in people who we thought would reflect the voices of the characters.

It took nearly a month, recording a few hours each night. Some bits were so funny we couldn’t stop laughing, and some were terrifying. There is a scene that really gave everyone the willies. It was amazing to hear what I wrote, spoken. That’s when I realised I could write scripts if I wanted, too.


What did you learn from it that could be useful to anyone else thinking of publishing an audio book?


Always, ALWAYS work with people who know what they’re doing. Maaka has been in the music industry for over 25 years, it was a professional recording studio, and he basically led us through the process.

Our producer, Nina McGregor, is the most organised woman in the universe, and she scheduled everything down to the nth degree. She was also fully prepared when things went a bit haywire, and had a plan B, plan C, all the way to a plan Z, to make sure we didn’t waste time, and thus money.

She also got the commitment from our voice actors to turn up when they were supposed to. Out of everyone we asked to participate, only one person pulled out at the last minute, and Nina had that covered in two seconds.

We didn’t make our money back on the audio book. As I said, they’re expensive to make. But we had a great time, and that actually means a lot more than money. We included our kids, parents, cousins, and had a big celebration after. It was a hoot.


What’s your next publishing challenge?


At the moment I’m doing the final rewrite on my next novel, Thread through the Whariki, which is the last book of a trilogy and really complicated (for me, not the reader), but exciting.

I’m also writing my first short-story anthology: Bag of Stones. The story I sent to you was going to be in it. I wrote and produced a play last year and am doing another this year, performing February next year, hopefully in a bigger theatre. I’d love to write a movie.

My challenge is to try and get out of my studio every once in a while to see the sunlight! I am one pale little beastie.


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