What is Moa Press and why is it so exciting for Aotearoa’s publishing industry?

Moa Press – est. 2022 – is gearing up to release five local fiction books in 2023. And then, in 2024, give us the deep dive into the life story of the feijoa that we’ve all been waiting for. 

What is Moa Press?

Moa Press is the brand new imprint by Hachette Aotearoa, which is the local branch of a multi-national publishing company Hachette UK. Hachette Aotearoa’s current local authors and books include such bestsellers as: Donovan Bixley, Edmonds Cookbooks, Margaret Mahy, Nicky Pellegrino, J.P. Pomare and Nalini Singh. For a while now, though, Hachette Aotearoa hasn’t released many local titles by new authors. This is about to change with the launch of Moa Press, which is gearing up to release new commercial fiction and non-fiction by Aotearoa authors into the market. 

Of their books, Moa Press say: “Our list will be varied and broad-reaching: we are launching some fantastically compelling commercial fiction in 2023 – emerging voices we plan to grow into key brand names for the future. We have powerful literary fiction that will provoke conversation and open your eyes to a new way of thinking. And we have escapist reads to whisk you away on a joyful break from reality.”

Why is this big news?

With this new list of books, introducing new voices, Moa Press is giving local readers and writers alike more options for homegrown storytelling. According to recent research into our reading habits by ReadNZ, almost half of those surveyed had read a New Zealand book in the previous 12 months. We are becoming hungrier for our own stories and the optimism of a new imprint such as this one, is a sign of that. The launch of Moa Press will, ideally, stimulate the local market and boost sales of local books by celebrating our stories. 

What is particularly exciting about Moa Press is that many of their books have multi-territory deals which means the books will be published elsewhere in the world as well as here in Aotearoa. Of their eight current authors, five of them will also be published in one or more international territories (e.g.: UK, US, AUS and/or Ireland). Moa Press’s international connections mean it has the potential to simultaneously send our stories out into the wider world. In this way, the imprint acts almost as an agent as well as a publisher as they can arrange the international publications as well as broker TV and film rights.

Moa Press publisher Kate Stephenson (Photo: Supplied)

Who is Moa Press’s publisher, Kate Stephenson?

Before New Zealander Kate Stephenson went to London on her OE in 2010 she was told it would be impossible to get into the publishing industry. She started with an unpaid internship and then worked her way up to commissioning editor at HarperCollins before moving to Hachette UK where, for four years, she built the list for their Wildfire imprint. When Covid hit it was the draw of family that brought her back to Aoteraoa.

Stephenson told us she was initially nervous about coming home, wondering if she’d find the kind of work that she’d be leaving behind. Then Hachette Aotearoa called and Moa Press was born. Her enthusiasm for her authors is immediately apparent. She is a compelling advocate for their books and explained that Moa Press is interested in building careers: six of her current authors have two-book deals (or more). 

How did Kate find the books for Moa Press? 

Kate’s connections with international agents helped her find some of her authors, but others came directly from the submissions pile. One of the beautiful things about publishing in Aotearoa is that you don’t necessarily have to have an agent to find a publisher (which is not the case for much of the rest of the world). There is such a thing as a submission email: writers can send their manuscripts directly to a publisher and hope for the best. Airana Ngarewa (Ngāti Ruanui) sent the manuscript for his novel, The Bone Tree (coming out in September 2023) to the submissions inbox and is now a Moa Press author with his debut novel compared to the likes of Becky Manawatu, Trent Dalton and Witi Ihimaera. 

Who are the Moa Press authors so far? 

Anne Tiernan is based in Tauranga and signed for a two-book deal, with the first novel The Last Days of Joy out in April next year. The novel will also be published in Ireland and the UK. (Yes, Anne is related to Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan – they are siblings).

Margaret Meyer grew up in Aotearoa but now lives in England. Her novel, The Witching Tide is inspired by the 17th Century witch hunts in East Anglia, which were the most deadly. (More on this below.)

Katharine J. Adams lives on the Kāpiti Coast and will be publishing a YA fantasy trilogy with Moa Press. Tonight, I Burn is the first novel and will also come out next year. It takes place in a world “where anything can happen; witches burn their own, the future is woven in silk, and Death might be safer than Life.” 

Airana Ngarewa (Ngāti Ruanui) teaches at Spotswood College, New Plymouth (and is a regular contributor to The Spinoff). His debut novel The Bone Tree is a coming-of-age story of two orphaned brothers, Kauri and Black, who must find a way to survive past trauma.

Olivia Spooner is the owner of indie bookstore The Booklover in Milford on Auckland’s North Shore. Her novel is called The Girl From London and is inspired by the true WWII story of men and woman trapped on the ship the MS Rangitane after German raiders attacked it off the shores of Auckland in 1940.

In 2024 authors include Saraid de Silva (co-creator / co-host of Radio New Zealand’s Conversations with My Immigrant Parents) whose debut novel AMMA tells the story of three generations of women: daughter Annie, mother Sithara, and grandmother Josephina; and Erin Palmisano, who has written a novel called The Little Greek Taverna which sounds like the ultimate summer read in the vein of Nicky Pellegrino’s best-selling books about having a life-changing and delicious time in Italy.

And what about this Feijoa book?

Frankly this is one of the most exciting bits about a generally very exciting new world of books. In March 2024 (forever away but will no doubt come quicker than it should) Moa is publishing Feijoa: A story of plants, people, obsession and belonging by Kate Evans. This will be the first non-fiction title for Moa Press and is essentially a biography of the feijoa. It promises to be “a sweeping tale about the dance between people and plants: how we need each other, how we change each other, and the surprising ways certain species make their way into our imaginations, our stomachs, and our hearts.”

We cannot wait. You can get a taste of things to come by following Kate’s Instagram account @feijoafellowship.

What is it with witches?

Two of the first five Moa Press books feature witches: Margaret Meyer’s The Witching Tide, and Katharine J. Adams’ YA trilogy that begins with Tonight, I Burn. 

The witch is a beguiling, complex subject and one with a very long history in our collective cultures and bookshelves. In recent years there’s been a fierce upswing in witch-related literature with popular titles like The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore, Circe by Madeline Miller, The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness … among many others. More locally we have an entire collective of writers dedicated to writing and publishing witchy fiction.

The witch book trend looks set to continue weaving magic through the publishing lists in 2023 with Meyer’s The Witching Tide already picked as a witchy book to watch for 2023 by The Evening Standard in the UK. 

What challenges does Moa Press face? 

Kate Stephenson would like to see her Moa Press books make it onto bestseller lists and be nominated for prizes, if not scoop them. Time will tell. Publishing can be something of a dark art: Stephenson agrees that it can be hard to predict what readers will take to. Sometimes the success of a book comes down to timing or factors that remain entirely mysterious.

In terms of comparative aspirations, Stephenson sites stratospheric successes like Jacqueline Bublitz’s Before You Knew My Name (published by Allen & Unwin) and Auē by Becky Manawatu (published by indie publisher Mākaro Press) which have both been released in multiple international territories and continue to sell well here. 

Booksellers in Aotearoa, Stephenson told us, are very keen for Moa Press to get the book covers right. When a book looks the part it’s easier for it to compete for the attention of readers who have a ton of choices when they’re browsing in person and online.

So, expect excellent book covers

Many of us judge books by their covers. A great cover can be an essential key to a book’s success in a highly competitive market. Each year it’s possible to spot aesthetic trends: images and motifs linking one book to another, hoping to catch the eye of a reader who had a good time with “that one” and therefore might be tempted by “this one” which looks a lot like it. For example, the “sad girl cover” is the vibe of this year. Readers across social media have been quick to point out that a ton of 2022 titles feature images of women looking glum, despairing, hopeless, exhausted or hungover. Or a combination of all of the above. 

The two cover images out from Moa Press so far are certainly striking and definitely reminiscent. The Witching Tide cover (above) has a colour scheme that sings from the same song sheet as hugely successful novel, Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrel with which it shares a genre (historical fiction) and a theme (stories about strong women). The cover for The Last Days of Joy evokes the idea of trouble in paradise: the sun sets over an unknown woman alone in an unpeopled, watery landscape. It’s a very similar setup to the covers of Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and The Family Holiday by Shalini Boland, both big family drama novels for 2022.

Final thoughts

Moa Press spells an exciting time for Aotearoa publishing. We’re looking forward to reading the books! And long live the mighty feijoa.

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