Scoop Review of Books

the bone people turns 25

First edition of The Bone People
It’s 25 years tomorrow sinceThe Bone People – almost certainly the best selling New Zealand novel ever written – was published.

Keri Hulme recalls the events of quarter of a century ago for the Scoop Review of Books:

Tomorrow – 25 years ago – there we were, stumbling off the ferry, the South Island contingent for the launch of ‘tbp.’ I hadnt seen a copy of the book; my younger brother had never been on a marae in his life (he, and my big cousin, John, much later got lost, gone nightclubbing, and only just made it back to the ferry the next day); Iri’s Auntie Tweet trying to persuade me to wear a skirt (she’d packed several in hope-); the book launched like a waka, with my first wero, being interviewed by Sharon Crosbie…o, it is so long ago, and so many dead in the meantime…

as my mother Mary wrote (she’s a calligrapher) in a card to mark the 10th anniversary, that book took us so many places. To a formal welcome in Parliament, and David Lange showing where the Member for Tamaki resided in the PM’s private office suite. To the Library of Congress, USA, and Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde; to Denmark and Scotland and Holland and Amsterdam. And many many other people & places truly undreamed of by any of us.

As for photos of the launch… well, there is one, from the “Evening Standard” (or was it the Dominion Post?) that my mother has in her kitchen, showing Spiral Collective 5 (Marian Evans, Miriama Evans, the late Dr. Irihapeti Ramsden, & self grinning toothily (my teeth were still pretty good then) and clutching a fresh-minted copy of ‘tbp’- unfortunately it is on 1.5cm board, and try as we did, neither my mother nor myself could get it to scan..

Sniff. Retires back into the bunker. Thinks about having a whisky.

Bookman Beattie estimates The Bone People has sold 250,000 copies and reports that its American publisher is planning a 25th anniversary edition in 2010 (the anniversary of its US publication.)

[UPDATE: As Keri has pointed out the bone people had sold a remarkable 1.3 million copies by the early 2002]

And all the more remarkable for being published by a small collective of women after mainstream publishers had rejected it.

Interestingly, Beattie also suggests the two next most successful novels to be first published in New Zealand were also written by Maori authors: Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff, and Witi Ihimaira’s Whale Rider both with about 200,000 sales.

It’s difficult to meaningfully rate the value of any particular work of literature, but when it comes to putting a price on a first edition book you can’t go past TradeMe which currently has a first edition of The Bone People for sale for $250.

Happy birthday to The Bone People, and congratulations and thanks to you, Keri for an important and valuable book.


  1. Keri Hulme, 18. February 2009, 17:10

    Kia ora Jeremy – thanks!
    Good to see that old cover: I drew it the night before, and inked the colour in on the morning of, an operation for a jaw abcess. One of my very young -then- nephews asked, “Aye you gonna colour them all in?” Total awe. I dont often strike it.
    Total sales, going by my royalty sheets in 2002, were plus 1.3 million copies counting all editions. It is still in print in 3 English editions, and in German and French. It’s never made it into Italian or Spanish or Japanese, but Russian is on the horizon- cheers n/n Keri

  2. Alison, 20. February 2009, 20:07

    Congratulations Keri Hulme. I’ve never met you, but I read TBP book way back when (Hmmm, what happened to that copy, she wonders? I think it was borrowed. I’m almost sure I gave it back…Hmmmm) and loved it. 25 years. Say it isn’t so. That makes it way past time to read it again. I shall. Thank you.

  3. nagham, 22. February 2009, 11:20

    I’m Egyptian and bought my copy in Ottawa, Canada back in Nov. I started reading the book a couple of days ago. Wow. I’ve been in a sea green wow mood since. I love it. I’m only on page 71. I love it so much.

  4. Murray Gray, 25. February 2009, 13:23

    Keri. Tena koe.

    What a charge it was selling your book into the book trade all those years ago. I think we sold 1200 copies in a week at the beginning and Sandy Hall and I made trip to see you at home on the lagoon. I still have the copy you signed for at the corner of the main road, waiting for the bus to come.
    My life changed a bit from that day on.

  5. Richard Quinn, 26. February 2009, 0:42

    Loved it then; love it now.

  6. Keri Hulme, 26. February 2009, 21:52

    Thanks mates, & new friends – Murray – reall good malt whenever you’re back here – kia ora taou n/n Keri

  7. anne o'callaghan, 14. March 2009, 10:42

    Kia ora
    I read tbp on the beach in Goa in 1987. . It was and still is the best book I have ever read.
    I have ended up in NZ and on a trip round the South Island soon after I got here 14-years ago I walked onto a certain beach which spiralled me back into tbp -I have never had a place evoke the feel of a book so powerfully.
    Thank you…

  8. Chris Benn (Christchurch), 5. April 2009, 11:58

    I just finished TBP, wow is all i can say. I can’t believe I waited 25 years to read. My God it is a powerful story – I wish I could meet you Keri – I love Moeraki, the West Coast as well and also frequent the McKenzie Country (we have a fishing bach there). I am making (asking politely) my partner to read this story as I know she will love it.
    Incredible story, will never be topped. My question is – can’t someone turn this into an Oscar winning movie, or is that not wanted?

  9. Keri Hulme, 23. April 2009, 18:18

    Kia ora Anna, Chris-
    comments truly appreciared!
    Chris, I hold all the dramatisation rights, and, you’re right, I dont want it made into a conventional film…when CGI grows up and can do the kind of things my imagination can – well, that might be another story-
    (o, and I’m frequently both home & at Moeraki – paths will probably cross one of these days._

  10. Liz Odell, 27. April 2009, 16:58

    Kia ora Keri,

    I just wanted to say I think your “Bone People” is an absolutely awesome story.

  11. Barbara Zotz, 31. October 2009, 5:19

    Hello Keri,

    My book club here on Long Island, New York is currently reading THE BONE PEOPLE at my request. I first read it 24 years ago and fell in love with it. Rediscovering it has been a mind-blowing experience. Thank you so much for this wonderful story!

  12. Kiri McCart, 4. October 2012, 7:04

    Hi Keri,
    I would very much like to discuss with you obtaining the rights to The Bone People to option into a screenplay. I’m sure you have reservations about The Bone People becoming a film, but your novel has been a favorite of mine for 15 years. I’ve tried not to write the screenplay for years because I thought you probably wouldn’t want the novel made into a film, but the characters continually reappear in my mind. I would so greatly appreciate if you’d allow me the opportunity to discuss with you the rights to your novel!!!