Before 1996, there were two major New Zealand literary prizes, the New Zealand Book Awards (1976–1995) and the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards (1968–1993). Montana took over the sponsorship of the Wattie Awards in 1994, and thus became the Montana Book Awards (1994–1995). In 1996, the two awards merged to form the Montana New Zealand Book Awards (1996–2009). In 2010, sponsorship of the awards was assumed by New Zealand Post, which had been supporting the Children’s Book Awards for the previous 14 years.

In 2015, the governance and management of New Zealand’s national book awards were assumed by the new New Zealand Book Awards Trust Te Ohu Tiaki i Te Rau Hiringa. Ockham Residential became the principal sponsor, and the name of the awards was changed to the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

The award categories were streamlined: the Book of the Year Award and the Booksellers’ Choice and People’s Choice awards were discontinued, and a fourth Best First Book Award and a longlist were introduced.

Since 2016, the awards have been held each year in May, as part of the Auckland Writers Festival, in a partnership between the New Zealand Book Awards Trust and the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival Trust.