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Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa

The businesses

The businesses

For over 80 years the New Zealand publishing scene was dominated by two firms. In 1882 the Christchurch bookseller George Whitcombe combined forces with the printer George Tombs, thereby controlling the means of production as a printer and having access to the market as a bookseller, an enviable position from which to strike out as a publisher. By the time Whitcombe & Tombs's publishing petered out following Bertie Whitcombe's retirement in 1963, their major competitor since the 1930s, A.H. Reed Ltd (better known by its imprint, A.H. & A.W. Reed), was a multinational publisher with an output of 300 titles per annum. Reeds, too, had its beginnings in bookselling—initially in mail-order marketing of religious material—entering publishing in earnest only with a co-production (with the printer Coulls Somerville Wilkie, and hedging their bets with the local university's support) of J.R. Elder's edition of The Letters and Journals of Samuel Marsden in 1932.

Even the estimated 12 million copies of Whitcombe's story books published between 1908 and 1962 pales beside the unimaginable quantities of material published by the third major player of the era, the Government Printing Office. The Office had its origins in the earliest years of colonial government, in 1842, and after a hiatus from 1847 was re-established in Wellington in 1864. Its official function clearly marks it out as a special case but it is also significant as the country's only publisher of major reference works—and contract printer to New Zealand's largest publishing enterprise, the telephone directory.

Publishing reputations are not made entirely by bulk of output, however. The social ferment of the 1930s was the fertile ground from which a number of significant publishing enterprises sprang, some longer-lasting than others. Aesthetic considerations underlay the enterprises of Harry H. Tombs—son of George—whose serials Art in New Zealand and Music in New Zealand, the annual New Zealand Best Poems, and some ambitiously designed monographs are landmarks whose present reputations might be cold comfort to their hard pressed proprietor who eventually had to give up the publishing business as hopelessly uneconomic.

Like Harry Tombs, maintaining its viability with a commercially more robust jobbing printing sideline was the Caxton Press of Christchurch. Now of almost legendary status in New Zealand literary history, it first made an impact in 1940 with publications by Frank Sargeson and M.H. Holcroft. The name of Denis Glover is inextricably linked with this enterprise, as Bob Lowry's is with the short-lived Auckland student publication, the Phoenix, perhaps more notable as a literary historical landmark than as a publishing history event. Out of the spirit of the times and the cooperative bookshops set up by the optimistic socialist fellow travellers of the era arose the Progressive Publishing Society (PPS) in 1942, with ambitious plans and some notable authors (including Curnow, Fairburn, Holcroft and Sargeson) and a series, New Zealand New Writing, modelled on John Lehmann's Penguin New Writing in the United Kingdom. The PPS was not notable, however, for successful marketing decisions; and the commercial and political world was about to change again.

After World War II, Whitcombe & Tombs's publishing successes in readers and schoolbooks were undermined by the ascendancy of the Department of Education's School Publications Branch, as well as by competing firms, notably Reeds. Caxton led in literary publications while Reeds dominated in popular reading. Hamilton bookseller Blackwood Paul, who had been on the board of the PPS, moved into publishing and on a shoestring budget managed a number of popular successes.

The University of New Zealand Press was set up in 1947 after decades of dogged lobbying by Sir James Hight. The highlight of the 17 titles it issued before the University's dissolution into its constituent parts in 1962 may have been F.H. McDowall's Buttermaker's Manual (2 vols, 1953), although the title best remembered now is probably Keith Sinclair's Origins of the Maori Wars. Although other university presses were already established, Auckland's was the first to become a significant publishing force, from 1966 for a time in association with Oxford University Press, followed by Victoria in 1979 and Canterbury and Otago in the late 1980s. New Zealand's university presses have branched out from their academic roots and are notable for the general market titles included in their lists.

Of the 20 New Zealand book publishers listed in Perry's 1952 New Zealand Writer's Handbook, only two names (Reed—misleadingly—and Caxton—barely) are recognisably identified with publishers active in New Zealand today, although some others may live on through their lists, now under other imprints. It was in the 1960s that overseas publishing firms began to make an impact on the local scene. William Collins (originally of Glasgow) had had a presence here since 1888 and had printed its popular British-originated titles in New Zealand as early as 1943. It did not, however, become a local publisher until the late 1960s.

Blackwood & Janet Paul's absorption into Longman Paul in 1967 marked the first 'merger' of local publishing with major overseas interests. Other foreign-owned (i.e. British) firms who entered New Zealand publishing from the late 1960s or early 1970s were Heinemann Educational, Hodder & Stoughton, and Oxford University Press (a comparatively late starter). Through its parent company's ownership of Longman, Penguin absorbed part of a New Zealand list and made a consistent contribution locally from the mid 1980s (its first local venture was a reprint of David Yallop's Beyond Reasonable Doubt?, 1980).

Another phenomenon of the 1970s was the entry of Paul Hamlyn into New Zealand publishing, in association with Whitcombe & Tombs, with two substantial series of part-works, New Zealand's Heritage (in 105 parts, 1971-73) and subsequently New Zealand's Nature Heritage (both edited by Ray Knox). Locally these might be seen as drawing on the model of the pictorial survey series Making New Zealand, produced as part of the government's centennial publications programme. However they were also following a worldwide trend of the time. With a high-powered advisory board chaired by J.C. Beaglehole, New Zealand's Heritage claimed to be the first fully-illustrated social history of New Zealand, and at a total of almost 3,000 pages, and with articles by many of the country's leading scholars, it was a significant event. (It included a survey of publishing by M.H. Holcroft in part 97.) There seems to have been no successor to these series (except perhaps for Weetbix cards), perhaps a publishing idea that has fallen out of fashion.

Local publishers had continued to be active. Reeds had opened an Australian subsidiary but were bought out and dismembered in the 1970s, with the local publishing arm initially becoming Reed Methuen. In 1979 it became part of the aptly-named Octopus group. The imprint has now re-emerged as part of the Anglo-Dutch Reed Elsevier group in the 1990s. Whitcombes merged with the printer Coulls Somerville Wilkie in 1971 to become Whitcoulls, but vivisection has seen the backlist sold to Penguin and the portmanteau now adorns only bookshops, presently owned by the same United States based office products conglomerate which bought GP Print and GP Publishing (the former Government Printing Office before its scandalous privatisation). In 1989 the Government Printing Office had been able to claim that it was the largest New Zealand-owned book publisher and distributor.

Other New Zealand firms—John McIndoe, Alister Taylor, —had briefer lives, some ceasing through choice, some through economic necessity. The tenacious Price Milburn and othersBridget Williams (of Port Nicholson Press, then Allen and Unwin New Zealand, then Bridget Williams Books and now with Auckland University Press); David Bateman; Dunmore Press of Palmerston North; Ann Mallinson (Mallinson Rendel); and Bob Ross and Helen Benton (currently Tandem Press) are among the relatively long-term survivors of an increasingly competitive environment, where overseas boardroom machinations or trends in business philosophy can wipe out a household name from half a world away.

The history of Māori language publishing is another story, where factors other than economics have played an important part. From missionary beginnings it has survived 150 years of indifference and manipulation, if not outright suppression. Government and institutional support has enabled the undertaking of some large scale works, from the Māori Bible and the Williamses's Dictionary via Apirana Ngata's Nga Moteatea to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography's Māori-language series, Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau. Recently, independent Māori language publishing has re-emerged, with the production of educational and children's books to the fore. The award winning Huia Publishers are a notable example (examined by Helen McLean in Endnotes, 1997). Most works recently published have been translations, and there is an emerging debate about quality and sources of vocabulary.

Dennis McEldowney's stylish survey in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (1991, to be updated for early 1998 publication) identifies the key businesses in New Zealand's publishing history and adumbrates the changing scene. His footnotes are the researcher's first signposts to an uneven infrastructure of further references. Tony Murrow and Julie McCloy provide brief historical overviews, and Jo Nicol a paper on Māori publishing, in Endnotes (1995). The forthcoming Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature will also contain entries for the more 'literary' publishers. Specialist publishers in non-literary areas have commonly been overlooked. Such major enterprises as the business information publisher CCH, the medical publisher Adis, and the legal publishers Butterworths (part of Reed Elsevier) and Brookers, are beyond the pale to most chroniclers. Other non-literary types such as Moa Press (now part of Hodder Moa Beckett) and Rugby Publishing have also been politely ignored by the publishing historians.

Whitcombe & Tombs published no company history, although notes for a planned centennial volume (by A.H. Johnstone) are extensively quoted by Anna and Max Rogers (1993). Records of Whitcombe's publishing from 1905 to 1986 are held at the Alexander Turnbull Library (where they were deposited by Penguin Books). Ian McLaren's Whitcombe's Story Books (1984) is the only systematic study of any aspect of the long-lived firm's output. Reeds produced two celebratory publications, The House of Reed (1957, written jointly by A.H. and A.W.) and The House of Reed, 1957-1967 (1968), a chronicle of a hugely successful decade, written largely by A.W. Reed. Considerable records, author files and book proofs are now in the Turnbull Library manuscripts collection. Elizabeth Caffin presented a paper on Reeds' golden age to the History of Print Culture conference in Dunedin in 1996.

The records of the enterprising Harry H. Tombs Ltd are held in the Turnbull Library manuscripts collection, as is some Caxton Press material amongst Denis Glover's papers. Caxton is one of the Christchurch publishers treated in depth in Noel Waite's thesis 'Adventure and art' (1997); the others are Pegasus and Hazard (as well as the more marginal Hawk and Nag's Head presses). Rachel Barrowman has documented the history of the Progressive Publishing Society in 'Making New Zealand articulate' (1988) and her book A Popular Vision (1991). In 1995 an exhibition at the National Library Gallery of books published by Blackwood & Janet Paul was accompanied by a booklet by Janet Paul and John Mansfield Thomson, Landmarks in New Zealand Publishing. Some of Blackwood & Janet Paul's papers are held at the Turnbull Library, with some restrictions on access. Also restricted are Port Nicholson Press papers and other papers of Bridget Williams held at the Library.

Government Printing Office records exist at National Archives, with lacunae caused by the periodic fires that have depleted all government records. Rachel Salmond examines the earliest years in Government Printing in New Zealand, 1840 to 1843 (1995) and an overall history was written by W.A. Glue (1966). The University of New Zealand Press receives a brief treatment by Hugh Parton in his history of the University (1979); an article by J.E. Traue in New Zealand Libraries (1963) provides a fuller account and a checklist. The Press's papers are at National Archives. Dennis McEldowney is currently working on the early history of Auckland University Press, and the state of the university presses is surveyed by Nicola Hill and Lis Roche in Endnotes (1995).

Other house histories are few. The publishing house of William Collins issued a booklet to commemorate its centenary in New Zealand as Quenching the Thirst for Knowledge (1988). It includes a timeline of the company's history in New Zealand, whose milestones include the appointment of David Bateman as managing director in 1968 and Brian Phillips in 1978. Butterworths devoted a few pages to New Zealand ('the law publisher's paradise') in their 1980 history (by H. Kay Jones) and a subsequent (unpublished) account of their New Zealand activities has been written by Julia Millen. A detailed account of the specialist Wellington publisher Technical Publications is Francis D. Wootton's There Was a Tide (1992) and an article on a similar topic is Hugh Brown's on PSL in Endnotes (1996). The bare bones of businesses may be discerned in a number of sources: the BPANZ newsletter, The Publisher, includes profiles of publishing firms in many of its issues, and the company listings in Book Publishers and Distributors (1995- ) are accompanied by brief descriptions. Authors' handbooks at various times have included lists of publishers with descriptive detail, and publishers are listed in such publications as the New Zealand Business Who's Who (the latest edition is the 38th, 1997) and New Zealand Books in Print.