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

Colonial editions

Colonial editions

Colonial editions at special prices were a form of British publishing of, chiefly, fiction for the colonial markets. Study of the system offers a window on the British dominance of book culture in New Zealand until the third quarter of the 20th century and what that meant for local print culture.

The classic form of the colonial edition is exemplified by Rolf Boldrewood's A Colonial Reformer (London, 1890), number 116 in the Macmillan's Colonial Library series, which began in 1886. This is a copy of a novel purchased in New Zealand and its preliminary pages have on it the words 'This Edition is intended for circulation only in India and the British Colonies'. In form the book was like its British equivalent and was part of the same printing (indeed it became common for the sheets to be sold among publishers who then bound them for their own colonial series). Still this book, like almost all of its kind, was cheaper than the British version both in appearance—it had green cloth—and its noticeably lower sale price in New Zealand. British publishers delivered it to exporters at perhaps 50% of the price at which it was sold in New Zealand.

As this suggests, the significance of the colonial edition was not so much in any differences in production, which became small after World War I, but rather in its place in the marketing of British books, with all that meant for the colonial connection. Nineteenth-century novels, in three volumes or one, were too expensive for mass sale in New Zealand or other colonies. Local booksellers, agents and wholesalers needed the inducement of a cheap edition, extended terms of credit and—an important point—access to the most recent fiction. The colonial edition met this need. It also suited British print capitalism of the late 19th century by providing a facility for extended and cheap production, linked to heightened international competition where safe colonial markets were of benefit.

The first book issued in Macmillan's Colonial Library was Lady Barker's Station Life in New Zealand (1886). Boldrewood, the popular Australian novelist, and Barker (Mary Broome) did not, however, provide representative titles; most of the offering was popular British fiction put on the market at one title each fortnight from 1886 to 1913. Other British publishers also produced colonial editions: Bell was prominent, with 35 agents in New Zealand by 1901, as was Methuen with its editions of Kipling; some were paper bound, some cloth, some drab, like Macmillan, some gaudy with imperial symbols. The authors who were colonial, either by present or former residence, were only a sprinkling, regarded by publishers as interchangeable among their various colonies in providing frontier adventure in exotic settings. This may be seen from the reports of publishers' readers on New Zealand and on other colonial manuscripts submitted to them.

Simon Nowell-Smith's International Copyright Law and the Publisher in the Reign of Queen Victoria (1968) alerted students to the importance of the colonial edition. The publisher John Murray was first in the field with his Colonial and Home Library (1843). It was triggered by British Copyright and Customs Acts passed from 1842 to 1847 which attempted to provide protection for British books throughout the empire. Although an interesting precursor, it did not have that key feature of later colonial editions, including Murray's own, that volumes were not to be sold in Britain. A nearer analogy is provided by Bentley's Empire Library (1878-81) and Colonial Library (from 1885) which developed in conjunction with Melbourne publisher George Robertson and his London agent, E.A. Petherick, another Australian.

The trans-Tasman connection was important for colonial editions. British publishers regarded Australia and New Zealand as one market area, their branches and agents covering both. Wholesale and retail booksellers and publishers such as Robertson and Angus & Robertson of Sydney, operated in New Zealand, just as Whitcombe & Tombs established a Melbourne office. The New South Wales Bookstall Co. under A.C. Rowlandson published cheap local fiction which circulated well in New Zealand, reminding us that neither British publishers, nor colonial editions, had a total predominance. This framework gives added relevance to the recent and most complete study of the colonial edition, Graeme Johanson's Monash University doctoral thesis 'A study of colonial editions in Australia 1843-1972' (1995).

There is some evidence that the Bentley initiative, as well as the Macmillan one and those that followed in the late 19th century, were influenced by fear of United States competition, both legitimate and illegitimate. Although world copyright was foreshadowed by the 1886 Berne Convention, the United States did not subscribe to the general exchange of the protection of original work of national authors. British publishers, such as Macmillan, set up United States branches to meet the provisions of United States copyright and to facilitate sales, and indeed some colonial editions were printed in the United States. However, although there are expressions of concern about American pirate editions circulating in New Zealand, for example a United States edition of Mrs Henry Wood's popular novel East Lynne (1880) sold in Christchurch at 1s 6d when the British price was 7s 6d, the evidence is fragmentary.

Whatever the truth, Johanson provides evidence of a striking increase in book sales by British publishers to Australia and New Zealand in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He suggests that the volume of British book exports to Australia had by 1914 increased by 2.6 times the 1893 level, and raises the possibility of a proportionate increase for fiction, which might have been 20% of the total. Although it is not certain that this translates into the sale of colonial editions in Australia, let alone New Zealand where the calculations have not been done, Johanson makes a convincing case for the importance of colonial editions in Australia, and the shared market area suggests that the same would be true for New Zealand.

The impact of World War I on colonial editions and British book exports to New Zealand is tolerably clear. Shipping was severely interrupted, costs of production rose with higher material expenses and wages, and binding costs, so important to colonial editions, trebled. Hardback colonial editions rose from 3s 6d to 6s and paperback editions were not produced. The formal differences between the British edition at 7s 6d and the local at 6s were reduced to a stamp notifying that they were colonial editions; the emphasis was now on the pricing arrangement, 'colonial terms'. British book exports to New Zealand fell sharply and the emphasis in the 1920s was on the protection of the booksellers' margins.

New Zealand had, in proportion to population, a large number of booksellers. The Booksellers' Association, formed in 1921, organised effectively to defend margins against, on one hand, the higher British prices and, on the other, the competition from drapers' stores. Overall, they were in a position analogous to the British book trade 20 or 30 years before and sought the same solution, a Net Book Agreement, to ensure that there was a schedule of prices without discounts enforced by agreement of the British publishers and the New Zealand booksellers. The Booksellers' Association helped form the Australian and New Zealand Booksellers' Association (1924-31) to present a united face to the publishers. Typically, they protested about libraries purchasing colonial editions direct from London, but they also demanded from British publishers' branches in Australia, such as the Australasian Publishing Co., the right of New Zealand booksellers to buy direct from London rather than getting their books from Sydney. In 1923 they asked the Publishers Association in Britain to intervene to prevent exporters directly sending colonial editions to buyers in New Zealand at cut prices. By the end of the decade a fixed schedule of prices was enforced by local booksellers and British publishers. One aim was to have the books sell in Australia at British retail prices. Colonial editions were excluded since they cost less in Australia than in Britain. Colonial editions were only a part of the total of British books, but they had over many years set the pattern whereby recent colonial fiction retailed in New Zealand at or below the British retail price, and the export price from Britain was about 50% of the sale price in New Zealand.

When the Edinburgh publishers, William Blackwood, produced two novels with Australian settings by Miles Franklin (Brent of Bin-Bin) in 1929-30, they set a price for T.C. Lothian, their agents who travelled New Zealand, of 3s 3d and a sale price of 6s. Lothian took its 10% and country booksellers would buy from wholesalers but there was a substantial basis here for an alliance between local booksellers and publishers at 'Home', especially when the British retail price was 7s 6d.

The solidity of this linkage in the book trade is indicated by the way in
Black and white photograph

This well-decorated display stand, presumably at a local trade exhibition, dates from about 1920, the year the Brett Printing and Publishing Co. became a public company. The photographer is unknown. The Auckland business was developed by Sir Henry Brett (1843-1927) from 1870 when he bought into the Evening Star, and went on to become known for a number of popular guidebooks and almanacs, such as Brett's Colonists' Guide. Brett's biography in volume 2 of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (1993) provides more detail of his achievements, and notes that in 1929 the company bought out the Lyttelton Times Company to form New Zealand Newspapers.(Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, reference number F-125518-1/2-)

which it survived the storms of the 1930s: the Depression, a period of Australian tariffs on books to protect local printing, and devaluation of the pound. Colonial editions, now termed empire editions, or later overseas editions, did not have their previous formal prominence. Some publishers, Murray and Macmillan for example, continued with overseas editions, while others used the Readers Union which from 1935 published for distribution in the dominions. But the underpinning of 'colonial terms' continued and, as R.J.L. Kingsford in The Publishers Association 1896-1946 (1970) makes plain, British publishers regarded New Zealand and Australia as their exclusive market areas. There is no work on New Zealand equivalent to Johanson's, although the matter is dealt with in part in Anna and Max Rogers's Turning the Pages (1993) and by Dennis McEldowney (1991). There is also valuable material in The Book in Australia ed. D.H. Borchardt and W. Kirsop (1988).

Johanson (1995) quotes a report for British publishers in 1929, 'the phrase "colonial edition" connote(d) not necessarily a distinctive format of a novel, but merely the practice of selling the ordinary English edition at considerably reduced rates (of a discount of 50%) for export purposes'. He traces the colonial edition through to its demise with the end of resale price maintenance in Australia in 1972. Before then, however, the writing was on the wall. In 1946, publisher A.W. Reed remarked that 'the dice are loaded against the New Zealander in his own country'. In Australia a former publisher, P.R. Stephenson, commented in 1962 that 'Australia remains a colonial dependency of Britain . . . In so far as the mind of a nation is conditioned by reading matter, the minds of Australians are conditioned 90% by imported books' (Trainor, 1996, Trainor, 1997). Similar issues may be raised concerning the impact of colonial editions on New Zealand authors. Some were published under this system and enjoyed a circulation that they might never have secured from local publication—Boldrewood provides an Australian example—but national literature may have been stunted by the British dominance.

Colonial editions are an obvious agenda item for the study of print culture. Their significance will not be known until the detailed work is done, including that on periodicals and readership. Then we shall be better placed to understand the longstanding dominance of British books, the internal dynamics that made that possible in New Zealand, and what that might have meant for the colonisation of the New Zealand mind.