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

Educational publishing

Educational publishing

This section is limited to a study of school and college textbooks published in New Zealand. It is based on Hugh Price's collection of these textbooks, which was used to compile an informal catalogue, School Books Published in New Zealand to 1960 (1992). This collection of books is to be deposited in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Before the publication of Price (1992) the subject was obscure because, on the one hand, there were known to be many titles and editions, while on the other hand A.G. Bagnall had elected not to list school textbooks in his New Zealand National Bibliography to the Year 1960 (see vol.2, 1890-1960, p.viii), except for the few that were written by 'authors of note'.

In Price (1992) about 2,500 titles are identified. Many went through edition after edition (in the world of school books, reprints or new impressions tend to be claimed as new editions) so that the total number of books printed was enormous—an estimated total number of all the copies of the 2,500 titles printed is about 60 million (to 1960). Since that date we can perhaps add another half as many again. Sixty million is more that the total of print runs of all the books listed in Bagnall's bibliography—the recognised output of New Zealand's book publishers—so that we have the astonishing fact that most books published in New Zealand were educational books. This promotes them to the mainstream of New Zealand publishing, printing and book reading, and an economic base for New Zealand book publishing.

This is an unfamiliar view, for we are used to identifying the books from our publishers and printers as those we see in bookshops and public libraries, and it reminds us that there is an alternative world of books out there—school textbooks. It is also a reminder that in earlier days schools were often authoritarian and unwelcoming, so that many children left them with a loathing for books, determined never to open another one if they could help it. (Of course, the distinction between school books and the books a reader will choose to buy or borrow, for interest or recreation, is dissolving with the growth of school libraries and the determination of some educational book publishers to issue more attractive books: for example, some infant reading books are now as well illustrated and well written as good children's picture books.)

Nearly all the school books published in New Zealand before 1950 came from the Christchurch office of Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd, so that the strengths and idiosyncrasies of Whitcombe & Tombs governs all. They began publishing in the 1880s and by the turn of the century could take a full-page advertisement in an educational journal, offering a range of books for every subject in the primary school curriculum. Their vigorous publishing held the field for the next half century.

Whitcombe & Tombs were able to publish books more cheaply than similar books that they could import from Great Britain, because they combined in one firm the three roles of publisher, printer and bookseller. As publisher-printers who sold many of their books from their own bookshops, they could choose not to take a full profit 'mark up' at each stage of the book's progress from manuscript to school room (publishing, printing, book-selling). This choice was not available to any other New Zealand publisher—indeed it was almost unique in the English-speaking world, for only one other book publisher, Angus & Robertson of Australia, combined within itself a considerable publishing department, a big book-printing plant, and a national chain of central city bookshops. (But despite this vertical integration, Angus & Robertson published very few school textbooks.) Inside Whitcombe & Tombs it was widely believed that their several printing works were kept alive during the Depression (1929-35) by orders, from their publishing department, to reprint school books.

Whitcombe & Tombs's publishing office was well staffed with competent editors and designers (A.W. Shrimpton, editor for 40 years, had family connections with a book printing business in Oxford) and driven by George Whitcombe who aspired to publish all the books needed by New Zealand schools. Their printeries were well equipped, so that the books they produced stood comparison with comparable books produced in Britain (they were much better than those from Australia). Whitcombe & Tombs's growing chain of bookshops dominated the bookselling trade, with central city shops in each main centre, always well stocked with Whitcombe & Tombs's educational books, which were naturally more easily available than school books from the other side of the world.

It was a winning formula, with two extra ingredients. One was the nearby Australian market, which was reached by Whitcombe & Tombs's bookshops in the main Australian cities, who were both wholesalers and retailers of school books to local schools. In fact, Whitcombe & Tombs published many school books for Australia (and some in Australia). For example, their 1946 catalogue shows many more arithmetic books for Australian schools than it does for New Zealand schools, and many more Australian history books than New Zealand history books. Each of the Progressive Readers (Primers) was published in both New Zealand and Australian editions, and there were specially adapted editions for particular Australian states. On the other hand, there was only a very small flow of Australian-produced school books to New Zealand.

The other special ingredient was the publishing skill and flair of the management of Whitcombe & Tombs. As an example: they pushed ahead the astonishing series of school library books, Whitcombe's Story Books (1904-56) which, in its day, with about 450 titles, was the biggest series of children's books in the world. The Australian bibliographer Ian McLaren has produced a thorough bibliography of this series (1984), and reports that over 12 million of these story books were published.

Another educational publisher was the New Zealand Department of Education. It issued the New Zealand School Journal from 1907, and gave one Journal a month to every school child, so, for example, three million Journals in 1953 (on average 10,000 every working day). After World War II, the Department published many Bulletins and English and arithmetic textbooks—and, after 1960, school readers too.

After 1950 Reeds became active educational publishers. Ten years later educational publishing in New Zealand changed profoundly as several big overseas publishers set up publishing offices in New Zealand: Oxford, Collins, Heinemann Educational, Hodder, Scholastic and Penguin among them. These active publishers proved too much for Whitcoulls, which struggled on, but finally closed its publishing office in 1995. Overseas-based publishers grouped in Auckland and had their printing done overseas. The fine reputation of New Zealand teachers for teaching beginners to read has helped several specialised publishers—notably Wendy Pye, Shortland, —to sell junior reading books around the world, building on the export successes of Whitcombe & Tombs in the Price Milburn (now Nelson Price Milburn) and Lands End1930s and before.

Information about New Zealand's educational publishing to 1960 collected in Price (1992), and in its bibliography, are a departure point for further study. The New Zealand Education Gazette, from its beginning in 1921, to 1952, contains informative articles, reviews and advertisements. The New Zealand Book Publishers Association and its successor has annual figures about books published in New Zealand. Whitcombe & Tombs's various publishing account books, royalty records, and printing order books have reached the Alexander Turnbull Library. Two recent books add detail: Paul and Thomson's Landmarks in New Zealand Publishing: Blackwood & Janet Paul (1995), an account of a publisher who issued some educational books; and Price's bibliography of a writer of infant reading books, Beverley Randell: A Checklist (1996).