Why Write A Book About Angus & Robertson?
When I began my research in 2006, the Angus & Robertson (A&R) bookstore chain was in every Australian city and eBooks were a failed experiment by the makers of Palm Pilots. By the time I finished in 2010, this situation had reversed: the famous book chain had collapsed and publishers were mired in a terminal struggle to survive against rapidly expanding international digital media platforms. In an industry that was traditionally long-term, the relentless budget pressure produced by the availability of cheap overseas eBooks through Amazon and Apple shifted priorities towards “big books”; that is, short-term publishing with a focus on immediate sales. Generating a sense of crisis, the book trade was perceived to be dealing with rapid innovation followed by rapid closure and restructure.
As an historian and cultural studies researcher, this was also a key moment for a subject I had lived with for nearly four years. With the Australian book trade in a constant state of adaption and A&R fading from the public consciousness, I found myself anticipating challenging questions like why should A&R deserve any examination at all? It’s just a failing bookseller, right? And yet the business name still resonates with us, making headlines with every change in ownership, even if we are nowadays a little unsure of its significance.
One possible answer is that landmark publications like The Man from Snowy River, The Magic Pudding and The Australian Encyclopaedia helped consolidate A&R’s reputation as one of Australia’s most culturally significant publishers of Australian writing. During the 20th century, A&R also became one of the largest copyright holders in Australian literature. In previous unpublished research, Caroline Vera Jones has unpacked the substantial “influence which early A&R books have had on an Australian history of ideas and even on the writing of Australian history itself”. Jennifer Alison has also examined the company’s first 12 years (late 19th century) as “A&R holds a premier position in the history of the Australian book trade” and “the story of Australian publishing cannot be told without the story of A&R”. Neil James has also studied the firm’s early domestic business and concluded that A&R’s publications helped Australian “culture to shape a sense of self. It cemented the national-historical archetypes of the bush and the Australian landscape, of social democracy and the fair-go, of the grand narratives of Australian history, of distinctive Australian values and identity”. And in Richard Nile’s account, an analysis of A&R’s business is an analysis of the production and distribution of a certain view of Australian culture.
It is not unreasonable to argue, therefore, that much of what is conventionally imagined to be the character of Australian identity is linked to the many texts that A&R once elected to publish in book form. Granted, the modern field of publishing is now enormously crowded but the Australian publishing industry today is rooted in a long historical process, stretching back to the 19th century, of which A&R was a key player. A&R may have lost its national influence after 1970 when it was taken over by an insurance and securities company and its position has since been supplanted by several independent and trade presses. But the importance of examining A&R in historical detail remains connected with the need to understand ourselves and why we might think of certain ideas or ideals as being uniquely Australian.
Another answer is that the focus of my research is on trade publishing; that is, both fiction and non-fiction intended for general readers and for sale through bookstores and retail outlets. It’s thus not just about Australian literature but, importantly, it’s also about Australian non-fiction and the deals that were made to give both genres a reasonable chance in international markets. The reason for this is that these two genres are interrelated and the factors that shape and organize the publishing of fiction are intimately connected with those affecting non-fiction. As George Ferguson (veteran publisher of A&R) once commented, the publication of Australian poetry was often paid for by trade books like Commonsense Cookery.
It is hoped therefore, through investigating the cultural and commercial links between books produced at home in Australia and books produced overseas –- as evidenced by the experiences of A&R –- that Angus & Robertson and the British Trade in Australian Books, 1930–1970: The Getting of Bookselling Wisdom offers an historical primer to the contemporary transformations underway within the Australian book trade. More significantly, I hope this book contributes to a recuperation of A&R’s place in Australian cultural history as one of the nation’s earliest publishers to promote the work of Australian authors in an international context.
Angus & Robertson and the British Trade in Australian Books, 1930–1970: The Getting of Bookselling Wisdom is available from Anthem Press.