Inside Story

MUP’s book of Kells

A centenary history traces the fits, starts and tensions surrounding Melbourne University Press

Jim Davidson Books 10 March 2023 2146 words

MUP’s longest-serving director, Peter Ryan, with the press’s “tough and exacting” senior editor, Barbara Ramsden in 1963. The Age

Given that it has usually been the leading academic publisher in Australia, Melbourne University Press — we learn from this excellent history — began quite tentatively. At the beginning it was scarcely a press at all. The seed was planted when the name was registered at the start, but the undergrowth was thick. “In MUP’s first incarnation,” writes Stuart Kells, it was “a (largely second-hand) bookseller, a stationery store and (by 1926) a gown-hiring service, a post office and a telegraph department.” For a time it included a lending library and a bank agency; goods sold included microscopes and slide rules. All these activities were carried on from a single room in the Union building, as MUP sought to service students.

Mindful of the precedent of Oxford and Cambridge university presses, some members of the board were aware that for the University of Melbourne to have projection — to display its wares, promote research — a publication program was desirable. But given the restricted market, the press would have to feel its way forward. Its first publication was Myra Willard’s History of the White Australia Policy to 1920, the work of a Sydneysider (ratified locally by her having won a University of Melbourne prize for an essay on the subject). The book was authoritative and crisply written, if plainly produced in brittle and unattractive paper wrappers. MUP found it expedient to co-publish this and other titles with the long-established firm Macmillan.

The press began without a full-time director. Stanley Addison, a key figure in its establishment, doubled its management with his other job as the university’s assistant registrar. Even so, considerable progress was made. From a mass of submissions emerged important books in economics, public policy, Australian history and literature. Publications extended to a metrical translation of the psalms, and a comparative work on Melanesian languages. In its first decade, MUP produced fifty-six titles.

But Addison was not as scrupulous as he should have been, nor was he supervised in financial matters. There were dubious withdrawals from the firm’s account and doubtful conduct by his brother, whom Addison had appointed to the staff. But he was known to be ill — largely attributable to his war experience — so was simply relieved of his duties. The governance of the press was tightened immediately after.

MUP’s first full-time director was Frank Wilmot, a socialist, who had already run a significant press of his own, had been a bookseller, and as “Furnley Maurice” was one of Australia’s best-known poets. From a field of one hundred, he was the stand-out applicant — despite having no academic qualifications. Wilmot proceeded to expand the list, extending to philosophy, education, demography and, most notably, poetry and Australian literature and history. In poetry, his business sense balanced enthusiasm. “Is it so good that it is our duty to lose money on it?” he asked his reader of an R.D. Fitzgerald collection. In history, Brian Fitzpatrick’s radical The British Empire in Australia: An Economic History 1834–1939 was the most notable publication. MUP’s historical and scholarly books began to rival those produced by Angus & Robertson in Sydney.

But it was still necessary to co-publish, this time with Oxford University Press, itself a useful endorsement. In the decade Wilmot was at the helm, ending with his sudden death in 1942, around a dozen titles each year were published by the press. Wilmot had steadied it during the Depression.

The next director was a history lecturer who’d already had some dealings with the press. Gwyn James was an Englishman with a gritty Midlands accent who was drawn to book production in all its aspects. A fastidious editor, he was also driven and temperamental, some said irascible. (There would be fireworks when Clem Christesen brought Meanjin to Melbourne and MUP, for he had a similar personality.) But James had flair and a vision. He insisted on bringing publication to the fore, dramatically expanding the list. He wanted a book-binding plant, indeed the capacity to print books, for MUP should match the best American university presses in scale and quality. At one point, to get his way, he submitted his resignation; the board allowed him to withdraw it, and provided its first subsidy — not as big as he would have liked, but enough to set about realising his plans.

As Kells explains, “James’s strategy, and his answer to any problem, was growth.” MUP operations soon extended across eight sites and three capital cities, and the staff expanded. But James lacked the necessary managerial capacity. The overdraft steadily rose: by 1961 it was £150,000. Alarmed, the registrar went so far as to lobby the council to have the press shut down. There was a reconfiguration, some scaling down. James would henceforth be styled “Publisher to the University” — something he had dreamed of — but would now be responsible to a director. He resigned.

MUP’s next director, Peter Ryan, would be in harness for a quarter of a century. Not long after leaving school he had enlisted in the army and fought in Papua New Guinea: this created a lasting attachment to that country, and engendered what would be regarded as Australia’s best war memoir, Fear Drive My Feet. Despite a notable quirkiness, Ryan would always retain something of a military manner, and ran the operation with commendable efficiency. Publications followed in the tracks of his predecessors, with a notable return to poetry, but there were in addition some blockbusters. One was the three-volume Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea, which appeared in 1972, an intellectual Domesday Book assembled on the eve of independence. Another was the first eleven volumes of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

There were also the six volumes of Manning Clark’s History of Australia. The first (1962) sold extraordinarily well and had an enormous impact (as well as attracting fierce criticism). Vividly written in a high literary style, it placed Australian history in a world context. In fact the History was a James legacy that Ryan saw through, but with increasing reluctance.

In Clark’s subsequent volumes, considerable editing was needed to correct errors, tone down the prose and remove hackneyed phrases. This was done so successfully that the History rolled on, collecting prizes. Ryan bided his time, and then years later wrote an attack on Clark and the History in Quadrant. As MUP had profited from the publication, and Clark had died only recently, many felt the article was a betrayal.

After Ryan’s retirement in 1988, there was a period of instability. The brilliant publisher John Iremonger was lured back to Sydney; Brian Wilder occupied the directorial chair twice. At this stage the press was producing up to eighty books a year. It received no regular subsidy from the university, but the bookshop was one of the most profitable in Australia, while the Grimwade bequest was tweaked to enable MUP to produce quality books under the imprint of the Miegunyah Press. But by the end of the nineties the press was facing recurring deficits: John Meckan, a notable “money man,” took the director’s chair.

Meanwhile the University of Melbourne was entering a decisive new phase. Alan Gilbert was appointed vice-chancellor: the scholar of religious history became a high priest of economic rationalism. His hallmark was the launching of Melbourne University Private, an auxiliary fee-paying institution. Touted as MUP, it helped itself unblushingly to the well-known acronym of the press.

The press itself was subject to an exhaustive review, urging it to adapt to the new world of online publishing, ebooks and print-on-demand technologies. Separation from the bookshop was also recommended and implemented, to clarify publishing purposes. The board would now be more commercial, bringing in accountants, journalists, politicians. As Melbourne University Publishing Limited, the press would become a “profit centre” of the university. That, at least, was their hope. In its first year its operating loss was $646,830.

Enter Louise Adler. No one else in Melbourne had so much experience across universities, publishing and the arts, or was so well networked (she was also married to the actor Max Gillies). To gusto and single-mindedness she added a capacity to charm. Adler’s appointment made her the first female head of MUP; it was unkindly suggested that it might be “an attempt to resurrect, if not a dead duck, certainly a dying one.” For in the six previous years, Kells tells us, MUP “had been burning equity.” To use management speak, Adler was expected to act as a “change agent.”

Part of Adler’s brief — aligned with her flair for publicity — was to produce books that were noticed, and that would feed debates in the community. “Commercialisation” became the watchword. MUP would now seek to compete directly with trade publishers, not least in the high advances paid to chosen authors. “The point is not to have more,” Adler said, “the point is to have less. The trick is to have less that you sell more of.” So the outlook was broader, the tone decidedly different. “You’re not to write for your peers,” she told Stuart Macintyre as he collaborated with Anna Clark in The History Wars. “You’re writing for me.”

As Mark Dreyfus has said, Adler viewed every politician as a potential author. MUP published The Latham Diaries and, to balance, Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington’s authorised biography, John Winston Howard, Tony Abbott’s Battlelines, and the conspicuously successful Costello Memoirs, which sold 40,000 copies. These did promote public discussion. But publication of the autobiography of an underworld figure, a book by a celebrity chef, and the story of the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup raised eyebrows.

Meanwhile the academic list became, as one MUP observer scoffed, “Siberia.” Of this I had some personal experience. Adler originally welcomed the idea of a biography of historian Keith Hancock, venturing a print run of 3000 copies. I suggested a sober 2000. I was therefore surprised to receive, ten days later, an email saying that she had decided not to publish it. No reason given. But I soon worked it out: after having published a book on the History Wars, this one would have appeared too retro. Ah well. A Three-Cornered Life went on to win four major awards, including the Prime Minister’s History Prize.

The publication of Louise Milligan’s Cardinal — which Kells sees as having created the climate that led the police to lay the charges of sexual misconduct — added to the university’s dissatisfaction. It had, after all, pumped $26 million in subsidies into the press over fifteen years. Another review was undertaken, urging structural changes and a renewed emphasis on scholarly books. Adler resigned soon after, followed by five members of the board, including Bob Carr, shaking his head: “It is a sad, sad day, that an independent publisher so important to Australian publishing gets snuffed out to be replaced by a boutique, cloistered press for scholars only.” The tail should always wag the dog.

Stuart Kells gives an even-handed account of the Adler experiment, and this is characteristic of the book’s sound judgement. This history benefits from Kells’s broad knowledge of books and the book trade; there are short sections on topics such as publishers and dust-jackets, which while discursive are always illuminating. He is particularly good on the participation of women, and how they were habitually taken for granted by the press and the university. A stalwart of MUP was the tough and exacting Barbara Ramsden, who at times — between male appointees — sat in the directorial chair. But women’s proper place was held to be editing. When the directorship became vacant before the appointment of Wilmot, the advertisement specified that applications would be taken from men only.

At the same time, Kells brings out the two basic tensions operating. First, between the publication of scholarly works (which rarely pay) and the publication of more marketed-oriented books (which may make money but could be frankly populist). Hence the second tension, between the university’s desire to exert influence (or why have a university press at all, if not scholarly?), and the press’s need for independence and flexibility in order to survive.

Once it was simpler: as Gwyn James put it, making a comparison with trade presses, “A university press must create demands: it must aim to bring the best books within the range of as great a number of people as possible.” In the 1950s, that sense of mission could be propounded: less than 1 per cent of the population were university graduates. Now it reeks of elitism.

So Nathan Hollier, MUP’s publisher and CEO of three years’ standing, has his job cut out for him. He speaks of “producing scholarly books for the trade.” Academically credentialed, but also weathered by editing Overland and establishing Monash University Press, he’s in with a chance to square the circle. •

MUP: A Centenary History
By Stuart Kells | Miegunyah Press | $60 | 544 pages