Who killed poetry publishing?

No, it wasn’t an evil plot, and it wasn’t stupid hippy poets whose bad verse turned everyone off poetry forever. It was publishers, and their craven FOI, or Fear Of Investors.

Publishers in Australia (and elsewhere) abandoned poetry decades ago, for a simple reason. At some point during the middle of the 1970s investors all over the world decided to buy up publishers. It had something to do with following the greedy, successful Rupert Murdoch, who established money-making newspapers and then bought publishers and media companies, looking for synergy. His image graced the cover of «Time» Magazine in 1977, terrifying and inspiring dim-witted investors. But then these investors, who knew nothing about publishing books (neither did Murdoch), put their accountants into the publishing houses they had bought.

Murdoch on the front of Time magazine 1977
Murdoch on the front of Time magazine 1977

‘You can’t run a business with a seven per cent annual return,’ the accountants shouted. ‘We demand twelve per cent! And every line item has to pay its own way.’ So wages were cut (except for the salaries of the alpha males, of course) and any books that didn’t make a profit were chopped. Yes, the bookkeepers were now running the madhouse.

Poetry went first. Alpha males and bookkeepers didn’t read poetry. Worse, it had never made any money, and it never would.

When I began work for the oldest Australian publisher Angus and Robertson as a Senior Education Editor based in South-east Asia in 1971, the education division, which made ten per cent profit a year, subsidised the general division, which published their many poetry titles. Angus and Robertson had been the major Australian publisher of poetry of all kinds for nearly a century, from before the 1895 publication of Banjo Paterson’s popular «The Man From Snowy River».

The Man From Snowy River
Going Down!

Angus and Robertson began publishing in 1887 in Australia. Their first work was a book of verse, «A crown of wattle», written by a Sydney solicitor, H. Peden Steel. By the time I joined the company, Angus and Robertson were the publishers of an annual hardback poetry anthology and dozens of poetry books by Australia’s finest poets: Barcroft Boake, Henry Lawson, C.J. Dennis, Judith Wright, Kenneth Slessor, Robert Adamson, Francis Webb, A.D. Hope, James McAuley, Kenneth Mackenzie, Lesbia Harford, Philip Mead, John Shaw Neilson, David Campbell, Vincent Buckley, Vivian Smith, Geoffrey Lehmann, Philip Hodgins, Margaret Scott, Peter Goldsworthy, Douglas Stewart, Rosemary Dobson, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Christopher Brennan, Banjo Paterson, John Forbes, and dozens more.

The old guard at the firm were known as hard-nosed businessmen, and were often criticised for putting profits before culture, but at least they felt that best-sellers should subsidise poetry, and that a good poetry list made a firm of publishers look more like a gathering of cultured gentlemen and less like a gang of slobbering money-grabbers.

By the end of the 1960s the managers of Angus and Robertson had long been more concerned with the business of publishing than with the variations in market value of their assets and properties. But the asset-strippers were circling.

In 1967 a brilliant but amoral young man, Gordon Barton, formed the company Tjuringa Securities which Wikipedia says “was the pioneer Australian corporate raider. Tjuringa took over Federal Hotels which built the Hobart Casino, the first legal casino in Australia and the Angus and Robertson bookshops and publishing business which were asset stripped.”

Gordon Barton and friends
Gordon Barton and friends

Barton bought Angus and Robertson in 1969, and quickly sold off their wonderful printing house Halstead Press, their valuable city properties, and anything else that could be sold. The run-down Education Division was bought cheaply by McGraw-Hill in 1974, the chain of bookstores were flogged off to magazine distributor Gordon and Gotch in 1978, and Rupert Murdoch bought what was left. (J. Prentice, “The A&R Story”, oral presentation, RMIT Conference on Library History and the Book Trade, Melbourne, November 1987.) Soon Angus and Robertson Publishers were a tiny part of the international publishers HarperCollins, which in turn was a tiny part of the international News Limited conglomerate owned by American citizen Rupert Murdoch, and their Australian poetry list was a distant memory.

Now in 2011 we have the problem of Internet shopping.

Books purchased on the Internet, like many other items, are subject to quick and brutal comparison shopping, and often posted to you free (in return for your valuable mailing and email address, thank you very much). The owners have three extraordinary advantages over real bookshops: they have no need to hire and train knowledgeable staff, they pay no shop rent, and they charge and remit no sales tax (that is, they share none of their obscene profits with you, the people). Now they are moving into book publishing, just as Angus and Robertson, at first just a bookshop known as “the biggest bookshop in the world” (sound familiar?) did over a century ago, in 1888.

John Howard and Meg Lees do a deal. Let’s read their thoughts: Meg Lees: The Prime Minister shook my hand!! John Howard: Goodbye, Sucker!!
John Howard and Meg Lees do a deal. Let’s read their thoughts:
Meg Lees: The Prime Minister shook my hand!!
John Howard: Goodbye, Sucker!!

Sales tax? Australia introduced a sales tax on books when John Howard’s conservative government (with the connivance of Australian Democrats leader Meg Lees) imposed a ten per cent goods and services tax on Australian books for the first time in January 2000. The Australian Democrats are now extinct, and John Howard lost his seat at the last election and has gone from the political scene, but no government, left or right, is ever going to repeal a money-making tax.

The result is that Australian book publishing is in serious decline, and poetry publishing is left to moon-struck amateurs.

Perhaps that is how it has always been. Who published Sappho, or Catullus? Not News Limited.

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