Angus & Robertson and the British Trade in Australian Books, 1930-1970: The Getting of Bookselling Wisdom

Angus & Robertson and the British Trade in Australian Books, 1930-1970: The Getting of Bookselling Wisdom

by Jason D. Ensor


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'Angus & Robertson and the British Trade in Australian Books, 1930-1970' traces the history of the printed book in Australia, particularly the production and business context that mediated Australia's literary and cultural ties to Britain for much of the twentieth century. This study focuses on the London operations of one of Australia's premier book publishers of the twentieth century: Angus & Robertson. The book argues that despite the obvious limitations of a British-dominated market, Australian publishers had room to manoeuvre in it. It questions the ways in which Angus & Robertson replicated, challenged or transformed the often highly criticised commercial practices of British publishers in order to develop an export trade for Australian books in the United Kingdom. This book is the answer to the current void in the literary market for a substantial history of Australia's largest publisher and its role in the development of Australia's export book trade.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783080588
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Series: Anthem Australian Humanities Research Series
Pages: 268
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jason D. Ensor holds a BA and MA in Australian studies and a PhD in communication studies from Murdoch University.

Read an Excerpt

Angus & Robertson and the British Trade in Australian Books, 1930â"1970

The Getting of Bookselling Wisdom

By Jason D. Ensor

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2013 Jason D. Ensor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-105-9



An Australian publishing company whose headquarters were based in Sydney, New South Wales, Angus & Robertson was founded by two Scots, David Mackenzie Angus and George Robertson, in January 1886 after Robertson bought a 50 per cent share in Angus' own 110 Market Street bookshop for £15. The partnership was initially concerned only with the bookselling business that Angus started eighteen months earlier in June 1884. The bookshop was stocked with 'New and Second-hand Books ... purchased in the home markets on very favourable terms' by a friend of Angus based in the United Kingdom, a Mr Young J. Pentland. Angus & Robertson's first entry into Australian publishing began in 1888 with a thin book of verse by H. Peden Steel titled A Crown of Wattle (71 pages). This was followed in the same year by Sun and Cloud on River and Sea (72 pages) by Ishmael Dare (a pen name for Arthur W. Jose who frequently wrote and edited for Angus & Robertson) and Facsimile of a Proposal for a Settlement on the Coast of New South Wales (3 pages) by Sir George Young (a work originally authored in 1785).

Angus & Robertson's modest experiments in local publishing continued into the 1890s. An expansion of its core bookselling business had required a move in 1890 to larger premises at 89 Castlereagh Street. A new ten-year partnership agreement was drafted and its starting capital was £2,331 7s 1d. The year 1895 saw the beginning of regular trade publishing with the success of A. B. (Banjo) Paterson's now culturally iconic work The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses, considered by George Robertson to be Angus & Robertson's first bona fide book. The firm swiftly followed with another two books of verse by Henry Lawson in 1896: In the Days When the World was Wide and Other Verses and While the Billy Boils. In the same year, Angus & Robertson also arranged with British company Macmillan to publish The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses in London in an edition of 1,140 copies. Subsequent impressions were produced in Sydney and 11 impressions of Paterson's classic were published in London to 1917.

The first novel published in Australia by Angus & Robertson was Teens by Louise Mack in 1897. The title, meant for the juvenile market, coincided with an English edition produced through Andrew Melrose. The year 1898 saw another 18 titles published into the domestic market by Angus & Robertson, one of which was The Mutineer by Louis Becke and Walter Jeffery. Originally an English publication handled by Unwin Bros, the British publisher supplied sheets of its London edition to Angus & Robertson, which then added its imprint. Publishing an overseas title in a colonial edition was not an unfamiliar activity for Angus who had previously issued Sir Walter Scott's Waverly Novels and poetical works for the Australian market in 1885. Angus' Colonial Editions, as the series was called, used an Edinburgh publisher to produce his Australian editions. In 1899 Marcus Clarke's novel, For the Term of His Natural Life, was reprinted from the London and Melbourne edition originally produced in 1888 through a collaboration between British firm Richard Bentley & Son and Melbourne company George Robertson Ltd (no relation). The sheets were supplied to Angus & Robertson by Macmillan, which took ownership of Richard Bentley & Son in 1896.

Other English editions of the company's publications, which confirm Angus & Robertson's early intentions to supplement Australian sales of its titles with distribution in the British market, included: While the Billy Boils (Henry Lawson, London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1897), An Emigrant's Home Letters (Henry Parkes, London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1897), The Coming Commonwealth (R. R. Garran, London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1897), At Dawn and Dusk (V. J. Daley, London: James Bowden, 1898), and Growth of the Empire (A. W. Jose, London: John Murray, 1901). The circumstances surrounding each title's British publication – which included Angus & Robertson paying British distributor Simpkin, Marshall a commission to carry Australian titles under its imprint – has been examined in detail by Jennifer Alison. As he looked back from 1946, George Ferguson, grandson of Angus & Robertson co-founder George Robertson, observed of the late nineteenth century that 'from this time publishing on a large scale became an integral and important part of the firm's business'. No doubt capitalising on the personal links afforded by its co-founders' Scottish heritage, it is clear too that the buying and selling of Australian texts, plus the exchange of reprint rights between Angus & Robertson and counterpart British firms, was a component in the company's commercial practice from the very beginning.

Due to his ill health, Angus sold his share in the partnership to his original bookshop assistant Fred Wymark and another employee Richard Thomson before returning to Scotland where he died in 1901 at the age of 36. The former partnership was succeeded by a public company, which incorporated on 4 February 1907 and re-registered on 21 September 1920. In the decade and a half in-between this transition, which also saw the First World War, Angus & Robertson published May Gibbs' Gumnuts (1910), C. J. Dennis' The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915) and Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding (1918). In non-fiction, the 1920s and 1930s witnessed the first edition of the ten-volume Australian Encyclopaedia edited by A. W. Jose and Herbert James Carter and a twelve-volume authoritative war history edited by C. E. W. Bean titled The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918.

Such landmark publications served to consolidate Angus & Robertson's reputation as a culturally significant publisher of Australian writing, and over time it became 'one of the largest copyright holders in Australian literature'. Caroline Vera Jones has analysed the substantial 'influence which early Angus & Robertson books have had on an Australian history of ideas and even on the writing of Australian history itself'. Jennifer Alison has examined the partnership's first 12 years within the context that 'Angus & Robertson holds a premier position in the history of the Australian book trade' and that 'the story of Australian publishing cannot be told without the story of Angus & Robertson'. Neil James has studied the firm's business from 1930 to 1970 and concluded that Angus & Robertson's output 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 Richard Nile has interrogated the politics of Australian literary production and argued that Angus & Robertson's 'success as a publisher and bookseller was dependent entirely upon a set of commercial relations that were indifferent to any claims of nationalism'. Within these accounts, an analysis of Angus & Robertson's business is an analysis of the production and distribution of a certain view of Australian culture, and it does not contradict Laura J. Miller's argument that 'commerce is culturally marked: the way it is understood and practiced depends on specific historical and cultural contexts'. That is, economic outcomes influence cultural identity and vice versa.

From a business perspective, Angus & Robertson's publishing activities continued to expand with the addition of Eagle Press' print facilities to the firm's operations in 1923. In its first year, Eagle Press manufactured 300,000 copies of Angus & Robertson's publications, but at the start of the Great Depression it was declared bankrupt. On 20 June 1929, George Robertson's controlling interest in Eagle Press was purchased by Angus & Robertson's subsidiary, Halstead Press Ltd, solidifying the company's diversification into the three main areas of book trade business: bookselling, publishing and printing. On the bookselling side, which relied heavily on imports, Angus & Robertson's bookshop had grown its customer base to over 25,000 readers and its catalogue listed 100,000 titles by 1940.

Angus & Robertson's London agency was established in 1913 after previously negotiating overseas editions through its English agent Pentland. Henry George, who acted on commission for the Sydney office, superintended the agency. The London agency was known for 25 years as the Australian Book Company and in 1937 was purchased outright by Angus & Robertson. George Ferguson visited London in 1938 to supervise the change of ownership and the agency was rebranded as 'Angus & Robertson Ltd., Publishers & Exporters'. After it was placed under the management of Hector MacQuarrie at 48 Bloomsbury Street, it was henceforth simply known as the 'London office'.

Walter Cousins succeeded George Robertson as the director of Angus & Robertson after the co-founder's death on 27 August 1933 at the age of 73. Signalling a new chapter in the company's mission, Cousins announced that Angus & Robertson could '[take] book publishing right to the heart of the industry by marketing Australian books in London'.In 1932, 18 months before his death, Robertson claimed 'there [were] no British sales for Australian books' and that the difficulty in sending books to London, regardless of the work to catalogue and ship them, was the 'tremendous offence to those authors whose books [Angus & Robertson] did not send'. But Cousins held a different interpretation than Robertson's. Cousins cited the successful sale of Angus & Robertson's British and American rights in Frank Dalby Davison's Australian novel Man-Shy (1931) as a template for the company to follow in future negotiations with overseas publishers. British publisher Eyre & Spottiswood produced an English edition of Angus & Robertson's Man-Shy in 1934 and Chicago-based Cadmus Books published its American edition in 1935. Trade in Angus & Robertson's overseas rights for the title Conflict by E. V. Timms soon followed and Cousins concluded that '[he did] not think there will be any difficulty in managing publication in at least three countries for any good Australian book'. He was 'determined to market Australian novels successfully in Australia as well as England and the USA'.

With this confident outlook Angus & Robertson slowly developed its business overseas during the ensuing decades that also saw the Second World War. In 1936, an English edition of Vance Palmer's socially conscious novel, The Swayne Family, was published under the imprint of Angus & Robertson's London agency, The Australian Book Company. A series of Australian titles were also marketed in London. The series was an eclectic mix that offered Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life alongside Ion Idriess' Cattle King, J. H. Niau's Phantom Paradise, Albert Ellis' Adventures in the Coral Sea, K. Langford-Smith's Sky Pilot in Arnhem Land, H. Findlayson's The Red Centre, Keith McKoewn's Spider Wonders of Australia and William Hatfield's Australia Through the Windscreen. Sales figures for this period are absent, but Hector MacQuarrie recalled in 1949 that during the 1930s The Australian Book Company sold on average 'one book per day' until it was later converted into the London office. In 1951 a bookstall was set up in Australia's High Commission in London: Australia House. In 1954 new premises were purchased in London at 105 Great Russell Street with the view to further increase the sale of the firm's own publications abroad. In September of that year, original publishing by Angus & Robertson's London office commenced and continued 'with encouraging results' for six years under the project name 'Operation London' until Walter Vincent Burns terminated publishing in the United Kingdom mid-1960.

Throughout the 1950s, Burns accumulated shares in Angus & Robertson and eventually attained a controlling interest. In early 1960 he was made managing director. Burns' first action was to reorganise the firm into separate retailing, publishing and printing companies, each with its own board of directors. Considerable staff dissatisfaction ensued, because Burns' interests appeared to favour increasing Angus & Robertson's real estate rather than expanding its primary business in bookselling and publishing. The result was that many long-serving personnel left Angus & Robertson within a very short period of time. Amidst the mounting pressure organised by George Ferguson, Burns resigned at the end of 1960 and sold his controlling interest to Consolidated Press. In turn, Consolidated Press sold its 30 per cent share in Angus & Robertson to a group of British publishers. Said by George Ferguson to have provided a 'stabilising influence', this group consisted of William Collins, George G. Harrap and William Heinemann and for the remainder of the 1960s Angus & Robertson saw renewed growth. New retail outlets were set up in Sydney, Canberra, Wollongong, Melbourne, Perth and Newcastle. The London office too resumed operation in 1961 with Walter Butcher installed as its manager, and its activities were transferred to a new company incorporated in the United Kingdom during late 1967. On 1 January 1968, the London office started trading as 'Angus & Robertson (UK) Ltd'.

Ownership of the Angus & Robertson Ltd Group underwent further changes following the sale of William Collins' shares in the company to Tjuringa Securities in 1970. By 1971 Angus & Robertson was fully controlled by Ipec Insurance, the parent company of Tjuringa Securities, and its incumbent chairman Gordon Barton divided the Australian publisher's assets. Halstead Press was sold to another printer, John Sands Pty Ltd, and the London office was closed after a brief attempt to strengthen its international operations. Executive director George Ferguson resigned at the end of 1970 after being 'completely marginalised' and Walter Cousins left in 1972. In 1979 Angus & Robertson's bookshop division was sold to Gordon and Gotch (Australasia) Ltd and later to Whitcombe & Tombs. In 1989 Angus & Robertson's publishing division was merged with Collins (Australia), where the Australian company name continues to function today as a separate (and rare) imprint of HarperCollins. In early 2011 the bookshop division comprised 164 stores and was under the ownership of REDGroup Retail until the parent company was placed into voluntary administration. Following a massive closure of the bookselling chain's outlets, former REDGroup-owned newsagency Supanews Retail acquired Angus & Robertson in late 2011 and reopened in Queensland as Angus & Robertson Book Retailing.

The London Office

Despite these upheavals in ownership over the past three decades, the name Angus & Robertson remains to date 'the most recognised book-retailing brand in Australia'. In the chapters that follow I hope to establish that, through the incredible efforts of everyone involved in the operations of its London agency, for a time Angus & Robertson was also the most recognised Australian bookselling and book publishing brand in the commonwealth. That an international trade in Australian books even exists at all is due in no small part to the work initiated by those people who worked in this far-away, overtaxed office.


Excerpted from Angus & Robertson and the British Trade in Australian Books, 1930â"1970 by Jason D. Ensor. Copyright © 2013 Jason D. Ensor. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Dramatis Personae; Preface; Acknowledgements; Chapter 1: The Company that Loved Australian Books; Chapter 2: The Overseas Books in Australian Publishing History; Chapter 3: Triangles of Publishing and Other Stories; Chapter 4: The World is Made of Paper Restrictions; Chapter 5: The First Salesman in London; Chapter 6: The Getting of Bookselling Wisdom; Chapter 7: Preparing for ‘Operation London’; Chapter 8: The Shiralee in the North; Chapter 9: A Commercial and Cultural Relationship; Chapter 10: Tomorrow, When London Publishing Ended; Chapter 11: A House is Rebuilt; Chapter 12: The Hidden Parts of Publishing Fortune; Chapter 13: Learning from a Distance; Figures and Tables; Notes; Bibliography; Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘Jason Ensor's absorbing study of Angus & Robertson's UK publishing ventures in the mid-twentieth century is a valuable addition to the story of Australian cultural history. It is also a timely contribution to the newly transnational and worldly understanding of what is usually thought of as an iconically nationalist institution, Angus & Robertson. We know that the empire wrote back, but Ensor's study shows us how the empire also published back.’ —Philip Mead, University of Western Australia

‘Jason Ensor’s meticulously researched book provides a publishing history of unprecedented depth, and also demonstrates how transnational Australian literature has always been. The book is also absorbing on a narrative level, as Ensor provides quirky anecdotes about the challenges of producing books that will resonate even today.’ —Nicholas Birns, Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts

‘A comprehensive, well-researched and finely grained study that adds significantly to our understanding of the contemporary Anglo-Australian book trade history. Much can be learned perusing its pages.’ —David Finkelstein, University of Dundee

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