The University of Melbourne’s announcement on 30 January 2019 that Melbourne University Publishing would henceforth ‘refocus on being a high-quality scholarly press in support of the University’s mission of excellence in teaching and research’, which led to the resignations of its chief executive, Louise Adler, and five other board members, was just three days old when one of the more absurd responses was floated as a serious option.
On February 2, The Age reported that Senator (and MUP author) Kim Carr had flagged the possibility of a future Labor government providing seed funding to continue MUP’s model of popular publishing elsewhere. Like many politicians and journalists, but few other Australians, Carr was deeply concerned about the prospect of MUP no longer publishing political memoirs and general-interest books, and instead focusing on scholarly works. ‘To ensure we protect political culture and debate’, he stated, government intervention was required. Carr's long-time political foe, Liberal minister (and MUP author) Christopher Pyne, put aside partisanship and expressed support.
Thankfully, things have settled since then and a number of more thoughtful contributions have emerged. But the inanity of the debate in those first few days was troubling and revealed a deep schism concerning MUP’s role in the Australian publishing industry. On one side were figures from politics and the media, who tend to see MUP’s trade publishing as some sort of unique benevolent gift, both to the university in the form of healthy sales, and to the nation in the form of serious non-fiction books that tell our stories back to us. On the other were academics, many of whom are dismayed by MUP’s direction under Adler and see the shake-up as a positive development. Caught in the middle of this messy, emotive debate were MUP’s rival publishers, of both the scholarly and more commercially oriented kind.
2,000–5,000 words • Entries close 15 April 2019
First to decry the University of Melbourne’s decision was Bob Carr, one of the five departing board members. Carr, an MUP author, has long fancied himself as a man of Australian letters. He sits on the board of Australia’s largest bookseller Dymocks, and in 2008 published My Reading Life: Adventures in the world of books. But Carr betrayed a deep strain of anti-intellectualism when he predicted that the changes to MUP would result in its shrinking to a ‘pocket-sized and cloistered publisher of academic scripts’. This is almost certainly untrue, but his comments were instructive, revealing how little regard a board member of Australia’s largest university press has for scholarly publishing.
As with any debate involving the so-called ‘ivory tower’ of academia, the spectre of élitism hovered. Historian (and MUP author) James Curran broke ranks and accused many in his profession of ‘flicking the switch to stratospheric snobbery’ in their criticism of some of MUP’s popular titles. In a piece ostensibly disapproving of condescension, journalist and author Peter Hoysted, aka Jack the Insider, in The Australian sneered at an academic world that ‘holds a derisive view of the world outside its comfy confines’. Hoysted concluded by arguing that the week’s events revealed ‘the disconnect between academia and the real world, a world academics rarely enter into and understand even less’. Here, I wasn’t sure whether we were still talking about the University of Melbourne in 2019 or Oxbridge in the nineteenth century.
Meanwhile, the news coverage continued to emphasise the widespread dismay among journalists and politicians, while neglecting the views of academics. The Age quoted former publisher Hilary McPhee criticising ‘irritated’ academics, who, she claimed, envied the sales figures of more commercially successful authors. No such academics were interviewed to test McPhee’s claims. Had more views from within the academy been sought, journalists might have begun to understand why the disappointment of their industry colleagues (mostly MUP authors) was not the entire story.
The worst offender in this regard was The Australian’s higher education editor, Tim Dodd. On February 6, the newspaper published an article by the University of Melbourne’s new vice-chancellor, Duncan Maskell, in which he reiterated that MUP was not being turned on its head but simply being directed to ‘refocus’ on its core mission:
MUP will commission leading scholars and authors, cultivate young researchers of promise and will popularise academic research for a broad readership. The new MUP list will include books that have a serious research component that ensures lasting value. There will also be books in the political and current affairs space, some by people who are not academics; great political biographies can have a place at the new MUP. The publishing house will focus on high-quality works and be available to the widest possible audience.
Fairly clear, I would have thought. Yet on the same day Dodd published his own thoughts, in which he appeared to be bamboozled by Maskell’s explanation. ‘The fundamental problem with the MUP decision is that it’s hard to discern its philosophical or strategic base,’ he wrote. ‘We are no closer to understanding why the MUP decision was made.’ It’s worrying to think that one of the few journalists in Australia dedicated to reporting on higher education seems incapable of understanding how academics regard their own industry.
Let’s be clear here. The problem many academics have had with MUP over the past decade or more is that it has published books of little cultural value. (Unfortunately, this issue was muddied by the use of the term ‘airport trash’, which implied that only low-brow books are sold in airport bookshops, which is demonstrably untrue.) To suggest that a university press should not show discernment in what it publishes is little more than faux-populist philistinism. Blonde Ambition: Roxy Jacenko Unfiltered. Bettina Arndt’s sex advice. The Gangland true crime series. Kirstie Clements’s fashion industry memoirs. The cookery books of fashionable restaurateur Shannon Bennett. The most infamous of MUP’s books was I, Mick Gatto, which, as UNSW Press publisher Phillipa McGuinness wrote in Inside Story, ‘became shorthand for everything that was wrong with MUP’. If readers want these books, publishers should supply them. But in what strange world do they belong on the list of a university press?
The standard explanation for this populist strategy is that commercially successful titles help to subsidise the generally unprofitable business of scholarly publishing. However, MUP has remained overwhelmingly reliant on a generous $1.25 million annual subsidy from the University of Melbourne, and only began to post modest profits in 2017. As Hardie Grant Books chief executive Sandy Grant noted in an interview on RN’s Saturday Extra (February 9), popular titles generally involve large advances, meaning that the margins remain extremely tight. So the strategy was not succeeding on its own terms, while also contributing to the decline of MUP’s reputation. Additionally, there is the issue of the limited resources available to a small operation like MUP (media reports inform us that it employs fourteen permanent staff). Each book requires a significant investment in editing, design, promotion, and other support. Time devoted to another instalment of Gangland distracts from the dissemination of scholarly work to the wider community.
MUP chairman Laurie Muller, who also resigned, claimed in July 2018 that the university’s push for more academic publishing was ‘unexpected’, but he was contradicted last week by his predecessor Peter McPhee, who was chairman from 2011 to 2017. McPhee told The Guardian that the board ‘made a very deliberate decision in 2012 that we were only going to publish books that the university community would feel comfortable with’. Several of the books listed above were published following the 2012 review. One gets the feeling that the new guideline was quickly forgotten. None of the aggrieved board members can convincingly claim that they were unaware of disquiet about the quality of MUP’s list.
To be fair, the alarm of politicians and journalists was not about the potential loss of these low-brow titles, but rather about the future of their own and their colleagues’ books, predominantly political memoirs and works of long-form journalism. When MUP author Gillian Triggs, another of the board members to resign, appeared on RN Drive, she was asked by Patricia Karvelas about the outlook for books like Louise Milligan’s award-winning Cardinal: The rise and fall of George Pell. ‘Well, there are other publishing companies,’ she replied. Quite. This exchange highlighted another remarkable aspect of the debate: the notion, seemingly prevalent among journalists, that MUP is the only publisher of serious non-fiction in Australia. Just how narrow are these people’s reading habits?
This brings us to the other key constituency that has largely been ignored in the past fortnight: other university presses. There are a number of such houses across Australia, but followers of the MUP debate would be forgiven for being unaware of their existence. In the words of UWA Publishing’s director Terri-ann White, ‘the vibrant intellectual work of university publishing houses in Australia momentarily appeared obliterated’. Like all university presses, UWA Publishing navigates a tricky path between providing serious scholarship and reaching the widest possible readership. ‘All of us take very seriously the injunction of the third pillar of the modern university: engagement with the community,’ says White. But the MUP debate made it seem ‘as if you could only be one thing or another: boring scholarly or racy populist.’
With its successful NewSouth imprint, UNSW Press have also pursued a hybrid model, bridging the perceived divide between the academy and the public. Like White, UNSW Press chief executive Kathy Bail views the idea of a binary between trade and scholarly books as false. Each university press strives to find the mix that works for them. Asked if NewSouth would ever go down a populist path similar to MUP’s, Bail says that they have never had the budget to pay the hefty advances that come with that approach, so the question is moot.
What, then, will the ‘refocused’ MUP look like? For the pessimists, something akin to Bob Carr’s alarmist vision quoted above, or, in Peter Hoysted’s words, a return to the 1980s, ‘with odd, dandruff-speckled sales men and women forlornly flogging a list that no one wants’. Even after Duncan Maskell stated on the record that crossover publishing would continue at MUP, Laurie Muller claimed that it is ‘reasonable to conclude that MUP’s wider publishing of books of topical, social and cultural interest will be no longer’.
To date, the only casualty has been the cancellation of disgraced Border Force boss Roman Quaedvlieg’s Tour de Force, which may not be a serious loss if his rhetorical incontinence on Twitter is any guide to the manuscript’s content. For the optimists (and I’m one of them), it’s possible that, in addition to providing more support for scholarly publishing, MUP will eschew facile memoirs and true crime in favour of substantial works of history and biography written for a general readership. Fine recent books that fit this description include Frank Bongiorno’s The Eighties (Black Inc., 2015), Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (Text, 2017), Clare Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom (Text, 2018), and Patrick Mullins’s Tiberius with a Telephone (Scribe, 2018).
Regardless of whether books of this calibre return to the MUP fold or continue to be the preserve of its rivals, readers can rest easy. The rumours about the death of serious Australian non-fiction have been greatly exaggerated.