Publishing is a marginal business. Profits are slim. Book types do it because they believe in the word, the sentence, the idea. That a city, a state, should leave a mark, writes Stephen Orr.
1883. Young Beavis stands on a London dock waiting to board a ship for Melbourne. Beside him, his five brothers and sisters, recently widowed mother and, most probably, a book. A cold, foggy morning, Victoria still in black, the Boers recently put in their place (for the first time). They board, sail, sleep, throw quoits and wonder what their new life might entail. Four months later they arrive. Twelve-year-old Beavis Benjamin Beck gets straight to work to support his family. A job in EW Cole’s Book Arcade. Probably not two million volumes; but lots. A brass band, fernery, funny mirrors, lolly shop and live monkeys (the best sort). Years later, Beck explains, “Mr Cole was a longsighted man, and his motto, whenever any enterprise of his was failing, was to spend money on it.” Much, much later, the staff at Adelaide’s Wakefield Press receive news from Arts SA that their company has lost its government support. Regardless, they get on with the job. Publishing is a marginal business. Profits are slim. Book types do it because they believe in the word, the sentence, the idea. That a city, a state, should leave a mark. That a culture should have a way of appraising itself, remembering the hours. Beavis gets busy. His customers at Mr Cole’s bookshop include Charles Dickens’ son (“judging by the very light character of his reading, he did not appear to have inherited any bookish tastes”), Mark Twain, ‘Rolf Boldrewood’ (Thomas Browne) and the Lindsays. He works hard: 8.30am ‘til 10 at night, 7/6 a week, running past the other shop boys in their Turkey twill coats. The book business is tough, even in these pre-radio, television and internet days. Cole competes with George Robertson, Dunne and Collins and dozens of small shops studded around town. Tough. Publishers are always going in and out of business. But now, with the money spent on a stadium, something’s gotta go. Authors (myself included), editors and readers write to Minister Snelling with the usual teeth gnashing, but, of course, receive no reply. No eternal optimists like Edward Cole running this state. More, Gradgrind, grinding out the fiscal Facts. Whereas Cole had his own pet publishing projects (according to Beck, “He sunk thousands of pounds on his own books”), we get a tribe of media consultants. Stadia. Build it and they will come. Attributed to Kevin Costner, but more likely Teddy Roosevelt, although he might’ve found it in a Latin primer. Still, maybe our state’s mantra has become ‘downsize and they’ll adapt’, as we shrink, a little more every day, like the Twistie packets you’d put in the oven as a kid. Until there was a smaller, but ultimately useless, version of the original to hang around your neck. In these pre-Dymocks days, Adelaideans have a lot of bookshops to choose from. ES Wigg opens in 1849, WC Rigby in 1859 and Cole himself, an Adelaide branch in 1893. These stores are eventually ‘condensed’ as the Harvey Book Company (14 Rundle Street). In March 1916, Beck, now a book trade veteran, and William Mandeville buy Cole’s Adelaide franchise. In 1920 Mandeville bails out and Beavis’ brother, George, becomes his business partner. Wakefield Press has found a progenitor, but the gestation and birth are still some time off. Still, this culture of book selling and reading (on the Mitcham tram) is becoming set in a sort of sloppy concrete. Beck has a strong demand for Olinda Keese’s Twenty Straws and Thomas Grif’s A Goldminer’s Adventures between Melbourne and Ballarat (don’t bother looking, you won’t find them). Without readers, there can be no writers. Without an interest in itself, a culture can have no record of its own existence. But in the 1920s, who would’ve thought we could publish our own books? That was all British. We were a tribe of scribbling amateurs, at best. Gordon, with his horsey poems, Lawson, clutching his last drink in 1922, wondering if he’d be remembered. The baton passes from Beck to 30-year-old Harry Muir, in 1939. Muir’s been working at Preece’s bookshop before buying the Beck Book Company (known as the ‘Beckery’). In 1942 he decides to publish. He calls his adjunct business The Wakefield Press. Nothing earth shattering – small historical monographs he believes warrant an audience. The company’s first publication is A Checklist of Ex-Libris Literature Published in Australia. Muir’s wife, Marcie, works with her husband. She’s also a dedicated bibliophile. Her first book, Anthony Trollope in Australia (1949), proves too English for Harry’s taste, and he urges her to concentrate on Australian children’s writing. There follows A Bibliography of Australian Children’s Books (1970) and other landmarks texts. The SA government buys Wakefield Press in the mid-80s, publishes a few titles to celebrate our sesquicentenary, before off-loading the name, distribution rights and an old computer to the publication you’re now holding. In 1989 Adelaide Review employee Michael Bollen writes a cheque, grabs the baton, and (along with Stephanie Johnston) starts running. Fifty books a year. Which, when we look at market realities, requires some taxpayer subsidy. In those years, writers, illustrators, but mostly, average South Australians, have been able to say, “Yeah, they’re our local publisher.” Wakefield has developed a strong national distribution network. Won and short-listed for most major national awards for fiction and non-fiction. Had books translated into several languages, spreading the South Australian story around the globe. What started on a London dock 130 years ago, persists. Each state has small press equivalents to Wakefield: UQP, Fremantle Press, Scribe Publications. Some publish one, two, five, a dozen titles a year. Because of the nature of their subjects, and market, they can’t do what a Random House or Penguin can. The baton continues. Harry dies in 1992, but his son, Rory, becomes a historian and author, specialising in Napoleonic history. Cole’s series of ‘funny picture books’ (big sellers in their day) are, ironically, collected by Harry’s wife and now reside in the Marcie Muir Collection in the National Library. The local tradition continues via Michael Treloar, and others, but mostly through Wakefield. Here, we have a chance to have a proper voice. A sign that we’ve arrived, take ourselves seriously, and demand to be noticed by others. As long as we listen to the voices in the corn. And Edward Cole, refusing to give up on the book (“Wise people buy books”), dreaming, plotting, buying a few more monkeys to keep the punters coming.