Last week, journeywoman academic/journalist Louise Adler was appointed
the new head of venerable pulishing house Melbourne University Press.
Then all hell broke loose. Read the debate, from the first email to
Crikey last Thursday which drew further criticism of Adler, then a
strong counter-attack from her corner – followed by an impassioned
defence of MUP by respected publishing industry elder, Brian Wilder.
LOUISE ADLER TAKES THE HELM AT MUP
Thursday Nov 7:
A Literary Correspondent writes:
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“With a flourish of trumpets, Melbourne Univesity Press has announced that “one
of Australia’s leading cultural figures”, Louise Adler, is
becoming its Publisher and CEO. Stand by for a swag of resignations.
The progress of Ms Adler from job to job is truly stunning. She comes
from being Deputy Director (Academic & Research) at the Victorian
College of the Arts. Where she did what? MUP’s announcement doesn’t say.
She was a true disaster as Arts Editor of The Age. MUP Board chair
Robert McKay’s statement that Ms Adler will “create a world class
scholarly publishing house for the future” is risible. She may create
for the future, but she most certainly will not be there to see it
happen, simply because she can’t do it. Her dummy-spitting and disasters
are more fitting for a skit by her husband, Max Gillies, than for a
Time for Thalia to examine the rise and rise of addled Adler.
STRONG FEELINGS ON LOUISE ADLER
Friday Nov 8
From another Literary Correspondent:
Well, well, well — so Louise ‘Addled’ Adler has talked her way into yet another
high-profile job. Her CV sounds impressive, but her ‘career’ has been rather
chequered. But hey, seems she’s mates with the powers-that-be at Melbourne
University, so who cares? Reed Books was left with a $3 million debt after her
undistinguished career as Publisher there. Doesn’t worry them in the least!
A national and international reputation? Yes, for hot-headedness.
An ideas broker? More like an ideas vacuum.
A leading cultural figure? I don’t think so.
Did they talk to Adrian Collette, CEO of Opera Australia and a former Director
at Reed Books? Michael Gawenda, Editor of The Age? Anybody at ABC Radio
National?Any of her colleagues at the VCA? Seems Robert McKay and his cronies
have fallen for her pitch hook, line and sinker.
Here’s a challenge: name one genuine contribution Ms Adler has made to
Australia’s cultural life, and one job where she was a roaring success.
CRIKEY: I’ve never met Louise Adler and am a little uncomfortable running these
heavy pieces. Can someone please send through an alternative view? Surely, she
deserves a chance and has vast experience. We all learn from our mistakes.
RHODES SCHOLARS RALLY FOR LOUISE ADLER
November 8, pm edition
Crikey correspondents have given Louise Adler, the new head of Australia’s
leading vanity publishing house, Melbourne University Press, a real caning over
the past two days.
Today, supporters rally to her side, including one of the many Rhodes Scholars
on our subscription list, academic Bronte Adams:
I have known Louise Adler over a period of years and know many of the people who
have worked with her and swear unswerving loyalty to her. She is smart, warm,
loyal and has made a major contribution to Australia’s intellectual life.
She also p*sses people off – people who deserve to be p*ssed off. Small minded
mediocrities (I can imagine who the authors of the vitriol were) fall into the
category of deserving to be p*ssed off. All power to Louise for doing so – if
more people had her courage then the standard of our intellectual life would be
Our second referee for Louise is another prominent literary figure:
I am appalled by the vicious spray of Louise Adler is getting from your two
anonymous correspondents. It smacks of a vendetta – and seems to me to be of a
very different order to your usual admirable scrutiny of public affairs.
Louise is a tough smart woman who sometimes makes enemies because she sets out
to do difficult tasks and doesn’t suffer fools. Nor should she.
Her role at the VCA was thwarted by the Director despite the fact that she was
appointed to make specific reforms endorsed by Council and agreed to by the
Director. In spite of this she performed professionally as Deputy Director of
Many people regard her Arts Today program on the ABC as the best we’ve had – but
she trod on toes as an outsider in a closed shop.
Her stint at the Age as arts editor got up the noses of some journalists on
staff who saw themselves as better qualified and again she was an outsider.
Her years in publishing were impressive for her energy, her commissioning flair
and for putting a rocket under a pretty tired industry. She was not running the
company and her publishing did not lose money.
MUP is tired, rundown, dull and loses vast amounts of money. It is being
completely overhauled and needs a publisher who can commission ideas and
scholarly works that have both wide and academic appeal.
Louise was appointed to MUP because she was the best person for the job.”
CRIKEY: Looks like the big challenge for Louise is to renovate tired old MUP
while fending off her adversaries. One issue she will face is MUP’s tradition of
ripping off authors for the privilege of having their work published by them.
Tuesday 12 November
Brian Wilder weighs in:
I have spent almost forty years in Australian publishing and am a
former Director of MUP and was also MD of McGraw Hill and Harper &
Row Publishers for many years.
I have read your recent offerings on Louise Adler and MUP with some
degree of interest! I cannot comment on Ms Adler as I’ve never met her
and know of her only by reputation. Whether or not she can deliver for
the ‘new’ MUP only time will tell. I wish her luck.
Your ‘second referee for Louise, a prominent literary figure’ (lets
call them PLF) may well know Ms Adler, but he/she knows nothing about
MUP, or I suspect, the business of publishing.
In fairness, I think your subscribers, of whom I am one, deserve some background facts.
MUP was created by Melbourne University Statute eighty years ago this
year as a Department of the University, which it was still until very
recently. I believe it will soon become a Pty Ltd Company owned by MU.
The Statute describes MUP as consisting of a Retail Division and a
Publishing Division. The mission of MUP has always been to publish as
many Australian scholarly books as possible, utilising all the funds
available to it, which of course consisted of the profits from the
retail division and other bequests made to it, like the Miegunyah
bequest. Like any other Univ Dept, MUP spent the cash available to it
by performing the role created for it by the University. Little
different from any teaching Dept. It was not set up to be a profit
focussed operation anymore than a teaching dept was, then anyway.
(Now that the Bookshop has been separated from the Publishing
operation, funding will be provided by the Univ itself, which may or
may not continue. Time will tell. Certainly MUP has lost whatever
independence it had under the original model.)
This is the identical model to that employed by QUP and the one
recently adopted by UNSWP when it took over the NSW Univ Bookshop.
Univ Presses that did not adopt this model, like Sydney and the ACT for
example, went out of business many years ago which many people feel is
a lost opportunity for countless Australian scholars.
The fact is that ALL scholarly publishing everywhere in the world is
deficit publishing, the exception perhaps being OUP which has its huge
dictionary sales to underwrite its scholarly list and a substatilal
world wide library market which buy British books. Australian content
focused scholarly books do not have the same appeal to oversesas
libraries and our own library market is only a fracture of what it used
It is also a fact that virtually all publishers operating in Australia,
whether subsidiaries of huge multi-nationals, which the vast majority
of them are, or locally owned firms like Allen & Unwin, derive most
of their revenue from the distribution of their parent company’s books
or, in the case of Allen & Unwin especially, other overseas
publishers books, for whom they act as the Australasian exclusive
Without their distribution business, very few of these firms would be
able to survive very long as a publisher of Australian material only.
Many have tried, virtually all have eventually failed.
Perhaps the best known example is McPhee-Gribble. A wonderful
publisher, but unable to sustain sufficient profits over the longer
term to enable it to stay in business. (As Hilary McPhee is on the new
Board of MUP, perhaps we will see the talents of Adler & McPhee
combine to make a huge success of the revitalised MUP, for as long as
MU provides the cash anyway.)
This is little different in principle to the only successful model for
a Univ Press in Australia over the last 80 years – the model which
includes the Univ Bookshop as part of its operation.
Your ‘PLF’ says “MUP is tired, rundown, dull and loses vast sums of
Really? Whether MUP is ‘tired, rundown and dull’ is a matter of
opinion. MUP publishes around 50 – 60 new books every year. Most are
‘scholarly’ books and many, if not most, of them would not be published
if MUP did not exist. Every year, including this year, MUP’s authors
win numerous major Literary awards and its books are widely and well
reviewed both here and overseas, including the TLS. US rights to
several titles are sold each year to prestigious American Publishers,
but opportunities are limited to those titles with subjects that
Your ‘PLF’ says “MUP loses vast amounts of money.”
MUP has virtually broken even for many many years with the occasional
small blip each way, as with any publishing operation, which was its
declared mission. The true financial measure of MUP is its financial
reserves, which MUP has increased consistently over the years and is
now at a record level. I suspect your ‘prominent literary figure’ is a
book reviewer or something like that, who doesn’t have a clue how the
publishing business, or any business for that matter, actually works.
I think this person is confusing MUP with the Melbourne Theatre
Finally, the Crikey comment that “MUP’s tradition of ripping off
authors for the privilege of having their work published by them.”
Again, this is rubbish. MUP is not a TRADE publisher like Random House,
but a scholarly Press. It has acquired a huge reputation in this
country and overseas as the foremost publisher of the best of
Australian scholarship and has done so for the past 80 years and its
staff have always jealously guarded this reputation.
Most MUP authors have been employed academics, enjoying a
salary, writing a monograph as a contribution to their field and as a
factor, often vital, in their next promotion. Some are in receipt of a
substantial ARC grant to enable them to write full time.
On its part, MUP has maintained the highest standards,
both in terms of acquisition procedures which are quite tough, and in
the editorial and production processes. This costs money, especially if
the book is to be marketed at a reasonable recommended retail price.
Marketing and distribution is always a problem for small publishers,
anywhere in the world.
When the decision is made to make an offer of publication
which comes only after extensive peer review, sometimes the author is
asked to provide a modest subvention, which is used to lower the retail
price. The alternatives are not to publish the book at all, set a very
high retail price which will kill the book, or utilise severe cost
cutting procedures in the publishing process resulting in a sloppily
edited and produced book as many trade publishers seem to do these
If this is ‘ripping off authors’ then so be it I guess. I wonder though
just how many of the authors MUP has published over the last decade
feel ‘ripped off.’
Times have changed and the University has a new vision for MUP as it
has a perfect right to do. Electronic publishing, on demand printing
etc. Time to move on, change direction and get a new Director who the
Board feels can achieve the goals it has set for the Press. Fine. All
But please Stephen, don’t let people who have no idea about publishing
or business, like your ‘PLF,’ make outrageous and denigrating comments
about the oldest publishing imprint in Australia (under the same
ownership anyway) which has made a HUGE contribution to the scholarly
and cultural life of this country and has a national and international
Victorians especially should be proud of what MUP has achieved and
celebrate its 80th birthday this year. Heaven knows, Bleak City has
little else to celebrate! Only joking!
CRIKEY: A comprehensive analysis of a situation that has unleashed a deal of passion.