Louise Adler is the only person on our arts and culture power list to have inspired her own verb.
They call it “being Adlerised”: a phenomenon where the pint-sized publisher of Melbourne University Publishing uses her charisma, enthusiasm and persuasiveness to get people to agree to do things they hadn’t planned on doing.
“She really is able to talk people into doing books who wouldn’t otherwise have done them,” MUP chairman and journalist Alan Kohler tells The Power Index. “She works on people, it’s not just about getting into an auction about money. It’s that she’s able to wheedle books out of people, not just buy them. It’s very difficult to say no to Louise.”
Any additions to Australia’s cultural lexicon aside, Adler has become one of the most visible figures in Australian publishing. She’s been in and around the book world since the late ’80s and at the helm of MUP now for nearly a decade.
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All that means the one-time Radio National broadcaster and Age journalist has her fair share of loyal friends, as well as bitter enemies.
“She’s capable of charm, is conscious of that, and is very calculating — but there’s nothing wrong with that,” says a colleague. “She’s smart and knows which enemies she’s made. The corollary is that she has cultivated useful and powerful allies.”
When The Power Index meets up with Alder for a chat over coffee at MUP’s Parkville headquarters (just opposite the university campus), it becomes quickly apparent why people find it hard to stand up to her.
“Meeting with her is like going through a whirlwind of thoughts, ideas, suggestions and agreements,” wrote AWU boss Paul Howes of being “Adlerised” in his 2010 book Confessions of a Faceless Man. “But you never really know what you have agreed to until you receive a text message hours later outlining instructions and signed off ‘Regards, Louise — your publisher’.”
Our discussion in the MUP boardroom starts off much the same way. Not long after our first question, Adler is peppering her responses with half-finished sentences, quick-fire answers and enthusiastic Eureka moment-like thoughts.
It’s a heady cocktail, particularly with a life-sized promotional cardboard cut-out for Ray Martin’s autobiography watching over us, and enough to make anyone a bit dizzy as to which way the conversation is going.
Still, Adler’s strong personality shines through: she’s likeable, intelligent and funny, particularly when the interview turns to Tony Abbott’s successful 2009 political manifesto Battlelines.
“He used to ring up and say: ‘I want to have dinner with my left-wing publisher’ and I’d say: ‘it can only be good for your reputation!'” Adler tells The Power Index with a chuckle, before explaining how Abbott chose MUP: “We were both on Q&A and we always laugh and say it was on the casting couch of the green room that we consummated the deal. In the most chaste fashion, of course!”
Battlelines isn’t alone on the political non-fiction shelves at MUP. The genre has become something of a speciality for Adler, with her recent commissions comprising a murderer’s row of political heavy-hitters, including The Latham Diaries, The Costello Memoirs and Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs.
“What you want is the colour, you want the dynamics,” says Adler on what makes a good political memoir. “I don’t even mean you want the controversial material, but you want to know what it felt like.”
Regardless, it’s been regular helpings of controversy from MUP’s political offerings which have seen it gorge on newspaper headlines for a few years now. One of its biggest was Wayne Errington and Peter Van Onselen’s John Howard biography, which Adler says she commissioned straight off the back of a spot PVO did on The 7:30 Report in 2006.
Later this year, Adler also has high hopes for a tome she’ll be publishing by former Victorian premier Steve Bracks on leadership.
But it’s not all politics at MUP. The publishing house also puts out reams of other serious non-fiction, as well as academic monographs and storied literary journal Meanjin. It’s here that Adler draws the most criticism: some claim that she has not used Melbourne University’s resources to hold MUP true to its academic roots and that Meanjin has been left to go to seed.