andrew bolt mark latham rowan dean
(Images: AAP, Sky News)

Imagine you’re a conservative culture warrior. Despite regular appearances on Sky News and columns in the Murdoch papers, you’re adamant cancel culture and the regressive left are silencing your views.

You’ll never get a run on the ABC, and none of the big publishing houses will touch that big book of dangerous ideas you’ve been working on.

But while Random House, Hachette and the like will probably leave your manuscript on read, there are a handful of smaller houses that will welcome you with open arms.

Wilkinson Publishing in Melbourne and Connor Court in Queensland — two companies on the very fringes of Australia’s publishing world — are putting the thoughts of people like Andrew Bolt, Mark Latham and Rowan Dean into print.

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Your book probably won’t make it on to the shelves at Dymocks or Readings, but it’ll be out there in the world.

The businessman and the ideologue

On paper, Anthony Cappello and Michael Wilkinson are very different men. The former studied theology, has a PhD on BA Santamaria, and is a member of the Institute of Public Affairs (whose executive director John Roskam sits on the editorial board of Cappello’s Connor Court).

Wilkinson on the other hand is no conservative ideologue. The self-described “working-class bloke” and son of a country bookie began his career writing for rock music magazines, and stumbled his way into a big newsroom as the The Australian Financial Review‘s first cadet.

After a successful career in journalism, Wilkinson got his break when Morry Schwartz (whose company skews decidedly progressive) published his book on Phar Lap. The book became a movie and Wilkinson, who’d seen how easy entrepreneurship could be from his time at the Fin, used the proceeds to have a crack at business.

Business would be good for Wilkinson. His first company, Information Australia, publisher of Who’s Who (a kind of Wikipedia of yesteryear) and a stack of trade publications eventually sold for $24 million in 2002. Wilkinson Publishing was birthed a few years down the track.

Somehow, both he and Cappello ended up dominating the small reactionary market.

It’s easier to see how Connor Court got there. It started out in 2005 as a Catholic press. A year later, its biggest moment arrived, when climate denialist Ian Plimer convinced Cappello to publish his book Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science, which would sell over 100,000 copies worldwide.

Other notable titles have included former Liberal senator Cory Bernardi’s The Conservative Revolution, and a recent tome by Lyle “eat shit” Shelton.

Wilkinson got into the niche later, and for seemingly less political purposes.

“I simply believe that books, print, and e-book form are a way for people to put out all views. And what we try to do is represent a cross-section of those views,” he tells Crikey.

The house used to put out books by breakfast television host David Koch, and the odd footballer. Now, its list is a who’s who of the Australian hard-right fringe; the kind of people who’d pen the most ghoulishly cooked takes in The Australian.

Mark Latham, Andrew Bolt, men’s rights activist Bettina Arndt, Rowan Dean, Kevin Donnelly, and Riccardo Bosi (a QAnon-curious candidate from last year’s Eden-Monaro byelection) have all recently been published. And in 2017, after neo-Nazi apologist Milo Yiannopoulos lost a contract with Simon & Schuster, Wilkinson became his Australian publisher. When Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm invited Milo to speak in Parliament, Wilkinson was there.

Other industry insiders describe Wilkinson’s publishing decisions as being principally informed by his politics, with his client list a reflection of the blokes he’s been going to lunch with for decades.

But when asked about politics, Wilkinson says he’s voted “both ways” in his life.

“I don’t think either party, or any party has got the formula right.”

Instead, he reckons most normal people don’t really care about it anymore.

A smaller culture war

What does seem to unite both Wilkinson and Cappello is an outsider status. Both came from humble origins (Cappello was the son of Italian migrants), and both are happy to service the cast of Sky News’ outsiders, writers too politically fringe for the big houses.

Tim Coronel, general manager of The Small Press Network, says Wilkinson Publishing and Connor Court both “very much operate in their own sphere”.

“They’ve never approached The Small Press Network, they’re not in bookshops, and they sell directly to their communities.”

Other publishers we spoke to hadn’t even heard of them, or described them as a mere step up from vanity presses, where authors pay to be published (Wilkinson says that’s not part of his business model, Cappello didn’t respond to interview requests).

In a sense, both houses are a result of the inevitable ideological fracturing that is happening to the publishing industry all over the world.

In the United States, the accelerated political polarisation of the Trump era has disfigured every aspect of American life, and publishing has been no exception.

Houses which for many years held their noses and published views they found repugnant have found the latest offerings of Trump World a bridge too far, particularly in the wake of the Capitol riot.

Often, the decision by traditional publishers to walk away from the MAGA mob has come from within, with a younger generation of employees pushing their houses to reject more reactionary voices. Last year, staff at Penguin Random House staged an internal revolt over the decision to publish a book by Canadian YouTube psychologist Jordan Peterson.

Here in Australia, while we haven’t seen the same big, public intergenerational spats, our harder-right fringe have already gone the way of their American counterparts and started publishing in a completely different ecosystem to the big houses.

Perhaps some of that can be chalked down to changes within the industry, particularly among academic presses. Nick Walker, director of Australian Scholarly Publishing, says the traditional liberal model of publishing viewpoints across the political spectrum has eroded in Australia.

“Once upon a time, university presses would do that. In recent times, university presses have adopted certain ideological views,” he tells Crikey.

Wilkinson also laments what he sees as people having less time for dissenting views.

“We’ve got bookstores that publicly refused to sell Bolt’s book, or Latham’s book. Mark [Latham] is a voice in Australia, and it’d be sad, I think as a country, if we didn’t at least hear it.”

But there’s another more obvious explanation for publishing’s ideological splintering: simple economics. Books written by reactionary posters and CPAC attendees rarely make a splash outside the regular (terrestrial) viewership of Sky News after dark. Andrew Bolt may be Australia’s most-read columnist, but nobody is reading his books (which are essentially just collected columns).

“There’s a bit of a trusim in Australian book publishing that is left-wing books sell better than right-wing books,” Coronel tells Crikey.

A look at the sales of big political biographies suggests that, John Howard aside, Labor leaders always do better. Tony Abbott’s Battlelines had a particularly poor showing.

The market for Wilkinson and Connor Court’s offerings will always be marginal. Their sales are generally pretty minuscule. But they’ll still be out there, and someone will be reading them.