Wednesday, November 28, 2007

R.I.P. = Reed Into Penguin.

from occasional guest contributor
Gavin McLean.

Historians joke that for modern octogenarians, the historian with a tape recorder has replaced the old fellow with a scythe as the portent of doom. Perhaps we are doing the same for businesses. Reed launched my ‘centennial’ history expensively around the main centres in May just as its owner, Reed Elsevier, announced that it had flogged off the UK-run assets of Harcourts to Pearson. I remember saying to Peter Dowling as we laid a wreath on A.H. Reed’s Dunedin Writers’ Walk plaque that some people would cackle sarcastically over the next morning’s ODT pic.

It was no surprise. In the late 1990s when Peter Janssen asked me to write the company’s history, he admitted that Reed’s Anglo-Dutch owners, didn’t know what to make of this strange beast. They had got rid of most of their trade book publishing and Reed simply didn’t fit. Every now and then rumours flew through the book trade. ‘Have you heard about Reed?’ I several times wondered whether the time I was putting into research would be wasted by a few pen strokes in Europe. Alan Smith several times fended off suggestions to rebrand Reed as Harcourt (NZ) by driving visiting ‘suits’ from Europe slowly past the big blue Harcourt’s real estate firm at the end of Rawene Road and asking if they really wanted to be associated with that trade.

Well, that battle has finally been lost. This month Reed announced that the parting shot from its late (and unlamented) former owners was to put the kybosh on using the Reed name here. Now it’s Raupo Publishing (NZ) Ltd. Clif Reed’s little colophon, that little bunch of reeds that has bent in the breezes created by several takeovers since the Reed family sold up in 1983, will survive as a Penguin imprint for now (though who remembers another Penguin purchase, Pacific, the old Whitcoulls brand?)

So what of the future? In the short term, there will be casualties. People are going, from Penguin as well as from Reed, and in larger numbers than the sunny press releases suggest. Good people, too. Books will probably be pulped – Penguin ditched its warehouse a while ago and Rawene Road will soon be gone. Authors’ contracts will be honoured, they say, but inevitably there will be some consolidation of lists, and in the short term at least, less choice for authors. And you can bet that Penguin will take longer to digest the meal than it expects. Like wars, restructurings always hit the ‘winners’ as well as the ‘losers’.

But maybe not for long. Already the international majors are eyeing market gaps and rediscovering the wisdom of backlist publishing. New lists will emerge, and new players will grow faster than they might have. In recent decades, we’ve seen some excellent local presses prosper – David Bateman, David Ling, Longacre Press and Craig Potton (with old Reed hand Jane Connor now at the helm) are just some that spring to mind. The relative foreign newcomer New Holland already occupies parts of Reed’s old territory.

So I’ll raise a toast to Reed – to A.H. and Clif Reed, Ray Richards, Arnold Wall, Don Sinclair, David Elworthy, Paul Bradwell, Peter Janssen, Peter Dowling, and all the other folks who have enriched my life and our nation’s heritage. Business history shows that less than one family firm in ten survives the third generation handover. Reed did that and a little more. We should be thankful.


Gavin McLean is an historian with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage
and when not in the kitchen, moonlights on other projects such as this
year's history of Reed, Whare Korero, and the accompanying anthology,
Whare Korero. He is currently writing 'yet another bloody book on


Soon-to-be Ex-Penguin said...

Dear Gavin, thank you for your thoughtful, well-informed and gracious post. The story is so much longer than what has happened in the last 6 months. If you hadn't already written it, one would certainly say, "there is book in that tale". The anecdote about Alan, the suits and the real estate office is priceless.

Gavin McLean said...

Thanks 'soon-to-be', and good luck. There's a bigger tale to be told, that of publishing in NZ - Bertie Whitcombe, Glover, Govt Print, John McIndoe, Port Nicholson Press, Bert Hingley & Hodder, Bookman Beattie starting up Penguin, Hazard etc, etc. - what a story...