2011 Script & Print

“We had become convinced, as we still are, that the best way of selling Australian books in the U.K is … to become, in effect, a small British publisher ….”[1]

Overseas branches cannot forever remain independent of local politics as Angus & Robertson’s London office was to learn through the activities of its travelling salesman Bernard Robinson.  As part of its post Second World War rebuilding operations, in late February 1950 Angus & Robertson’s Sydney publisher George Ferguson notified the company’s London office manager, Hector MacQuarrie, that the firm’s catalogue was nearing completion and the pressure increased for MacQuarrie to have salesmen ready to cover London, Scotland and the English provinces.[2]  So too for regular advertisements (“as attractive as those of, say, Faber, Chatto or Jonathan Cape”)[3] to begin appearing in The Bookseller (UK) to “prepare the way for … travellers”.[4]  Angus & Robertson was very enthusiastic about the cargo of books in transit from Sydney to London, producing circulars for display in the Bank of New South Wales (West End, London) and Australia House, but while the London office was “enjoying considerable success in the London area” in generating orders it had “little to speak of outside the metropolitan area”.[5]  There were it seemed “frightful problem[s]”[6] enticing travellers to manage provincial sales — no one wanted to do it[7] — and MacQuarrie had to employ salesmen from British publisher George G. Harrap to circulate titles; MacQuarrie feared the potential ire of the Australian book trade if this was ever discovered.  Already a subscription salesman for Angus & Robertson in Sydney and interested in working in England, Bernard Robinson was appointed by Ferguson to market Angus & Robertson titles to the provincial libraries and meet the “greatly developed United Kingdom interest in Australia”.[8]  Robinson would arrive in London in April 1950 and would travel books from one province to the next on a commission of 15% per sale.

Of equal importance, Ferguson wanted to know whether British booksellers and librarians were “interested in Australia and books about Australia”.[9]  He recognised that the library trade was controlled by the British Publishers’ Association in which libraries obtained a 10% educational discount from local booksellers via a licence but hoped Robinson would nevertheless “find a way of arousing interest”[10] without “raising Hell with the booksellers in England”.[11]  MacQuarrie agreed that direct selling to libraries might “generate a prejudice” against Angus & Robertson when booksellers were eventually expected to purchase quantities of stock from the London office; however, MacQuarrie was prepared to “take a chance here and let Robinson make the attempt” as a country salesman.[12]  Frank Sanders, who had been with the British Publishers’ Association since 1932,[13] informally advised MacQuarrie over a “sherry and a bit of red at the Arts Theatre Club” that since Angus & Robertson’s books were published in Australia they technically remained free to do as they pleased on account of not being signatories to the Publishers’ Association’s Library Agreement.

Angus & Robertson often sought advice from British publishers in their own territory, just a month earlier asking for a list of the “best literary agents in the main European countries” from Stanley Unwin,[14] and Hector MacQuarrie thus related to Ferguson that:

“Since we are Dominion publishers, we are not bound by this agreement, and we are at perfect liberty to sell direct to the libraries at a discount of 10%.  While Sanders could not possibly give an okay, he did not seem to think, personally, that we would be making any serious mistake.”[15]

The business of selling Australian books abroad was “just waking up”[16] and Ferguson didn’t see what right the “God Almighty Publishers’ Association”[17] had to interfere with Angus & Robertson’s activity in London and agreed with Sanders’ interpretation.  The decision to configure Bernard Robinson’s work as part reconnaissance (“information … is what we are really paying for”)[18] and part direct sales was endorsed in Sydney, with unofficial tacit encouragement from a high-ranking member of the Publishers’ Association — at least until booksellers were interested in Australian books.  In practice, it would test the company’s resolve to operate on its own terms as an independent Australian publisher in London …

EXTRACT: Ensor, J 2011, ‘Angus & Robertson and the Case of the Bombshell Salesman’, Script & Print, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 69-79.

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Endnotes

[1] George Ferguson, “Publishing in London by Angus & Robertson Limited: A Paper for the guidance of the Board”, unpublished, August 1970, MSS 3269/34 ML.

[2] George Ferguson to Hector MacQuarrie, 28 February 1950, MSS 3269/440 ML.

[3] George Ferguson to Hector MacQuarrie, 6 April 1950, MSS 3269/440 ML.

[4] George Ferguson to Hector MacQuarrie, 22 February 1950, MSS 3269/440 ML.

[5] Hector MacQuarrie to James Askew & Son, 6 December 1950, MSS 3269/441 ML.

[6] Hector MacQuarrie to George Ferguson, 9 March 1950, MSS 3269/440 ML.

[7] Hector MacQuarrie to George Ferguson, 30 June 1950, MSS 3269/440 ML.

[8] Hector MacQuarrie to TE Smith (W.  & R.  Holmes Books Ltd), 17 October 1950, MSS 3269/441 ML.

[9] George Ferguson to Hector MacQuarrie, 28 July 1950, MSS 3269/441 ML.

[10] Hector MacQuarrie to George Ferguson, 29 March 1950, MSS 3269/440 ML.

[11] George Ferguson to Hector MacQuarrie, 6 April 1950, MSS 3269/440 ML.

[12] Hector MacQuarrie to George Ferguson, 13 April 1950, MSS 3269/440 ML.

[13] R E Barker and G R Davis (eds), Books Are Different: An Account of the Defence of the Net Book Agreement before the Restrictive Practices Court in 1962, London: Macmillan (1966): 411.

[14] George Ferguson to Hector MacQuarrie, 13 September 1950, MSS 3269/441 ML.

[15] Hector MacQuarrie to George Ferguson, 3 October 1950, MSS 3269/441 ML.

[16] George Ferguson to Hector MacQuarrie, 22 November 1950, MSS 3269/441 ML.

[17] George Ferguson to Hector MacQuarrie, 12 October 1950, MSS 3269/441 ML.

[18] George Ferguson to Hector MacQuarrie, 8 May 1950, MSS 3269/440 ML.