2012 Anthem Press

“[British publishers] have followed the precepts of guerrilla warfare: infiltrate the local scene; wrap yourself in righteous causes; do not neglect propaganda; organise tightly; retreat where necessary; [and] always avoid set-piece battles.”[1]

The above sentiment expressed by Robert Haupt in 1988 about the presence of British publishers in Australia and, by implication, overseas or imported texts in the local book trade, echo those recorded decades earlier and equivalent complaints heard today. Legally and commercially across the course of the twentieth century, British trading rights pertained to exclusive English language rights throughout the former empire.[2] Within this framework Australia was the largest export (or “run-on”)[3] market for British books to 1959, valued at its peak to be worth £4,387,810 Sterling in export turnover for British publishers,[4] a significant increase over Australia’s estimated purchases of British books of £1.5 million Sterling in 1948,[5] and the second largest market for British books behind the United States after that time.[6] During this period Australian booksellers, among whom the Australian firm Angus & Robertson doubled as publishers, were able to negotiate concessions from the peak organisation, the Publishers’ Association of Great Britain,[7] prompting Hector MacQuarrie, managing director of the London office of Angus & Robertson, to claim in 1949 that:

The P.A. in the UK are all powerful and can dictate to [their] booksellers, inflicting sanctions when their orders are ignored or disobeyed. I cannot see the UK P.A. having such success in issuing orders to Australian booksellers. There are so many diversions on the way from them to the booksellers: such as London exporters, etc.[8]

Yet fourteen years later the Book Export Development Committee[9] would accuse British publishers of direct interference in Australian publishing. In a formal complaint on behalf of the Australian book trade, Sam Ure Smith identified the British Publishers Association’s key policy instrument, the British Publishers’ Traditional Market Agreement, as the “major obstacle”[10] restricting the activities of Australian publishers.

According to the Book Export Development Committee, the Traditional Market Agreement isolated Australian publishers from the international market both as importers and exporters. As importers, the agreement precluded Australian publishers from obtaining Australasian rights to reprint American books if British Empire or Commonwealth rights had been assigned to British publishers (who rarely negotiated for anything but these full market rights). As exporters, the agreement stalled the disposal of overseas rights for Australian produced titles because local publishers lacked important American contacts (and the opportunity to build them) and because British publishers often refused to purchase world rights to an Australian title if the Australian rights were not also available. The effect was to confine Australian publishers to the narrow field of books that were of local interest only and to encourage Australian authors to seek publication of their work with British publishers rather than with an Australian firm that had limited or no access to more lucrative overseas markets.

With few exceptions, Australian publishers were being kept out of international business by market preservation mechanisms enforced by British publishers. From the point of view of British publishers, such mechanisms prevented the fragmentation of the English-language market, indeed the protection of the Commonwealth market, and, in the face of increasing competition from other English-language publishers, maintained demand for books of British origin and for the reprints of foreign books whose rights had been acquired by British publishers …[11]

EXTRACT: Ensor, J 2012, “The Overseas Books in Australian Publishing History”, Angus & Robertson and the British Trade in Australian Books, 1930-1970: The Getting of Bookselling Wisdom, Anthem Press, London, Delhi and New York.


[1] Robert Haupt, “The Book Rebellion”, The Age, 5 November 1988.

[2] Russi Jal Taraporevala, Competition and Its Control in the British Book Trade 1850-1939, London: Pitman Publishing (1973); Martin Lyons and John Arnold, eds, A History of the Book in Australia 1891-1945: A National Culture in a Colonised Market, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press (2001).

[3] Jenny Lee, “War and Peace in the Australian Book Trade”, unpublished paper, p 13.

[4]  Data taken from “Book Publishing Export Group Turnover Statistics: Territorial Analysis of Export Turnover”, in 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): 907.

[5] “Australia is Britain’s Best Market for Books”, The Mercury, 28 December 1948.

[6] According to the statistics presented before the 1962 Restrictive Practices Court case, 1959 is the year that the United States overtakes Australia in export turnover. Though Australia obtains greater export value than the United States in 1960, it is again second to America in 1961. See also Richard Nile, The Making of the Australian Literary Imagination, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press (2002); Paul Eggert, “The Colonial Market, Imperial Publisher, and the Demise of the Three-Decker Novel”, Book History 6 (2006): 127-146; and Graeme Johanson, A Study of Colonial Editions in Australia, 1843-1972, Wellington: Elibank Press (2000).

[7] For a more detailed background of this association see Reginald John Lethbridge Kingsford, The Publishers Association, 1896-1946: With an Epilogue, London: Cambridge University Press (1970).

[8] Hector MacQuarrie to George Ferguson, 26 November 1949, MSS 3269/440 ML.

[9] It was a sub-committee of the Australian Book Publishers Association.

[10] Sam Ure Smith, Australian Book Publishers’ Association (Sydney) to John Brown, Publishers Association (London), 18 October 1963, MSS 3269/106 ML.

[11] 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): 463.