There’s been a subtle change in the south. Over the past month, without any fanfare, Dunedin-based John McIndoe Ltd – the South Island’s biggest publishing house – has become McIndoe Publishers. The three women who now run the firm wanted a name that reflected their function, and a less masculine title seemed appropriate.
The original John Mclndoe established his printery in 1892. Later his son took over the business, and in 1949 his grandson and namesake joined the firm. Grandson John’s interests lay in art, literature and music, but he found an outlet for his creativity in book production.
After years of study and experimentation John McIndoe established his publishing department in 1968, with Peter Stewart as editor. In 1975 poet Brian Turner moved into the editor’s chair and began ‘beefing up the list’. Peter and John had turned out about six tastefully produced books each year, predominantly with a local flavour, he says. We were thought of as a South Island publisher; I wanted to turn us into a New Zealand publisher. We could still publish books of local interest, but in the main I wanted to publish books that would appeal to anyone, wherever they lived. John often used to say: “We need a more civilised society.” He and I agreed utterly on that. And one way to create a more civilised society is to publish a greater range of books.’
Their accord extended to practicalities. Turner used his contacts in the literary world, and the skills he had acquired during six years at Oxford University Press, to attract and edit manuscripts. He and John McIndoe designed the books and John supervised their production. Before long they were publishing 12 to 16 titles a year, including a significant amount of poetry and fiction. Profitability was a minor consideration: ‘John was a genuine patron of the arts. His only concern was that we paid our way, which we did – but that’s all we did,’ Turner observes.
Scores of smallish publishers, equally idealistic, equally hard-working, have folded. Why did McIndoe’s survive?
‘There was good will towards us from the literary community because we published books that contributed to New Zealand’s literary heritage, even if their chances of making a profit were slight. Of course we also published profitable books, and the Literary Fund gave us support – not a lot, but without it we wouldn’t have been able to publish the books we did.’
One of many McIndoe titles that Turner remembers with fondness and pride is Monte Holcroft’s Carapace (1979) – an idiosyncratic social history of the motorcar in New Zealand by a man who has never owned or driven one. Besides its wider significance, it was the first book that Turner and Barbara Larson worked on together. Larson, a travelling Canadian artist, drew the illustrations for Carapace, and one thing led to another. Her freelance work gradually extended from illustration to book design, and her relationship with McIndoe’s editor extended from the professional to the personal.
Throughout his McIndoe years Turner had worked late at night on his own writing. Then in 1984 a Robert Burns Fellowship gave him a year in which to write full time. During his absence Larson’s responsibilities at McIndoe’s increased accordingly. By 1985 Turner had developed a taste for full-time writing and John McIndoe was ready to retire. It was an end of an era.
Turner and Larson were by then a couple. After some agonising Larson took Turner’s job, and the house of McIndoe continued to prosper. Some things stayed the same: the number of books produced each year, the balance of quality literature and commercial money-spinners, and the support services McIndoe had always provided to the University of Otago Press and local groups wishing to publish their own books.
Some things changed. Ownership of the firm passed to Alliance Textiles, and during the 1980s the distribution and promotion difficulties of publishers located far from their main North Island markets were compounded by an economic downturn, bookseller preference for high-turnover titles, and high-budget competition from newly established, multinational publishers on Auckland’s North Shore.
McIndoe’s strong backlist (featuring Owen Marshall, Cilla McQueen, Vincent O’Sullivan and many others) undoubtedly helped them survive, but equally important was their response to the new challenges. Instead of retrenching they worked harder, drawing on the enthusiasm and teamwork that John McIndoe had instilled in the firm years earlier. They put more resources into marketing and promotion, and extended their range to include young adult fiction. As a result, sales in New Zealand and overseas escalated and staffing-levels increased. At present Barbara Larson (managing editor) works full time, Paula Boock (editor) and Lynsey Ferrari (marketing manager) are almost full time, and several freelances – notably designer Jenny Cooper and editor Brian Turner – are kept busy.
Barbara Larson’s confident assertion, ‘Mclndoe’s future looks healthy’, seems well founded.
Lynley Hood is a Dunedin writer, and the organiser of Lifespan New Zealand Writers’ Week.