Publisher profiles 1, October 1991

A bird in flight: The Godwit Press

In the back garden of a Mount Eden home lies the office of one of the newest of publishing houses, the Godwit Press, set up by Jane Connor and Andrew Campbell in 1990, and already making its mark through high production standards and an innovative and eclectic approach to the New Zealand scene. Both founders have extensive experience in their profession. Jane Connor was formerly publishing manager of Random House and has also worked for Collins, Reeds and Benton Ross. She has published Gaelyn Gordon and Lisa Greenwood as well as many non-fiction authors, and is now developing a strong gardening list. Andrew Campbell, former managing editor of Octopus, started Heinemann Reed’s Pacific Writers’ series and with Andrew Mason established their Fiction Award in association with the Listener.

Andrew Campbell’s literary involvement began early: his mother is the poet Fleur Adcock (who brought him up in London) and his father Alistair Campbell. He took an honours degree in Anthropology at the London School of Economics, followed by an M Phil at Auckland, specialising in the ethno-history of the Cook Islands. He met Jane Connor who was also studying for a Masters degree at Auckland. A year or so working for the Labour Department in Wellington made him realise he wasn’t cut out to be a public servant, so he turned to freelance work for Reeds, then based in Wellington, ‘looking for an escape route’. Academic life didn’t specially appeal either – ‘after a while it became somewhat claustrophobic’. He worked with Heinemann in Auckland before it amalgamated with Reed, and having applied for a position there as editor, took two months off and went to Penrhyn in the Cook Islands, his father’s home territory. On a crackly radio telephone he learned he had the job and eventually took over David Ling’s role as editor.

Both Jane and he had always wanted to be independent, and having gained enough experience and survived several stressful takeovers, they took the plunge and founded a new press, its name inspired by Robin Hyde’s novel The Godwits Fly. ‘I saw myself as a godwit in reverse’, said Campbell, ‘I also liked the sound of the word. Quite a few publishing companies are named after birds but ours is one of the few logos in which the bird is actually in flight and not sitting around on rocks’. Nobody could say that the two founders have sat around on rocks either as their list expands to include fiction, music, gardening, literary non-fiction, travel, biography, social history etc. Like most publishers they’ve found a house can’t thrive on fiction (nor poetry), so they aim to balance the accounts with gardening, a passion of Jane’s, and other popular titles such as Les Cleveland’s recent The Great New Zealand Song Book, with a forthcoming book on New Zealand song by Mike Harding.

Instead of borrowing heavily and compromising their autonomy they’ve chosen to use their own savings and develop organically. Their books, many designed by Jane with covers by Christine Hansen, are elegant and when asked about future directions they stress their flexibility but will stick to those areas of specialisation they’ve started on – fiction, gardening and music which ‘hasn’t been developed as much as it could be’.

In Robin Hyde’s novel the godwits symbolise New Zealanders who have been ‘brought up on bluebells and primroses and daffodils and robins in the snow’, who ‘must make the long migration, under a compulsion they hardly understand; or else be dissatisfied all their lives long’. As a godwit to whom the imagery and experience of England was familiar Andrew Campbell together with Jane Connor is now exploring and bringing to light stratas of New Zealand experience that bode well for the success of their venture.

 

 

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