Penguin’s Geoff Walker is an easy person to talk to; he puts himself out to be available for seminars and panel discussions, book launchings and other literary events. Many of his writers are close friends. He is a committed publisher of New Zealand books, and – in his office on North Harbour’s Wairau Road – he puts together one of the largest and broadest range of local titles, with one of the best fiction lists going. Geoff Walker is so much associated with his Penguin imprint that you hear him referred to frequently as Geoffrey Penguin. It takes years of conspicuous effort, unusual ability, commercial success and a well-defined personal and business profile to be awarded a sobriquet that flatters and sticks.
How did he find his way to Penguin? ‘My first real jobs were in journalism, in the Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand and a television programme called Gallery, in the early 1970s. After five years of that, I took a year off and went gardening. It’s conceivably the best job I ever had … After that I didn’t fancy broadcasting any more … I joined A H and A W Reed as an editor, and I was with them for ten years. My publishing apprenticeship was served in an old-style firm – long leisurely meetings, in-house editors, working for weeks at a time on the one manuscript … I joined Penguin seven years ago’.
Where did this interest in New Zealand writing come from? A bookish family background? ‘No, my strongest connections were to a group of writers I read in my mid-teens. Archibald Baxter’s We Shall Not Cease, Dick Scott’s 151 Days and so on. They were an enormous revelation to me. To realise that in the country where I was born there was another side to life – an underside – had a long-term effect on me. I could hardly believe what I was reading’.
So Penguin were looking for someone who had a background in the trade and sympathies that would attract the writers they wanted? ‘Not at all. They didn’t have a view on what sort of list I would set up. So it was a unique opportunity. Nobody in London, Auckland or New York said to me: you shall set up this particular list’.
How far then would you say your political views have affected your choice of books? ‘I think there’s some influence. But not in a directly political way. I think I had more an outlook that tended to question established ways of looking at things. So I had a natural affinity with books such as Jock Phillips’s A Man’s Country or Steven Eldred-Grigg’s Oracles and Miracles. And now Anne Salmond’s Two Worlds‘.
Do your books have to conform with your views on gender, race and other issues? ‘No. And they never did. In fact, we’ve broadened a lot in the last three or four years. The whole publishing range has been extended. We’ve got a lot of books on gardening, leisure, outdoors, sport.
‘In an odd way, in the last few years, I’ve been going back more towards my old Reed kind of publishing. I’m getting back into natural history and New Zealand history. Literary Penguin publishing continues – and as strongly as ever – but I’m really enjoying broadening the list.
‘But let me say that fiction remains our flag-waver. The changes are coming about largely because of the economy. It’s harder than it was to publish New Zealand fiction. You can still do it – if you’ve got a strong other part to your list …
‘First novel print runs are 1500 to 2000, and we’re sometimes lucky to sell these. Short stories are difficult to do without support from the Literature Committee … I’m very much in favour of the move to ‘block’ grants. And for two essential reasons: it’s possible for us to plan twelve months ahead but, more importantly, the Committee doesn’t now read the manuscripts ‑ they don’t have an influence over the publishing decisions … No, they’ve never said anything was rubbish, in fact the disagreement has sometimes been on the other side of the coin: they’ve declined support, and disputed my commercial assessment as a publisher, saying they thought certain books would be runaway successes’.
How do your Penguins fare overseas these days? ‘We have a modest success. The titles are assessed overseas in a very hard-nosed way. There was a time when some of our writers did well in New York, though they’re not doing so well at the moment. But I’ve been able to place some writers, such as Patricia Grace and Rosie Scott, outside our group’.
Is there a gap on your list ‑ something you’d like to publish? ‘A ripping detective story or a really ripping mainstream New Zealand historical novel … I do receive through the mail a large number of manuscripts of this kind and they’re invariably not well written. They’re by people who haven’t studied how a really exciting book is put together’.
And the future? How is Penguin coping with the market downturn? ‘We’re being more cautious with our publishing. Slightly fewer books – though not many. We’re broadening the range and making the books work a bit harder. We have been looking at costs. In the last few years we’ve been looking at new technology. It has been possible to reduce the cost of producing a book. And that’s been a happy coincidence in difficult times …
‘I’m passionate about our fiction list. But I’m also fascinated by questions related to our national identity and the truth about that. After fiction, my favourite kind of book is one that peels away layers of understanding. Revisionism, if you like … I’m also deeply committed to Maori writers. I’m proud to be the publisher of Patricia Grace and Bruce Stewart, Witi Ihimaera, Rangi Walker and all the others…
‘We’ve got an excellent fiction list this year – and so has just about everyone else, I should add. There’s something like 24 novels being published. It’s the year of the novel – the biggest since 1986. And I fear that some good work will suffer from saturation. I’m a little worried about it. It’s just a coincidence … Whatever happens, it’s a formal policy that Penguin’s New Zealand fiction will not be remaindered. That’s a commitment’.
But how do you see the future for publishing here, if the present market protection is lifted and parallel importing of books is allowed? ‘It’s going to put strain on importers of books, yes. But there’s no evidence from Australia, where this had already happened, that local publishers are disadvantaged … I certainly don’t feel that they have anything to fear from this. The market for local books will remain. If some publishers say they may have to pull out, well, that is still to be seen. I’d be very surprised if it actually happened as a result of parallel importing.’
And a book from Geoff Walker? Have you ever thought about it? ‘If I had the confidence and the ability – and the time – I’d one day like to write an historical novel which plays with themes of truth and reality … But I don’t long to be a writer. I love publishing too much’.