I could listen to this all day.
Melbourne University Publishings CEO Louise Adler – whose stable includes Mark Latham, Mick Gatto and the talented biographer Mark McKenna – is telling me lesser-known writers should be paid more for their work. “The annual salary for an artist in Australia is something like $13,000,” she says. “Thats never going to be a living wage.”
I am tucked away with Adler in the quietest corner of the classy city bistro Bambini Trust, relishing my steak frites (actually steak mash, but that doesnt really sound French) while Adler enjoys her mushroom risotto and we both ignore the salad. I warned Adler we would not eat the salad, because nobody ever does: Ive witnessed a tremendous waste of leaves in six years in this job.
I like Bambini Trust, with its wood-panelled Art Deco dining room and rumble of murmured rumour. It always makes me feel like a man with important documents in his breast pocket when, in reality, I have not even got a breast pocket.
Adler says she is particularly proud of having published McKennas An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark. “It took him probably six years to write,” she says. “And it shows in the quality, the inventiveness of the writing, the shape and structure of the life. If youre going to write something of substance, you need a living wage. Howre you going to do it?”
This is music to my ears.
“But weve got no solution,” she admits.
Thats less musical.
“Its very discordant,” she agrees. “Its so out of tune.”
The maths is depressing. “Theres a big gap between the bestsellers and the rest,” she says. “Last year 62,109 new titles were published here, only four titles sold over 100,000 copies – and, at the other end of the scale, 61,800 sold less than 5000 copies. You can publish 10 new novelists, but if they each sell 1000 copies you cant afford to give them the money they require to write those books. I worry that in the end there is less risk-taking, we will all publish less novice writers and invest in more reliable, predictable winners. The bestseller lists, fiction and non-fiction, are still largely made of international titles.”
Adler has been described as “polarising”, but she is a charming lunch date. She asks me as many questions as I ask her, and she is the only person I have ever interviewed who has used the word “ineluctable” (as in, “thats the ineluctable mystery of publishing: who knows why something just takes off?”).
Adler was born in Melbourne to Jewish parents in 1954. Her father Jacques had fought in the French Resistance during World War II; her mother Ruth escaped Germany before the storm clouds of the Holocaust burst to rain death over Europe. They met and married in Melbourne, where they ran cake shops before moving into academia and teaching respectively.
The Adler household was “politically progressive” and culturally rich. “Everyone else was listening to pop music and we were listening to classical music,” she says. “On Saturday nights, we were taken to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. We sat down for the national anthem, because your social conscience determined you take a stand.”
By sitting down?
“Well, not standing up was the point,” she says. “People would whack you with their handbags to get you to stand up.”
Adler was educated at the Hebrew University in Israel, the University of Reading in England, and Columbia University in the US, where she was teaching assistant to the cultural theorist Edward Said. She married political satirist Max Gillies, and they have two children together.
She worked at Australian Book Review, Reed Books, The Age and the Victoria College of the Arts before she was offered the position of publisher at Melbourne University Publishing (MUP) in 2003. The company specialises in books about social history, history, politics and contemporary cultural issues. A commercial publisher is always hunting for the next international success but, says Adler, “a lot of our work is local: for example, we have made Australian politics a focus. Understandably there is no interest whatsoever internationally in these titles.”
MUPs biggest hit with an Australian politician was The Latham Diaries in 2005.
Publishing the book was “uh … character-building”, says Adler. “It was terrific: there were ups and downs – but then again no one would describe their relationship with the former leader of the Opposition as anything other than up and down – but it was a great commercial success. That was 55,000 copies, which was probably the best seller of MUPs entire history up to that point.”
And after that point?
“I think to some peoples unhappiness I, Mick Gatto [the 2009 autobiography of Melbourne identity Gatto, written with crime writer Tom Noble] sold 90,000 copies,” she says. “MUPs mandate is to publish books that contribute to the national conversation, but we are also obliged to cover our costs. Sadly, academic titles dont: its our trade titles that keep us in the black.”
But Gatto was “excellent” to work with, she says, and the launch was “hilarious”: “Mick and his colleagues – friends – parked in the no-standing zone in front of [Melbourne restaurant] Grossi Florentinos. But before they got there, the police had parked their cars there to check out who was coming. When Mick arrived, the police moved their cars! There were more leather jackets and – you probably shouldnt put this in – comb-overs than I could count.
"We had the MUP machine for credit cards and a little cashbox. People were buying in bulk – 10, 20 copies at a time. Everyone was using cash. And this little guy – he looked a bit like Pussy in The Sopranos – came over and said to me, just quietly, Put the cash away. My chief operating officer ended up with $10,000 in cash in his pocket from the event, which he quickly went and banked."
MUP published a second work by Latham, A Conga-line of Suckholes: Mark Lathams Book of Quotations, featuring various quotations that had amused or inspired the author over the years.
“I did have to ring him,” says Adler, “When youre using a significant quotation it is appropriate in our world to seek permission. Lathams last words to me were Youre a f—ing moron, and he hung up.”
Sadly, plans for a follow-up book with Gatto, tentatively titled “The Gatto Guide to Good Living”, came to nothing.
Book publishing in Australia has its problems, but perhaps they are not as dire as some had feared.
“The print book – the object – is alive and well and not going anywhere,” says Adler. “The passing of the book has been mourned – prematurely, it turns out – repeatedly. It has not come to pass. In fact, people are buying more hard-copy books than ever and reading online. But the sales of e-editions have actually plateaued in the English-language market. The doomsayers all predicted that online reading would cannibalise print, but thats not been the case.”
Not all prophets can be vindicated but, at the end of the meal, as I predicted, the salad remains virtually untouched. Adler protests she has eaten some – and takes one more leaf from the bowl.
“I love a leaf,” she says, not particularly convincingly. “Dont you like a leaf?”
There. Ive said it.
Most Viewed in Entertainment
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter