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Featured member: small is good for Australasian publisher Allen & Unwin

By May 22, 2013 April 11th, 2014 No Comments

Why is a nice person like Melanie Laville-Moore getting excited about machine-gun killings? It is because one of Allen & Unwin’s Kiwi Christmas titles is The Bassett Road Machine Gun Murders and their New Zealand director reckons Scott Bainbridge’s backgrounder on these 50-year-old murders will be a bestseller, “Chicago-style killings that marked the end of innocence, and the start of a new, more sinister era to Auckland’s criminal underbelly – what more could you ask for!”

Allen & Unwin has a long and proud history in this part of the world. Originally a British publishing house that established an Australian operation in the mid-1970s, a management buy-out in 1990 created the staunchly independent company that is still prospering today. Most notably, there has been the recent acquisition of Murdoch Books, whose market-leading lifestyle publishing has enhanced the portfolio.

In addition to their vibrant Australian list of around 250 titles each year, Allen & Unwin proudly represents the best of the UK’s independent publishing houses. Bloomsbury, Faber, Atlantic, Canongate, Profile and Nosy Crow are just some whose books are managed through A&U. Melanie says that this is a complementary combination that finds synergy with the major independent retailers here in New Zealand – up to 40% of turnover continues to be through independent bookstores.

The company’s Australian publishing programme has always been strong, and provided a perfect springboard from which to launch a home-grown New Zealand list in October 2009. From a small start of two titles, there are now over 20 New Zealand titles in print, with plans to expand further on the horizon.

A&U’s history in this country is inseparable from long-time colleagues Archetype Books headed by Neil Brown, the sales agents who have represented A&U in this country for almost 30 years. When the first NZ office was opened a decade ago, it was in Archetype’s then premises. Today they are only 20 doors up from the original offices in Queen Street. And not completely coincidentally, Neil’s daughter Nyssa Brown is one of A&U’s local staff along with non-fiction commissioning editor Nic McCloy, publicity and marketing manager Abba Renshaw, senior publicist Josie Brennan, and Jo Rodwell, who provides much-needed backup to the small team’s marketing and publicity efforts. Melanie Laville-Moore says, “We are a small and tight-knit team that manages to achieve an awful lot”.

Melanie is particularly proud of getting local publishing underway, noting its growth has helped fill the void left when the representation of Orion moved in 2007, following its purchase by Hachette. The NZ publishing turnover already represents 10% of overall turnover, and there are plans to see this increase.

A&U’s Australian owners remain hands-on in the business, and their pragmatic and steady decision-making impresses the NZ director. She picks up the phone once a week to “have a good yarn” with former Managing Director, and current Executive Director, Paul Donovan. The long-time Kiwi expat informally holds the portfolio for NZ as he continues to work a day a week at the head office in Sydney. “His contribution adds huge integrity to our operation here in New Zealand, we wouldn’t be without it,” says Melanie. (And continuing the Kiwi flavour, other senior executives at A&U have Ashburton and Alexandra as home towns!)

“We’re very proud that we’re able to sell our Australian lists so strongly here in New Zealand,” Mel says. And this is reciprocated by Australian colleagues promoting New Zealand-originated titles equally well. Titles that have rated especially well in Oz include Lisa Tamati’s Running Hot with overall sales of 7,500 across both markets, plus Wendyl Nissen’s Home Companion and Dom Harvey’s Bucket List of an Idiot each selling in excess of 15,000 and 8,000 copies respectively.

Kiwi-authored titles on the list for this year include Jimi Hunt’s A Bit Mental, his account of a lilo ride down the Waikato River, and A Forager’s Treasury by Johanna Knox, on edible native plants.

Novels for July release include Anne Kennedy’s Last Days of the National Costume and Charity Norman’s The Son in Law. It is back to non-fiction in September with JJ Feeney’s Misconceptions, her heart-breaking account of an inability to become pregnant, and from two military historians, The Battles of Monte Cassino, a full reappraisal of the conflict.

A November release, The World at my Feet is written by Air New Zealand pilot and ultra adventurer Mike Allsop – his exploits include climbing Mount Everest without a guide and running seven marathons on seven continents in seven days to raise money for local charity, Kids Can.

Gift-giving season Kiwi titles include a heart-warming new novel from Danielle Hawkins, Chocolate Cake for Breakfast, about a former All Back and an unglamorous country vet… and back to where we began with Bassett Road Machine Gun Murders. This is the 50th anniversary of the crime, and Scott Bainbridge tells the tale at a cracking pace. He’s interviewed John Banks, whose father knew the criminals concerned, and has uncovered other fascinating facts behind the crime. Melanie rates the manuscript highly and expects it to be one of A&U’s big books for the coming Christmas.

Above image: Melanie Laville-Moore, NZ Director Allen & Unwin