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Featured Member: Claire Murdoch, Publisher, Te Papa Press

By July 17, 2010April 11th, 2014No Comments

Publishing was my first real, grown-up job and I can’t imagine ever wanting another career. Picking through the CV compost, it all seems too obvious now: too commercial for academia, too clumsy for film sets, too damn nice for journalism (the photo library was fun, though). All that, and being one of those people who just can’t help reading – anything – so much that they literally bump into lampposts while doing it. Of course, I was a book person.

That first, real job was at Allen & Unwin, Sydney, where against all odds (i.e., not really knowing who Gough Whitlam was at the time ), I was hired as assistant to the late John Iremonger, legend of Australian non-fiction publishing. His list was like a Who’s Who of history and politics and included some seminal biographies, histories and good, gory true crime books. Working for John and (later) academic publisher Elizabeth Weiss at that great independent publishing house, at an unlikely-to-be-repeated moment in time (Allen & Unwin distributed Bloomsbury in Australia and Bloomsbury had just published the first Harry Potter book) was nothing short of transformative.

In 2002 John very sadly died, I turned twenty-six and Te Papa, New Zealand’s unique new national museum and art gallery, turned four. The museum advertised internationally for a publisher to re-launch their press and I applied for the job. ‘Rich’, ‘extensive’, ‘fascinating’, ‘iconic’ – these words are wildly overused in book blurbs everywhere, but they are all true of Te Papa’s collections, and the potential to publish new books drawing on the museum’s exhibitions, scholarship and ma-tauranga Ma-ori, under its very powerful The challenge of balancing commercial viability with corporate bureaucracy and public ownership can be . . . intense‘thumbprint’ brand, was irresistible. After more than six years at Te Papa Press, it still is.

Despite the spiderwebby spectre of worthiness creeping about, institutionally published books really are important and valuable. Done right, they bring big ideas and slow-cooking research to a culture and its readers (who, I reckon, need and want them in good numbers). In the case of museum and art gallery books, they can be very, very droolably produced at the same time. Some museum publishers relish never having to ‘do’ a celebrity biography, fart-joke compendium, mass-market romance or diet book. Some of us fantasise about them at night, for fun.

Of course, institutional publishing has its stressful side (the word ‘institution’ is there for a reason), and the challenge of balancing commercial viability with corporate bureaucracy and public ownership can be . . . intense. Moreover, commissioning, editing and delivering enormous, multi-authored, high-production-value, press-pass-requiring, serious illustrated books isn’t ever easy. At Te Papa Press, as well as keeping a close eye on changing photographic and print technology, we strive to be responsible to the artists and iwi whose work and taonga we represent.

Like everything, it’s all about he tangata: my skilled and clever colleagues, our authors, the booksellers and book-making professionals who make the publishing industry so stimulating, and – above all – the real, live readers out there. Apart from knowing we’ve reached them, what keeps it exciting for me is the furious good fun of just making cool stuff, the endless learning, and the weird, addictive, hopeful act of publishing itself.