Victoria University Press came into being gradually in the mid-70s – despite its being only 40 years ago, no one can put their finger on a precise year! Current publisher Fergus Barrowman first worked for the press as part-time assistant to the editor in 1984, before moving into the top job in 1985, but, even before that, in 1983 while a teaching assistant in the English department he was an assessor for Bill Manhire’s undergraduate creative writing course.
The “Manhire course” grew to become Victoria’s prestigious International Institute of Modern Letters, and along the way provide many authors for VUP. One of the students in 1983 was Barbara Anderson, and VUP was Anderson’s first publisher of what became her legacy of eight novels, two story collections and an autobiography.
Barbara gained international recognition for her writing and was one of the first of VUP’s author discoveries who became sought after by international publishers.
That has become a regular refrain for Fergus and the team – launch an author, see them become sought after internationally, and then strive to keep New Zealand rights rather than lose their most successful writers to British and American houses.
Among those writers is one close to Fergus; he and Elizabeth Knox first met when VUP accepted her first book, After-Z Hour (1987), and became engaged at the end of the editing process. “We have had many robust editorial discussions over the years,” Fergus says. “I think it would have become tricky if VUP had remained her only publisher, but after The Vintner's Luck was accepted by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and went on to become an international as well as local success, there have been other publishers, editors and agents in the mix.”
The most recent VUP author to have overseas impact is Eleanor Catton, whose first novel The Rehearsal, initially published by VUP, went on to be published by Granta in the UK and Little, Brown in the US, and in twelve foreign languages. There’s a lot of international investment also in her next novel, The Luminaries, published this coming August. VUP, Granta and Little, Brown remain the English-language publishers. “The Luminaries is a wonderful book, an amazing 850-page occult mystery set at the time of the Gold Rush in Hokitika,” says Fergus.
The economics of VUP
What are the nuts and bolts of a university press? VUP is a wholly owned part of the university; it is governed by a board of academic staff and Fergus reports to Victoria’s Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) Prof Neil Quigley. Like many other university presses around the world, VUP gets a subsidy from the university; it does not have to make a profit but should not exceed a loss target.
This latitude allows VUP to be less commercial than other publishers, but it must also be aware of its mandate to serve our country’s literary and scholarly culture. In this regard, it is a prominent publisher of New Zealand poetry, and while some of the fiction could be labelled mainstream, new creative writing is important. All four fiction titles in 2012, and four of eight in 2013, are first books.
“The VUP mix of scholarly non-fiction and creative writing was established when I started,” Fergus explains. “I’ve broadened it over the years, for instance adding novels and poetry, but there’s been no significant redirection.”
While numbers probably aren’t the most important factor in a scholarly press, VUP still turned out 37 books in 2011, 20 last year and will print a further 30 titles this year.
One of those titles has already topped Nielsen BookScan’s New Zealand fiction ratings this year – Aorewa McLeod’s Who Was That Woman Anyway? “A novel and a social history combined – a book that would be difficult to publish without university support.”
VUP achieve those 30 books “with a staff of four, two of whom are part-time, plus we currently have a full-time intern under the PANZ/Whitireia scheme, and I can't imagine how we’re going to cope after the six months are up. We do almost all typesetting and internal design, and some editing and cover design, in-house. We use freelancers for editing, proofreading, indexing, cover design and ebook conversion.”
Other 2013 titles Fergus is buzzing about are Unspeakable Mysteries of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauchlan, a “comedy occult mystery that works as itself but is also a send up of Dan Brown,” and Two Girls in a Boat, Emma Martin’s collection of short stories. The title story won the Commonwealth Short Story prize last year. Elizabeth Knox’s Wake is “hybrid literary/science fiction,” revolving around a horrible disaster which occurs in a New Zealand town.
Fergus attended Frankfurt last year, and says it was a difficult time to sell rights to the kinds of books published by VUP, although one confirmed sale is of Bill Manhire’s Selected Poems to Germany’s Hanser Verlag.
As for the challenge of the future, Fergus says, “It’s almost too big to know what to say. While we would love more bestsellers, realistically the primary challenge for a university press is to find creative ways to continue to publish the same range and diversity of books in a market where average sales of everything except bestsellers are shrinking.”
Image: Victoria University Press Publisher Fergus Barrowman at the launch of Magnificent Moon by Ashleigh Young (on the Day of the Dead). Image credit: M. Starosta