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Te Papa’s Claire Murdoch: creating significant books

By March 6, 2012 April 11th, 2014 No Comments

Claire Murdoch’s role as Te Papa Press publisher is unique in New Zealand and distinctly different from other New Zealand publisher roles. The print runs for the books she publishes may sometimes be smaller, and the profit percentages for Te Papa Press books perhaps a little more generous than those of the big trade publishers – but then again, as she points out, “there are no celebrity cookbooks to fill out the list at Christmas time.”

Nevertheless the accolade she is most proud of winning with Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life is the Nielsen Booksellers Choice Award in 2009. “Institutional books can sometimes have the deathly whiff of vanity publishing about them and not seen as commercial – which of course we strive to avoid. So when real booksellers give a book this award, and you know it has appeal to the whole book trade, you do feel you’ve got something right.”

Other publishers would perhaps see the other award the book won that year, the Montana Medal for Non-Fiction 2009, as greater cause for pride.

While Claire believes the privileges of being the publisher for the national museum and art gallery outweigh the restraints of a public institution, her desire for success at bookshop level comes from her initial training with Allen & Unwin in Sydney.

Claire’s first post grad job was as an editorial assistant at the Dominion in Wellington. Then the bright lights across the Tasman called. A flatmate’s aunt was an international agencies rep whose bookshelves overflowed with covetous imported titles and rock bios. The answer to the question “How did you ever get all these great books?” meant Claire, then studying film production and working in a commercial photo library, decided to switch to publishing.

She was put through many hoops before being accepted as a publishing assistant at Allen & Unwin – having to present ideas and essays as part of her selection to her future boss, the late John Iremonger. Like John, Claire’s primary interest was and is in serious non-fiction, but the exposure she had to various sides of publishing soon broadened her horizons. Another plus for Claire was working under top publisher Elizabeth Weiss – now academic and digital production director at A&U – for one of the four years she spent there.

In 2002, Te Papa advertised the role she now occupies, and the self-described Aussie-born NZ diplomat’s kid returned here to take the position, lured by the possibility of publishing “big books, significant books; using the museum’s collections, research and scholarship to tell great stories.”

In this not for profit environment, budgets are stringent and production costs tightly controlled. One major asset is Te Papa Press’ ability to use the museum’s photographic team on some of the titles.

What Te Papa does with great success, says Claire, is “translate the great big amorphous every-possible-thingness of a concept-driven museum like Te Papa into discrete blobs of book that are as good as they can be, and make sense to readers.” There is no need to ask if the approach has been successful. Over a four-year period, Te Papa Press won three Montana Medals for Non-Fiction. In 2006 for Pohutukawa and Rata: New Zealand’s Iron-hearted Trees, the following year for Eagle’s Complete Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand and in 2009 for Jill Trevelyan’s Rita Angus biography. An Illustrated Guide to New Zealand Hebes was the reference and anthology section finalist in 2007.

Just last year, the Athol McCredie-edited Brian Brake: Lens on the World was a finalist in the Illustrated Non-Fiction section of the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

The range of Te Papa Press titles is impressive: things botanical, art related, taonga Maori, Pacific culture, historical, ornithology and fashion. The Press also produces journals, calendars and books related to the museum’s own collections.

Equally remarkable is that apart from Claire, there are only three other full time staff, among them senior editor Odessa Owens and Sue Beaton who is in charge of sales. Claire rates both as “amazing” and values their long-term association with Te Papa Press.

Claire is aware that Te Papa Press is facing a challenging future as museums and public institutions experience funding cuts at the same time as pressure to make publicly available as much knowledge and content as possible – alongside the many big changes affecting publishers everywhere. “We need to look at how to reach people, what media to use and do it all on a limited budget.”

Claire Murdoch also has a big year ahead of her: she is one of the New Zealand delegates to the Leipzig Book Fair later this month. In June she will take up her Winston Churchill Memorial Trust research grant and meet people in similar roles to hers all over the United States at trade publishing houses, media production businesses, and museums and galleries like the American Museum of Natural History and Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Getty in Los Angeles. “I’m one of a kind in New Zealand, so it will be great to meet people facing the same issues.”

She will also be going to Frankfurt in October. It will be a follow-up to her 2008 trip, and she is grateful for the prior experience. “I won’t be as overexcited as I was the first time and will be able to build on existing relationships to make the most of the opportunity when New Zealand is the Guest of Honour.”