Nothing brings Australians together more than the whiff of elitism or intellectual snobbery. No other country is more horrified by the threat of «dumbing up».
Academic eggheads taking over a university press which has been the cosy coterie of political memoirists, journalists and their friends is, allegedly, a terrible blow to Australian cultural life.
As a relative newcomer to the University of Melbourne who knows neither Adler nor any of the board, I would like to offer another perspective.
Certainly, as many commentators have pointed out, university publishing cannot survive financially on only specialised scholarship with a tiny readership. Most university presses publish textbooks, aimed at students, to bring in revenue. Oxford University Press has its famous dictionaries.
Many university presses recruit star academics and public intellectuals, whose works can boost a «general interest» list aimed at a wider audience. There are lots of ways to bring scholarship, research and informed analysis to a wider book-buying public.
But MUP has chosen to go in the opposite direction – to bring trade titles more suited to a commercial publisher into Australia’s most prestigious university press. That strategy should be resisted.
Australians should look at how the leading presses around the world manage the challenges and then examine, again, the Melbourne list.
The beautifully produced and highly sellable books by Princeton or Yale university presses are not narrow treatises. They are books of ideas and books of record, many of which will endure for decades. Not narrow, but deep.
Ah, but the presses in the UK and US have much bigger audiences? Look at my own country of birth, Ireland, and see how university presses there survive and thrive in a market a fifth the size of Australia’s.
I was at a talk last month in Sydney by a representative of Cork University Press, where he talked about the Atlas of the Irish Revolution (2017), a beautifully illustrated, 1000-page, five-kilogram tome that broke records for Irish sales, and most of the bestsellers on the MUP list.
It cost €59 ($94) and, by public vote, won Irish book of the year 2017. Its content was written and edited by (gasp) academics.
Melbourne has chosen not to go down that route but rather to seek non-academic writers, with a distinct bias for memoir. Why is it de rigeur for politicians of all stripes to publish their memoirs with MUP?
Overseas, Tony Blair went to Random House, Bill Clinton to Vintage. I doubt if David Cameron, currently in his famous garden shed chewing a self-exculpatory pen, will be approaching Cambridge University Press.
But in Australia, politicians who have spent decades bloviating on Q&A think that Australian culture will wither unless their memoirs come out with a prestige university press. It is not snobbish to say that not every book, even a great book, is right for a university press, especially one in receipt of a university subsidy?
It is true that you should not judge a book by its cover, but you should certainly judge a publisher.
No British university press that I know of would publish a cook book by Mrs Jeremy Corbyn (Chloe Shorten is on MUP’s list) or populate its list with memoirs by gangsters and celebrities.
It is argued that these books subsidise the more academic books that MUP produces. But the MUP website reveals that trade books are where the heart and passion of the current press lies. Academic authors are outnumbered by politicians, journalists and freelancers.
The books you find by following the «academic» link look like they were designed by a retired Soviet car engineer – drab, utilitarian, unloved.
It is true that you should not judge a book by its cover, but you should certainly judge a publisher. The impression you get from MUP’s website is not of a publisher using trade titles to drive its core business of scholarly dissemination, but rather of a trade press irritatingly obliged to publish a few academic titles.
There is little evidence from the MUP list that the press is committed to the values and mission of a university: scholarship, teaching, academic excellence. The decision by Melbourne University to reconnect Melbourne University Publishing to its academic mission is overdue.
Australian deserves a university press of prestige and distinction that will stand beside the world’s best.
Ronan McDonald took up the Gerry Higgins chair of Irish studies at the University of Melbourne in February 2018. He is a Cambridge University Press author.