Doing Something for Australia: George Robertson and the
early years of Angus and Robertson, Publishers, 1888–1900.
By Jennifer Alison.
(Bibliographical Society of Australia & New
Zealand, 2009) (BSANZ Occasional Publication, No 9).
ISBN 978-0-9751500-3-0. 318pp. $55 + $10 postage.
Available from BSANZ c/o Special Collections, Baillieu Library,
University of Melbourne, Vic 3010.
Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1916
IN THE INTRODUCTORY chapter of this important and often fascinating work Dr Jennifer Alison observes that “the story of Australian publishing cannot be told without the story of Angus and Robertson”. True, and the story of Angus and Robertson (A&R) cannot be told without the story of its dynamic leader and inspirational genius, George Robertson (1860–1933).
A&R began in 1884 as a Sydney bookshop operated by Scottish immigrant David Angus, who was joined two years later by a fellow Scot, George Robertson (no relation to George Robertson, the leading bookseller and publisher in Melbourne at about the same time). Angus’s health prevented him from playing a major role in the partnership, and Robertson became the driving force behind the business. Australian booksellers at the time were heavily dependent on imports from Britain; any local publishing was mostly done by booksellers as a sideline, and tended to be of an ephemeral or utilitarian nature. A&R’s first venture into publishing, in 1888, consisted of two books of verse and a religious work (for which they really just served as distributors) and a four-page facsimile of an item of Australian history. Robertson quickly became committed to encouraging Australian authors and to providing Australian alternatives to British works, especially for use in schools, and these principles drove his publishing activities. An ‘Australian Schools Series’ (textbooks of spelling, grammar, mathematics, history, geography, etc.) was launched in 1894, in the following year AB Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River was published to great acclaim, and the year after that Henry Lawson joined the growing A&R roster of Australian authors. The firm became the country’s leading publisher until it fell on hard times in the 1950s and 1960s. The imprint is still used, but the original flavour of the enterprise was long ago snuffed out by a series of takeovers and mergers.
Alison’s work examines the early years of this iconic company in Australian publishing, primarily through Robertson’s enormous files of letters to and from his authors, customers, and business associates which are preserved in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. As Alison says, these letters are “an invaluable storehouse of information and the best evidence there is of what was happening and what it was like in the early years of Angus and Robertson’s publishing.” The work, being a study of a business enterprise rather than a straight chronological history, is arranged thematically—what was published, how the books were advertised and promoted, sales histories of different books, profits and losses, how the tidal waves of unsolicited
manuscripts were dealt with, and a final masterly chapter bringing together and analysing Robertson’s many contributions to the enterprise. Inevitably the story of A&R’s early years becomes inextricably interwoven with the story of George Robertson the man, the bookseller, and above all the publisher.
Most people would probably say that A&R’s reputation is primarily as a publisher of Australian literature, but it is interesting that, at least in the early years under study here, only 20% of its publications fell into that category. The majority were in fact school textbooks, and scientific and professional works. The school texts, in particular, were profitable, but the whole publishing arm of the business accounted for only one-quarter of the company’s overall profits. The bookshop and its associated lending library accounted for the lion’s share. But to boost profits by 25% is a significant achievement, and well justified the energy and attention Robertson devoted to the publishing work. Indeed he devoted so much time and energy to the
publishing side that one wonders how he managed to supervise the retail business as well.
Robertson comes across as very hardworking, an indefatigable champion of Australian authors, and deeply involved in every facet of the business. Nothing seems to have escaped his notice or attention; perhaps he now would be termed a micro-manager. He certainly had a controlling personality which drove him and inspired his staff. A full biography of Robertson would now seem to be warranted.
Robertson’s correspondence files have been mined before, notably by Anthony Barker who published a selection of them as “a kind of scrapbook aimed at illustrating some of the highlights of the interaction between author and publisher [which] also turned out to be something of an account of Angus &Robertson’s first half-century and a profile of George Robertson, although by no means a full treatment in either case.” Barker’s books (Dear Robertson: letters to an Australian publisher  reissued as George Robertson: a publishing life in letters ) are not, and do not claim to be, scholarly, though they are a good read. Jennifer Alison’s is the scholarly study of A&R’s publishing and of its driving force, George Robertson, that has long been needed. Unlike many scholarly books derived from PhD theses, it is also a pleasure to read and is consistently interesting.
Robertson paid particular attention to what was called the “get up”, the physical appearance of his books. He wanted them to look good, and so enhance the firm’s reputation and attract more buyers. Type, paper, binding and illustrations all received his personal attention. So important was the get up that he was disappointed when reviewers failed to comment on it. The Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand has produced a book with a very pleasing get up. Good paper (though it is not stated to be acid-free), well designed, well bound, and well illustrated. The reproductions of some of Robertson’s letters show that his handwriting was not always easy to read; Dr Alison’s success in deciphering 13,000 of them is remarkable.
This is an important contribution to the history of Australian publishing, and both author and publisher deserve our warm congratulations. There is, of course, further work to be done on the history of Australian publishing, including further work on A&R’s publishing in the twentieth century. Australian bookselling deserves more work, too, and, for example, the relationship of A&R’s publishing and bookselling businesses is not examined here. Alison’s book will provide an essential foundation for further such studies.
Neil A Radford