Publisher’s shift is a loss for public debate

The resignation of the chief executive and bulk of the board of one of Australia’s most prominent publishers – a protest against internally imposed restrictions on editorial scope and independence – prompts concerns public debate might be diminished by the muting of a respected outlet for valued voices.

Under Louise Adler’s leadership, MUP has produced widely read political memoirs and non-fiction across contemporary culture and policy.Credit:Joe Armao

Melbourne University Publishing is being redirected by the university’s new vice-chancellor, Duncan Maskell, to cease publishing other than purely academic tomes by scholarly staff. Under Louise Adler’s leadership for the past 15 years, MUP has produced numerous widely read political memoirs and non-fiction across contemporary culture and policy.

Changing things that are flawed, and preserving those that are not, depends on the most valuable free market there is – the one for ideas. It’s a crucial contest nourished by independent publishers. MUP’s On series, which has presented essays on topics including merit, fairness, patriotism, disruption and hate by authoritative – and often provocative – writers, is an exemplary addition to public-interest debate.

It is argued by Ms Adler’s supporters that MUP has shifted from loss to profit under her direction. But the university subsidises the publishing house by an annual amount that considerably dwarfs any trading profit.
That funding might need to expand; academic books, constituting about 40 per cent of production and sometimes selling in the hundreds, have generally also been subsidised by the non-fiction titles, which can record sales in the tens of thousands.

However, academic authors do not require the kind of advances commanded by high-powered politicians.
The change is ostensibly about the unexpected decision by Professor Maskell – a microbiologist recruited from the University of Cambridge by chancellor Allan Myers, a Melbourne QC – to focus exclusively on academic publishing. However, there’s a whiff of power struggle surrounding the dramatic departure of all but two of the eight board members. MUP had just gone through a 12-month review, which has informed the new change of course.

The state government is calling on the university to reverse the “disturbing” decision, but it has no power to compel.

It is, of course, the right of the university’s new leader to make the changes. However, it does seem a curious move.

Publishing both scholarly works for aficionados and non-fiction for a much broader market is not contradictory.
They are not mutually exclusive – MUP and other university imprints in Australia, such as UQP, and around the world, such as Oxford University Press, show that there is demand for books on matters of broad public interest, published by a house with academic rigour.

It would be strange to think MUP’s contribution for the past 15 years has done other than burnish the standing of the publisher and the university.

We hope that the publishing house’s new team will find a way to bring the brightest ideas to a wide audience, while bolstering its academic reputation through scholarly publishing as well.

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