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Story: Publishing

Missionaries published the first books in New Zealand. They were in the Māori language and aimed to spread the Christian message. Local publishers helped encourage New Zealand’s fledgling literary scene. In the second half of the 20th century multinational publishers moved in and bought up local publishers, but by the 2000s many multinationals were leaving the country.

Story by Elizabeth Caffin
Main image: Mills, Dick and Company Almanac and Directory, 1879

Story Summary

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Publishing has traditionally been making and selling books, but it also includes producing other texts such as websites or pamphlets.

Missionary publishing

Missionaries were the first to publish texts in New Zealand. They were mainly in the Māori language, and were used to spread Christianity among Māori.

Early government publishing

Missionaries printed the first government documents in 1840, including the Treaty of Waitangi. The Government Printing Office, which published official government documents, was established after the capital moved to Wellington in 1865.

Books for settlers

Some early books published in New Zealand included guides for the settlers about such topics as farming, beekeeping and gardening.

Governor George Grey and a few other Europeans wrote books collecting Māori stories and traditions. Some were published in Māori and others in English.

Most books on New Zealand topics were published in England, but some were published simultaneously in both countries.

Publishers before 1945

Whitcombe and Tombs, founded in 1882, was New Zealand’s first major publisher. It was also a printer and bookseller, which gave it an advantage. Whitcombe and Tombs dominated the educational publishing market in New Zealand until 1940, and also published general books and a few literary titles.

From 1925 Alfred Reed and his nephew A. W. (Clif) Reed built A. H. & A. W. Reed into a prolific and important publisher. They began with Sunday school materials, moved into religious books and then into general publishing. They published (and often wrote) books for schools.

The Caxton Press, founded in the 1930s by poet Denis Glover and John Drew, specialised in literary books, including poetry and short stories. Caxton was important in encouraging many significant New Zealand writers such as poet Ursula Bethell and prose writer Frank Sargeson.

To celebrate New Zealand’s centennial in 1940 the government published many books.

Post-war publishing, 1945 to 1965

In 1947 the government set up a literary fund to assist publishers and writers. This helped some new publishers.

From the 1950s most publishers tried to sell the overseas rights to their books.

In the 1960s A. H. & A. W. Reed published 40–50 books every year. They were especially successful with books about the South Island high country, sports books and educational texts. They expanded into Australia.

Reeds and the School Publication Branch of the Department of Education competed with Whitcombe and Tombs in educational publishing.

Publishing, 1965 to 1980

During the 1960s and 1970s several multinational publishing companies moved into New Zealand and began publishing local books. Some also bought out New Zealand publishers.

New independent publishers also emerged, and presses were started at Otago, Auckland, Victoria and Canterbury universities.

Whitcombe and Tombs joined with a Dunedin printer to become Whitcoulls, and began to focus more on its bookshops. From the late 1970s Reeds started to decline, becoming out of touch with the market.

In 1962 the New Zealand Book Publishers Association was set up to represent the interests of publishers. It later became the Publishers Association of New Zealand.

1980s and 1990s

More literary events were held and New Zealand books were more widely read, including local novels. Computers made it easier to produce books.

More independent publishers began, including Mallinson Rendel, Huia Publishers and Bridget Williams Books. Many New Zealand publishers, including Reeds, were sold to multinational companies. Government Print was sold and then stopped publishing. School Publications was made into a new Crown-owned company called Learning Media.

In 1993 a publishing course was set up at Whitireia Polytechnic in Wellington. It became the standard training for the publishing industry.

Publishing since 2000

The internet and ebooks had a massive impact on the publishing industry in the 2000s. Out-of-print books were made available on websites or as ebooks, and some major reference works were published on the internet rather than in print. The internet became an important way to market and sell books.

New publishers tended to specialise in particular areas, such as cookbooks or children’s books. Mergers and buyouts continued, with two of the largest multinationals, Random House and Penguin, merging in 2013. That same year several companies left New Zealand and Learning Media closed.

In 2012 New Zealand was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and New Zealand books and culture were promoted.

How to cite this page:

Elizabeth Caffin, 'Publishing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/publishing (accessed 27 June 2017)

Story by Elizabeth Caffin, published 22 Oct 2014