In the 1930s new publishers challenged Whitcombe’s dominance of New Zealand publishing.
A. H. & A. W. Reed
In Dunedin Alfred Reed developed a business supplying materials for Sunday schools. In 1925 he took his nephew, A. W. (Clif) Reed, into his successful firm and in 1932 boldly sent him to Wellington to establish a branch. This became the basis for the major publisher A. H. & A. W. Reed. In the same year they published their first book, The letters and journals of Samuel Marsden. Other works on missionary or religious topics followed; and the two Reeds became authors as well as publishers of a small bestseller, First New Zealand Christmases (1933).
In 1934 Clif Reed nervously accepted James Cowan’s collection of historical stories, Tales of the Maori bush. Clif saw it as their first secular publication and the origin of his own long interest in Māori legends and history. As Alfred Reed withdrew from day-to-day management though remaining an advisor and prolific author, Clif drove the publishing.
Overwhelmed by Dickens
In their early days Reeds onsold runs from other publishers. They purchased from the British publisher Dent 500 sets of a 22-volume edition of the complete works of Charles Dickens. They took years to sell and one day an earthquake shook Wakefield Chambers, where the publisher was housed. Clif raced to support the shelf where the books were kept, risking being ‘overwhelmed in an avalanche of Dickens’.1
Early books were predominantly historical and included travel books and memoirs, a few novels and some verse. Clif devised a series of paperback booklets for schools, Raupo School Readers, turned out with speed and often written by the Reeds themselves or adapted from previous Reeds hardbacks. He was also the designer of the colophon, of a clump of reeds (raupō in Māori).
By 1938 Reeds had published over 40 titles. With entrepreneurial skill they adapted to wartime conditions in the early 1940s by publishing war maps and patriotic collections of speeches and hymns.
A very different publisher appearing in the 1930s was the Caxton Press, a legend in the history of New Zealand literature. It began in late 1932 as the Caxton Club at Canterbury University College and was driven by Denis Glover’s twin passions for fine printing and poetry. In 1935 Glover and John Drew set up the Caxton Press in a stable in central Christchurch, doing jobbing printing and publishing slim volumes of poetry, short stories and essays. They treated it as an adventure, marked by exuberance and wit.
Modelling the press on English literary publishers such as Faber and Faber, they prided themselves on simple elegant typography and book design, a new departure in local publishing. Two books displaying typefaces and Fantastica: 13 drawings by artist Leo Bensemann (1937), showed off Caxton’s technical and aesthetic mastery.
As important was their determination to publish writing they admired. By 1941 they had produced 25 books of poetry, including works by Allen Curnow, A. R. D. (Rex) Fairburn, R. A. K. Mason, Charles Brasch, Ursula Bethell and Glover himself, and six prose works by writers including Monte Holcroft, Frank Sargeson and Curnow. Both the print runs and profits were small, but this persistent support of good writing laid the foundations of the nation’s literary excellence.
Progressive Publishing Society
During the Second World War, with Glover overseas serving in the navy and materials scarce, some Caxton titles were taken over by the Progressive Publishing Society. This short-lived group set up in 1941 by three left-wing co-operative bookshops was committed to serious socialist and nationalist publications as well as works of literature.
The government developed a major project to celebrate the centennial of British sovereignty in New Zealand. This was inspired by the indefatigable Joseph Heenan, under-secretary of Internal Affairs, and drew on a talented staff, including E. H. McCormick, David Hall and John Pascoe. Eleven book-length historical surveys and 30 popular pictorial booklets, Making New Zealand, were produced. The surveys included McCormick’s Letters and art in New Zealand (1940) and J. C. Beaglehole’s The discovery of New Zealand (1939). Beaglehole was an adviser on typography and history, and the books were printed by Whitcombe and Tombs, not the Government Printing Office. In addition, a government subsidy assisted the publication of many local and business histories.