CRAIG MUNRO Under Cover: Adventures in the art of editing. Reviewed by Bruce Sims
This memoir provides insights into the editor’s world, and winning and losing in the publishing game.
Craig Munro poses the central dilemma of this book on the opening page, that author–editor relationships are ‘hidden from public scrutiny by an underworld-style code of silence’. Equally melodramatically, I have always described those relations as subject to the equivalent of ‘the seal of the confessional’. Munro treads a fine line in the book by describing his interactions with some very well-known writers without breaching confidences. I suspect he elides some of the seamier and more unpleasant aspects of the editor’s work in the interests of keeping secrets.
Along the way, however, he reveals much of the delicate nature of a good editor’s work. He is best at describing the warmth which can exist in a beneficial and productive interaction. Perhaps it is his personality but his relaxed accounts belie what is, I suspect, the experience of most editors of being overworked (and underpaid). The necessity of working on a number of things at once while dealing with a multitude of daily queries and demands can sometimes be overwhelming. We don’t get much of a sense of this in the book.
We do get a strong sense of the development of the University of Queensland Press (UQP) and of Munro, the fledgling editor, along with it. The claims for UQP are perhaps a bit strong: ‘an unrivalled literary list’, as well as its premier place in pioneering Indigenous writing. It certainly has been a major supporter of Indigenous writing but there are many earlier examples, including by Jacaranda (We Are Going, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, published as Kath Walker, 1964), and in the old Angus & Robertson list (Because a White Man’ll Never Do It by Kevin Gilbert, 1973) or books like Gilbert’s Living Black (Allen Lane, 1977).
On both points I am partial, having worked for both Penguin Books and Magabala Books, but Munro gives due credit to other publishers such as Fremantle Arts Centre Press and Magabala, as well as to Penguin for taking over UQP’s distribution, despite his reservations about how that operated. Smaller publishers taking up sales and distribution with ‘host’ publishers are almost bound to feel that their authors are given less favourable treatment. From my experience, what happens is that sales reps tend to back winners, whichever publisher they come from. New authors have a tough time breaking through. The Penguin sales team flogged Peter Carey hard for UQP but took a while to promote the success of McPhee Gribble’s Tim Winton.
But to the writers, because that is what it is all about. Peter Carey’s brilliant career is treated in some detail. Munro appears less bitter than I would have been about Carey giving UK company Faber world rights to Illywhacker. UQP were left to buy the ANZ rights from Faber, not generous treatment towards his first publisher. UQP did a magnificent job with Carey in this market, only to be eventually rewarded by a sell-out to Penguin via Random House.
Not all authors or their agents are motivated by large advances. Elizabeth Jolley moved from Fremantle Arts Centre Press and UQP to Penguin because she had always wanted to be published by them (for whatever reasons, possibly some kind of old-country recognition). It certainly wasn’t because of any dirty work by her agent, Caroline Lurie, who played with a straight bat throughout. On the other hand, Munro is right to lament large advances which usually could not be earned back through sales and hence royalties. This was good for authors such as Thea Astley who always (according to biographer Karen Lamb) felt under-done by publishers, but was not good for publishers left with a financial hole. The gap in the money could be written off as a marketing expense. However, such pea-and-thimble accounting doesn’t bring the money back and can lead to financial ruin or at least instability.
Whatever gloss is put on publishing as a cultural activity, it is also a business, a point which Munro accepts, but he seems a bit peeved by the ‘tough commercial marketplace’. The brilliance of UQP general manager, Laurie Muller, in maintaining the difficult finances through a variety of grants, subsidies and sleights-of-hand deserves a lot of credit, but this balancing act could not last forever in a tightening economic climate. I certainly feel strong empathy for Muller and Munro during a meeting with Penguin’s ‘top management’ about their distribution arrangements. It sounds less like a meeting between colleagues and more like a ticking off from the headmaster.
During Munro’s time at UQP, there were many commercial successes. Hugh Lunn, among others, was an author who more than repaid any efforts in editing, promoting and selling him, as well as obviously touching a cultural nerve. The importance of addressing Australian culture in all its forms is rightly foremost for Craig Munro in his editing and publishing work and his own scholarly and writing endeavours.
It is impossible to say which writers will last into the future but it is fairly certain that those of the calibre of Olga Masters and Barbara Hanrahan, if forgotten now, will be rediscovered, and this book clearly outlines how their books and careers were nurtured at UQP.
Equally illuminating is the account of Munro’s failed encounters with Xavier Herbert over Poor Fellow My Country. It is fairly clear that no amount of tact, diplomacy or flattery could have won over the cantankerous old writer to what might have been a more rational position. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.
A smaller publisher is always likely to ‘lose some’. Having launched the career of David Malouf, UQP lost him to the bright lights of London, another move that would have left a bitter taste, though Munro doesn’t dwell on it. In the way of multinational takeovers, Malouf’s work eventually went to Random House, and having been published under a sub-licence to Penguin for years, found its way back to the new Penguin–Random conglomerate. Apart from the initial move, Malouf was simply a pawn in a larger chess game in spite of being one of Australia’s (and the world’s) most distinguished writers.
Autobiographical matter is a bit thin on the ground in Under Cover, but this book is the account of a career, not a life. Enough detail is given to provide a rounded picture of the genial, intelligent and savvy Craig Munro. He gives appropriate credit to his colleagues in arms, especially, but not only, the late, great Rosie Fitzgibbon, to whom the book is dedicated. The business (and it is a business) of editing is a strange mixture of collaboration and battle. The purity of editing as espoused by some ought to be, in my view, tempered by the market towards which a particular book is aimed. In the end, the editor should remain silent, between the lines. Therein lies the contradiction.
Craig Munro Under Cover: Adventures in the art of editing Scribe 2015 PB 256pp $29.99
Bruce Sims has been editing since 1971, worked for Penguin and Magabala Books and since 2000 has been freelancing.
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