Morry Schwartz is one of the most innovative publishers in Australia.
In 1971, at the age of 23, Morry started Outback Press, publishing poetry and fiction. He then founded Schwartz Media in the 1980s, and achieved his first major success with Life's Little Instruction Book with 300,000 copies sold. He then established the Black Inc imprint, which publishes both fiction and fiction works in addition to some of the most innovative - non-fiction publications in Australia. These are published in online and print format and include:
- Quarterly Essay, founded 2001, is a periodical featuring a single extended essay of at least 20,000 words, with correspondence relating to essays in previous issues.
- The Monthly, founded in 2005 (at a time when the news business was in crisis), is a national magazine of politics, society and the arts, published on a monthly basis.
- The Saturday Paper, founded in 2014, is a weekly broadsheet publication publishing long-form journalism.
- Australian Foreign Affairs, founded in 2017, is Australia's first triennial print publication devoted to Australia's foreign policy and place in the world.
- Morry refers to the time he told Mark Rubbo, Managing Director of Readings, that eBooks would put him out of business.
- Morry chose Erik Jensen as the founding editor of The Saturday Paper.
- Benjamin Law wrote Quarterly Essay 67 (Moral Panic 101).
- Don Watson wrote Quarterly Essay 4 (Rabbit Syndrome) and 63 (Enemy Within).
- Baba Schwartz, Morry’s mother, wrote The May Beetles and Morry published it in 2017.
- Baba encouraged Morry to read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and the works of Morris Lurie as a child.
- Morry credits The Diary of Anne Frank as the book that first introduced him to the meaning and tragedy of the Holocaust.
- Morry’s publishing career, especially the decision to publish The Monthly, was driven by his early love of the American magazine Esquire (as it was then, not as it is now).
- One of Morry’s career highlights was publishing Blanche d’Alpuget’s biography of Prime Minister Bob Hawke.
- Morry and Nic refer to ‘The Best Of’ series. The latest are The Best Australian Essays, The Best Australian Stories and The Best Australian Poems.
- Morry mentions Erik Jensen, Editor of The Saturday Paper, Chris Feik, Editor of Quarterly Essay, Johnathan Pearlman, Editor of Australian Foreign Affairs, and Caitlyn Yates, Publishing Director at Black Inc.
Nic Brasch: Morry Schwartz has been an integral part of the Australian publishing industry for decades. He has published fiction, nonfiction, essays, poetry, directories, nothing has been beyond him. And though he has had many successes over the years it’s probably fair to say that his interests have never been as influential as they are now. Black Inc Books, The Monthly, Quarterly Essay, The Saturday Paper and most recently, Australian Foreign Affairs. That’s quite a stable. Morry, welcome to The Garret.
Morry Schwartz: Thank you, thank you. Good to be here.
Nic: Do you write?
Morry: Oh, not for publication.
Nic: What do you write?
Morry: I do write, I do write.
Nic: What sort of stuff?
Morry: Notes for people. Responses to attacks.
Morry: I always respond to an attack.
Nic: Have you ever thought about writing for publication any time in the past? Or tried?
Morry: Look. No, no. Look I can write. But I think as a publisher, you choose which side of the fence you sit on.
Nic: Ok, ok.
Morry: And then the time might yet come but by the time it comes I’ll probably be too old.
Nic: I can’t wait to read it. Let’s go way back. What was it like arriving on Australian shores as a young boy, little or no English, and I guess almost no understanding of the country you were coming to.
Morry: Zero English. Age of 10. I was all very excited. Really not very frightened at all. One had parents and one felt protected. Although we came with nothing. They had no money at all, and we landed in this strange, very strange new place. A very great place, as I remember.
The first time I was taken through the city, this was 1958 in Melbourne, I thought ‘my God’. Because we came from a village – cows and chooks – and all of a sudden here I was in this great city streets. Melbourne in 1958 was something else.
Nic: Sure. How did your parents settle in? You tell me they came with nothing, so workwise, did they find it easy to settle in?
Morry: No. No. Great difficulty. A lot of work. A lot of hardship. A lot of anxiety.
Nic: What sort of work?
Morry: My father started off as a labourer on the conveyor belt in Dandenong making Holden cars.
Morry: He hated it. He only lasted about a week and a half.
Nic: And then?
Morry: And then I think he got a job with the Bruins box factory and I think he lasted another week. And then he went into business, my father was a bright guy.
Nic: Yeah. How long did it take you to learn the language and to be able to communicate properly?
Morry: I ended up… Eight months after we arrived I ended up at Pakenham Consolidated State School. Which is kind of, if you are a boy from Nar Nar Goon, which I was at that time, it didn’t take them long to get out of the city into the country, because it was what they knew - back to the chooks and the cows. And so we lived in Nar Nar Goon, and the school from that was called the Pakenham Consolidated State School. By the end of that year I’d topped English. So, there you go, it didn’t take long. For a kid of 10 – and particularly if you try harder, which you have to do as a migrant kid, it’s happened with every wave of migration, the Vietnamese kids, the Chinese kids, the Indian kids, they all do well because they kind of have to.
Nic: Given your professional and personal love of books and words and publishing and writers, I’m wondering did your family bring that with them over?
Morry: Oh, from my mother. My father was a very pragmatic man, he read the newspaper and that’s it.
Nic: What sort of stuff did your mum read or encourage you to read?
Morry: We’ve just catalogued her library. She passed away about four months ago. And she wrote a book before she passed away
Nic: I know it’s a wonderful book too.
Morry: Called The May Beetles. A wonderful book, but her library was diverse. In four or five languages, maybe more. German and Hungarian and Hebrew and Russian and Italian. Her book, by the way, has been translated into Italian, which I’m pleased with because she would have been very pleased, and at the moment is being translated into Hungarian, so that’s great. And she would read philosophy and loved popular science. But when I say popular, deep popular science. Paul Davis was her favourite.
Nic: Really, that’s not easy.
Morry: Oh no no, her books are not easy. A great library. And we’ve given the whole family – because there’s another generation now – a choice of books and they’ve all taken.
Nic: The Holocaust no doubt cast an enormous shadow over your family then and to this day. I wonder how important were stories and books in helping you and your family to understand what had happened? Was it something that wasn’t dealt with for a long time, spoken about?
Morry: Yeah, you’re right. I didn’t even know the Holocaust had occurred when I was a kid. And I’m a child of it, I was born straight after.
Nic: Exactly. That’s astonishing.
Morry: Straight after the Holocaust. They wouldn’t talk about it. In fact, we lived in a village, this village in Israel, because I was 1 when they went from Hungary to Israel. And they were all one generation. All the migrants in the village were Hungarians that came from the same area in eastern Hungary, and they grouped together to create a village. And they were all about the same age because it was only that age group that survived. The people who could work. So, they, 3000 Jews in this particular village and 150 came back. And as they came back they would marry each other. Man, woman, man, woman. Whoever arrived next they would get married. And then they didn’t talk about it.
Morry: They didn’t tell their children. Too traumatic, you know, and traumatising. And they didn’t want to destroy the next generation by this trauma. So, it was after I got to Australia that I first learnt and was horrified. And then slowly it unfolded. It took a long time. And in terms of reading, I think it was only the Diary of Anne Frank that I read as a kid.
Nic: One of the most – and I’ve said this a number of times to people – one of the most influential books of the century. It was the starting point of so many young people’s understanding of the Holocaust, and even knowledge that it even happened. An astonishing book from that perspective.
Morry: That was the kind of start, but then the older my parents got the more they felt it, and the more they felt its injustice. The terrible injustice. My father, who lost absolutely everyone, you know his father, his mother, his brother, his sisters, just everyone, he was angry for a lifetime. But he got angrier as he got older and nightmares and he just managed. But by that time of course we were adults. And by that time we knew everything.
Nic: And more and more people were writing about it and more and more people were writing books about it.
Morry: And of course one was obliged to read, so we did.
Nic: When you were going through your school growing up, the 10 years. What sort of writers and stories were appealing to you? Do you remember? Were you a big reader?
Morry: I was a reasonable reader. I wasn’t a huge reader. From time to time I’d fall in love with a book.
Nic: Do you remember any of them?
Morry: I do of course, but one of the writers that I read… My mother was kind of… rather than school, it was my mother who led my reading. And she would tell me, ‘Do you realise that there is a great Jewish writer in Melbourne, Morris Lurie’. I ended up publishing Morris Lurie. ‘You’ve got to read Morris Lurie’. So I used to read Morris Lurie. It was broad what she made me read. Arthur Koestler she made me read, Darkness at Noon, I remember. I was always a reader, yes of course.
What I was addicted to was contemporary American writing and so I would do anything in my ability to pick up copies of The New Yorker or of American Esquire, which at that time was fantastic. It published only the best: Norman Mailer and all of them, and I loved that and I would wait at McGills for the next copy to come in.
Nic: And in a sense you’ve still got that passion for that sort of thing because that is what you are doing now yourself.
Morry: That’s where it started.
Nic: Exactly, and it’s kept with you for this long.
Morry: Yes absolutely. I’m a very narrow person.
Nic: There’s people out there now who say, ‘We wait for our copy of The Monthly’.
Morry: That’s right.
Nic: What possesses a young man to decide, and you were a young man when you did it, to get into publishing? Because you studied for a while architecture I think?
Morry: A year and a bit. So, I was sick of it, there were another five years to go. I thought, I can’t do this.
Nic: Why publishing?
Morry: My real interest was film. So, I got into film.
Nic: In what capacity?
Morry: First of all I set up a distribution company and I thought through this, because these were early days, of course…
Nic: What years are we talking? What years are these?
Morry: We’re talking about 1970. 1971, something like that. So, I was 21, 22. And I went into partnership with a young man in Sydney. Our aim was to… I got to know him, and our aim was to produce films. And so we started with distribution, with a country distribution. So, we would buy the rights to films that were showing in town and we used to do a kind of road show. Hire out theatres in Wangaratta, you name it, Deniliquin.
Then one day my partner committed suicide. And that was it. So, I went into a kind of depressive spin for a while, and film was no longer possible for me at least that time.
Nic: For that reason?
Morry: I couldn’t go back there. And we were hanging out at the Melbourne pub and all the Carlton would-be authors didn’t have anyone to publish them. Back at that time, early 73, there were no Australian publishers. Angus and Robertson had sort of started falling apart. They were, I think by that time, a book chain and they were just finishing. Rigby had been publishing but that was stopping.
There would be whole years when no one would publish a single Australian novel. They’d publish these big kind of colour coffee table outback books, that’s what Rigby was doing, that’s what they were famous for. No one was publishing, so we decided, in the pub, there were four of us.
Nic: Who were your cohorts?
Morry: So, there was a fellow called Fred Milgrom, Alfred Milgrom. There was another one called Colin Talbot, and a musician called Mark Gillespie. Four of us got together and we decided to start Outback Press, based on the ideas that came from the counter culture in the West Coast. And that was 1973, 74. We published I think five books straight out.
Nic: Which Australian authors did you publish back then?
Morry: We published a novel by a woman called Suzanne Holly Jones, it was called Crying in the Garden. It was a great novel, very good novel. I think it was the only novel published in Australia that year.
We were the first of the independents, the absolute first. I think there were two collections, Into the Hollow Mountains, was a book about Fitzroy. Robert Ashton did the photography, the writing was by various people. And then a book with photography by Carol Jerrems.
Nic: Oh wow.
Morry: Who later on became very famous.
Nic: Did she ever! Magnificent photography. One of the greats.
Morry: Unfortunately she died very young.
Nic: Terrible yes.
Morry: But at that time there was this kind of hub in Fitzroy, North Fitzroy. We had this dump of a place and everyone was there.
Nic: What did you know about publishing?
Nic: Exactly. Distribution. Production.
Morry: The others knew. Fred had published magazines at the university, Colin was very knowledgeable about West Coast publishing and he was a writer, and Mark was a polymath, he knew everything, he was a musician and a reader. And somehow we put it together.
Nic: And how long did it last as the four of you?
Morry: It didn’t last any longer than about four or five years.
Nic: Was it sustaining you all, I mean financially?
Morry: No. It lived in a way… This was the beginning of the Whitlam era, and there were subsidies, and I think we were the greatest recipients of support, until we decided not to accept support, because they started involving themselves in what was being published. We were fiercely independent, and it started falling apart anyway, and it was just very difficult.
Then we published a book called Lambs to the Slaughter. And we were. This was by a fellow called Graham Yallop, who was the captain of the Australian cricket team. And it was the season, this terrible season that they’d had, and the Cricket Board got angry with him that he’d signed a contract and when we were about to publish, we ran extracts in the Herald – I think it was the Herald, it wasn’t The Age – and the Cricket Board came down like a tonne of bricks, and took us to court, injuncted the book. And so, we fought them hard but we had no money. We ended up running out of money and we had a kind of Pyrrhic victory because we were allowed to publish the book. And we did but we had run out of money, and the company just collapsed. And that was it. That was Outback Press.
Nic: That was it. Five grand years
Morry: But great years, great years. Terrific years.
Nic: And at that point, you, with your publishing hat on, because you had many interests, you went out on your own then?
Morry: Oh immediately. The next day was Schwartz Publishing. Not a day was lost. Not a day was lost.
Nic: Did you bring some of those authors over with you? Or did you use them again?
Morry: Some yes. Some came with us, some not. When I say us it was me.
Nic: What was the first Schwartz Publishing book?
Morry: I can’t remember. But I know pretty soon thereafter we did the Hawke book.
Nic: So, I was just going to ask you about that. And you published what I think is Australia’s greatest political biography, Blanche d’Alpuget’s biography of Hawke. Tell me how that come about.
Morry: Well I rang… I wanted to do a biography of Hawke, it was driving me. There had to be a biography, you could see that he was rising like a star, and I rang Rose Creswell, who was a literary agent, a great literary agent in Sydney, who died recently, she passed away recently.
Nic: And she was one of the doyens of the literary… a legend.
Morry: And I said I want a Bob Hawke biography. And she said, ‘It just so happens that Blanche d’Alpuget is thinking of writing one’. So, we got together and that was it. And she wrote a terrific book.
Nic: Fantastic, insightful.
Morry: Insightful, and warts and all. And he was happy with that, because it was a way to kind of expose it before, rather than have the press do it. He exposed it himself.
Nic: Did you know from the outset that this was something special?
Morry: I did because people found out. Other publishers found out we were doing this book, and there were two quickies on Hawke, whilst we were getting ours ready. And I wasn’t worried at all, I knew they would come and they’d go, and that we had the substance. And when it arrived it just went crazy. We sold 60,000 in hard cover. And then… my career has always been a bit up and down. I needed money and so I sold Penguin the paperback rights. A stupid thing to do, because they sold 300,000 copies.
Nic: Yes, in fact I got my copy off the shelf last night just to look at it and it is a Penguin copy.
Morry: Yeah, I think they gave me… It was negligible but it was important at the time. I got money.
Nic: What were some of the other publishing highlights of those days and in the years to come, before we look at the publishing industry today, that really stand out.
Morry: In a way I went into a commercial phase, because I decided to make publishing pay. I thought, ‘Now how do you do this?’ Publishing does not pay, back then and it pays less now. Much more difficult now. And I thought, ‘How do I make this work?’ So, I went to New York. And I started buying rights to books, and I bought really well. Not because I’m a genius but I had one rule: if a book in the States reached number one, I’d buy it. That was it.
Nic: A pretty simple rule isn’t it?
Morry: You couldn’t do it today because people grab it way before it’s number one. Plus, you’ve got the 30-day rule. You’ve got to publish within 30 days of their publication, otherwise you’ve not got protection under copyright. And so, I bought all the great books, and I was always number one here and you know, Looking Out for Number One was number one. The Pritikin Diet, James Fixx’s running book. I think that was number one for a year. Life’s Little Instruction Book, I think we sold 300,000 copies of that one.
Nic: So, at that point it didn’t matter what … if it went to number one
Morry: You know 100,000 copies. It was just extraordinary. We were flying.
In a way, it kind of destroyed the publishing program, because I was so enamoured by selling this number of copies. We still published some nice books, but this is what I remember: I remembered this kind of buzz. When I bought these books, the English rights were not taken up. The Brits were not going to be told how to run, how to have sex, what to eat, what not to eat. They were proud. So, all these books that I’ve published here, weren’t being published over there. So, I did a deal with Bantam and we created an imprint called Bantam Schwartz, or Schwartz Bantam, I can’t remember which way it was. And we published those books together in Britain and they did very well and so I was a successful young man. This was flying.
Morry: Schwartz did that for quite a while, and then eventually for some reason, I had difficulties in other areas in the property business, and there was almost a gap but never a complete gap, I always published something. And then I revived it through a company called Bookman Press, which existed for a few years and that’s where we started for example ‘The Best of’, and then it became Black Inc at some stage. And after that it really started being publishing for quality, and it became the non-fiction, the serious non-fiction publisher.
Nic: And there is a, in a sense going back to Outback Press where you started with publishing things you really wanted to publish, things that you really felt deeply about and you went through this process of if it’s number one I don’t care what it is, I’ll buy it, I’ll sell it, and then you went back to publishing what you felt strongly about.
Morry: That’s right.
Nic: Tell me about ‘The Best of’ books, you sort of just glanced over that, they’ve been very successful for a long time. Tell us about the first one you decided to do? So, ‘The Best Of’ – there’s essays, there’s short story, poems, the best of every year. When did they start and the process of selecting the best of? Has that changed? Was it ever up to you or was it always left it up to the editor? And how did you choose editors? Because I know there’s been many great editors for all of them.
Morry: Absolutely, look this was not an original idea. This is an idea that came from the States, they’ve got best American Essays, Best American Stories.
Nic: And sports writing which I love. The best American Sports Writers which are just amazing.
Morry: I think that came later. It was best American Essays and Stories for a long time and they were fantastic. Again, I used to hunt for them, because I like this kind of, you know, essay format. And one day I thought, well, time to emulate.
Nic: So, then there was essays and short stories?
Morry: Yes, back then just the two. I remember launching the first essays, I think was the first one at Readings and I made this speech and I said ‘I undertake to do this for the next 10 years’. And everyone laughed. Anyway, 20 years went by and we’re still doing it.
Nic: Just coming back, I mean it’s a hard thing and I don’t know how involved you’ve ever been involved in the editing process or taking note of it, it’s a very hard thing to choose the best of anything. Have there been times when it’s been controversial, you haven’t been happy with it, the editor hasn’t been necessarily happy with it? There’s been years of ‘Jesus not much this year’ and other years..?
Morry: There’s always something. There’s always something.
Nic: It’s like you’re asking for trouble.
Morry: We’ve never been disappointed. And of course, the best of is a bit of a marketing thing, you know, it’s subjective to some degree. I can’t remember which year but someone took us to the Fair Trading Commission or something over the use of ‘Best of ...’
Nic: Is that right?
Morry: That’s right. That’s right. That was fun.
Nic: Well, nothing wrong with a bit of publicity.
Morry: That’s right. Exactly. Because it’s a collection of what’s already been published and particularly with the advent of The Monthly. The Monthly was a great feeder for it, not that we had any control over it, but there would always be about 30 per cent would come from The Monthly, and there are lots of great journals and it wasn’t that hard.
Nic: From ‘The Best Of’, were there any young writers you can look back and go, ‘That was one of their early stuff’ and ‘Jeez they’ve come a long way since then’?
Morry: I couldn’t name them. I have no doubt. Although remember they’re not published first in ‘The Best Of’. Although remember, they’re not published first in ‘The Beat Of’, they might have been published in Meanjin first or somewhere else, and of course I think it like encapsulates history.
Nic: It does, they do. And as a collection you go back and go, ‘Wow that’s a snapshot of that year’, but not just about the writers but what people are writing about that year. Particularly, well both with essays and stories, there is recurring themes throughout a year obviously whether it’s with homelessness, domestic violence, whether it’s asylum seekers...
Morry: Political. You can feel the zeitgeist, particularly through essays. Strangely, even through poems you can feel the…
Nic: Tell me about launching The Monthly, the idea for The Monthly, which is very successful and wonderful. A great quality magazine. Where did that come from?
Morry: That’s something that I always wanted to do from when I was a very, very young. Going back to that The New Yorker, more Esquire. Everyone was in Esquire before it became this stupid men’s magazine. It was the great magazine of that era, and I wanted one. And again, I was told by everyone that we don’t have the talent, we don’t have the writers, we don’t have the readers. And one day I just decided, ‘Time to do it’. And this is about 12 years ago, 13 years ago.
Nic: Were you nervous?
Morry: Nah. What can go wrong?
Nic: You’ve published a magazine, what can go wrong?
Morry: It succeeds or fails. One of the two. We haven’t had any failures yet, thank God, in these kinds of launches. But The Monthly very, very quickly found its place. There is nothing else like it in the country.
Nic: No, absolutely not.
Morry: There was The Bulletin to start with, but The Bulletin had seen better days. It was becoming very journalistic and full of ‘journalese’. It was supported by Kerry Packer, and there were people telling him that he could change it and really create a great monthly or weekly magazine out of it. In fact, I know some of the people who worked there told him that it ought to become a monthly, and he should pay his contributors more, and pick the best authors in the country, and it fell on deaf ears. Whilst he liked the idea of owning it, it was a pinprick for him within the size of his business. And then when he passed away, it passed with him. And we were about three or four years old. So, he left it completely open for us. And there wasn’t going to be anyone else getting into the space because it’s just too difficult.
Nic: You talk about paying writers. You obviously attract the best writers, you obviously pay well. How do you make The Monthly work financially?
Morry: Always has, always has. The Monthly worked from the very beginning. I had a huge campaign for it and viralled it. So, there was going to be this exciting new magazine in Australia.
Nic: I remember, I get all of that stuff.
Morry: And they would get free copy and all of this. By the time The Monthly was started, I think we had 10,000 subscribers.
Nic: Wow. Astonishing.
Morry: Yeah, big. And then after that it wasn’t a problem. And it was controversial. There were controversial pieces and the press had to pick up on what we were doing, and if they didn’t we’d attack them. Do a bit of what The Australian does but in reverse. Have a go at Murdoch or always got a rise out of them.
Morry: It’s free publicity.
Nic: Of course, of course.
Morry: I hope you are listening.
Nic: [Laughter} So online was obviously there back then in the early days, but not as prominently as it is now. Over the years and you’ve obviously embraced, had to embrace – I don’t know whether you wanted to or not – online platforms and online competition. Has that made it harder for you or easier, or just different?
Morry: I think we all live in the same sea. So, everyone had to do it. In books, I expected a much greater take up in eBooks, but it’s plateaued out at about 20 per cent.
Nic: It certainly has.
Morry: And I was sure it would go to 40, 50, 60 and it didn’t. So, it’s difficult because you’ve got to man that thing, you’ve got to have people running it, but it’s only a small… If it all becomes eBooks it would be wonderful. But it’s not going to happen. It’s been hard for books.
Nic: I’ll tell Mark Rubbo you said that, next time I see him. [Laughter]
Morry: I told him back then, ‘It’s finished. Mark it’s all over’. He didn’t believe me and he was right. You walk into that shop today, you can’t walk. It’s a thriving, thriving business. A wonderful place and culturally beautiful.
Nic: So important.
Morry: Yes, absolutely.
Nic: What about The Saturday Paper? Tell me about the background to The Saturday Paper and why you decided, as if you didn’t have enough on your plate and enough mad ideas?
Morry: Before that, well before that it was Quarterly Essay, which is probably older than The Monthly. Quarterly Essay is about 16 years old and that was my idea. I didn’t steal it from anybody.
Nic: That’s a great idea. And everyone probably told you it wouldn’t work and that you were mad?
Morry: Well apparently everyone did say you can’t find the writers to write at 30,000 word length. It’s a hard thing, it’s a very difficult length, because you’ve almost got to put the contents of a book, sticking to 30,000 words and do it in a literary style. Because it’s literary non-fiction. It’s not kind of policy wonkeree, it’s very carefully written and beautifully edited for many, many years by Chris Feik since the first year or two were Craven, Peter Craven. He did it well. And then ever since then it’s Chris Feik?
Nic: Which was the first Quarterly Essay?
Morry: It was called ‘In Denial’, it was by Robert Manne, it was about the stolen generation and it was launched by Lois O’Donoghue and Paul Keating together and it was a great launch.
And that again worked straight away. The idea of 30,000 words four times a year with responses to previous essays. I’ve known many international publishers who love the idea. None of them have ever tried it. It really works.
Nic: Oh, it does, it works magnificently. And is a talking point amongst community, it really does become a talking point every time. And they’re very well commissioned. The ideas behind them are great.
Morry: We think very hard about them.
Morry: Chris can somehow read the future and publish to suit. And always by the best people. The next one is Hugh White and the issue is going to be called ‘Without America’. And it’s about American withdrawal from the West Pacific and Asia in general. And I’ve just read the manuscript and it’s incredible.
Nic: How much lead in time do you give the writers?
Morry: Six months.
Nic: Is that all?
Morry: Six months, seven months.
Nic: It’s not long at all to create that, it’s a big ask.
Morry: That’s right. Although it’s 30,000 words. They’ve all struggled with them.
Nic: Yeah, it’s got to be 30,000 good words though.
Morry: Good words, yeah that’s right.
Nic: Anyone can write 30,000 words.
Morry: So now Quarterly Essay I am very proud of. And I think that, that has made a difference in the country and it has informed debate and policy etc.
Nic: And The Saturday Paper?
Morry: Everything else was like a journal and a magazine, and I was really wanting to do something that was more current. And I knew that a daily was going to be too much. I thought of the idea of The Saturday Paper quite a few years ago, and when I met Erik Jensen who was a brilliant 23-year-old, I knew that he could do it. So, it was just this conjunction of the idea and the right person. And I don’t think that anyone else could have done it.
Nic: And again, it’s following on the old notion of things that had tried, but had had their time, but had failed or were not working anymore, but again you’ve come up with something that presumably everyone, a lot of people had said, ‘It isn’t going to work’, and all of that sort of stuff and made it work. Right?
Morry: It’s working and it’s getting better and better and I’ve got to repeat this: it’s making a good profit. Because people identify with it, people get information from it. It is longer form, it is more considered than the other papers.
Nic: So, in a way it’s what a lot of people are crying out for because of the way that the dissemination of information use has become so sharp and so short and there are people who are crying out for more.
Morry: It’s the antidote to that.
Nic: Do you think success of your publications has got anything to do with, let’s say, a Left ideology. I mean it’s been well known in the publishing industry, books by conservatives might sell 5000, books by the Left may sell 50,000 because people of the Left buy and read a lot more. If you were coming from a conservative perspective and doing the same thing from that side of the fence. Would they work?
Morry: Does Breitbart? I think that they do brilliantly well.
Nic: But as a written… It’s much more economical to do it all online and not have to print and distribute. I mean you’re doing a lot of things online, but you’re still doing things in an old-fashioned way that people would say, ‘You don’t do it these days, it’s not going to work’.
Morry: I think it’s only slightly left of centre.
Nic: Oh yeah no, no I agree.
Morry: It’s a centrist organisation and it’s socially progressive.
Morry: And that’s the only way that I would publish, otherwise I wouldn’t be true to myself. Yes, probably it’s quite likely that, but it was never done for that reason. It’s likely that it’s easier to do slightly left of centre than right of centre. There is a bigger market, but that’s not the reason we do it.
Nic: Your publications do shape public opinion and get people talking. Do you want it to shape and change public opinion and policy?
Morry: I want it to add information.
Nic: Ok, add information.
Morry: I don’t think we’re there to convince. Except for injustice. And if you read the editorials, for example in The Sunday Paper, they scream against injustice of all kinds. And I think that without that it’s almost not worth it, the whole project’s not worthwhile. So yes, you’ve got to be… I don’t want to say that we’re the watchdog, we’re not. But we do keep power in check to some degree, both business and government. And I think that’s important.
Nic: It is important. And particularly when you’ve got Governments becoming less and less transparent, you certainly need people to be pushing for… ‘Give us access to asylum seekers. Give us access. If you’re not going to we’re going to chase the story and find out. Because we do have a right to know’.
Morry: It’s interesting I learnt a lot from the paper. It’s very different because it’s the first time that we employed journalists. I mean, real journalists. Not writers, not book writers. Journalists, and how different and terrific they are. And they have been trained through the school of the kind of legacy media, which is having so much trouble at the moment. But they are terrifically professional and committed and they work so hard. We’ve been doing it for three and a half years. A whole new world opened. To see how this happened, I just didn’t know that existed. I’ve never been a journalist.
Nic: It is a different world. I’m just wondering, on what day and on what time the paper is put to bed and published, printed? I’ve always wondered, when I pick the paper up on a Saturday morning …
Morry: It remains a mystery. All I can tell you is we don’t want World War III to start on a Friday afternoon.
Nic: I always wonder.
Morry: Every week I wonder…
Nic: Donald Trump. Keep off your phone at least another couple of days.
Morry: That’s right. That’s right.
Nic: Having been in the publishing industry for so long, being a major part of it and done some amazing stuff, how have you seen the Australian publishing industry change over the years? What have been the major challenges they’ve faced, and still face, and what are the ways in which this has improved or become easier, if it has?
Morry: Well technology has certainly assisted us.
Morry: Can you imagine what it was like to publish an 800 page book back when we were in our back press, with waxing machines and dottery old typesetting machines. We started off, it was still metal, hot metal! And then, that was alright because someone else did that, but then it became paper plates, which we did ourselves, and the way you corrected was you had this surgeon’s knife and you’d cut out words and replace them with glue and, oh my god, we stayed up night and day, night and day to get a book done. It was extraordinary.
Of course, technology has made it so much easier. But so easy that everyone’s producing books, with great ease, and more and more are produced. And you walk into Readings and the centre table is groaning and there’s about a two-week life cycle. The problem is that each book sells less, and it’s probably to do with competition from electronic gadgets and media, so each book sells less, so they’ve got to publish more books to make the same amount of revenue. You need more people because there are more platforms to publish on, it’s like a perfect storm.
And then you get to a point where you’ve got so many books being published that less of each sell again and it’s just this downward cycle, which… Something will happen, something will give, it can’t keep accelerating this way. Everyone gets a biography. I mean, every person on the street has got a biography. You’ll publish anything and everything, just keep dumping it in, hoping for the runaway best seller, which hardly ever happens, hardly ever happens. It’s extraordinary.
But we should if I may, before, I don’t know how long we’ve talked for, but we should talk about my new journal.
Nic: Yes, well I was just about to ask you about that.
Morry: But before that, a great love of mine which is La Trobe University Press. And I’ve always wanted to publish a University Press in the way that it is published in the States. Not in the way it is published here.
Nic: So, tell us the difference then.
Morry: The difference here is that it is either like a general publisher or it’s academic publishing. In America, what they do and they’ve always done, all you’ve got to do is open up a copy of The New York Review of Books and look at all the ads and it’s always books by scholars but for the general public. So, giving access to that great knowledge to the population. So, it is a matter of good writing by specialists, assisted by editors to translate, cross over to the public. I approached ANU about 12 years ago and said, ‘Let’s do a partnership. I’ll run this thing, I know how to do it’, and it didn’t happen. And so, I approached La Trobe, and La Trobe agreed to do it. And so, we’ve got La Trobe University Press and we’ve just finished its first year and it’s very exciting. And they see the idea and they’re involved in it. It’s not only academics from La Trobe of course, it’s from everywhere.
Nic: So, what have they published this year then?
Morry: We’ve published a book called Fear of Abandonment by Alan Gyngell, which is almost like a text of Australian foreign affairs, a history of foreign affairs in Australia. We’ve published a book on artificial intelligence by Toby Walsh which is brilliant, a collection of writings by Donald Horne, and others. A biography, a very long biography, of Pierre Ryckmans, about 700 pages.
Nic: Wow. It’s not a bad output in the first year is it?
Morry: No. It’s great. It will be about seven or eight books in the first year, and then we’ll do between six and ten books a year after that. Handpicked, beautifully produced, and important books, and I think that it’s something I’ll enjoy, I’ll really enjoy.
Nic: And your latest, your other latest venture, the first edition has just come out. The Australian Foreign Affairs, which fits nicely into your suite of monthly essays, what have you, about what’s happening in the world today. Again, your idea or is it something you’ve pinched from elsewhere?
Morry: Nah. I pinched it. What happened was my bookshelves were groaning. And I decided now what can I get rid of? And I had a metre of spines of Foreign Affairs. American, the blue book, a metre of spines. And I thought, ‘It’s all online. I’ll keep the past three issues, throw the rest out’. I promise you I boxed them, I took them down to the bin and I was about to spill them and the idea came to me.
I thought, ‘Australian Foreign Affairs, my god, it’s perfect timing. It’s perfect timing’. So, I schlepped everything back up and I put the whole spine back and it’s there now just as so I can flick through them and get ideas. And timing couldn’t be better. Our region is changing completely, the world is changing, America is withdrawing, not only from us but particularly from Asia.
Nic: Fascinating time. But before we go into that, what happens, in a practical sense, between having the idea, ‘I’m going to do Australian Foreign Affairs’, and actually getting it out there. Who do you approach? How do you, I mean, everyone has a lot of ideas.
Morry: Long suffering staff.
Nic: At Black Inc?
Morry: Black Inc, what happened was… That happened in my spring cleaning last Christmas. So, it’s nine months, almost nine months to the day from the day that I thought of it to when the first issue came out.
So, you know you start planning what does it look like? What does its cover look like? What’s the idea behind it? Is it one essay, is it four essays? Is it responses? Is it book reviews? It will be all those things. Is it thematic? Yes, it is thematic, so each one will have a theme.
The first one is the big picture, you know going towards an independent foreign policy for Australia. The second one will be Trump in Asia. The third will focus on Indonesia, which is really important to us. And on it will go. So, we think about them quite far ahead.
You need to get an editor. So, you get an editor. We’ve got the wonderful Jonathon Pearlman, who used to be the Foreign Affairs editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and a very, very bright person and who knows their foreign affairs superbly well and is interested.
And you plan your marketing. Basically, once the idea comes in and I throw it on Caitlyn Yates and everyone else in there and Chris Feik and they try to keep me away from it then.
Nic: Is it easy to keep you away? Are you happy to let go? No, I didn’t think so.
Morry: No not that hard, you know I’ve got a certain level of laziness.
Morry: It’s a good thing. But they immediately know better than I do how to make it work. We work out a tone, a tone for the writing, which is really important. And the frequency etc, etc. So, it’s three times a year, but of early next year, maybe March or April, it will become a weekly idiom as well. So, it will be an online publication as well. So that you will be able to follow weekly what’s happening in the world. And in that way, it will kind of match what The Australian does, and not necessarily be that different to it because when it comes to foreign affairs we unite as a country. But it’s not enough that there should be one outlet for foreign affairs.
Nic: No, absolutely.
Morry: In a country like this we’ve got to have more voices. I would welcome to see even more. But I think that we will imbed ourselves and I think the idea is good enough and the contributors are good enough that it will last for a long time.
Nic: Would your various publishing ventures be as successful as they are if media such as perhaps say Fairfax and Murdoch had kept with the quality long form journalism? I know there is still investigative journalism but they have fundamentally changed I think. I do think The Australian still does it quite well. I think The Australian does it very well actually.
Nic: Would there have been that gap in the market for you if the others had kept to it?
Morry: Yes, I think there would have been space because they never did long form. Remember, it was other publications that used to do it. The Nation Review, and then there was The National Times and The Observer.
Nic: The Observer, yes.
Morry: We’re old, aren’t we? You remember it.
Morry: None of them lasted for very long. But there was always room for them, because the others didn’t do it. Obviously with the weakening of newspapers because of structural reasons, and no other reason at all, it has made my entry easier, of course.
Nic: Just finally, as a publisher, which book throughout history, from any country, which book would you most loved to have published? Would you most loved to have commissioned or published?
Morry: That’s an amazing question. I don’t think I can answer that. The Bible maybe, that’s with my commercial...
Nic: [Laughter] I was going to say, was that from purely commercial perspective?
Morry: And any number, any number of books.
Nic: Morry, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you. We could chat for hours for days and there are so many stories I’m sure you could tell us. Thank you so much for giving us the time on The Garret.
Morry: A great pleasure and congratulations on the podcast.
Nic: Thank you very much Morry. Cheers.