Q&A: Lessons from a publishing disrupter


He was a driving, disruptive force in publishing for more than five decades. Now almost 90, Kevin Weldon talks to Newsworthy about putting the Australian in local publishing.

Kevin Weldon, a pioneer of modern Australian publishing, never intended to be a publisher. He started his working life as an engraver, etching colour plates for the letterpress with Brisbane's Truth newspaper. "They called anyone in the printing game a printer's devil and that's what I started as."

Publishing came almost by chance. The family of chap he knew through the Navy Reserve had bought the rights to the Queensland branch of Grenville, an American publisher in 1957. They approached Weldon to be one of their first suburban salesmen — and an unlikely career was born. "I thought a role in sales didn't exactly match my style but I had an entrepreneurial spirit, so I thought, 'why not give it a go?' ... So, that was my break into publishing but it wasn't easy."

Weldon recalled Australia was still very much part of the British empire, selling mainly British books. "You needed special permission to publish American books. Even to open a store, you had to register with the Booksellers Association and the Publishers Association, which are both very British-orientated. So, it was a restricted trade, both in bookshops and in publishing, prioritised to British nations."

When he started selling American paperbacks, he found it difficult to get even one order for the first two weeks. His entrepreneurial spirit came to the fore. He noticed newagents' display windows were dusty and uncared for, with the newsagents preoccupied with delivering papers.

British publishers would say an Australian book is really a British book with a different cover.

He offered to do their window displays if they allowed him to put his books in the windows. "I told them: 'Just pay me for the books you've sold'. One newsagent agreed, so I decorated the display with crepe paper and cardboard and put my books in it, all while my young bride sat in the car writing her book. And I started to sell books like you wouldn't believe."

When the books sold so well, he told the next newsagent and "it wasn't long before I had every major newsagent's front window". The company noticed, Weldon was promoted, becoming sales manager of Grenville Publishing, Queensland at 24, then transferring to the Sydney office.

In Sydney, he saw new opportunities in the department stores. "I told them, 'Give me 1000 square feet around the escalators on the ground floor, where there's high traffic and I'll put my display in and you'll pay for the books when you sell them', and again, sold like mad. So, what I learned when I was at Grenville's was that you have to have the right product in the right place at the right time, and that was a formula that became my real style. It revolutionised the publishing game in the '70s."

Ten years on, in 1964, Weldon would leave Grenville's to help establish the Australian division of the Paul Hamlyn Group, a pivotal point in his career, where he crystallised his desire to build a stable of Australian titles.

What was your impact at Paul Hamlyn Group?

While at Hamlyn's, I shifted away from British titles. I created the Paul Hamlyn list of Australian titles, including biographies, cookbooks, which went on to become bestsellers. We sold over a half-million copies of that first edition cookbook I did in 1970. Our print run averaged 50,000 copies when the average run in Australia was 5,000.

We developed marketing strategies such as tying books with magazines, and marketing through major kitchen supply chains even. And we were among the first to promote books on TV. We made sure every book was top-quality and at a great price so that people bought our product in vast numbers. Then within 12 months, we became one of the most profitable and largest publishing houses in Australia.

'I was a high-tech boy before high-tech became a fashion ... a disrupter before they had the word disrupter.'

Eventually though, I went out on my own, publishing the Macquarie Dictionary, but then I went back and bought the Hamlyn group [in 1985]. So, I started it, left it, bought it.

What was the value in expanding local Australian content?

My success was as a very proud Australian. I felt pushing against the grain allowed us to prove that we could produce books equal to, if not better, and quicker than they could in England and America. But for a long time, we were treated like a colonial part of the red map of the British Empire. British publishers would say an Australian book is really a British book with a different cover. That was insulting to me.

Was it important to see Australian culture represented in the work you published?

It was. It was an honour of mine to be the publisher of the Macquarie Dictionary, the first Australian language dictionary [published in 1981]. It was a risky project, but it meant that there was a dictionary documented in our language. Not from a society 1000 miles away in England or America.

Everybody said it wouldn't sell. We had too many dictionaries, Oxford, Webster's, Collins. But the Macquarie Dictionary, showing local Australian vernacular with Indigenous entries as well, became to this day, the arbiter in law of the Australian language. It went on to sell 6.5 million copies over its first eight years.

I was what they now call a disrupter, because I sold the first 50,000 copies of the big edition in three weeks, not through the bookshops but through full-page advertising in the papers and TV, and marketing directly to schools and supermarkets with specialised editions.

Did you feel at the time you were bolstering the local industry?

I certainly wanted to create an understanding of Australian culture, but I also wanted to show we could market Australia to the world and by doing so, expand our revenue streams. So, I was happy selling global because I ended up selling anything that publishing companies sold only in Australia, to America and England. With the shift from local sales to global sales my average run was 100,000 and sold in 28 languages, in 40 countries. In one year, we exported $150 million [of books] out of Australia.

When I branched out internationally, we gained just over half of Australia's book exports. Not only that, but we actually had cultural influence globally through sales of cookbooks, educational material and other local work. So, I felt that we were among the first Australian publishers that really made an impact internationally.

Looking back, any favourite publications?

I think I'd have to go down as being proud to be the publisher of the first Australian language dictionary. Aside from that, The Australians: A Historical Library was especially fulfilling. The publication of that series was part of a $38 million project to showcase Australian history from Indigenous pre-history to contemporary history. As part of the 1988 Bicentennial, Fairfax partnered with me on this project.

The publication was considered unconventional at the time. It involved cutting up history into slices with everything in chronological order. It allowed readers to get an insight into everyday life that differentiated the series from other histories, which mostly covered major events. But to help the 400 commissioned historians get an idea of what was expected, I gave them a printed dummy of what the pages would look like so they knew what to do in advance. Otherwise, they'd give 100 pages to fit into two. And so, we got it out on time and it promoted well, bought well and the practice became standard ever since.

Did your work ever face backlash?

Publishing an encyclopaedia of local history was one of the hardest. This was the '70s and everyone thought I was crazy to do it. They said no one wants to read local history. But I understood the marketplace better than my detractors. I saw a market and interest in our history. And we sold 7.8 million units two years later. It got people reading our history in a popular way. It was put into schools and everything else.

And we launched a local wildlife heritage publication, which sold 5.8 million copies over two years. Then, as part of the series, we published Australia's first book on Kakadu and its ecosystem. It was controversial to even mention the place after a report on cyanide leaking from one of the mines. My critics said the book wouldn't sell but that again proved wrong and so readers then became aware of the place. Advocated for it.

How did you balance passion projects with economic pressures?

Over my publishing career, I built my publishing businesses with a purpose, not to make money, but to publish books on topics I was passionate about, with the view that there would be a market for it and that people would enjoy them. And it was a thrill to be able to change things a little. I was only one small cog. But I was able to do it even when that meant ignoring my critics. So, for that I am content.

How has the industry changed since you started?

Back in the day, I was one of the first Australian publishers to have online publishing. Or Desktop Publishing is what I called it. Even though my own team weren't keen on it, they saw how quickly we could produce books compared to the old way. Suddenly, we did everything digitally. The dictionary was computerised. We had the first high-density warehouse, first computerised database and first electronic book, 25 years ahead of Kindle (though that ended up in the Powerhouse Museum). We were ahead of time.

So, I was a high-tech boy before high-tech became a fashion. And I was a disrupter before they had the word disrupter, and we were some of the best and first to sell books at non-book outlets.

But today, I think it's very tough. I see Australian publishers doing quality work, which would've been a standout in my day. They've become the best in the world. But given current pressures, they have to be better than good enough, and with a price to match. That's tricky.

What advice would you give aspiring publishers and publicists today?

Some of my secrets wouldn't hold in today's landscape. But what I learned was the importance of knowing one's product, its value. I learned that the hard way from my etching trade. If my boss thought the first plate I did wasn't perfect, he'd say “We get the best work here because I insist on quality. Go back and do it again.” So, I took that as my standard.

If my books weren't up to scratch, I'd destroy them and start again. Good enough is never good enough. And in today's saturated market, that insistence on quality is going to place you ahead of competitors. But its all been a bit of an ego trip on my part. The opportunity was there and I took it by fluke.

So, my advice would be to innovate, to take every opportunity and to push through. When I couldn't get an order the traditional way, and I thought I'd get the sack, it was out of desperation I thought of decorating those windows. As they like to say in the business "When your neck is on the gallows, you make proper decisions, otherwise it gets hacked". The gallows treatment made me go to the windows. The rest was history.


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