Minding the gap
With a “useful” degree in English from the University of Otago and a belief in the importance of “good” history, publisher Bridget Williams remains courageously committed to the importance of “serious” non-fiction.
Exploring the spaces in between is one of the things Bridget Williams – arguably New Zealand’s leading publisher of “serious” non-fiction – does exceedingly well.
Throughout her career she has bravely published works that tackle the subjects she and her authors think matter. In particular, since 1990 as founder and owner of Bridget Williams Books (BWB), she has taken significant works on New Zealand history and biography out to a wide readership, allowing voices from many parts of our society to be heard.
To do so on a commercial basis in a country the size of New Zealand is courageous enough, but to continue to do so amidst the rapidly changing pressures of the digital age surely amounts to an act of faith. Yet Williams has proven she has the instinctive gift with which great publishers are blessed: the ability to recognise a “gap” – however unlikely – in New Zealand’s collective knowledge and then respond to it with a book, often an extraordinary book.
Many BWB titles, such as Claudia Orange’s The Treaty of Waitangi and Judith Binney’s Encircled Lands, have surprised even their publisher with their reception, and have gone on to become landmarks in the intellectual landscape. Others, such as The Story of Suzanne Aubert and poet Lauris Edmond’s three volume autobiography have, on publication, elicited a response exponentially related to the softly-spoken accounts held within their pages.
“The vision has always been good books – books with a strong heart – that sell,” says Williams. “I want a book to say something that’s worth saying. The topic can be small – or it may seem small but it must have real significance.”
It’s not surprising that Williams grew up in a household in which books were ever-present – at birthdays, Christmas and on weekly visits to the public library – and that she developed an enduring love of literature. Encouraged by her scientist father, who was shortly afterwards appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Otago, to study economics and mathematics, she made an appointment at 5.30am one morning to petition him for permission to study arts.
“He asked me why I wanted to study English literature,” Williams recalls. “And my reply went along the lines of ‘studying that which is not useful’. He wasn’t best pleased, but the answer was true to his own approach – that books, words and ideas were always important.”
Eventually the young Bridget was to prove herself wrong, for her arts degree was to be very useful indeed. Under the tutelage of Professors Margaret Dalziel and Alan Horsman at the University of Otago, she came to know and love the great 19th century novelists – Dickens, Hardy, George Eliot. She realised how the imaginative lens of fiction can reveal historical context and began to discover an interest in the history that had been absent from her school education.
In 1969 Williams travelled to join a fellow student, then studying for a PhD in Latin American economics at Oxford. Marriage soon followed, but work was needed and little was on offer.
“I was meeting people who were thinking and writing about political issues across the world. It was a time of radical challenge. Some of our student friends had escaped repressive regimes, others were American or British radicals. Tariq Ali and Terry Eagleton were giving seminars. Feminist ideas were evolving fast; one couldn’t NOT engage with them. Primarily I participated in this world as the wife of a student and, well, wives were wives – that’s how it was. But this was also a world in which one was expected to think – and being intelligent was simply a given.”
Fortunately William had intelligence – and a useful degree in English. She learned to type and secured a job as research assistant to Professor Dame Helen Gardner, editor of The New Oxford Book of English Verse and, for the next few years, received her very own Oxford education researching poems, typing them up and discussing them with “the Dame”. She later worked for Professor Richard Ellmann, the biographer of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats.
“From Dame Helen I learned to write letters,” recalls Williams, “and from Richard Ellmann I learned the art of a good footnote.” Williams’s career with words had begun.
Good books, strong heart
In 1976, after a period as an editor with Oxford University Press (OUP) in England, Williams returned to New Zealand where she continued to work with OUP. It was here she commissioned The Oxford History of New Zealand, the country’s first major general history to be published in more than 20 years.
Like most industries, publishing was a male-dominated world but, by the 1980s, women were starting to reach senior management roles in the New Zealand branches of international publishing houses. In 1981 Williams left OUP to establish the independent publishing company Port Nicholson Press with designer Lindsay Missen and bookseller Roy Parsons. Four years later, she sold the small press to Allen & Unwin Australia, and Williams became managing director of Allen & Unwin (A & U) New Zealand.
During her time at A & U, Williams published the authoritative, multi-volume Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, with the Māori biographies simultaneously published in te reo as Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau. She was one of a small handful of influential women in the local book trade who founded and ran the nationwide Listener Women’s Book Festival (LWBF) for a number of years.
“Our purpose was to remove some of the barriers to women’s books that then existed, we felt, in bookshops around the country,” says Williams. “As one of our British colleagues said, about their national festival: ‘If you put the women’s books together at the front of the shop, they race out the door’.
“I say this to make the point that we weren’t giving a hand up to an area of publishing that needed support, but rather facilitating the connection between an eager readership and a lively output. And we succeeded. Over the years, mainstream bookshops in rural areas were competing to be the LWBF bookshop in their region when, at the beginning, they’d been turning up their noses at the very idea.”
Women’s writing remains one of the key planks of Williams’s list, which she has been careful to retain as she has moved publishing houses. In 1990, when A & U New Zealand’s parent company was sold in the UK, Williams bought the publishing list she had built under the A & U imprint and established Bridget Williams Books.
Since then (including a short association with Auckland University Press), the independent company has steadily contributed to – and pushed the boundaries of – the canon of scholarly New Zealand history. Titles of particular note include The Book of New Zealand Women, Redemption Songs, The Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language, The Cartwright Papers, a number of books relating to the Treaty of Waitangi, and works by Pauline O’Regan, Lloyd Geering, Marilyn Waring, Jane Kelsey, Colin James, Charlotte Macdonald and many other notable New Zealand writers, commentators and historians.
Williams’s success is also based on the strong publisher-author bonds she maintains. Citing, in particular, her long working relationship with Judith Binney, she talks of the way that good books and new ideas flow from such relationships of trust. She describes her publishing ethos as being “good books that matter and, beyond that, a commitment to New Zealand, the significance of history, the place of the ‘marginal’ in the mainstream, the hidden voices of history finding their place in the present”.
“Is this interesting?” she asks herself – and the hardworking team at BWB. “Is it making a contribution to new thinking? Is it pushing boundaries, as a publisher should? It’s about a respect for knowledge, for ideas, for debate, for original, critical thinking as well as received opinions. This kind of principle – and practice – lies at the heart of my publishing.
“I would also say now that my publishing ethos involves a commitment to publishing effectively about Māori experience, whether historical or current. But then, that is simply an obligation we all have, a commitment we must all meet, isn’t it?”
Williams’s long-time colleague and peer Geoff Walker, formerly publishing director at Penguin Books New Zealand, describes her approach to publishing as “brave and uncompromising” – probably why she was awarded an MBE in 1996 and ONZM in 2012 for services to publishing.
“It's absolutely typical,” says Walker, “that two of the most important works of New Zealand history planned for the coming year – Inequality: a New Zealand Crisis and Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History – will come from BWB. They're big books, multi-authored – which adds to their complexity – and they aim at very high standards. Bridget publishes these books from the precarious position of an independent publisher, but she aims high and she's courageous.”
History that happened
Courage is a helpful characteristic for independent publishers operating in a small market. Non-fiction books are more expensive to produce than fiction and the digital era presents further challenges. Williams has, for some time, spoken publicly about the pressing need for better state-funded support for serious non-fiction publishing, given its contribution to the nation’s cultural heritage – comments she says have “fallen on remarkably deaf ears”.
For BWB, the answer has been found in the Bridget Williams Books Publishing Trust (BWBPT), established in 2006. As the trust website says: “For over three decades, books published by Bridget Williams have contributed to critical scholarship in New Zealand; they have told our stories, and deepened our understanding of what it is to inhabit these islands. The BWB Publishing Trust was established in 2006 to ensure that this work continues.”
This initiative, which seeks grants-based support from private trusts and benefactors, has helped to sustain BWB’s publishing in recent years.
“While the BWB Publishing Trust exists specifically to support BWB’s publishing of good non-fiction for New Zealand,” says Williams, “the trustees see the overall purpose as a broader one. If we are to continue to have a vigorous writing and publishing industry here, the production of good non-fiction for New Zealand will need funding support. Contributing to this broader purpose is one of the long-term goals of the BWBPT.”
Alongside this initiative, BWB has also embraced digital publishing, led by Tom Rennie. From now on, all new BWB books will be simultaneously released as eBooks and the company is slowly re-releasing many of its backlist titles in this format. At the cutting edge of digital publishing is another BWB initiative – BWB Texts. These small eBooks promise some good reading and sharp analysis in the years ahead.
Despite an abiding passion for fiction, Williams does not hanker to publish it. Nor is she a fan of “creative non-fiction”, remaining committed to robust, research-based, historical analysis.
“History is about what happened,” she says, “but really good history takes you imaginatively into a world. It presents the evidence and shows us how we can see it from one side and then how we can look at it from another angle to see something counterfactual. That tells us something different. Your own imagination can work with the gap that exists between those two points of view, but they still need to be grounded on evidence.”
Williams agrees her own education, principally in the world of the fictitious imagination, nonetheless helped to equip her for what has been – and continues to be – a remarkable career in factual realities.
“I absolutely believe in the value of a broad education in the arts – whether English literature, te reo Māori, French language, philosophy or a number of other subjects.
“In fact, I believe that in New Zealand we need a much stronger education in history and politics, as well as literature. It’s hard to believe that ‘educated adults’ enter the workforce today without a sound knowledge of where we come from, of New Zealand history and at least a smattering of world history. Career training in law, economics, accounting is obviously part of a university education, but only part – in my view.
“I would present that case strongly for today’s students. Doing what you are really interested in will take you much further, and to more interesting places, than doing what seems to be ‘useful’ in career terms. It may not make you so much money, of course, but as long as you have enough to live – well, an interesting life is worth a lot.”