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Groundbreaking account of NZ publishing house

18 July 2005

Groundbreaking account of NZ publishing house

A new book from Canterbury University Press gives a “warts-and-all” account of New Zealand’s most famous publishing house, A.H. & A.W. Reed.

The House of Reed 1907-1983: Great Days in New Zealand Publishing, by historian Edmund Bohan, traces the evolution of the publishing firm from its beginnings as a Dunedin mail-order supplier of Sunday school supplies into a dynamic business that dominated the nation’s book publishing.

“It is the first time there’s ever been a book on a New Zealand publishing firm and the point about this particular one is it basically created New Zealand publishing,” Bohan said. “Between the 1950s and the 1970s the name Reed was synonymous with New Zealand writing.”

Bohan was commissioned to write the book by the Reed Trust but was given unrestricted use of the firm’s private papers, memoirs and personal archives, including access to the Alexander Turnbull Library’s massive Reed archive.

“They specified it was to be a ‘warts and all’ look and there are the odd aspects that could be controversial as it was very much a personality driven firm and this led to some tremendous conflicts. It is a very dramatic story and a fascinating aspect of New Zealand literary history.”

“Researching and writing the book became an absolutely absorbing task. The archives in the Turnbull are enormous. There were 130-odd boxes of the firm’s papers and records and these had never been opened. They were full of amazing correspondence between A.H. and A.W. Reed which no-one but the pair of them had ever seen.”

But Bohan says what started out as a firm’s history became so much more. “It is the story of an interesting firm but the other side to it is it is the story of two extraordinary men – A.H. Reed and his nephew A.W. (Clif) Reed – who in many ways were unlikely publishers.”

In addition to telling the story of the remarkable relationship between the firm’s founding figures, the book looks at the innovative young group of ex-servicemen who in the years following the Second World War, expanded the firm and revolutionised the publishing industry in New Zealand.

The House of Reed chronicles the relationships between the Reed firm and the host of memorable writers, photographers, artists and musicians whose books and gramophone recordings they published.

It also reveals, frankly and for the first time, how dramatically changing economic and social climates in the 1970s combined with the firm’s developing internal crises to make its sale and extinction in 1983 inevitable. For outsiders, this was an unexpected fate for what appeared to be the most remarkable success story in our publishing history.

The story of A. H. & A. W. Reed is an integral chapter in the narrative of New Zealand’s growth as a nation, and is essential reading for anyone interested in our evolving literary, social and cultural history.

Historian, biographer and novelist, Edmund Bohan is the author of numerous biographies, history books and historic novels. He is a history honours graduate of the University of Canterbury and in 1995 was the John David Stout Fellow at Victoria University of Wellington.

The House of Reed 1907-1983: Great Days in New Zealand Publishing, by Edmund Bohan, published by Canterbury University Press, June 2005, RRP NZ$39.95, Paperback 228 x 152 mm, 296 pp. ISBN 1-877257-32-X.


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