Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 4, No. 1, 1990
The Media of Publishing
Edited by Albert Moran

Writing non-fiction: an interview with E. L. Wheelwright

Albert Moran


Wheelwright was Associate Professor in Economics at the University of Sydney. A political economist he believed strongly in economic and cultural nationalism. Most of his books were published by small publishing houses, many of these indigenous. He published with a large variety of companies: the Law Book Company, ANZ Books, Melbourne University Press, Allen & Unwin (Australia), Penguin (Australia), Oxford University Press (Australia), and Monthly Review Press (New York).


Moran: How did you come to write your first book Anatomy of Australian Manufacturing Industries?

Wheelwright: Like a lot of academics, I didn't really have an idea that I wanted to write a book. I started some research on Australian companies not long after I came to Australia in l952. I'd been doing some work in England on big corporations, their anatomy, who owned and controlled them. When I came here I found there was nothing of this kind being done here. I was given a course to do on the Australian economy but there was bugger all about big companies and who controlled them. So I ended up putting a proposal to the Commonwealth Bank and got money for a research assistant to go around all the registrar of companies offices and extract the shareholders information. This was a very complicated task in Australia (it still is) because there was no federal company law. Companies were registered in each state. So you had to go from one state to another. It took about four years to do this - three years to get the information and a year to write it. We got so much material that it was obviously much bigger than an academic article. It looked as though I had enough for a book. At that time I was friendly with the Professor of Accounting at Sydney University, Ray Chambers, and I mentioned this to him. I didn't know any book publishers. He told me to try the Law Book Company as they were the kind of publisher that would put such things out.

It was a fuddy duddy old company as a lot of them were then, but it was Australian owned. It put out student law books. They were not used to big print runs, but they charged high prices for those sorts of things. I didn't really have a finished manuscript, I had a collection of materials. I was introduced to the bloke that ran this press. "Oh yes", he said, "we'd be interested in doing that". I fed it to them, bit by bit. It was quite unprofessional in all sorts of ways. It was badly printed. It wasn't properly edited. And I didn't have much idea about how you went about writing a book.

But the Law Book Company brought it out. They were pleasantly astonished when it sold so well. It sold well not because of any academic merit but because of "the sticky-beak effect". All the stockbrokers wanted to buy it to see who owned shares in what, who were named - all this sort of stuff! The book was reprinted once or twice and the company was quite pleased with it. That's how I got into the book business - quite by accident.

Books interested me because there was something different about them compared to an article. You have a book physically, in your hand. You also got money for it. Not a lot, you couldn't live off royalties. But you could get, in those days, a few hundred quid. This would permit you to go out and buy a few crates of claret or something. This appealed to me. Then at one stage, I was asked to review a book for the Australian Economic Record. It was a very interesting book so I changed my review into a review article, spent a lot of time on it, and sent it to the editor who sent back a stinking letter saying: "I asked you to do a short review of a book and you've written a review article; we can't publish it." I thought: "Get lost", and I never wrote an academic article for them again. Books seemed to get more notice, they didn't depend on the whims of these editors, you got a bit of lolly for it, and you enjoyed it more. So I began to write books that didn't fit the academic mould; that's how I really then got into the book business.

Moran: What happened then?

Wheelwright: I didn't do any books for several years although I was writing material that could eventually be turned into a book. Then I published three books in one year which I either edited, wrote, or collaborated with another person on. They all came to a head at the one time, and it just illustrates how you get involved in books in different sorts of ways. This was in 1965. At the time I was secretary of the staff association of Australian academics. In that capacity I arranged a conference on higher education in Australia, quite a number of speakers attended and there were some good papers, so I edited these into a book. At that time (the mid-sixties) Andrew Fabinyi was running Cheshire's. He was a very cultured, interesting and delightful person (a Hungarian migrant) who would go out of his way to try to get a book out that was worthwhile. As long as he didn't lose money and maybe made some - that was all right. He wasn't greedy, he was motivated by more than that. He was the sort of chap who would say: "You've got some good stuff there but there isn't really a market for it, it would need to be subsidised by 500 pounds." So I went along to the staff association and said: "This publisher says he can publish this book quite widely if we can subsidise it to the extent of 500 pounds." We did, and Cheshire produced a good quality hardback.

Moran: What about the others?

Wheelwright: After I'd written a few articles about foreign investment in Australia, I got a phone call from Lloyd O'Neill of Lansdowne Press. He said: "You've got enough material for a book - that chapter you did in Alex Hunter's book. How about you writing a book yourself, I'd like to publish it." But I was already flat to the boards with two other books. However, I knew Brian Fitzpatrick in Melbourne. He had a newsletter and he was writing about the same things. I said to Brian: "Why don't we collaborate on this book. I can't do it by myself - I haven't got the time. It needs writing up into a book. Put your own twist on it. We're saying the same things." Brian telegrammed back: "Delighted to join you in attacking the lickspittles, and sycophants who are selling out Australia." I checked this out with Lloyd O'Neill who said he was delighted. So we collaborated on the book The Highest Bidder. It was before its time and it didn't sell well. Lloyd O'Neill insisted on that title. Titles are very important, authors often don't get the right title, and neither do publishers. Unfortunately neither of us got it right that time. But it was an interesting experience.

Moran: You've spoken of the Higher Education in Australia and The Highest Bidder. What about Industrialisation in Malaysia?

Wheelwright: This came out of a year at the Australian National University, where I joined a team working on economic development in South East Asia. We picked Malaysia. There was a book being produced in which we each had a chapter. I had one on industrialisation. I had much more material than would go in this chapter. So again they said: "Why don't you think of making it into a book?" I thought they were right so I busied myself in developing it into a book. I was going off overseas anyway and I could stop over in Singapore and Malaysia and bring it up to date. So I developed a little book called Industrialisation in Malaysia. I turned to Melbourne University Press this time, they said: "We can publish it but there isn't much of a market for it." At the ANU I had been working with Jack Crawford's department, and he had a little slush fund. He was able to raise a couple of hundred pounds to make the difference between loss and profit for the publisher. Again the University Press was not necessarily interested in getting a lot of money but it didn't want to lose money. That was how the three books came out in the one year.

Moran: Where did things go to from there?

Wheelwright: The next thing I did was the updating of the book on ownership and control of companies, Anatomy of Australian Manufacturing Industries. The idea was to concentrate on manufacturing industry, and look not just at ownership and control, but how many companies controlled each industry. I would pick the biggest companies in each one, look at their interlocking directorates, that sort of thing. That book was published by the Law Book Company in 1967 - they hadn't been taken over at that time. Because they had made money out of the previous book they were quite happy to do it. Again there wasn't much editorial assistance, my research assistant and co-author Judith Miskelly, saw it through the press while I was in South America. But the book was killed by its very high price - few could afford to buy it. But on the other hand, it was more or less a library book rather than the kind of thing that students would buy. Again they had a limited market, a small run, a high price, and not very much professional help in layout and design.

Moran: How did Chinese Road to Socialism published by Penguin in 1973 come about? Penguin were only starting an Australian list then.

Wheelwright: That was an interesting experience. It came out of a trip I made to China in 1966 where I got a lot of material. It was at the height of the Cultural Revolution. I thought I had enough for a book. But I didn't - I had enough for a group of articles. Bruce McFarlane was a former student and mate of mine in those days. So I suggested to him that if he could go, we could make a joint book. I managed to get the Chinese Academy of Science to invite him; he went there in 1968. We put the whole thing together in 1969. By that time, I'd become known among publishers. If there were any visiting big wigs - they often used to come and see if you had anything they would like to publish. The boss from Allen and Unwin in England came out. He asked what I was working on. I said I was working on a book on the economics of the Cultural Revolution in China with Bruce McFarlane. He said they would be interested. So I kept him informed and sent him chapters. At the end I sent the whole lot. We waited and waited, like you always do. Then he came back and on the strength of one referee, said: "I'm sorry we can't publish this, our referee says it doesn't add anything to our knowledge of China." I sent a letter abusing him. I wouldn't have minded if I had just sent it off to him on the off-chance, but the fact that he has asked me, we had corresponded, and he said he was interested, that was a different thing altogether.

Moran: Yes, and you hadn't shown it to anyone else as a result of that?

Wheelwright: Exactly. Even if he had said it needs improving or altering (which was probably right) that would have been acceptable. So I thought, what will we do about this one? I wrote to Paul Sweezy who edited the Monthly Review in New York. I'd met him when I was at Harvard back in 1958 and was very impressed with him. He was involved in starting up the Monthly Review Press which put out a lot of good books. Nobody had been to China recently in the way I had been, to find out what was happening in farms and factories and so on. I wrote and said what it was about and mentioned that Allen and Unwin had rejected it. Sweezy said: "Cable Allen and Unwin and have them send it to us in New York at our expense." I did that. They sent it. Sweezy and Harry Magdoff went through it and they wanted to publish it. But they said it needed some changes - constructive suggestions that you get from a good publisher. We tidied it up and they did the whole lot: indexing, proof reading and so on, in a very efficient way. It was published in 1970 in English and then translated into six or seven languages.

Moran: Where did Penguin come into it?

Wheelwright: That happened by accident. Once you're in a particular circle, these things happen. But if you weren't in the game it wouldn't happen. I got to know John Hooker at Cheshire's who was not then with Penguin. We had lunch one day in the staff club and he asked what I was doing. I said I had just got this book on the Cultural Revolution published in New York. I showed it to him. He said it would make a good Penguin and he negotiated a cheap Penguin edition which sold well. That was the book that sold more copies and provided more royalties than any other one of mine. This is an illustration of the American connection, the American market; the book must have sold about 25,000 there, which is a lot for an academic book.

Moran: How did the five volume series edited by yourself and Ken Buckley on political economy and published by the Australian and New Zealand Publishing Company originate?

Wheelwright: ANZ Books published my collected essays - Radical Political Economy. I discussed a package deal with them. I suggested that we think about a series of books on Australian capitalism. They were quite interested. I got the collected essays all ready and the book came out, as good fortune would have it, just at the same time that we were getting the political economy courses going at Sydney University. ANZ Books were quite pleased - it meant the book sold a lot. They were a small local team and very nice to deal with. Their basic weakness was their distribution and their small print runs. When we got our Sydney courses going, we needed a Reader, and Frank Stilwell and I worked on that and the ANZ team produced it. They made some money out of it. On balance they made some money out of most of my things. But they went bankrupt at the time of fluctuations in the exchange rates in the mid-80s. They had imported books committed to a certain price and the exchange rate meant that they were nearly twice what they were before. They didn't get the money and they went down the drain.

Moran: Didn't you do Australia: A Client State somewhere in that time?

Wheelwright: There were two books that came through Penguin, which again illustrates the connections I mentioned earlier. John Hooker was, at that stage, still with Penguin. It was about 1978/9. He came around at the time economic restructuring was beginning under Fraser. John asked: "Is anyone doing work on that?" I said I was working with an assistant on that very thing. I thought we could turn over that material into a book. But the assistant produced nothing and I was left with a contract. By that time John Hooker had left Penguin and I was left with a contract to write a book. By then I had another assistant, Greg Crough, and I was reluctant to see a contract wasted. I asked: "Can we do something about this?" We put our heads together. He said what we could do was to have a book that was a collection of things we had done, as well as a lot of things done by others that we were in touch with (trade unions, especially metal workers). So in about six weeks we put this together from a whole scries of pieces. We called it Australia and World Capitalism, and sent it to Penguin saying: "This is not quite what you wanted, something happened with the other book, and this is what we are doing instead." They liked it and gave us a really good editor, Carla Taines. She put it together and it went like a bomb. It came out just at the right time and it was written at just the right level for first year university and colleges of advanced education students. When we did Australia: a Client State, I wrote to Brian Johns at Penguin and said we had new material very like Australia and World Capitalism. It was for the same market and given that Client State had sold very well, Penguin were delighted with this one. Once they got the manuscript they put it through very quickly - in four or five months. That sold well and went through several editions.

Moran: And that brings us up to date?

Wheelwright: Not quite. The other book was for Oxford University Press. And its an illustration of the narrow circuits of publishing in Australia. Just before the ANZ people folded up, they took me to lunch and asked me if I was thinking of writing anything for the Bicentennial. I said that Ken and I would think about it. Ken said he was flat out. I had some thoughts and wrote these down. It was to use those five volumes published by ANZ as the basis for a book on 200 years of capitalism in Australia. I sent it to ANZ, but by then they knew they were going to fold and said they were sorry. So I thought that's that. Then a few months later I got a letter from Louise Sweetland from Oxford University Press, saying: "I hear you were going to produce such and such a book. We'd be interested in it." So I revamped it and sent it to her. She said yes and issued a contract. We were supposed to do it for 1987. But by the middle of 1987 we had only got up to 1918. So we cut it off there and said to Oxford we'd like to do in two volumes and call this Volume 1. They accepted that and the book sold well.

Moran: You've co-authored a lot with Ken Buckley?

Wheelwright: When I secured the arrangement with the ANZ to produce the series of volumes on Australian Political Economy, I knew that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I couldn't do it by myself. Also I wanted it to have a historical bent. So I said to Ken Buckley: "How about you and I forming a partnership?" He agreed. I said: "My name would have to be first on it because I'm the one who has the contract." He didn't mind that. So it's different when you're not writing it yourself - when you're editing it you put your heads together and say: "What sorts of things do we want in this particular volume?" You write to people and say you are doing this. Eventually you get those people. Eventually it looks like a reasonable volume. Then, depending on what major theme emerges out of it, and who's been handling it, you say: "well its really your baby. You write the introduction and so on." Although the editing of the chapters is my area, I would edit and if it was historical, Ken would edit. I did the first. The second one we split into two volumes, he did the introduction to the second, then I did the introductions. A shared responsibility - that's the way we wanted it.

Moran: You did a kind of sixth volume with Allen and Unwin, Communications and the Media in Australia.

Wheelwright: Yes, I forgot that. When ANZ folded up, Allen and Unwin expressed an interest in continuing it. We talked with John Iremonger and he was happy to continue. He didn't want the same rubric or volume number. He also wanted each to have a theme. I can understand that, but it's much harder to do. I suggested the theme of mass communications because I'd been wanting to do that for some time. Ken said: "Look, if you will really do that, then I'll do most of the Oxford volume one history." He was away in England getting material. I was getting the contributions together, editing it, seeing it through the press. It broke new ground and was well received, but that was the end of the series. The thing had run its course. You don't keep on doing the same thing. I'm glad we produced the last one and though it's not as good as we would have liked, it's a real contribution in the field.

I've always taken the view that if what you do in a book is two thirds OK, you should let it run. Otherwise you never produce anything. I know a lot of academics, whose drawers are full of unpublished things 'not quite right'. I could never go along with that partly because you change anyway. If you got something out which is 65-70% good and the rest is all right, then you get on with the next one. Then again you go with the tide at the time, filling a particular need. But the clientele changes so you will get on with something else. It's no good committing yourself to something when its time has gone. Better to say: "We've done that, let's get on with something else interesting."

Moran: It's interesting, listening to you, how often you had been working on something current which a publisher was beginning to look out for.

Wheelwright: It's really because of my approach to my subject. I've always wanted to analyse the nature of the capitalist system, to understand it historically. When you get older, you can see the different phases the system has gone through. You can then begin to detect changes. And you think: "This is something that is worth checking on." I operate on the bower bird principle. You see these boxes in my study. Well they're all on certain aspects of the finance sector. I can see now how the financial system is altering. So I collect all the material I can. By the bower bird principle I mean that once you start scratching around, the result begins to take on a pattern. So you write an article or paper. Somebody says: "That's interesting, could you develop that further." So if you're interested in the contemporary world and how it changes and how social classes change, you are constantly attuned to that world. My source material is the living world and all the financial and economic journals. This is living history for me. I suck out of it what I want. Stock exchanges are changing - finance markets are altering. So I suppose this makes me unusual for an academic and attractive to a publisher as s/he wants books on contemporary things that the public will want to buy. I immersed myself in the economic system. And I didn't go out of my way to get book contracts, they just came to me.


New: 27 March, 1996 | Now: 15 March, 2015