Business profile: Scribe's Henry Rosenbloom

Business profile: Scribe's Henry Rosenbloom

Down the line from Melbourne, Henry Rosenbloom begins our chat with an overview of the state of the nation in that cheery pessimism Aussies often use when talking about their country in anything other than sport: the market is in a tailspin, the Labour government is self-immolating and the Bank of Australia is so worried about the economy it has slashed interest rates to a record low.  

And the book trade? “Oh, it’s even worse,” Rosenbloom chuckles ruefully. “Australia’s book industry is very unusually impacted by adverse forces. First there was the collapse of the REDGroup chain a couple of years ago, which continues to affect us. Then there’s the high dollar, a relatively weak economy and cheap offshore booksellers selling books into the country at a discount with very low freight costs, which impacts on indigenous booksellers. And there is a general consumer reluctance to spend money on many things, books included. It’s quite a challenging time, really.”

Rosenbloom and Scribe—the independent he founded in 1976 with an initial remit to publish “serious non-fiction” which has also branched out into quality fiction in the past decade or so—are meeting that challenge in a perhaps unexpected way: with expansion into Britain. Scribe UK officially launches this month with J C Kannemeyer’s monumental biography, J M Coetzee: A Life in Writing, written with the full co-operation and access to the archives of the reclusive Nobel Laureate.

Other titles in the launch year include Lamar Waldron’s Legacy of Secrecy, a massive (912 pages) examination of the John F Kennedy assassination to tie-in with both the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death and a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro; Brazilian novelist Cristovão Tezza’s IMPAC award-shortlisted The Eternal Son; and Tim Benson’s The Best of Britain’s Political Cartoons 2013, which pretty much does what it says on the tin and is Scribe UK’s first wholly British-commissioned book.

In fact, in its first year Scribe UK will release a whopping 50 titles—not bad for a company which publishes about 60–70 titles a year in its home market. Rosenbloom says: “It sounds crazy but the reason is we had been building up a backlog of titles without realising it was a backlog. Before we made the decision to launch in Britain, we had a number of books—Australian, American and European—for which we happened to pick up UK rights. And, of course, since I made the decision, I have been actively seeking UK and Commonwealth rights.” That said, the launch list total won’t be far off Scribe UK’s annual output, which Rosenbloom reckons should be around 36 books a year.

Can’t beat them, join them

The reasons for Rosenbloom setting up Scribe UK are many, but the main one goes down to righting what he views as decades-long territorial inequity, a “bugbear that I have written and complained about both privately and publicly for a long time”. Simply put, Scribe, like a lot of a Aussie publishers, has been routinely gazumped to American books in particular by UK publishers who insist ANZ rights must go along with any Commonwealth rights they acquire. “Sometimes the bigger houses in particular will throw their weight around, insisting they wouldn’t offer for the book if ANZ rights were sold separately. That has been very frustrating because it means that books that have suited me and that I think we would’ve had a good chance with have been denied us, simply because we were far away and don’t have the power.

“I realised some time ago that even though we are managing to acquire more often than we used to, its the kind of situation where you will win the occasional battle but never the war. Britain is always going to be an extremely important market for the Americans, and the way to do anything substantial about that is get over there. Effectively, to become a UK publisher.”

Another reason is logistics. By joining the Faber Factory Plus distribution scheme, Rosenbloom believes it is easier to control the business side from afar. “I always thought it’s really hard to ship books 12,000 miles, put them in a warehouse and have them at the mercy of a freelance sales force and be one among literally hundreds of thousands of titles. And I wasn’t really prepared to do that. But with Faber Factory you have control, a dedicated force and in one stroke we could have a larger market available.”

The gentleman publisher

English is actually Rosenbloom’s third language. The first five years of his life he lived in Paris and spoke Yiddish and French with his parents, Polish Jews who had survived the Holocaust. The family decamped to Australia when the Korean War started, his parents perhaps understandably spooked that another world war was on the cards. Rosenbloom says: “They wanted to get as far away from Europe to a place that was still civilised. When I was a teenager I used to argue with them: ‘You left wonderful Paris for Melbourne?’”

Rosenbloom became a publisher in a slightly roundabout way. At the University of Melbourne and shortly afterward he was a freelance journalist specialising in environmental and political issues. That led to a job in the Australia’s Labour government with the country’s first dedicated environmental minister. After the government lost the next election, he started Scribe while running his family’s printing business.

“As a journalist I was interested in serious non-fiction, and that just wasn’t being published in Australia at the time,” he says. Though “monomaniacal” about the books he put out, he says he was a “gentleman publisher” for Scribe’s first 20 years, releasing a handful of titles a year, while mostly concentrating on the printing. Finally, in the late 1990s he changed focus, putting publishing first. “I thought it was my last chance; I needed to see if I could really be the publisher I thought I could be.”

He has certainly done all right; Scribe has won the Australian Publishing Association’s award for Small Publisher of the Year four times in the past seven years. Still, he admits it doesn’t get easier, particularly at the “quality” end of the market. “We try to publish uncompromisingly and we have a very little froth and bubble to help fund our list. I’m constitutionally incapable of doing that; a few times I have tried to publish books—I’ll be honest—cynically, solely because I thought they had commercial potential. Each time I tried it I failed miserably, so I swore I would never do it again. I realised it can only work for us if we publish books we really believe in. Still, it’s a hard gig.”