Sun Books, the first twenty-one years, 1965-1986

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Sun Books, the first twenty-one years, 1965-1986.

Sun Books was founded on 4 June 1965 by Brian Stonier, Geoffrey Dutton and Max Harris as an independent paperback publishing company. The three had been responsible for the establishment of the Australian publishing arm of Penguin Books in 1961, but left to form their own company due to their perception of petty interference and a lack of genuine interest in their Australian titles from the English home office. Capital of £12,000 for the new venture was provided equally by Stonier and Dutton, and Stonier obtained an overdraft of £10,000 from the National Bank of Australia. Harris’s role was that of literary editor and advisor. He and Dutton, both Adelaide-based, had worked closely together on Australian Letters (1958-1967) and the Australian Book Review which they co-founded in 1962.

Establishing a paperback publishing company with minimal capital, no backlist and no established distribution base was a brave venture. However, Stonier and Dutton sensed that the time was ripe. The Menzies era was coming to an end, and there was a questioning of established values and a growing interest in things Australian. The baby boom generation was entering both the old and the recently- established universities. Opposition to conscription and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War acted as a catalyst for the demand to change and reform Australian society. Sun Books was both a product of, and a contributing player, to the sixties movement to reform Australia, a movement that culminated in the election of the Whitlam Labor Government in December 1972.
Stonier had an accountancy background but also a very good sense of a book’s potential market. This and his general business acumen made he and Dutton, with the latter’s literary background, networks and flair, an ideal combination to start a new publishing venture. The third player, Max Harris, had discerning eye and his long friendship with Dutton made him a valuable third player in the enterprise. They also poached George Smith, their production manager from Penguin.
In October 1965 Sun Books distributed 4000 copies of a clever promotional 16-page dummy to all booksellers and newsagents throughout Australia and New Zealand announcing their initial program. The dummy was produced to look like an actual book with its cover being the same as one of its titles, The Permit, Donald Horne’s novel about bureaucracy.
The dummy stated the firm’s aim under the heading: ‘Why a paperback publisher?’

. . . Sun Books’ prime objective is publication of books which by their titles, their appearance and their price will satisfy a need on the paperback market. To satisfy it, we have selected for our first release a list of titles to range over all literary palates. Or nearly all.

The first seven Sun titles with a total print run of 115,000 copies were published in early November 1965. They were Donald Horne’s novel, The Permit; Mae Casey’s An Australian Story; Ian Mudie’s book on riverboats; Judah Waten’s collection of short stories, Alien Son; Big Red by Henry Lamond; Henry Handel Richardson’s novel Maurice Guest ; and Gary Player’s Golf Secrets. All were reissues except for the Donald Horne title.
These first Sun Books were designed by Melbourne graphic designer, Brian Sadgrove. They were a standard format with the distinctive Sun logo or colophon on the cover. The black and white design and formats of each book made them easily identified and able to be easily identified and recognized and many booksellers supported the new venture with striking window displays. The Sun logo was based on some Aboriginal cave paintings discovered in north-western Australia by George Grey in 1837. Artist Lawrence Daws, a friend of Dutton’s, made sketches of these from the plates in Grey’s published account, which were sent to Sadgrove who then came up with the Sun logo. After the first Sun books appeared, Dutton suggested printing the logo on the spine of each title to make the shelved books easily distinguishable.
Enthusiasm and good ideas do not always pay the bills and Sun Books always had a cash-flow problem. A solution to the problem was thought to be found when in February 1968 it was publicly announced that an interest in Sun Books had been acquired by English publishing entrepreneur, Paul Hamlyn. Under the terms of the arrangement, Hamlyn acquired a 40% interest in Sun Books and a seat of what became a three man board. Kevin Weldon, then Managing Director of Paul Hamlyn Australia Pty Ltd and later to become a major entrepreneurial publisher in his own right, joined Stonier and Dutton as the directors of Sun Books Pty Ltd.

According to a contemporary newspaper report the arrangement was to the benefit of both parties:

It gives Hamlyn a paperback outlet in Australia and Sun Books the advantage of a matchless sales and distribution organization in Britain and Europe, yet Sun Books retain editorial independence.
However the arrangement was not a cosy one. The independence and freedom of Sun was lost within the expanding Hamlyn Australian empire. Stonier was moved by Hamlyn to run Lansdowne and Cheshire with Robert Mackay becoming a director of Sun. An omen of things to come had occurred in late 1968 when, for promotional purposes, fashion models were photographed reading Sun Books at Hamlyn’s Dee Why Headquarters. Towards the end of 1970 Stonier and Dutton mortgaged their respective homes and bought out Hamyln’s share of Sun to again become 100% owners. Some six months later, in April 1971, they sold the firm to the Macmillan Company of Australia (MCA), a wholly owned subsidiary of the UK based Macmillan Publishers. The sale was negotiated by Stonier with the Head of Macmillan who, following the sudden death of the Australian manager, wanted Stonier to run MCA and have Dutton and Harris as consultants.
It was the beginning of a new chapter for Sun Books. The imprint remained a separate one although it had very close links with Macmillan, operating out of the same office in South Melbourne and with Stonier heading both companies. (He was to remain Managing Director of Macmillan until his retirement in 1998). In the early eighties, Sun titles began to appear as ‘Sun Books Pty Ltd, The Macmillan Company’. The imprint, now known as Sunpapermacs, is effectively the paperback imprint for non-fiction Macmillan titles.
From its foundation in 1965 until it became the paperback imprint for Macmillan around 1982/83, about 340 Sun titles were issued. Of these about 187, or just under half, were Sun originals, the rest being reprints, reissues, and after 1972, the paperback issue to accompany the Macmillan hardback issue. In the pre-Hamlyn period (1965-1967), some 44 titles were issued, in the Hamlyn period (1968-1971) another 82 appeared, while in the post-Hamlyn period (1972-1982) over 200 Sun titles were published.
During the Hamlyn period there were also about 50 Sun ‘All colour Paperbacks’ issued. These were printed in England with a joint Hamlyn/Sun imprint and were introductory texts on crafts, hobbies, trains and cars, flowers, animals and so on. But as they were written for an English audience or the English climate in the case of the ones on flora, they were not a great success in Australia.
The range of Sun titles was wide and impressive. Subjects ranged from current affairs, politics, literature, business management, sport, the environment, travel guides, economics, life-style and well being, and food and wine. There were books on drink-driving, rape, oral contraceptives, and homelessness.
In the early years some original fiction was published, including Judith Wright’s collection of short stories, The Nature of Love (1966), along with reprints of classic or neglected Australian novels. After the merger with Hamlyn, the publication of original novels ceased except for a short lived Australian Crime Fiction series. Other Sun series included the Sun Poetry Series, Colonial Poets, Sun Cookery, and Sun Academy Series. The Sun Poetry series included Michael Dransfield’s Drug Poems (1972) and several translations by Dutton and others of the poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, issued to coincide with several tours by the noted Russian poet, as was a joint book of poems by beat poets, Allen Ginsberg and Laurence Ferlinghetti.
Probably the most notable Sun Book published was Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance, first published in 1966 and virtually in-print ever since. Others titles worthy of note included Roland Robinson’s Aboriginal Myths and Legends (1966); Roger Covell’s Australian Music: themes for a new society (1967); The Australian Dream (1967), an anthology on the Australian aspiration edited by Ian Turner; the David Campbell-edited anthology, Modern Australian Poetry (1970); Renee Ellis and Ian Turner’s Australian Graffiti (1975 and oft-reprinted); Mungo MacCallum’s Ten Years of Television (1968) and the follow-up volume a decade later, Supertoy (1976); two books on Australia’s changing relationship with Britain, Australia and the Monarchy (1966) and Republican Australia (with its striking cover using a Bruce Petty cartoon, 1966), both edited by Geoffrey Dutton; three selections of the best cartoons for the year, No Holts Barred (1966), Gough Syrup (1967) and Gorton the Act (1968), all edited by Richard Walsh. Other significant titles were The Penalty is Death: capital punishment in the twentieth century (1968) edited by Barry Jones and published in association with the Anti-Hanging Council of Victoria, and Australia’s Censorship Crisis (1979), edited by Dutton and Harris. Also notable were the first Australian books on wine by Dan Murphy published at the start of the Australian wine explosion. Sun also published a few hardback titles including The Vital Decade: 10 years of extracts from Australian Letters (1968) and the de-luxe Involvement (1968). Funded by Sir Andrew Grimwade, this consisted of portraits of notable Australians by Clifton Pugh with ‘matching’ portrait photographs by Marc Strizic.
In 1986 Sun celebrated its twenty-first birthday by introducing a new standard cover design and a new motto ‘Unputdownably Australian’. A trade journal article at the time claimed that the overall Sun output by then was 763 titles with over 170 still in print. The big jump in number of titles from the early eighties reflects Sun having become the paperback imprint for Macmillan.
It is more than just a coincidence that ‘Australia’ appeared in so many Sun titles. Sun Books was a nationalist publisher, with a tenor that was democratic and a bias decidedly Australian.
A near complete collection of Sun Books published between 1965 and 1982 and assembled towards the end of his life by Geoffrey Dutton, added to by the author and supplemented by Brian Stonier from his personal collection, is now housed in the Rare Books Collection of the Matheson Library at Monash University.
The exhibition is based on this collection, to be known as the “Dutton, Arnold, Stonier Collection of Sun Books”. It is being opened by Brian Stonier almost exactly fifty years to the day since he and Geoffrey Dutton publicly announced the formation of Sun Books Pty. Ltd.
Sources: Geoffrey Dutton Papers, MS 7285, National Library of Australia, Geoffrey Dutton, Snow on the Saltbush (1983), Geoffrey Dutton, Out in the Open (1996), John Arnold, ‘A Bibliography of Sun Books, 1965-1982’ (unpublished); Information from Brian Stonier; ‘Dutton, Stonier and Arnold Collection of Sun Books’, Rare Books Collection, Matheson Library, Monash University; Susan McCulloch, ‘The Sun Story: paperback imprint turns 21’, Australian Bookseller and Publisher, Sept, 1986, p. 22.
John Arnold

School of Political and Social Inquiry

Monash University

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