Monday musings on Australian literature: Allen & Unwin’s House of Books

I have written a few posts over the years on the publishing of Australian classics, including one in 2014 in which I mentioned Allen & Unwin’s Australian Classics series. That series seems to have disappeared, but the publisher does have another initiative, House of Books.

Here is what Allen & Unwin say about this series (or, imprint):

The House of Books aims to bring Australia’s cultural and literary heritage to a broad audience by creating affordable print and ebook editions of the nation’s most significant and enduring writers and their work. The fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry of generations of Australian writers published before the advent of ebooks will now be available to new readers, alongside a selection of more recently published books.

The House of Books is an eloquent collection of Australia’s finest literary achievements, and the digital revolution is helping bring us all closer to the books and writers of Australia’s literary tradition.

The House of Books makes accessible a library of authors and their books at affordable prices to a whole new readership. Some books have long been out of print, some have recently slipped into oblivion but the House of Books should be the first stop for all readers of Australian fiction and non-fiction.

I can’t find out much about the history of all this, because the books listed on their House of Books page all seem to have been “published” over 2012, 2 years before I wrote my post referencing the now apparently defunct Australian Classics series in 2014. Does “House of Books” now include rebadged “Australian Classics”. Seems likely.

What makes this imprint interesting is that it uses a slightly different publishing model. All books, they say, “will be available simultaneously as ebooks and print editions (using POD  – print on demand technology)”. This means, of course, that bookshops don’t have to carry expensive stock of book titles likely to have low throughput.

So, I decided to test out whether these books – around 90 of them and all, as far as my random checks can tell, published eight years ago now – are still available. First, I went to Readings (online), because it is mentioned on the page as a source. I searched for a few of the titles and they all said “This item is not currently in-stock, but it’s available to order online.” So, I ordered a Thea Astley print version, and, well, so far, so good! I haven’t got it yet, but, fingers crossed it will arrive.

Book coverI then checked Booktopia, which is also listed on the page as a source. I searched for Eleanor Dark’s Prelude to Christopher. They provided this message: “This product is printed on demand when you place your order, and is not refundable if you change your mind or are unhappy with the contents. Please only order if you are certain this is the correct product, or contact our customer service team for more information”. Readings didn’t say this, but I’m presuming their copy will be POD too.

The prices seem to range mostly from $14.99 to $19.99, though some are more expensive.

House of Books books

But now, what you’ve been waiting for – if you haven’t clicked on the link above already – that is, something about the books available. They are listed in a strange order – alphabetical by title, with all book titles starting with “A” appearing under “A”, and “The” titles under “T”. Really? For me, the best order would be by author, so I could see, for example, all the Astleys they have, all the Cusacks, and so on. Also, very few of the book descriptions include original publication date which pedantic me would really like to know!

Book coverWhinge aside, the list is an exciting albeit serendipitous one, including many books barely remembered these days. There are, for example, Kylie Tennant’s memoir The man on the headland, and her autobiography, The missing heir. There are four by Thea Astley, eight by Dymphna Cusack (including the Newcastle-set Southern steel, which interests me), and four by Xavier Herbert.

Book coverOther treasures, in terms of their place in Australian literary culture, include Dal Stivens’ 1951 political (and debut) novel, Jimmy Brockett. Stivens is little known now, but, as Wikipedia tells, he won the Miles Franklin Award in 1970 for A Horse of Air, was awarded the Patrick White Award in 1981 for his contribution to Australian literature, and in 1994, he was given a Special Achievement Award in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Book coverAs you’ll have realised from the Tennants above, the books include non-fiction, like Australian historian Russell Ward’s memoir, A radical life. There are also books of poetry, such as AD Hope’s Selected poems, and short story collections.

More contemporary writers in the list include Nick Earls and Mandy Sayer (both born, coincidentally, in 1963).

I’d love to know if any of my Australian readers know of this series? The cover style is a little familiar to me, but I am certainly not as aware of them in the shops as I am of the wonderful Text Australian Classics series. My guess is that this is due to the publishing model they are using. Any comments?

70 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Allen & Unwin’s House of Books

  1. Hi, Sue! I’m wondering how this list of Australian classics compares with the ‘Text Classics’ series from Text Publishing. This series now has over 100 titles and is definitely alive and kicking. I’ve prescribed many of them for my Landmarks in Australian Literature class. They have the great advantages for a class or book club of being a) readily available and b) cheap ($12.99). I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at this series but I’d love to know what you think.

  2. For those who can stand ebooks, I did a quick check of Amazon Australia Kindle. Going from the distinctive cover, they had the four Thea Astley books, and also the Kylie Tennant. I didn’t check any further.

    • That’s good, thanks very much Neil. It seems they haven’t published more but I’m glad that big first swag seems to be still going. I much prefer print, but e-books have their place, one being, as we all thought early in their history, for keeping older or less popular books available.

  3. I knew I’d read a couple, but I couldn’t remember which ones. However WordPress’s ‘search posts’ function (within WP admin) came up trumps… I’ve read just two: Lantana Lane, by Eleanor Dark and The Black Opal, by Katharine Susannah Prichard.
    BTW I’ve read Dal Stivens’ A Horse of Air, but it was a scruffy library copy that I had to access by inter-library loan from somewhere. I’d love to have a first edition for my MF winners collection, but I may have to content myself with one from House of Books, the first edition is as rare as the night parrot in the story!

    • Excellent Lisa. They have an interesting list. Do you remember how you found those books? Presumably print copies in bookshops.

      BTW, I use that search function a lot to find posts I know I’ve written … and for editing/updating multiple posts.

      • Lantana Lane was from the library, but I bought The Black Opal from Fishpond. I would have just searched for book and then chosen it from the search results there.
        I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of these PoD editions in any bookshop. Unlike Text Classics which are on display everywhere.
        I’m not sure what the publishing model is for the Fremantle Treasures collection, but I’ve never see any of theirs in a shop either. (They are much nicer than the House of Books ones, Treasures have lovely hardback covers… but they only have four of them so far.

  4. In that part of my adult life when I was reading, and voraciously, I never came across this series, ST. Of course I know of all the writers you mention and most of the books, but this .. erhm .. imprint ? passed below my personal horizon.
    Nice to be reminded, though, of authors who were well-known in my time ..

  5. The covers are familiar, from second hand stores I guess, though I don’t think I own any. I worked in printing for a few years (in computing) and it amazes me that POD is viable when you consider the fixed costs of the old model – plates, and presses and print runs. Hopefully your readers will all place their orders and participate in Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Part 2 Week in January (that’s 1919-1960). It’s time Neil from Kallaroo took part, don’t you think.

    • I sure do think it’s time he took part Bill! Well start putting pressure on him to nominate a book or three!

      Re POD, I believe they have special electronic machines that spew them out a bit like a computer printer does, but it has to have some sort of binding function inbuilt too doesn’t it. I think the covers are flimsier and the books not really as nice as traditionally printed ones, but I’ll see what Readings produces for me. I’ve had an email saying it will take at least 3 weeks because it’s “not in stock” which of course I knew, but they give no other inf away.

      • Sue, I requested a print on demand copy of The Man on the Headland by Tennant from Text Classics – they didn’t mention it comes back the size of a pocket book… tiny! It IS readable, but not comfortably so. I wonder if these will do a better job. I was grateful to have a copy, but having paid full price I did expect the book to be the “normal” Text Classics size…

    • I’ll consider doing this, Bill, but only if you will host my review. I do not want to start my own blog! And also I may require assistance selecting a book to review, though I dived into Wikipedia, and came up with “The Timeless Land” by Eleanor Dark. Would that qualify?

      • Neil, you have picked the perfect work, one I would have had to cover myself if I couldn’t get a volunteer. And I am more than happy to give you a guest post spot.

        • OK, I’m on.

          On something completely different, have you ever read “The moon moth” by Jack Vance, Bill? It’s a short story. I first read it in 1972, on the bus going from Adelaide to Canberra for Christmas. It was great!

        • Neil, I haven’t even heard of Jack Vance. I’ll bookmark your comment and follow it up next time I’m in quarantine, which looks like being soon.

        • Yes, in an anthology called, I think, “Alpha One”. But “Moon Moth” was so popular that I think it has been published stand-alone, and I’ve heard tell that there is a comic version of it, though I have never seen it. Jack Vance was an American writer, I knew him through his science fiction. He loved playing with words, especially obscure ones.and his stories were always quirky

        • Thanks Neil … now I see the particular query to Bill. The SF link. His name rang a bell, but I haven’t read him. (I wonder why you are suddenly going into moderation?)

        • When Neil gave him some context I realised I own some Jack Vance. You’d love him Sue, one of those writers with big breasted women on the cover wearing bubble helmets.

        • Try this: “The native flora was sparse: lichen, moss, primitive vines and palodendron, pelagic algae which tinctured the sea black.” (The Star Kings)
          When I Google “palodendron” it becomes clear this is a word Vance has coined. Delicious.

        • Bill, stop trying to put Sue off. Sue, Bill is wrong. The cover girl was NOT wearing a helmet.

        • LOL. You can’t judge a book by it’s cover. I did a bit of poking around, and I can’t find the term “big-breasted” in a Jack Vance book. But I did find this quote from Ursula K. LeGuin: “Jack Vance must be mentioned, though his humor is so quiet you can miss it if you blink.” (The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction)

        • You are still being moderated. I have no idea why that is. You are clearly persona non grata with WordPress all of a sudden.

          I do like quiet humour. I find I often laugh at things that other people sit impassive at.

        • I had a play with creating a blog through WordPress. (Yes, I know I said I’d never do a blog – too much work – but I thought I should have a go.) So far I’ve added a title and a domain, but that’s it. Perhaps WordPress is cross that I haven’t actually opened the site yet. I’ve noticed that when I create a comment in this blog, my details are filled in for me. So less work for me, more for you. Sorry.

        • Haha, Neil! Do let us know if you decide to go public! I resisted for a couple of years before I took the plunge.

          Yes, it does fill in the details which is lovely BUT that shouldn’t put you into moderation. I don’t have to moderate other WP people like Bill and Lisa. Something is going on, but we’ll sort it out eventually.

        • Many cover artists had a scanty knowledge of the story they were illustrating, as was obvious from the quantity of clothing.

  6. I realise these ventures in cheap publishing are noble attempts to keep the works of the past in print. However so often the results, while ‘cheap and available’ are so poorly designed and bound that they are pretty much unreadable, so that they more or less defeat the purpose.

  7. I have not heard of this series. Whenever I’m looking for an Australian book I go to Text. Text books are now starting to be in Op shops too as they’ve been out long enough. I always pick them up when I see them. I can believe The is published under the letter T. Is it because younger staff did not learn this in school as something you don’t do. We older people had much more teachings in this area. A, An and The are to be ignored. I see it all too often and it is quite the bugbear of mine. 😁😁😁

    • I think, Pam, that it’s a very basic database or spreadsheet they are using rather than a person actually sorting them. At least I hope so. I’d hate to think humans don’t understand these rudiments.

  8. I knew about these books, although didn’t realise how extensive the list was. We’ve ordered a few in for customers but don’t usually keep them in stock.

  9. Hi Sue, I don’t recall this series or seeing these covers for the novels. I remember the Text Series when it began. I bought some books and also received a cotton bag! I have read some of the novels, and I do have a 1951 edition of Jimmy Brockett. The prices sound reasonable but I do not live the cover designs.

    • Thanks Meg. I think it’s a shame that so few people recognise these books. A&U need to to more promotion I think because there are some great books there. Where did your 1951 Jimmy Brockett come from? Was it in your family?

      I have about thee Text canvas bags now – two of my own, becoming very worn, and my Mum had one too. They are great book bags.

  10. It is shame, but as you say A&U need to promote more. I bought Jimmy Brockett from a second hand book store in Melbourne years ago. I have another one of Dal Stivens, The Scholarly Mouse and Other Tales. I used to binge on collecting Australian hard backs, but don’t have much money now, and there are not as many good second hand book shops! I do love the Text canvas bag, I use mine as a library bag.

      • Carmel and Sue, see my comment on the print on demand copy I got from Text Classics! Very tiny, rather like a pocket notebook – disappointing!

  11. Some really interesting titles in this collection Sue. I’m a little intrigued A & U font give us have the option of an ebook, as an alternative to POD. Surely there would be an electronic version ready to download. It could be a rights thing? I note that Rakuten Kobo make some ebook versions available.

    • Thanks Kate. Lovely to hear from you. I researched this in more detail. So, as you probably read, the House of Books site says:

      “Ask your local bookseller for the print editions – or they are available for purchase from the Allen & Unwin website.

      Ebook editions are available from Readings, Pages & Pages and all Australian independent booksellers with an ebook platform, as well as from Kindle, Kobo, Google, Borders, Angus & Robertson, Dymocks, Booktopia, Collins and the Coop Bookshop.”

      So, A&U themselves don’t sell eBooks, as you’ve found. They must have decided not to bother with running that service with the problem of all the different formats, but you can buy the (or most of the) eBooks at the other places they list. If you go to Booktopia, for example, and search under the eBooks tab you find 60 of them, but it seems only for Kobo, or Booktopia’s eBook app, or anything reading the EPUB format. Not Kindle or iBooks format! However Amazon Au seems to have many (most) of them in Kindle format eg all of the Dymphna Cusacks, the Thea Astleys, the Dal Stivens are listed there (but their search is not as friendly as Booktopia’s!)

  12. There’s a wonderful second hand bookstore on the central coast of NSW – don’t know if I am allowed to name it – but they used to find almost everything I was after – I miss it! I’m too far away now…

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