Mark Rubbo’s acceptance speech for the Lloyd O’Neil Award

Our Managing Director Mark Rubbo recently won the Lloyd O’Neil Award for service to the Australian book industry. The award was announced as part of the 2015 Australian Book Industry Awards.

Here is his acceptance speech from the night.

It’s a great honour to receive this award. Lloyd O’Neil helped set the stage for a truly Australian publishing industry and without him, we perhaps would not be where are today.

I’ve been in the bookselling game for coming up to 40 years. I would like to acknowledge those people who were and are so important to me in this industry. In 1975, a year before my business partners (Steve Smith and Greg Young) and I acquired the Readings shop, Di Gribble and Hilary McPhee started McPhee Gribble publishers. Two years later, in 1977, they published Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip. This book was my first big Australian bestseller. What Di and Hilary did for Australian publishing was remarkable. They published contemporary Australian voices absolutely professionally – their books were beautifully edited and beautifully packaged.

Then, in 1979, a few years after Monkey Grip, Brian Johns was bravely appointed Penguin Australia’s publisher in 1979 by the English CEO of Penguin Australia, Trevor Glover. It was a big risk for Trevor but Brian was, and still is, passionate about Australian culture and soon proved worth the risk. Like Di and Hilary, Brian was an inspiration to me as a bookseller. The three of them loved what they were doing and their passion was infectious.

But it was really playwright, poet and doctor Jack Hibberd who gave me the ‘light bulb’ moment. He asked me why Readings never had any Australian books in the window. A very good question, I thought to myself, I should remedy that!

I’ve been so privileged to have been involved in this evolution of a contemporary Australian publishing industry. This industry is so important our country. Financially it directly and indirectly employs tens of thousands of people, while intellectually and culturally it is our authors and their books that give so much life to our nation. I have been encouraged by many Australian authors and so excited to see their careers develop. Nothing gives me a greater thrill than to read and sell their books. I am so grateful to all of them and feel very privileged to have been there since the beginning of their careers. To name a few: Helen Garner, Peter Carey, Tim Winton, Alex Miller, Dorothy Porter, Kate Grenville, Andrea Goldsmith, Steven Carroll, Gail Jones, Drusilla Modjeska, Tony Birch and Andy Griffiths. And more recently: Ceridwen Dovey, Hannah Kent, Favel Parret and Maxine Beneba Clarke.

In my career I’ve also encountered wonderful colleagues who have shared their ideas with me. These include Sandy Grant of Hardie Grant, Henry Rosenbloom of Scribe, David Gaunt of Gleebooks, Joel Becker of the ABA, Fiona Stager of Avid Reader and Suzy Wilson of Riverbend. And of course, there are so many more.

I’d like to thank all my Readings colleagues over the years and, in particular, Martin Shaw who has worked at Readings for more than 21 years. Martin leaves us next month but his passion for Australian writing and publishing has rivalled my own and many authors, publishers and readers owe him a great debt.

Finally, I’d like to acknowledge our customers. They are marvellous and I learn so much from them.

1976 was, I believe, the birth of the contemporary Australian publishing industry. The main drivers of this were the reforms put in place, first by Prime Minister John Gorton and later ramped up by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The establishment of the Australia Council and the Literature Board provided money and time to writers, to allow them to work on their books, and it mitigated the risks for the publishers who then took on those books. These small investments helped create one of Australia’s most successful cultural industries. Arms-length and peer-assessed funding of the Arts has been so vital to our success with literary endeavours. It worries me that this infrastructure is now in danger of being radically compromised.

We need to encourage people to take risks and to fail, to produce obscure and ground-breaking works. If we look at what cultural artefacts survive worldwide, it is the works that were, at the time, provocative and often difficult to understand. I don’t know what Minister Brandis is trying to achieve, cutting over $100 million dollars from the Australia Council, but I think we should be worried and I think he needs to explain. Does anyone want to see the Arts climbing on the slippery slope of mediocrity and partisan support?

Mark Rubbo is the Managing Director of Readings.