Mark’s Say: The Wheelers buy into Text and Vale Di Gribble

Maureen and Tony Wheeler have had amazing careers. Together they revolutionised world travel through their publishing company Lonely Planet which became Australia’s first truly multinational publisher. Earlier this year they completed the sale of Lonely Planet to the BBC for around $190 million. While many had mixed feelings about the sale of this Australian success story to London-based BBC, the Wheelers have wasted little time in putting the money to good use endowing a chair at the London Business School (Tony Wheeler’s alma mater), backing an Australian production of the Ring, endowing The Wheeler Centre and establishing Planet Wheeler to support international development.

In a surprising but very welcome move, the Wheelers announced that they had bought Scottish publisher Canongate’s interest in leading Australian independent publisher, Text. Text Publishing came into being in 1989 as a joint venture between a new media company, Text, and Reed Books. When Text was sold in 2004 to Fairfax, publisher Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston formed a partnership with Canongate to purchase the publishing division from Fairfax. The Wheelers' purchase reasserts Text’s Australian credentials and gives them, in Maureen and Tony, two new board members with very successful publishing backgrounds. Michael Heyward told me that he was thrilled with the new arrangement and that the Canongate arrangement had, at the time, been a life saver. It’s a bit of bright news for Australian publishing.

That news was dulled quite a bit by the death of Di Gribble (pictured left), co-founder with Hillary McPhee, of McPhee Gribble publishers in the 70s. McPhee Gribble’s formation heralded the start of a truly indigenous publishing and writing culture. With Hillary’s editorial skills and Di’s organisational and aesthetic flare, they burst on the scene like a breath of fresh air with their stylish and groundbreaking books that fitted right into contemporary Australia. As a young bookseller, their 1977 book, Monkey Grip by Helen Garner, was a commercial and artistic inspiration. At a time when Carlos Castaneda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Tolkien were the bestsellers it was exhilarating to have an Australian one. Di and Hillary’s office was in one of the grand terraces in Drummond Street just south of Grattan and I got to know them well as I constantly called in to get more copies of Monkey Grip.

One couldn’t help but be affected by Di’s buoyant enthusiasm and encouragement; professionally we had lots of discussions and she was always helpful and enthusiastic. In 1985, when I had the idea of doing literary events, Di was one of the first people I ran the idea by; without her encouragement I’m not sure if they would ever have got off the ground. After the sale of McPhee Gribble to Penguin, Di went into partnership with Eric Beecher forming Text Media and then Private Media, owners of Crikey. Both have been very successful and, in their own ways, as innovative and important as McPhee Gribble. Her passing is a great loss.