“It then fell to me to do it,” he said. “And I agreed with it, so I was happy to do it. So, I got it in the neck for making a decision I didn’t actually make. But I implemented it. And I still believe it was the right thing to do.
“I don’t think it’s the right territory to be publishing some of the things that were being published … I don’t think it is the right space for an academic publisher to be publishing memoirs of jockeys.”
During Ms Adler’s tenure from 2003 until last year, MUP published a range of books by well-known journalists and biographical titles about politicians and celebrities. Among the titles were jockey Michelle Payne’s Life As I Know It and, notoriously, underworld figure Mick Gatto’s I, Mick Gatto. Part of Ms Adler’s brief had been to broaden the commercial audience for MUP books.
Among the critics of the publisher’s shift towards academic titles last year were former foreign ministers Bob Carr (a former MUP board member) and Gareth Evans, former Liberal defence minister Christopher Pyne, Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen, and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Doherty, who have all authored titles for MUP.
Mr Muller, who previously ran the University of Queensland Press and is now on the board of publisher Thames & Hudson Australia, said MUP had been publishing quality books from academia, including five general titles from Professor Doherty.
“Michelle Payne, the first woman to win a Melbourne Cup, triumphed in the male dominated ‘sport of kings’ and John Harms, one of Australia’s finest sports writers did excellent work in writing her story. They don’t deserve to be dismissed,” he said.
“I think there would also be a significant number of the authors published by MUP who would take umbrage at this disparaging tone of Maskell’s.”
Responding to the criticisms, Professor Maskell said there was a “relatively small number of rather well-connected and loud people who disagreed” with the decision but he had received a lot of encouragement.
“A hell of a lot of people in this city have sidled up to me at various cocktail parties I was at and said ‘well done’,” he said.
He said the university was committed to maintaining subsidies for the publisher but it should be focused on high-quality works from the academic sphere, which could still include books targeted at a general readership. He said the university had simply made a strategic business decision.
“I was surprised about what a big deal was made of it … It’s what happens in business. Take stock every now and then and change direction,” he said, adding that it was “early days” and the university could revisit the business model if it didn’t work out.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.