Interview: Ray Richards' lifelong love affair

by Joy Stephens / 01 July, 2013
From the time he started as an office boy in 1936, Ray Richards was at the heart of New Zealand literature as a publisher and later a literary agent.
Ray Richards with wife Barbara
At 91, Ray Richards, pictured with wife Barbara, still works with a few major clients, photo David White.

To mark the death overnight of much-loved veteran New Zealand literary agent Ray Richards, here is another opportunity to read our January profile of him.

Show Ray Richards a newly published book and his focus is immediate and intense. “Here is a jacket that is a joy to look at, which tells you that the book has been loved. The interior design is first class.” After examining the cover further: “I can see a full point there, which I think is arguable.”

Editor, publisher and vice-chairman at AH and AW Reed through its golden years, and a literary agent for another 36 years, Richards has had a lifelong love affair with books. In 1936, aged 15, he began working as a callow office boy in the new Wellington offices of Reed. “I was as green as grass; nobody could have known less about the world than I did.”

Richards’s father, a dedicated Methodist minister, was emotionally reserved. When Richards was 11, he and his younger brother were taken to hospital to see their mother, who, unbeknown to them, was dying of pernicious anaemia. Likewise, when Richards senior remarried, the brothers weren’t told until just before the wedding.

The family did not experience hardship during the Depression years, but transfers to new churches and towns took their toll on the parson’s son. By the time he arrived at Wellington College, Richards was unsettled and insecure and thought he would fail the crucial matriculation exams. He didn’t, but a job offer from AH Reed, a Dunedin church friend of his father, provided an escape from school uncertainty and employment at a time when jobs were scarce.

“Ray was born to be a publisher,” says Barbara, his wife of 63 years. Charming and warm, she is the emotional backbone of Richards’s life. Mrs Richards regards her husband’s single-mindedness with a mixture of pride and exasperation. Over the years, she has cooked hundreds of dinners for authors and the literati, and hard-up writers have slept on the sofa.

“Making books became the first priority in my life. I was obsessed by it and it was unfair to my wife and children,” Richards admits. After four years at war, where he flew a Corsair for the Fleet Air Arm in World War II missions in the Far East, earning a Distinguished Service Cross and a captain’s commendation, Richards worked as a journalist in London for a short time, before returning to Reed in 1946. “They were making a mark in the publishing world, but looking back, some of those 1930s books were terrible, ugly things which had no right to be printed, let alone published.

“AW Reed wanted to write and virtually gave me my head as production manager, editor and publisher. I commissioned many authors, including two crucial acquisitions – artist Peter McIntyre and the remarkable and exasperating Barry Crump.”

Richards describes AH and his nephew AW (Clif) as innovative, successful, narrow-minded and self-satisfied. “They were full of [Christian] faith. They were extraordinary in that they were totally responsible to each other and almost nobody else. They didn’t appreciate their senior managers and in the end they let their staff down because they never planned for growth in the business.”

Both AH and AW Reed were successful authors, with some of AW’s books still selling steadily today. But Richards says neither Reed had a particular vision for the company that would eventually publish 80% of New Zealand’s books. There was, however, a publishing gap “a mile wide”, with a war-weary public starved of New Zealand heroes and feel-good stories. Richards had a sound commercial eye and between 1946 and 1976 Reed successfully published 3500 new titles. “It was like a runaway train – unstoppable. We were so successful that I hardly ever thought of ordering fewer than 5000 copies of a new book from the printer – twice today’s initial print run.”

The first book to see the publishing hand of Ray Richards was Wayleggo by Peter Newton, published in 1947. The young war veteran educated himself by reading overseas trade journals. Wayleggo, which told stories of high country station life, eventually sold about 60,000 copies and remained in print for 20 years. “After the first edition, we added magnificent colour photographs by Kenneth and Jean Bigwood, who figured so large in everything Reed did afterwards, and I fattened up the book by using a thicker paper. Newton became twice the author he had been, going on to do one high country book after another.”

A stream of manuscripts about the outdoors and high country life followed – Mona Anderson was a Reed star, with A River Rules My Life selling about 100,000 copies. Fair and generous contracts were offered, which Richards says was part of the morality and success of the Reed business.

“My philosophy was that I’d publish anything that would sell and we steadily improved the quality of the books.”

Ray Richards
photo David White.

Richards is direct with criticism and generous with praise, saying art director Don Sinclair was crucial to the company’s success. “He had been a printer and colour specialist at the Evening Post. New Zealand Flowers and Plants was revolutionary for the time – it had 535 colour plates in a large-format book. That would have been impossible to do without Don’s talent.”

Together, Sinclair, Richards and editor Arnold Wall produced book after coffee-table book about scenery, flora and fauna, sourcing affordable, high-quality colour printing from the Kyodo Printing Company in Japan. “They were the most honourable, capable and inventive printers that we could have discovered.”

Courteous and quietly authoritative, Richards tires as our long interview progresses. When talking about his difficult last months at Reed, he speaks in a monotone, adding verbal commas and full stops – an editor’s way of dealing with the hurt that is still evident. In a nutshell, after 30 years of extraordinary publishing success, AH and AW Reed Ltd was an undercapitalised company that expanded too fast, without adequate business systems.

Increasing competition saw the Reed juggernaut begin to falter. An accountant/businessman was brought in to put things in order and the collegial culture of the firm changed. Many of Richards’s “band of brothers” left. The family firm of Reed was taken over by Associated Book Publishers (ABP) in 1983.

“I watched the team I had built fall apart. In mid-1976, the difficulties in the Reed office had made my role untenable and painful. Our cherished second daughter, Meredith, had died in an accident overseas and that on top of the office tensions affected Barbara and me badly. One day, without any warning, Barbara said, ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m moving to Auckland. Do you want to come with me?’ It resolved a problem I had found unsolvable.”

Richards called his staff together to announce his resignation. Publisher Geoff Walker (then a staff member) told his friend, historian Michael King: “Women began to weep, men sniffed and poor old Ray was on the verge of cracking up altogether … Reeds without Richards is too awful to contemplate.”

Ray and Barbara still live in the North Shore home they bought after leaving Wellington 36 years ago. Large lounge windows frame a view of Rangitoto Island and Richards’s downstairs office is a den surrounded by trees. The house is eclectic, warm and full of books and family photographs. Barbara’s vibrant paintings – some still works in progress – hang on the walls.

The Richards set about establishing New Zealand’s first literary agency in 1977. Since then, the agency has worked with hundreds of authors, artists and illustrators, mentoring, advising and presenting their work to publishers. They have been successful in adding to writers’ incomes through the sale of foreign rights and film-right options, with several movies based on clients’ books currently in the pipeline. “For a large number of my established clients, acceptance of their manuscripts is virtually automatic and the agent’s role is more commercial than literary. Our clients are all close friends of ours, some among the most talented writers in New Zealand” – including Maurice Gee, Witi Ihimaera, Dorothy Butler, Joy Cowley and Tessa Duder.

Then there are the new writers who have received a fair but firm hand from the Richards Literary Agency. “One of our policies has been to never reject a submission with a form letter or specious reason for rejection. We always acknowledge that these manuscripts are like the natural children of the authors and try to help with advice.” Richards still enjoys reading manuscripts: “for the occasional surprises, the pleasure of a quality author retaining his or her attributes, and to meet new books and their authors in the raw. I have developed an ability to assess a manuscript very quickly, not only for the quality of the research and writing, but also the marketable value of an eventual book.”

He says publishers today work in a difficult market and aspiring New Zealand writers have to be strategic to be successful. “New Zealand’s market is one of the smallest in the English-speaking world. Hopefully, the Frankfurt Book Fair 2012 [will have] introduced our best and emerging writers to the world’s publishers. “Authors looking for international readership should immerse themselves in the business of publishing as well as the contents of their books. For example, they should gain a critical faculty in assessing books written for Americans by Americans if they want to enter that market.”

Writers also need more than talent to succeed. “Possibly the literary qualities of a book will win out in favour of an author who is not a good public speaker or interviewee, but the reality is that appearances and favourable publicity are often as important to the success of a book as its contents.”

The agency is winding down, but, at 91, Richards still works with a few major clients and feels privileged he can continue to do the work he loves. “I take pride that I can make decisions which are, by and large, accurate, enjoy the process and have the pleasure of helping people. I have been so lucky to have married Barbara and have her involved in my work. The world is passing us by and we will never catch up with it, but we are a lucky pair.”


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