Vale publisher Frank Thompson AO

Frank Thompson outside the UQP bookshop
Photo courtesy UQP Facebook

On the first of January 2024, esteemed publisher Frank Thompson AO passed away at the age of 91. His career spanned over 30 years in publishing including roles at AIATSIS and Angus & Robertson, and most notably as general manager at the University of Queensland Press where he transformed the academic publisher with a focus on fiction, poetry, and a wish to encourage Indigenous writing. Frank also served as APA president, was a long-time Board member, and Australian representative to the International Publishers Association. 

Frank Thompson was awarded an Order of Australia in 2012 for distinguished service to the publishing industry and the promotion of modern Australian culture, particularly in the area of literary fiction and through support for emerging authors. Craig Munro, a colleague from his time at UQP, shares these fascinating insights and reflections on Frank’s remarkable career:

Legendary book publisher Frank Thompson AO, who died on New Year’s Day at the age of ninety-one, had been ABPA president in 1971-72 and a member of the board for fifteen years. On his retirement from publishing in 1993 he was made an honorary life member of the Association. 

Best remembered for his twenty-two years at the helm of UQP, Frank was subsequently general manager of Rigby in Adelaide and then publishing manager at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra. His last role was as director of publishing and marketing at the Australian Government Publishing Service.

Born and raised in California during the 1930s and 40s, Frank attended Michigan State University where he studied literature and economics. His masters thesis was on Joseph Conrad and he also became a devotee of the life and novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Frank’s student job was in the warehouse of Michigan State University Press, and after graduating he worked for four years as assistant to the director of the Press, Lyle Blair, an Australian. Frank later wrote that his four-year publishing apprenticeship was ‘so intense, so frustrating and so fraught’ that he remembered those years with a combination of ‘terror and pleasure’. 

Blair had often spoken with enthusiasm about Australia, and at the age of twenty-six Frank bought a one-way ticket to Sydney to see for himself. After teaching for a few months, he joined the staff of Angus & Robertson – then Australia’s largest publishing and bookselling empire. At first he dusted and shelved books as a shop assistant before joining the publishing division and helping to run the busy production department.

He left A&R to join US publisher Prentice-Hall as their first Australasian tertiary rep. After calling on academics at the University of Queensland he was invited to apply for the new position of General Manager, Bookshop and Press, taking up the role in 1961. 

‘On my arrival,’ remembered Frank, ‘I found not only did I have no staff, but I had no place to put a desk and a chair.’

He spent a couple of weeks in the vacant office of the university auditor before accommodation was found in the wartime-era General Purposes Hut, not far from the Bookshop. 

His first secretary and editor was Ann Lahey, who’d been working in the registrar’s office producing the book-length University Calendar each year. Ann had majored in English at the University of Queensland and had worked in London as assistant to the director of special projects at Readers Digest. She was a skilled and meticulous editor who tamed the most demanding and complex works of scholarship, and trained a new generation of UQP editors. 

In his early years at UQP, Frank had to deal with university committees that knew little about publishing. He did however find support from vice-chancellor Sir Fred Schonell and – most importantly – from a rival publisher. Brian Clouston was then running his family’s bookshop in the city as well as Jacaranda Press in Milton which produced text books for the lucrative Queensland schools market. Over many long lunches, Thompson and Clouston became good friends, and occasionally Jacaranda staff would assist at UQP. 

Frank was not slow to start a literature list. Along with English Department drama scholar Eunice Hanger, he established the long-running UQP Contemporary Australian Plays series. The first title, A Spring Song by Ray Mathew, was published only months after Frank took over UQP. This was followed by David Ireland’s play Image in the Clay, later reprinted as a high school text.

The treeless campus had only been fully operational for a few years and there was no university staff club. Instead the bar of the Royal Exchange Hotel was where academics, writers and artists met, and where Frank Thompson forged creative alliances and acquired authors. This raffish hotel beside the railway line at Toowong was not only the defacto university staff club, it was also the watering hole for the nearby ABC headquarters. 

‘There was no food at the pub except for hot pies, cabana sausage and Kingaroy roasted peanuts,’ recalls novelist Roger McDonald who was a young producer with the ABC when he met Frank there about 1964. 

‘Among jugs of Fourex in the beer garden, the genial, intelligent and somewhat Machiavellian Frank was found from late afternoon onwards.’ 

The ‘RE’ was, in Roger’s words, ‘the blacksmith’s forge of an Australian publishing house that took its willing, eclectic and innovative style from the style of Frank himself’. UQP had existed before Frank Thompson ‘but he was its true founder, transforming a part-time university publications office into a national institution’.

Frank was also instrumental in the later establishment of a Staff Club – overlooking the university lake and conveniently just across the road from UQP. In my time as editor, the downstairs bar was where Frank held court.

Many of the writers Frank was mixing with were poets. As well as encouraging his friend Roger McDonald, he knew and admired the two most prolific poets of the 1960s – Queenslanders Thomas Shapcott and Rodney Hall. In 1966 Frank accepted for publication Shapcott and Hall’s landmark anthology New Impulses in Australian Poetry which was finally published in 1968.

David Malouf was thirty-four when he returned to Australia that year with a manuscript of poems he’d been working on in England. ‘Poetry in the late sixties had suddenly become the liveliest and most visible of the literary arts,’ Malouf remembers. On a visit to Brisbane in 1969, he visited Frank Thompson who was keen to acquire this new manuscript for hardback publication. Malouf however was only prepared to offer his poetry volume to UQP if it could be produced as a paperback of 64 pages that would sell for a dollar.

‘Frank astonished me by saying that if his people told him it was financially viable he would do it,’ Malouf recalled. ‘As I was to discover later, this was a wonderful example of his daring and impulsive style.’ 

The first three slim, small-format books in the Paperback Poets series were published in March 1970 - printed on campus to minimise costs and keep the retail price down to a dollar as David Malouf had requested. Appropriately it was Malouf’s Bicycle and Others Poems that bore the series number one on its black-and-white cover. The original print run of 1500 was later topped up with another 900 copies. 

Number two in the series introduced a much younger writer and a spectacular poetic talent – the twenty-one-year-old Michael Dransfield. The title of his book was Streets of the Long Voyage but his life was tragically cut short when he died from a drug overdose in 1974. When his 1500 copies sold out the reprint this time was 2000 copies – an indication of his future status as a literary cult figure. Paperback Poets number three was Heaven, in a Way by the prolific and hugely influential Rodney Hall. 

With an eye on the library market, Frank also launched the innovative Poets on Record series of slim hardbacks in 1970. Inside the front cover of each was a pocket and inside that was a small vinyl record of the poet reading his poems. Roger McDonald also produced a series of cassettes – Poets on Tape – travelling around Australia himself by train to record the authors. 

In the wake of all these different poetry series, it was David Malouf’s Sydney University colleague Michael Wilding who convinced Frank Thompson to begin publishing literary fiction. The list was launched with Wilding’s own collection of stories about Sydney bohemian life, Aspects of the Dying Process, and Rodney Hall’s first foray into fiction – with the satirical novel Ship on the Coin.  In the 1970s and early 1980s UQP went on to publish first works of fiction by a stellar group of writers including Peter Carey, Murray Bail, David Malouf, Roger McDonald, Olga Masters and Kate Grenville.

Frank also started an ambitious Asian and Pacific Writing series which was launched in 1972 with an Indonesian novel in translation, Atheis by Achdiat K Mihardja, and a Filipino story collection, Tropical Gothic by the brilliant Nick Joaquin. The series expanded into an internationally appreciated list and survived for more than a decade. There was even a contemporary Russian writing series after Frank visited Moscow on his way to the Frankfurt Book Fair one year.

Frank’s scholarly publishing was equally ambitious – with series ranging from history and politics to ecology and the environment. Many of these books had international subjects, and Frank travelled widely during the 1970s, attending book fairs in the US and Europe, and establishing distribution arrangements. Towards the end of the decade, the title pages of UQP books proudly displayed the colophon ‘University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, New York, London’.

Art and art publishing were a special interest of Frank’s, encouraged by his friendship with Sam Ure Smith and with the University of Queensland architect Jim Birrell who introduced him to Charles and Barbara Blackman. In 1965 Frank published a book that combined his interest in art and literature – Fairweather’s translation of The Drunken Buddha. Frank commissioned him to illustrate the story and was dismayed when Fairweather presented him with twelve full-size paintings – one of which eventually found its way into the university art collection.

To his authors, friends and publishing colleagues, Frank was a genial, entertaining and ebullient companion. When breasting the bar he adopted the Australian salutation ‘mate’ and gave it a Californian twist. In his years at UQP he often wore long Nehru shirts and colourful neck scarfs threaded through a ring.

Frank’s visionary enthusiasm was irrepressible, and his contribution to the development of Australian publishing in the second half of the twentieth century was considerable. His enduring legacy is not just UQP and the ongoing strength of its literary list, but also the key role he played at the Publishers Association in the 1970s when the book industry was expanding and modernising.

Craig Munro was UQP fiction editor from 1972 to 1980, and publishing manager from 1983 to 2000.