For the JC Nov 2020
Australian publishers, in popular British imagination, usually come in the form of tycoons such as Kerry Packer or Rupert Murdoch, aka the Dirty Digger.
But there is another model: the specialist publisher, Schwartz Media and its books arm, Black Inc, headed by the genial Morry Schwartz.
Schwartz, a youthful 72, was revealed this week as the man behind the regeneration of the UK-based Jewish Quarterly. Just as others are predicting the death of print journalism and closing titles — many of them Jewish titles, worldwide — Schwartz is getting into the game with a vengeance, in the JQ’s most adventurous incarnation since it was founded by Jacob Sonntag in 1953.
Schwartz’s calling-card is his optimism. Speaking from his home in Melbourne, he says of his new venture that he is “100 per cent confident this will work”.
He already has a Melbourne-based editor installed, Jonathan Pearlman, who also edits one of Schwartz’s prized publications, Australian Foreign Affairs. And he has appointed three European consulting editors: Ian Black, formerly Middle East specialist on the Guardian; award-winning writer and translator Natasha Lehrer, based in Paris; and London-based journalist, Jo Glanville, editor of a new book of essays on antisemitism, Looking For An Enemy, to be published by Short Books next spring.
The Hungarian-born Schwartz has been in publishing since the early 1970s: five years ago he was made an AM, the Order of Australia honour, for his services to the print industry. He publishes books, specialist magazines, and even a newspaper, the Saturday Paper, launched in 2017 against the tide and yet bought and flourished with relish as a badge of pride by in-the-know Melbournians every weekend.
His parents, Andor and Baba, married in Hungary in 1947. Andor’s parents, brother and sister, and extended family were murdered during the Holocaust. Baba herself was a survivor of Auschwitz. Morry — born Moshe Zoltan Schwartz — arrived in 1948 and the young family made their way to the new state of Israel in 1949.
A visit from Baba’s sister, who had also survived the Holocaust and had made her home in Australia, convinced Andor that there were new opportunities on the other side of the world. The Schwartz family arrived in Melbourne on the eve of Rosh Hashanah in 1958.
Morry Schwartz began his further education at Melbourne University, studying architecture, but abandoned it after two years.
In 1973, with three friends, he began a company, Outback Press, the start of his publishing empire. But he also launched a concrete pouring company, Aardvark, which evolved into a property development group, called Pan Urban. The original intention was to have the property side support the publishing venture, but the two ran in almost parallel lines until the last several years, when Schwartz concentrated on his real love — the printed word.
With good reason, Schwartz is hugely proud of his stable of publications. He is particularly keen on the Quarterly Essay, which he says “is the only one of its kind in the world”, consisting of one influential, agenda-setting essay per issue. Schwartz’s friend in London, Professor Andrew Renton, says the publisher has been responsible for the downfall of at least two Australian prime ministers, courtesy of the Quarterly Essay and Australian Foreign Affairs.
Schwartz accepts this with a laugh. “Only prime ministers who were worth toppling”, he says. “I’m sure that I wasn’t alone, but I might have contributed.”
It turns out that Schwartz has had the idea of an important Jewish magazine in his sights for some time. “About 20 years ago I wanted to start an ‘Australian Jewish Quarterly’, and we almost did. I wanted Australian Jewish intellectuals to talk to the world, and have the world recognise us. But it didn’t happen, for one reason or another. And then, a couple of years ago Andrew Renton, who was on the board of the JQ in London, told me about the difficulties it was going through. And I thought, wouldn’t it be great to take something like that, with a history and culture like it has, and keep it primarily as a UK journal, but internationalise it?”
He believes that Jacob Sonntag’s original intention was to bring the spirit of the East European Jewish intellectual to the UK. He decided that the revived JQ would incorporate that mission, “while maintaining its British nature — and that’s really important. I do, though, want to hear from everybody, in Israel and the diaspora”.
Rather than buy the JQ outright, however, Schwartz has done a deal with the journal’s trustees, taking an 18-year licence to publish it. “I’m not the owner, I’m the licensee. I have editorial independence, but we [he and the trustees] agree on the general direction of its contents”. And with trademark confidence, he says: “I think it will be back on its feet from the first issue. In 18 years, it will be a very powerful international publication.” Any profit, says Schwartz, will be ploughed back into the journal.
The new JQ, he says, will look different from previous issues. Each edition will have a theme and at least half of the contributions will adhere to the theme. The first issue, with a lead essay from historian Simon Schama, will appear in May and will look at populism from the right, and antisemitism.
Above all, says Schwartz, the Jewish Quarterly — “which will exist on every platform available, digital, print” — will be “accessible and will rely on the excellence of its writing. It will be very current, very contemporary”.
Andrew Renton describes Schwartz’s venture as “a bit of a miracle, not least because it goes against all the trends in publishing. But he believes in giving people space to unpack ideas. I’ve never heard him talk about what will sell, only about what he will publish. And he really, really, likes print”.
Schwartz smiles, and says: “After all, we are the People of the Book”.