Christine O'Brien

Christine O’Brien brings an accomplished background and career to her role as Marketing Manager for Auckland University Press

Christine O'Brien
Christine O'Brien

It was through a series of serendipitous moves that I came to my present position as Marketing Manager of Auckland University Press.

In a way I have come full circle because I grew up in what could be called a university household. Both my parents had been involved in university politics at Victoria University of Wellington in the 1950s and then my father retained a lifelong association with Victoria, including serving as the Chancellor.

So with my brother and sisters I was brought up in a house where university education and the issues of education for all were commonly discussed - and more often fought over than not! We all learned to value the contributions a university makes to the country and the community, and to appreciate the chances it gives for learning how to think.

Now, in my present position, I’m back in the same world and greatly enjoying publicising scholarly research to the public. This is something that I consider is both a privilege and a pleasure – to be involved with the promotion of new ideas and surveys of old ideas and all those aspects of scholarship that Auckland University Press promotes.

I’m responsible for the marketing, sales support and publicity areas of the Press. What I enjoy about the job is working as part of our small but dedicated team and alongside a wide range of passionate authors, helping to excite other people about new ideas or creative writing.

Books have always been an important thread in my life. As a child I was a voracious reader growing up in a household full of books. Later I put myself through university by working in the public library.

When I went to university my first choice was to study poetry, but I was gently led to do a conjoint degree because, while an English degree was valued for its own sake, I was told it would be good to have on the back burner something to “earn a crust”. So I did a Law degree as well – conjoint English/Law.

Those decisions I made with a limited view of the future turned out to be what led me to where I am now, because when I graduated, I went into the Arbitration Court to work in the Judges’ library and produce the book of judgments.

My next step was into Butterworths, which was the big main legal publisher, and where I gained the kind of experience that was ideal for working at a scholarly press. Butterworths was looking for someone with some publishing experience and with English and Law. At the time that combination was relatively rare so I went in as a senior editor on Current Law, and was later promoted to managing editor in charge of a portfolio, covering the New Zealand Law Reports, Current Law and the family and administrative law publications.

Then I moved to Auckland in 1996 and after some time temping started at Auckland University Press as senior editor under Elizabeth Caffin, who was then the Director. This was a wonderful opportunity for me because the Press was so highly regarded and because the skills you use in legal publishing are well-aligned with scholarly publishing – more so than with general publishing.

Shortly after I came we were reviewed by an external publishing expert, Graham Beattie. As a result, we started contracting out the editing and brought the marketing, promotions and publicity functions in house. I moved sideways into the position of Marketing Manager so that was another serendipitous happening. I absolutely enjoyed the learning opportunity – it was a real challenge and such good fun.

My job of promoting the Press is made easier because of the high quality of the Press’s books, which frequently win awards and stand out against the best produced by much larger, commercial houses. Last year, for example, was the fifth year in a row we had topped the list of finalists in New Zealand’s national book awards and won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry.

And, of course, our authors often win public recognition for their contribution to New Zealand life. We were delighted our poet Professor Emeritus Albert Wendt was recently made ONZ and the 2013 AWRF Distinguished Writer. The current Poet Laureate and two previous Laureates are part of our stable. Last year, all the winners of the Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement had published with us.

In some ways the Press’s achievements should speak for themselves, but sometimes you need to tell people about them – and we now contribute as much as we can quite consciously and overtly to the University’s reputation. We try to celebrate success and disseminate news about research, publications and awards so that there is a connection back to the University.

Going back to my childhood another strong thread was the idea of community service, which both my parents encouraged. Working at the University has allowed me to sustain this thread in my life as well. I worked as a volunteer for Youthline in Wellington – as a counsellor, a supervisor and then a trainer. And I volunteered for a while for Women’s Refuge and was a member of professional organisations like the Wellington Women Lawyers committee.

When I moved to Auckland, I didn’t do much volunteering at first. I was re-establishing myself up here and concentrating on work. But after Don Brasch’s infamous Orewa speech outlining a vision of New Zealand that I just couldn’t agree with, I joined the Labour Party as a reaction to that.

Under the guise of saying “This is an equal country and we are all equal” he was privileging a very few Pakeha people. It was such an alien, one-sided, exclusive vision of how New Zealand should be and how to get there. I just had to get up and do something about it. I have nieces and nephews that are Maori or Pacific and I didn’t want to have a country where they were being pushed into little boxes and opportunities were being taken away from them.

So I started working at the Labour Electorate Committee level, then had a chance to stand as a candidate for the Tamaki Local Community Board, and became deputy chair. This was very much part-time and could be done alongside my work for the Press. I appreciate the University’s support and encouragement for community engagement and its flexible hours. It’s a great employer from that point of view.

After the Super City merger the question arose of whether to stand again, which would mean taking on a slightly bigger workload.

Once again the University provided a supportive environment. I was lucky enough to be in the Women in Leadership programme, which gave me the space to think about my career as a whole – its definition of leadership was very broad and the tools it offers participants are really useful. In the end I decided to stand and was elected again. So there we are!

At the Press there is always something new and exciting happening. It is amazing the advances you can be part of just by being here. The whole social media explosion of the last few years I’ve been able to observe and participate in because of the nature of my job.

Our director, Sam Elworthy, is eager to embrace the changes that keep us abreast of industry developments. We now have a great online bookstore, have recently started a monthly e-newsletter and our small editorial/production team are preparing an entire e-book library for launch later this year.

I am very proud of Auckland University Press and enjoy promoting the authors and the Press. But I think part of the Press’s contribution is in giving back to the University, so I’m now sitting on the University of Auckland Society Committee, I’m a representative on the University’s liaison committee for the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival and we support people in the University who are doing interesting things like the Three-Minute Thesis competition.

We hold ourselves ready to help in any way we can – sometimes just by doing small things like donating books for prizes to the Business School alumni newsletter or assisting with the Ingenio magazine’s short story competition. It’s promotion for our books but it’s also supporting their broader community.

These are quite reciprocal relationships – and those are the relationships I’m interested in building around the University.