Vale Nick Hudson, HLM

by Janet Mackenzie, DE

Australian publishing mourns the loss of Nick Hudson, who died on 1 March 2018, aged 84.

Nick described himself as 'a jack of many word trades: author, editor, typesetter, publisher, with a lifetime experience of wrangling meaning from words’. It is tempting to say he was an ornament to the profession, but a more accurate metaphor is a beam – both a great support and a cheerful presence. As John Bangsund has said, Nick was ‘a man of great learning, enthusiasm, humor and generosity of spirit’. 

Nick’s publishing career began on an Oxford student newspaper, printed on a single flatbed press that Caxton would have understood. His working life spanned the changes from hot-metal typesetting to offset photo-lithography, computer typesetting, word processing, desktop publishing, and on to digital and online communication. As each new development came along, Nick seized on it, learnt about it, and exploited it to serve his purposes.

Nick took a fresh approach and started from first principles in every undertaking. When he arrived as educational publisher at William Heinemann Australia in 1958, he found that stock control relied entirely on the stock clerk’s memory – a liability for educational publishing, with its total reliance on backlist sales. Nick soon established a stock control system with punched cards. Within a few years, when he led Heinemann Educational Australia as it detached itself from William Heinemann and set up on its own, the whole invoicing and stock control was on computer from day one.

Nick’s development of The Heinemann Australian Dictionary was typical of his innovative methods. First, he and his team showed respect for Australian English by beginning with ‘plain paper’ rather than adapting an overseas original. This had the commercial advantage that they could sell overseas adaptation rights, later resulting in The Heinemann New Zealand Dictionary, The Heinemann English Dictionary and a string of others. Second, he pioneered computer typesetting for the dictionary, creating a program specification that covered all aspects of the job from the first list of headwords to the final production of film for the printer, and worked with a programmer to develop the code. Third, being disappointed with pronunciation guides in other dictionaries, he designed, tested and refined a unique system that students found far more helpful than the International Phonetic Alphabet. The result is that The Heinemann Australian Dictionary, or a linear descendant of it, is in print decades later and still selling thousands of copies each year.

Nick was ahead of his time also in his great respect for women, mentoring and encouraging them in their careers. He was a champion of editors, having seen their role emerge as the skilled compositors and proofreaders left the printery and highly trained secretaries disappeared from the office.

Nick was not only innovative but daring. In 1985 the British government banned a book which made scandalous allegations against British intelligence services, Spycatcher by Peter Wright. The ruling only applied in England so Nick promptly published the book in Australia. Subsequently Heinemann took on the British government and (assisted by a young barrister called Malcolm Turnbull) fought two court cases to defeat the suppression order. 

When Nick was abruptly dismissed from Heinemann after 28 years, he turned to another new area: desktop publishing. He and his then wife Sam (Sandra) Kerr established a typesetting service for small businesses, politicians and others who wanted good-looking newsletters and leaflets at sensible prices. But before long Nick’s creative flair and entrepreneurial savvy led him back to books and he started his own imprint, Hudson Publishing. 

Nick knew that the content of a book is not what the author has put in, but what the reader can get out. He maintained that ‘An editor's main responsibility is to satisfy the reader.’ He mourned that computers have reshaped the editorial role so that ‘well-edited’ has come to mean ‘free of typos’. As he says, ‘The outcome is a paradox: editors, whose key skills are in structural and content editing, are judged for their performance in activities which until recently were only a minor part of their brief: copy editing and proofreading.’ 

Nick is best known to editors for Modern Australian Usage, now in its third edition. A genial and opinionated style guide in the Fowler tradition, the book is erudite but not condescending; Nick gently mocks shibboleths and fads, but he is never dogmatic or even prescriptive. As he says, ‘My aim is to help people make up their own minds rather than to give simple answers to complex questions.’ 

Nick was an honorary life member of the Australian Book Publishers Association and the Victorian Society of Editors (now Editors Victoria). Married three times, he is survived by four children and five grandchildren. 

Nick’s reflections on technological change over his lifetime in the industry are available free to non-commercial users in ‘How Times Changed’, pdf,

Janet Mackenzie, DE
with additional information from John Bangsund