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Lloyd John O'Neil (1928–1992)

by Jenny Lee

This article was published:

Lloyd John O’Neil (1928–1992), publisher, was born on 17 July 1928 in Melbourne, elder son of Louis Joseph O’Neil, wool classer and union organiser, and his wife Eunice Ellen, née Lloyd, both Victorian born. When Louis lost his job during the Depression, Eunice supported the family as a professional pianist. Lloyd attended State schools in Ballarat and Melbourne, before completing his education at Caulfield Grammar School (1942–44). Moving to Sydney, he started work with Angus & Robertson Ltd in January 1945. He later said: ‘the minute I hit Angus and Robertson, I knew this was the world that I wanted to be in’ (O’Neil 1991). O’Neil became a buyer and head of art books, but his prospects narrowed as former staff returned from World War II. He left the firm in January 1951.

After a year travelling around Australia, O’Neil became a rural representative for the British publisher Cassell Ltd, with a territory stretching from Cairns to Hobart. Booksellers on his route viewed his salesmanship with ‘shuddering admiration’ (Currey 1991, 2). His customers included the Brisbane bookseller Brian Clouston, with whom he often lamented the lack of books to attract Australian readers.

On 28 November 1953 at Collaroy, Sydney, O’Neil married Janet Twigg-Patterson, a clerk, and the couple soon moved to Brisbane. In 1955 Clouston recruited O’Neil to run his newly established Jacaranda Press, which was primarily a publisher of schoolbooks, but also had a small general list and represented several British publishers. In 1959 Clouston took over the management of Jacaranda full time, and the next year O’Neil left to establish Lansdowne Press in Melbourne, selling his Brisbane house to finance the venture. By May 1960, when Lansdowne opened, O’Neil had chosen a writer for a series of school readers and commissioned Lansdowne’s first book, How to Play Aussie Rules (1960), which was an immediate success.

O’Neil’s publishing style was to identify gaps in the market and approach authors to fill them. He contracted Bill Wannan to write on Australian folklore and persuaded the broadcaster Russ Tyson to write his Philosopher’s Note Book (1961). By the end of 1961 Lansdowne had three titles in the non-fiction bestseller list. The publisher and historian John Currey has observed that ‘nationalism was at the heart of Lloyd O’Neil’s publishing’ (2006, 38). A fifth-generation Australian, he was keen to give local readers access to books on subjects that interested them. As well as titles on sport and humour, Lansdowne published books on national issues: Jim Cairns on Australia in Asia, James Jupp on migration, John Stubbs on poverty, Henry Mayer on the media, and Geoffrey Dutton, James McAuley, Vincent Buckley, and others on Australian literature.

O’Neil became increasingly critical of local printers, whose outdated technology and low-quality paper made Australian books perceptibly inferior to imports. In search of an alternative, he visited Tokyo in 1963 and engaged a Japanese printing company to produce four titles. They were very successful and other publishers followed his lead. The shift to printing in Asia revolutionised Australian publishing: lower costs neutralised the disadvantage of shorter print runs, and colour printing made it possible to produce a full range of Australian books.

In 1963 O’Neil sold Lansdowne to the larger Melbourne firm F. W. Cheshire Publishing Pty Ltd. He stayed on, producing Australian editions of Martin Boyd’s novels and initiating a series of high-quality art books, but Cheshire too became a takeover target. In November 1964 it was sold to a joint venture between the British firm International Publishing Corporation Ltd and the Melbourne printers Wilke and Co. Ltd. It was an unhappy partnership. Frank Cheshire left the firm in 1967 and O’Neil took over as general manager. Then, in mid-1969, he was sacked.

The next day, O’Neil started a new business, Lloyd O’Neil Pty Ltd, again raising finance by selling his house. His strategy was to supply finished books to other publishers, who would cover overheads and distribution. He initially partnered with Golden Press and Rigby, both of which had invested heavily in warehouses and needed to boost sales. His successful titles included the Australian Women’s Weekly Cookbook, which first appeared in 1970, and the BP Australian Road Atlas, first published in 1977. He partnered with John Currey to develop what became known as the Lloyd O’Neil Publishing Group. Currey and O’Neil revived many Australian titles that were out of print. They took copyright over most of the work they commissioned, building up a formidable backlist and a vast amount of text and images that could be easily reused in different formats.

O’Neil was president (1969–71) of the Australian Book Publishers Association (ABPA) and a member (1967–76) of the National Literature Board of Review. He separated from his first wife in 1973 and they were divorced in 1978. The next year he married Anne O’Donovan, a publisher. In the late 1970s he began producing books for Gordon & Gotch Australia Pty Ltd. His ambitious program included the travel guide Explore Australia, first published in 1980, and Ken Simpson and Nicolas Day’s The Birds of Australia (1984).

In 1985 O’Neil had one million dollars invested in work in progress when the Australian dollar depreciated sharply, raising his costs and turning profits into losses. He responded by selling his successful educational series, Reading Rigby and Moving into Maths. Then, in August 1987, he sold his companies to Penguin Books Australia Ltd. While the negotiations were in progress, O’Neil was diagnosed with bowel cancer, but he returned to work after surgery. He joined the board, and Penguin gave him control of a new imprint, Viking O’Neil. Reflecting on his time at Penguin, O’Neil observed that its philosophy was in line with his own: ‘Wherever people are, there should be books, and they should be cheap, and they should be attractive, and people should want to read them’ (O’Neil 1991). In 1991 he was appointed AM. He died of cancer on 27 February 1992 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, and was cremated. He was survived by his wife, their son and daughter, and the four daughters of his first marriage. The ABPA established the Lloyd O’Neil award for outstanding service to the Australian book industry in 1992.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Currey, John. The Australian Publishing of Lloyd O’Neil: A Celebration of Thirty Years. Canberra: Australia Government Publishing Service, 1991

  • Currey, John. ‘Case-study: Lansdowne and Lloyd O’Neil.’ In Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia, 1945–2005, edited by Craig Munro and Robyn Sheahan-Bright, 38–41. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2006

  • Dutton, Geoffrey. A Rare Bird: Penguin Books in Australia 1946–96. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1996

  • Lee, Jenny. ‘Australia in Colour.’ Southern Review: Communication, Politics & Culture 40, no. 1 (2007): 41–61

  • O’Neil, Helen. ‘Ratbags at the Gates.’ Griffith Review 23 (2009): 11–40

  • O’Neil, Lloyd. Interview by Alec Bolton, 29–31 July 1991. Transcript. National Library of Australia

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jenny Lee, 'O'Neil, Lloyd John (1928–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 22 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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