A small, Ballarat-based publisher has found a profitable niche printing Australia’s most conservative musings. By Dominic Kelly.

How Connor Court became the go-to conservative publisher

Anthony Cappello was meant to be a lift mechanic. The son of working-class Italian immigrants, he was raised in Melbourne’s disadvantaged northern suburbs, educated by Marist Brothers, and followed a stint at technical school with an apprenticeship fixing lifts. However, as the path of his adult life looked increasingly straightforward, Cappello began devouring second-hand books on religion, history and philosophy. His devout Presbyterian boss and a Baptist senior colleague began challenging his ideas. He saw his lapsed Catholicism with fresh eyes, and his life changed course. And he became perhaps Australia’s leading publisher of conservative books.

When Ian Plimer published his treatise on climate denialism, that was Cappello. When Cory Bernardi’s anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-surrogacy, anti-stepfamily, anti-single parent tome, The Conservative Revolution, was outraging people both inside and outside the Liberal Party, that was Cappello. He is the house publisher of the ultra-right in Australia, and very happy to be so.

Cappello was 21 when he enrolled in a bachelor of theology. For much of the past two decades he has combined tertiary study with roles in Catholic organisations and publishing. He is now 42, and in addition to his theology degree he has a master’s degree and a PhD. His research has focused on the history of Australia’s Italian community, with particular emphasis on internal political battles and the role of Italians vis-à-vis the Irish in the Australian Catholic Church. His doctoral thesis was titled To Be or Not to Be Italian: B. A. Santamaria, Culture, Descent and the Social Exclusion of Italian-Australians.

Cappello’s publishing background includes work for the Catholic educational publisher John Garratt, as well as a stretch at Freedom Publishing, the books imprint of the late B. A. Santamaria’s National Civic Council (NCC). He left Freedom in 2005 – and resigned his position as NCC Victorian state president – amid internal brawling over links between other NCC leaders and the conspiracy theorist, anti-Semitic Citizens Electoral Council, Australian followers of fringe American political activist Lyndon LaRouche.

It was during this period of upheaval that Cappello set about establishing his own publishing house, Connor Court Publishing, with the intention of expanding beyond just Catholic titles.

“I wanted to publish on religion, immigration and social justice,” he tells me. “The latter two were not a part of Freedom’s publishing agenda.”

1 . Religious imprint

Now into its 10th year, the Ballarat-based company has continued to broaden its horizons, while relegating religious titles to its Modotti Press imprint.

“Religious publishing in my opinion is dying, I’m not sure what can be done about that,” Cappello laments, though this fact has not hindered journalists from disparaging Connor Court as a “boutique Catholic publishing house”. Cappello has now published more than 200 books on Australian politics, religion and society, and has deliberately engaged in the culture wars, including the hottest topic of recent years: climate change.

Connor Court is served by an editorial board, which Cappello tries to consult on a weekly basis. “I know my limitations,” he says, “so it’s good to surround myself with really smart people who always give me truthful and sound advice.” The most prominent board member is John Roskam, executive director of free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs. Cappello is a paid-up member of the IPA and describes Roskam as one of his closest friends. The two organisations share a reciprocal relationship in which the IPA hosts Connor Court launches and promotes their books while Connor Court has been a willing publisher of IPA authors. There is no financial relationship.

The editorial board also includes University of New South Wales mathematician and philosopher James Franklin, whose history of philosophy in Australia, Corrupting the Youth, was published by Keith Windschuttle’s Macleay Press in 2003. Franklin is a contributor to Quadrant magazine and served on the board of the Bennelong Society, a defunct advocacy group that campaigned for policies of economic and cultural integration in Indigenous affairs and was highly critical of Aboriginal culture. Connor Court has been an eager promoter of Bennelong Society ideas, publishing Gary Johns’ Aboriginal Self-Determination: The Whiteman’s Dream and Stephanie Jarrett’s Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence. Franklin also set up and runs the rather morbid online Database of Indigenous Violence.

Plimer’s Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science, somewhat of a handbook for climate change denialists, is by far Connor Court’s most successful title, selling more than 100,000 copies worldwide. Since its publication in 2009, Connor Court has released a number of additional titles rejecting mainstream climate science, including two more by Plimer.

Asked whether the astonishing success of Heaven and Earth led him to focus on the issue, Cappello says he was “already thinking about it, then Plimer made it into a Eureka moment. The timing was everything.” He had been talking to Roskam and recently deceased right-wing warrior Ray Evans about tackling climate change just as Plimer was searching for a publisher for his work. “The rest,” he says, “is history.”

Another significant Connor Court publication, in Cappello’s eyes, was the 2011 collection of essays The Greens: Policies, Reality and Consequences, edited by former IPA staffer Andrew McIntyre. Upon its release, McIntyre wrote an advertisement dressed up as a news item, published in The Weekend Australian, in which he claimed the book was “an important reference for those who would like an informed, thorough and objective examination of the consequences of the [Greens’] policies”. A quick glance at the table of contents reveals a who’s who of conservative opponents of the Greens lined up to take them apart, including Sinclair Davidson, Alan Moran, Grace Collier, James Allan, Greg Melleuish and Alan Oxley. The book was launched by Kevin Andrews in Melbourne and Janet Albrechtsen in Sydney.

2 . Bernardi's revolution

Considerable media attention came Connor Court’s way earlier this year with the release of Senator Bernardi’s The Conservative Revolution. While its unintentionally oxymoronic title amused some, it has proved to be another successful publication, with sales edging towards 10,000. The controversial content of the book – calling pro-choice advocates “pro-death”, for example – caused quite a stir. But as Cappello told the Fairfax press at the time, the media focus did wonders for sales, despite being overwhelmingly negative.

Regarding the common perception that the left dominates the Australian market in political books, Cappello is circumspect.

“It is a lot harder to sell conservative and religious titles into the market,” he says, “particularly with the bookselling structures that are in place: bookstores, reviewers in papers, networks, literary awards.”

Asked whether he is implying that these structures are controlled by the left and actively shut out conservative voices, he equivocates: “I think it’s more than just the left. I think these structures are less open to publishers other than those already established.” However, he cites Mark Rubbo of Melbourne’s Readings bookstores as an exception to the rule. “He has always been receptive to our titles and has always given me a go.”

Cappello is also keen to point out that Connor Court is more than just a conservative publisher. “I belong to no political party,” he says, noting that left-wing writers have been coming to him to get published, such as Barry Cohen, Carlo Carli, Joseph Wakim and Barry Dickins. “The reason is that we are upfront and honest and more tolerant of the other side of the political divide.”

Books about Australian politics and society, whether they lean left or right, are a niche product. But Connor Court has emerged as a small, regionally based publisher of conservative and religious books aimed at a tiny market, and has managed to stay moderately profitable. A niche within a niche, as it were. Still, Cappello jokes that he “would love to buy out Melbourne University Publishing one day”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 23, 2014 as "Publishing rights".

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Dominic Kelly is a PhD candidate and tutor in politics at La Trobe University.