Melbourne House (Publishers) Ltd, founded by Alfred Milgrom and Naomi Besen in 1977, was a book publishing company with offices in both Melbourne and London. Publishing laws at the time tied Australia to the UK market, meaning that it was difficult for Australians to buy American published books that had not been embraced by a UK publisher. American publishers were reluctant to just sell rights to Australia as it was such a small market so Melbourne House established itself in the UK so as to be capable of buying rights for both the UK and Australian markets.
On his buying trips back and forth between New York, London and Melbourne, Milgrom read about the publishing of books for early computers such as the Apple in the Australian Financial Review. Milgrom was personally interested in computers having studied Science at Melbourne University and worked on the University’s “supercomputers’ as part of his doctorate. He saw an opportunity to combine his two passions — publishing and computing — and in September 1980 wrote and published a book entitled “30 Programs for the ZX80”. The business-minded Besen doggedly called Clive Sinclair to obtain an endorsement for the book. After many polite attempts, Sinclair eventually told his secretary to say the book was excellent. They took this and ran ads in the computer magazines, stating “This book is Excellent! – Clive Sinclair”.
With the success of this first book, Melbourne House began publishing ‘How To’ books for home computers. At the beginning their idea was not to develop software but develop content for computer books. It was such a new area that they found themselves needing to write and commission content and Milgrom decided that there was little difference between developing content to put on paper and developing content to publish as software. They quickly expanded into games development and Beam Software was born in 1980. Initially using their Melbourne living room as offices, and employing students from the University of Melbourne on their summer break, Melbourne House began distributing overseas games such as those of Adventure International into the Australian and UK market, whilst Beam Software began creating original games for Melbourne House.
Melbourne House continued to publish books for the home computing market but the long lead times for book publishing compared to the rapid evolution of micro computing made it impractical and Melbourne House shifted its focus to games publishing. The success of games such as “The Hobbit” and “The Way of the Exploding Fist” meant Melbourne House was amongst the top 3 publishers in the UK in the early 1980s.
In the mid 1980s Melbourne House/Beam Software was trying to determine if it should focus on games development or games publishing and distribution. Management resources were stretched very thin with the key management team travelling to the UK frequently. The UK was the centre for publishing and its demands and priorities were very different to those on the development side in Australia.
Melbourne House’s UK office had twelve employees in 1985 in sales and marketing, it did not have its own distribution facilities and only promoted its own titles. And the reality was its forward list was restricted to the number of titles that Beam Software could develop plus a few independent authors. This all made it hard to compete against big distributors such as U.S. Gold. A new managing director was hired for the UK office to try and strengthen the company, but a personality and culture clash with Besen and Milgrom merely served to undermine the business further.
In 1986, Besen and Milgrom resolved to sell Melbourne House and concentrate on Beam Software. In 1987, a deal was struck with Mastertonics, which was a budget label looking to move into premium titles. Beam Software would provide them with new, full price titles and Melbourne House’s backlist would be repurposed as budget titles. Mastertronic only had limited funds so an initial deposit was agreed upon with the full balance of the purchase price to paid over the next few years. When Mastertronics was itself bought by Virgin the next year, the balance owed was never paid.
The loss of their parent publishing company, Melbourne House, profoundly affected the way Beam Software did business. Previously they had been able to develop the games they wanted to make. They were now constrained by the need to please a publisher with resources and creative decisions often determined from outside the company. After Mastertronic’s sale to Virgin, the name Melbourne House was phased out. In 1997, Beam Software discovered that the name Melbourne House was again available and reacquired the name for the studio.
References: Interview Alfred Milgrom, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, 2006: Email Interview provided by Alfred Milgrom, March 1, 2013: “Atari Melbourne House”, Tsumea, http://www.tsumea.com/games-developer/atari-melbourne-house; Paddon. L (1987) “Taylor made for Melbourne” Crash Magazine, Issue 39, april 1987, http://www.crashonline.org.uk/39/taylor.htm