In the 18th century a book cost as much as a shirt. Most people only had a couple of shirts - they were an expensive hand-made item. The invention of the papermaking machine at the end of that century and other advances in mechanical binding brought down the price of books, so they are still about the price of the shirt.

But there are a few souls out there keeping older methods of production alive, printing lead type on handmade papers and sewing them up into books. "Marshall McLuhan said when technology becomes obsolete for industry it becomes available for art," says Peter Simpson, publisher of the Holloway Press, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary with a burst of activity.

Fine press printing has been an important undercurrent in New Zealand cultural history, as pioneering printers like Bob Lowry, Pat Dobbie, Robin Lush and Ron Holloway in Auckland, and Dennis Glover and Leo Bensemann in Christchurch, ran off small editions of poetry, prose, criticism and typographical fantasies that recorded and fuelled the literary underground.

The coming together at Auckland University 15 years ago of Simpson, a specialist in New Zealand art and literary history, with poet and printer Alan Loney, led to the creation of the Holloway Press, named after Holloway, who donated some of his equipment and archives.

Loney moved to Melbourne in 1998, but after a short hiatus Simpson carried on as publisher, and his retirement from teaching at the university's English department at the end of last year has given him more time to devote to the press.

Two books have come out over the past month: Fishwork, a collaboration between Loney and New York-based expatriate artist Max Gimblett; and The Fruits Of, a retelling by writer Murray Edmond and photographer Joanna Forsberg of Apuleius' Eros and Psyche story from the 2nd century AD.

"I invited Alan to contribute because he had never done a book for the press of his own writing, and it made sense he print it," Simpson says.

The collaboration with Gimblett was established early on when the press published his illustrations to Robert Creely's 1995 poem Mad Dogs of Auckland. In 2006 it published Searchings, a selection by Loney from the artist's private journals and sketchbooks.

"For Fishwork, Max had done a series of figurative paintings, which is unusual for him. Alan saw them in his studio and was so struck by them he wrote poems about each of the nine paintings. Then Max responded to the poems by doing drawings for books."

The deluxe edition of 30, which includes an original artwork by Gimblett, has a gold cover and comes in a slipcase, and costs $2000 compared with $700 for the standard edition of 50 copies.

That price reflects the high production costs of the materials and the effort to co-ordinate the project across three countries, as well as the unusual layout - because Gimblett wanted his drawings to run across two pages with the text placed over or around them, each page is treated as a single signature and sewed in separately to the spine.

"This book was signed up a year ago, and the change in the economy means it's a nerve-racking situation producing luxury books but the libraries are still buying," Simpson says.

"If you think of the books in relation to the art economy, they are not all that expensive. I'm also giving work to a lot of people - the typesetters, platemakers, binders, the printer."

The Fruits Of was printed by the press' usual printer, Tara McLeod, as boxed unbound leaves in an edition of 35, selling for $650.

Simpson says the press has come to reflect his interest in the crossover between art and literature, as well as flying the flag for colleagues like Edmond and others associated with the university.

"It is a university press and I see it partly as a vehicle for university artists and writers. If you look at who we have published, it's pretty much the A list - Colin McCahon, Alan Curnow, Kendrick Smithyman.

"A lot of hand press books are beautiful to look at but boring to read. I won't print anything where the material is not worthy of publication in its own right," Simpson says.

"I believe our New Zealand traditions are richer and more interesting than we are given credit for. There are certain narratives that have taken over New Zealand art history and literature history. I am interested in going behind those master narratives and renovating them. I'm interested in someone like Leo Bensemann, because he has been dropped out of the narrative.

"When you put him in, it becomes so much more interesting - here was someone not doing realistic landscapes of Canterbury but weird drawings based on the Brothers Grimm and Dr Faustus.

"That is part of the role of the Holloway Press, bringing stuff out of the archive that complicates the texture of the history. It's a small and new enough culture, we don't need to make it smaller and more linear than it actually is." Alan Loney says his own printing history was influenced by the example of Keith Maslin at the Bibliography Room of the University of Otago and the late Don McLeod at Victoria University's Wai-te-ata Press.

"They published books of contemporary poetry, they hand set the type, hand fed the printer and folded the covers.

"I modelled my work on theirs and found them of continuing interest and value. When I started I was publishing poetry, which I also happened to print, so I eventually became a printer."

He was driven to self-publishing by the typographical demands of his own poems, which use a lot of internal spacing.

"I think the basis of typographical accuracy to poems as they were written is difficult for some poets in New Zealand," Loney says, citing Smithyman's occasional practice of not putting a space between a full stop and the first word of the next sentence.

"If I am printing a text I presume the poet is taking care of what they are doing, and my job is to be accurate to that, not to play the editor."

Loney says starting the Holloway Press "is one of the best things I have done in my printing life.

"It enabled me to make books I couldn't possibly have made on my own and I think a university press like Holloway Press permits the continued production of books that are special, that are different, that the commercial world does not tend to pick up on so it creates extra opportunities for writers which simply do not exist in the commercial realm."

On Simpson's list of books to do is a second book drawn from material in the Len Lye archives by Roger Horrocks, an unpublished James K. Baxter poem and a celebration of the work of Bob Lowry.

The umbrella of the press could also be used to hold events such as symposia.

There is online production - Simpson has put up an annotated archive of the complete poems of Kendrick Smithyman on his Mudflat Webworks site.

"It's just too big to be published as a book in this country," he says.

There is also an anniversary sale now on, with steep discounts on the back list.

In print
* The Fruits Of: Text by Murray Edmond, images by Joanna Forsberg (Holloway Press $650)

* Fishwork: Poetry by Alan Loney, images by Max Gimblett (Holloway Press deluxe edition $2000, standard edition $700)