The prolific publisher and writer Alexander Wyclif Reed was born on 7 March 1908 in Ponsonby, Auckland, the only child of Alexander John Reed, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Julia Carter. The Reed family was hard-working and God-fearing and believed in education, social duty and decency. They were great readers and writers. Reed's father died in 1912 leaving his four-year-old son (known as Clif) to the care of his mother. She encouraged a catholic taste in reading: the boy early began a lifelong enthusiasm for science fiction and developed an interest in folklore from a series of legends and romances obtained in the book department of his Uncle Frank's shop in Whangarei.
Reed was educated at Mount Albert Grammar School, where he was diligent rather than brilliant but where his passion for books was encouraged. Uncertain about a career, he spent the Christmas holidays of 1923–24 in Dunedin working for his uncle A. H. (Alfred) Reed in his Sunday school and religious supply business. He decided to enter the firm and in his final year at school did a course in commercial practice in preparation for returning to Dunedin in early 1925. For nearly eight years Clif learned every aspect of the business of making, buying and selling books under the stern but benevolent eye of his uncle.
On 10 March 1932 Clif Reed married Chrissy Margaretta (Reta) Hindle at Trinity Methodist Church in Dunedin. New Zealand was in the depths of the depression and a few weeks after his marriage his salary was reduced from £5 to £4 10s. a week. Business was slow, but now Alfred, with characteristic flair, offered his nephew the choice of standing down one week in four to sell books from door to door or starting a new branch in Wellington. Clif leapt at the second alternative, and after a quick reconnaissance trip moved with his wife to Wellington in August 1932, taking with him one-third of the Dunedin stock. He found office space on the fourth floor of 182 Wakefield Street, a building that was to house the firm for more than 40 years. After a slow start he extended the mail-order business providing Sunday school and church supplies throughout the North Island and developed sales of educational materials to schools.
The book publishing business of Alfred and Clif Reed also began in 1932 (although they had already produced a few modest religious titles) with the publication of The letters and journals of Samuel Marsden in partnership with Dunedin printers Coulls Somerville Wilkie. Other important books of missionary recollections followed, and in 1933 First New Zealand Christmases appeared, the first book by the uncle and nephew who were to write together and separately hundreds of titles under the firm's imprint. With Clif's decision in 1934 to publish James Cowan's Tales of the Maori bush, Reeds expanded from religious into general publishing.
In 1940 Alfred withdrew from active involvement in the business, closing the Dunedin office. The firm became a limited liability company in 1941 under the name A. H. Reed Limited, with shares divided between the two Reeds and Clif taking over as managing director. From 1935 the imprint on the books, however, was A. H. & A. W. Reed (later also the company name), a recognition of Clif's leading role in the growing list of publications. It was he who designed and drew the colophon (still in use) of a clump of native reeds (raupo). And it was he who supervised a publication programme responding to the challenges of wartime, when books were in short supply. The publishing lessons he learnt in these years were taken up energetically and imaginatively after the war by his able staff, especially Ray Richards, who was responsible through the 1950s and 1960s for a string of bestsellers, most notably Barry Crump's A good keen man. The firm also had a solid backlist directed at a nationalistic middlebrow readership, and ran the country's largest educational publishing programme.
Clif Reed's success as a businessman owed much to the loyalty and talent of his employees, the generous terms offered to both authors and booksellers, and his willingness to try anything: Reeds published and sold books, but also published records, colour slides, postcards, maps and educational equipment. His other strength was his readiness to provide from his own pen the books the market wanted ('business expediency', he wrote, 'really directs my writing').
The author of more than 200 books, almost all published by the family firm, Reed loved researching and writing and increasingly devoted his time to it. His lifelong interest in Maori topics produced many books, and while their approach might seem patronising to a later age, Reeds encouraged serious publishing in this area when few other publishers were doing it and published some important titles by Maori and Pakeha scholars. Reed had himself no firsthand knowledge of Maori custom or language and derived his material from secondary sources, seeing his role as populariser and simplifier. Not a scholar, nor even a gifted writer, he was in tune with his readers and books like Myths and legends of Maoriland (1946), winner of the Esther Glen medal, Reeds' concise Maori dictionary (1948), A dictionary of Maori place names (1961), An illustrated encyclopedia of Maori life (1963), and Treasury of Maori exploration (1977) were very successful. When Reeds opened an Australian subsidiary in 1964, Clif immediately produced Myths and legends of Australia (1965), and later An illustrated encyclopedia of aboriginal life (1969) and Place names of Australia (1973). He had a special interest in educational publishing and wrote a great number of primary school texts, often in series, on religious topics and on Maori and Pacific island life.
Clif and Reta Reed had three sons and a daughter, all of whom worked at some time for the publishing company. However, only John, the second son, did so for an extended period and was sent to Sydney to open the Australian branch. Clif had taken over the chairmanship of the firm from Alfred in 1960, and remained managing director until 1966. He announced his retirement in 1971, and management of the company was for a period in other hands. In 1978 Clif, still a director and major shareholder, reasserted family control and appointed John chairman.
Always a devout churchman, Reed taught Bible class at the Karori Methodist church in his early Wellington years. After moving to Kelburn in 1951 the family joined the local Presbyterian church; he became a leading figure in the church organisation and was particularly involved in youth work. A very private man, shyer and a less public personality than his uncle, he was devoted to his family and enjoyed making toys for his children and grandchildren. A much-loved hobby was his model railway. He also took pleasure in cars, and in his later years a short white-haired figure driving a large Mercedes was a familiar Wellington sight.
Reed died of a heart attack at Wellington on 19 October 1979 several years before the firm was bought by overseas interests. He was survived by Reta, who died in 1995, and their children. Both as a writer and publisher he had built a highly successful business by appealing to the popular tastes and interests of New Zealanders, focusing clearly and simply on a distinctively New Zealand way of life.