Sizing up a colossus

An eccentric approach helped build the Oxford University Press empire, argues Felipe Fernández-Armesto

February 27, 2014

Universities – except perhaps the soi-disant, “for-profit” outfits that do not deserve the name – need no loss-leaders. So why do they maintain publishing houses? Antiquity or inertia enshrines some university presses. Others contribute to reputation by issuing distinguished titles, or create a constituency for otherwise little-known institutions by specialising: Oklahoma’s prominence in Native American history, for instance, or Kansas’ list in war studies attract esteem from specialists. The website of the University of Chester Press is candid about providing a shop window for local talent. I suspect, however, that Oxford University Press is the siren that lures imitators at their peril. One of the oldest, the most famous and most impactful university presses in the world has done at least as much as the rest of the university put together to exalt Oxford’s brand. It has made contributions to knowledge, scholarship and debate that exceed those of most universities. And it turns a profit.

As if to explain how, the third volume of OUP’s “autobiography” – The History of Oxford University Press – has just appeared. This massive work of collaborative scholarship covers the period from 1896 to 1970, when the press became a huge global business. I should declare my interest. OUP publishes a lot of my work and the volume editor, Wm Roger Louis, is an old friend and former colleague. From the outside, with its dust jacket in muted tones and classic Oxford-blue binding, it looks forbiddingly big and arid, but wit and elegance animate the chapters. Eccentric dons, cliquey conspiracies and slick scuttlebutt combine in an engaging narrative. Lightly worn learning makes pulping machinery and type foundries fascinating. The book discloses, little by little, the puzzle of how the press became great.

An esprit de corps bound the press, even amid the internal intrigues and jealousies that are inescapable parts of Oxford life

Contributors muse on the mystery. Conditions of the time, with hugely expanding school and university markets, favoured the press; yet no other academic publisher could rival OUP’s size, output or market share. The university placed “able men to get on with” the work, and the volume highlights a glorious array of secretaries, delegates, publishers, printers and editors; but the mavens of the press were hardly models of hustle: they were mostly incarnations of “the classically trained mind” who, typically, despised commerce and mistrusted technology. Bibles were the bedrock of the business and, thanks to their unflagging popularity in the US, continued to be good earners, but the period of crucial growth for the press coincided with the relative decline of religious sales. Oxford’s catalogue evinced superiority, especially in reference works and the humanities. But the jewels in the crown – the Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – and many of the most prestigious scholarly series were risky investments that cost a lot and recouped slowly; and the backlist alone can explain nothing, without a prior explanation of how Oxford came to command so illustrious an array. The inertia of tradition favoured OUP, but cannot explain how it outdistanced so many rival presses at other grand old universities. Cambridge, its nearest rival for scale and heft, was a minnow by comparison. Oxford’s preponderance made even the biggest commercial houses of the day seem puny. The Second World War boosted turnover exponentially, but that bonanza was not privy to the press. OUP achieved global reach by founding branches in the US, Europe and the British Empire. Indeed, like cricket and rugger, the presence of the press was among the last remnants of an imperial past in many places. But the empire of OUP was established as the real Empire receded and got only equivocal help from identification with the past.

The real secret of the press’ success lay in the paradox, which no business guru can parse, of what in-house argot labelled a “rather odd” institution: a Corinthian in a commercial world. Because OUP’s personnel never conceived of it as a business, it outstripped conventional businesses by making decisions without consistent policy and investments without thought of return. The short-term never seduced it. In consequence, it published great work, with often dazzling long-term rewards. Arrogance liberated editors’ imaginations. “We are the Oxford University Press,” retorted Mabel George – the legendary editor who made OUP prominent in children’s books – to an adverse review. “We make up our own mind.” Equally important was the esprit de corps that bound the press, even amid the internal intrigues and jealousies that are inescapable parts of Oxford life. The Delegates, the university-appointed overseers, showed almost undented solidarity in preserving profits for reinvestment against the cupidity of the rest of the university.

A more businesslike ethos might have made more money. A wonderful chapter by Philip Waller is a litany of the press’ failures to secure exploitable titles, especially and dispiritingly from Oxford dons. Science, paperbacks and journal publishing were all profitable lines in which Oxford lagged. In-house printing and paper-making slowed production and inflated costs. The London branch managed to lose money in the 1960s, when commercial opportunities abounded. Now the conditions that gilded OUP’s golden age have vanished. Business standards are rigorous. The university cuts its pound of flesh from the press’ profits. Upstart houses such as Chicago’s and Yale’s have closed the historic gap. The web threatens to engorge learning. I hope the wisdom in Louis’ volume can guide Oxford, by the light of a great past, in the face of great challenges, towards an unabashedly “rather odd” future.

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Reader's comments (1)

A pity that there is no mention of the revenue stream generated by the rights to publish the Bible, a rather more durable commodity that the Oxford Companions, rightly described as a sort of escort service for dead white males.

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