Mammon's imprint

February 12, 1999

Oxford University Press, which enjoys charitable trust status, is now in the hands of 'barbarians' who put profit before poetry, says Valentine Cunningham

Oxford University Press is making a fool of itself. To chop down its contemporary poetry list is to undo the proper work of a university press. And to do so with such loud aplomb seems like wilful effrontery. As Alan Howarth, minister for the arts, said the other night at a packed protest poetry-reading at the Arts Cafe just opposite the press's Oxford headquarters, this supposed custodian of our culture and literature is simply abandoning its task by abandoning its living poets. And by inviting us to admire its commercial canniness in the move, it declares it does not care what anyone thinks, either.

Hostility to publishers is, of course, not new, especially from authors. Mutual resentment cements author-publisher relations. My publisher is out to lunch; I am in to type - again. He is the fat be-cigared sod in the limo; I am the wet splashee on the pavement. On the other hand, I am years behind with my book, and I have long ago spent the advance. A terse awareness that we need each other fuels the bad feeling. This is parasitism with attitude. Attitude made worse, nowadays, as publishers get tougher, and unread money-bags, graduates of Biznis-is-Biznis Schools, take over completely.

D. J. Enright, poet and novelist, puts the newly burnished resentments of the author with nicely glum passion in his poem "Ageing Writer in a Pub" - about how publishers say they cannot afford backlists and remainder books very fast in the name of economies, so that you are "put out of print", which sounds as if:

"The vice squad are feeding a bonfire./Or a vet's dispatching unwanted pets".

Which is, all authors would agree, bad enough behaviour by any publisher. But what about university presses? Ought they to function like all the others? And, in particular, ought Oxford University Press to buy into the harsh commercial ethos of our publishing times?

The reason the OUP spokesmen have given for dumping their 30 poets is thin profitability. They do not make enough money. Oxford recently hired in an executive from Pearson as its chief publisher (secretary to the delegates of the university press, he is quaintly called) with instructions, apparently, to cut costs wherever he can.

The first fruits of this appointment from the commercial sector have been the dropping of the contemporary poetry list, discontinuing the new (and quite wonderful) art history list, and abandoning the distinguished Clarendon Press imprint (too full of non-money-spinning humanities monographs). As the arts minister said: "The barbarians are within the gates."

It is hard to compare the Oxford University Press with any other press, whether academic or not. It is unique. For centuries it has enjoyed an extraordinary licensed grip on the lucrative Bibles market. Its luck in supporting James Murray's hugely expensive New English Dictionary project has paid off hugely, in that it thus acquired the lead in English-language dictionary-making. The Oxford Dictionary reputation undoubtedly helped give the press's now vast English as a Foreign Language enterprise a wonderfully authoritative kickstart. Just so, an Oxford edition of some canonical author is recognised everywhere as a classic. You must have it if you are in the field.

The OUP is hugely profitable. And who would argue that its dictionaries and Bibles and EFL kits and great editions and so on do not deserve to engender profit? I bet God wishes She was getting royalties on the Big Book. And the press displays its cash surpluses with appropriate pride, in obvious and more or less appropriate ways.

It is a lavish patron - dishing out scores of millions to the Bodleian Library and tens of thousands to college libraries. It has added to its mellow old college-style buildings with a vast new glass and steel fairy palace extension; redone its old shop on Oxford High Street as a plush new million-quid showcase. It sponsors wider cultural projects in its neighbourhood (exhibitions at Oxford's Museum of Modern Art and the like). It is investing in long-term projects like the New Dictionary of National Biography; and, of course, in classic trickle-down style, putting cash into academic books that will never make much money.

But then, the OUP does enjoy tax-break charitable status in token of its perceived investment in such academic work, this promotion of the life of the mind and the culture of education.

Naturally enough, the financial success of any university press, even one so well hung with money-making projects as Oxford, does not happen without a certain hard-nosedness. In particular, there is the exploitation of the university sector's captive cadre of writers. The academic version of the author-publisher parasitism is dramatically lopsided. Academics need to write; they are under pressure to publish. They are not in a strong bargaining position when it comes to advances, royalties, deals. Their softness as bargainers is boosted by their desire to write and edit whatever the cost, and unlike many authors, they do not actually live off these proceeds. And academic publishers exploit this cheerfully. Think of what they pay their solicitors, and then compare it with what they offer the don. "Take it or leave it," is their briskly realistic stance when they are shaving their offers.

The OUP is particularly bad, in my experience. Their going rate for a chapter in a book is about Pounds 80. That is all. Editors of a World's Classics volume were recently getting only Pounds 800. That is what I netted for my recent Adam Bede - Pounds 800 for months and months of effort. No royalties, just a flat fee, for a book that will go on selling; and they know it.

The annual report of the delegates showed Pounds 17 million profit the year after I had had a quarrel with my editor over his refusal to pay Humphrey Spender for the rights to a cover photo for my British Writers of the Thirties. I ended up contributing Pounds 200 out of my royalties. I wanted the photo. Some of that Pounds 17 million was mine, I reckoned. Many OUP authors will report similar cheap chiselling.

The justification offered for such dealings with authors is that academic books, learned monographs, do not sell. Actually they do. There is still a steady market, even in our rather dire period of cutback and squeeze. The profits are not as high as when Cap'n Bob Maxwell gleefully launched his Pergamon Press by exploiting university libraries' anxiety for scientific journals, but they are still there, because the audience is still there.

Which is all a kind of model for the OUP's poetry list. Like the academic market, the audience for contemporary poetry is special, peculiar, limited.But it exists. And it overlaps with the academic market in every respect.

Living poets are taught in schools and universities. They are as much a part of literary scholarship as dead poets. For almost the whole of the 20th century the Oxford Press has, quite properly, seen it as its business to bring out the work of living and recently dead poets as well as more canonical authors. Not all that many people will buy the Collected Housman,say, or the Collected Peter Porter or the latest Charles Tomlinson. But lots will.

And the same readerly purposes - the same proper purposes of a university press - will be served. And the costs will, incidentally, be covered on the Tomlinson, as they are in an edition of Milton. And just occasionally there will be a cracking bonus of sales. The next new poet might be a Ted Hughes.

What goes wrong - it has gone wrong with the OUP poets, and looks as if it is about to go wrong with the Clarendon Press list - is when a university press loses sight of its central academic purpose to serve the cause of scholarship and culture, even if doing that does little more than break even.

OUP's espousal of commercial criteria in the case of the poets is, of course, not absolutely new. Increasingly, it has behaved largely like a commercial outfit, with pound signs in its eyes and a readiness to dumb down for the sake of popularity and sales -packing its lists with populist tosh, vulgar anthologies, uncalled for dictionaries of last week's words.

Mere profit-seeking led it to invest in some dodgy South American companies, whose recent collapse has greatly inspired the latest financial panic, which led to the poets' sacking. But now it has imported a chief publisher to carry on the bad work.

Sacking poets not because they lose money but because they do not make enough of it: it is an allegory of a university press missing the point, mistaking its prime purpose.

"You'll be hard pressed to find a backlist/New, it's all vanguard, I guess, and no rear", Enright's poem goes on. It was in his volume Old Men and Comets, 1993. An OUP poetry book. What Enright cannot have envisaged in 1993 was how soon such merely commercial vanguardism would become a nasty home truth.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English literature at Oxford University.

* Should university presses enjoy charitable status when they behave like commercial publishers? And are they ripping off their academic authors by failing to pay them a proper rate for their books? Join the Soapbox debate at or email us on

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