OUP and the spirit of the trade

The philosophy of Oxford University Press today is '' to publish good scholarly books and to stay in business; i.e., to make a sufficient surplus to continue publishing.'' How did this large press deal with the recent recession, with cutbacks in its sales to libraries, and a generally reduced marketplace? Did the press have to compromise on editorial policy, or publich fewer titles, or reduce its standards for the quality of the finished product?

''Let me say something about our recent past,'' says R. A. Denniston, academic and general publisher. ''At the beginning of the recession we had two or three very bad years. We got deeply into debt. We had an old warehouse where we had a great deal of labor problems. But now we're right out of the banks.

''We have a positive cash flow in all departments of the press. We have a new warehouse which is substantially paid for now by ourselves. Despite the recession, and despite maintaining standards, we have improved our financial position.''

''Forced redundancies'' -- the English equivalent for layoffs -- was the price labor paid for Oxford to maintain its standards. And then, Denniston recalls, ''we did look very closely at the numbers of books published and we cut down the print runs very substantially. What we didn't do -- and I'm very glad we didn't -- was to say 'we can only publish so many titles.

''We took rather a different view and said, 'we'll publish more books, so long as they're good. The print runs we'll halve, but the number of titles can go up by quite a lot and that means we can capture a bigger part of a smaller market.''

Denniston explains, ''Nowadays you can do a very small print run and still make a reasonable sum. The reasons you can do that are threefold. For a number of our authors, the worldly element is insignificant.'' What matters to the academic author, he says, is ''fast publication, accuracy, and intelligent marketing. So the royalty, for instance, can be deferred until you've sold, say, 500 copies.

''The second thing is that the production process -- both with traditional and new technology -- has made typesetting, which is the main element, much, much cheaper. Manufacturing is now very efficient. The unit cost therefore isn't so horrific as one might expect.

''The third thing is that if you publish enough good scholarly books in any one discipline, you can market them as groups. So you don't do a mailing for just one book; you do a mailing for a dozen books, plus a backlist. It's not worth out while to advertise in the usual way. Our worries are to get each book reviewed in the right journals and get each known to the librarian and other academics who are likely to want it.

''We can have a highly specialized work with a very low print run and it will still make quite a reasonable sum of money,'' Denniston concludes.

He concedes, ''The prices of our science and medical books -- except the ones for students -- ar high. Cambridge's are also high. If you get the right book and the print the right quantity, the price really doesn't matter; it can float up to $100 [$144]. But we've also published in the Oxford Textbook of Medicine, a book which is very cheap. It is only $5 for two huge volumes.''

Profits are usually ''plowed back into the university press'' where new projects are begun and , recently, new fields are emphasized. ''Unlike most other university presses, Oxford has a very large and distinguished and profitable music list which we plan to build in the future.'' While Oxford prides itself on its strong showing in philosophy, law, history, English, and neglected classics, today ''there's quite a strong emphasis on science and medicine in book and journal form.''

Says Andrew Schuller, chief editor in social sciences, ''we're catching up with the rest of the world in stressing science and medicine. The reason is an obvious one; these are truly international fields.'' Denniston adds, ''This is where the future of international scholarly publishing is. If you go around the world, they want science books and medical books and they really don't want much else.''

Except dictionaries. In our final article, on the Oxford University Press English office, we will define the state of the art of dictionary building as it is carried on today in Oxford. We will also meet two editors with different style and personality, both dedicated to the success of the Oxford English Dictionary and its many offshoot dictionaries.

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