A time of transformation

Histories of book publishing companies tend to be celebratory, self-serving, inward-looking, sometimes gossipy, usually poor-selling and of little value to anyone outside the company itself, its ex-employees, a few unhappy (or happy) authors and a tiny band of publishing historians. Few publishing companies would have the sheer resource and patience to publish a corporate biography of 3,360 pages in four hardback volumes. A folie de grandeur or an important work of historical scholarship? One thing is for certain. This huge enterprise will not be adding materially to the financial health of Oxford University Press or its owners, the university itself.

First, in the interests of transparency, I should declare an interest. I worked at OUP from 1975 to 1987, some of the most exciting, transformational and challenging years in my career. Indeed, I was interviewed for the book and saw some of the chapters in draft form for comment. In addition, many of the personalities were friends and the living ones remain so.

This fourth and concluding volume (covering 1970–2004) exhibits the benefits and shortcomings of any multi-contributor volume. There is bound to be an unevenness of style, emphasis and coverage. I imagine there were also significant differences in contributors’ adherence to deadlines, which may explain the four-year gap since publication of Volume III. This may also be explained by the inevitable problems of publishing a history where many of the characters are still alive and have a lively interest in their version of events becoming canonical. I imagine that there has had to be great care taken both by the editor and the legal advisers.

Insider insights

That said, the benefits of a broad authorship are also evident. Keith Robbins has selected the right person to write the appropriate section unerringly and he has clearly done a good job smoothing over any inconsistencies. I cannot judge the historical scholarship, but assume the historians involved are of the highest standing. The chapters written by former employees are fascinating (at least to me) for their insights and erudition. When I worked at OUP, I thought we were just workers, not potential historians or commentators. Judging by the quality of the writing and the insights, I was clearly wrong. It says something about the qualities of OUP that it employed many such people.

The average reader (if there is such a thing) will probably find the lists of wonderful books published, prizes won and internal wrangles a little dull. They are essential to the understanding but could be speed-read without too much loss. The range and number of superb publications are impressive by any standards and puts other publishing companies in the shade.

However, for me the fascination lies in the transformation from a respected but arthritic, cash-eating, snobbish, Luddite, colonial dinosaur into arguably one of Britain’s and the world’s great cultural and educational institutions, and a major financial contributor to the University of Oxford. How could a bunch of academics with little or no business experience or acumen have overseen a business revolution? Perhaps the likes of McGraw-Hill, Cengage, Houghton-Mifflin with their short-term private equity owners—all with business-school credentials, checklists and the latest management theories—could learn something from the Delegates of the Oxford University Press about how to motivate, manage and harvest publishers and publications.

In the period covered the press closed its printing works, its paper mill, its absurdly costly and inefficient warehouse in Neasden; it invested in major reference works, in digital transformation, in journals development, in STM publishing, in building the most extensive and market-leading English-language teaching programme and network in the world; it paid large dividends to its owners; it survived and flourished through any number of recessions; and it moved from essentially a Commonwealth branch network to a truly global one. And while doing so, it never lost sight of its obligations to scholarship and education. It is a remarkable story. It is also one of few publishing companies that has not been bought, sold or in other ways dismembered in the nearly 50 years since 1970.

Strange beast

When I joined OUP in 1975 it was a strange beast. I was assured by the personnel manager at the time that my slightly strange surname would not put me at a disadvantage as there already was a Jew on the payroll. My first letter from my soon-to-be boss began: “Dear Charkin (if I may)”. All our editorial post was read and distributed, with comments by the “Publisher”, at a daily ceremony known as Morning Prayers. Third copies of all correspondence were shared widely. There were tea ladies. There was bicycle rack apartheid. It was indeed a different world but not everything was the worse for that.

This book is not for everyone but it is beautifully produced, with typically understated design, frustratingly interesting but frequently inconclusive footnotes and a slightly inadequate index. If you cannot face the whole 868 pages, I would strongly recommend reading Nick Wilson’s chapter on “Working Life in Oxford”. He captures the spirit of a unique institution. Unlike many publishers today, where egos are the order of the day, OUP’s strength is that the egos are subservient to the culture of the organisation. Long may that remain so.

This volume completes a typical OUP initiative. It took longer to complete than anticipated. It probably cost more than anticipated. Its sales will doubtless be disappointing initially. There will be complaints about some aspects as pedants pore over it. But it is an amazing work of scholarship, will be of value to scholars and publishing historians for many years, and it is as good as it could possibly be. A tribute to a long-term publishing company.

It is hard to avoid G M Young’s quotation: “Being published by the Oxford University Press is like being married to a duchess: the honour is almost greater than the pleasure.”This could also have been applied to working there during this period. The honour was definitely greater than the salary, but there was pleasure too.

Richard Charkin is reviewing The History of Oxford University Press Volume IV: 1970–2004, edited by Keith Robbins (OUP, £100, 9780199574797, available now)