Last year the three volume set of the History of Oxford University Press was published under the general editorship of Simon Eliot. The books span five centuries of printing and publishing including highlights such as the foundation of the Oxford English Dictionary and its expansion in the twentieth-century into the largest university press in the world.
We sat down with Professor Simon Eliot from the Institute of English Studies (IES) who also edited the second volume in the series and asked him to share with us a few things that he learnt in the process.
We have made quite a few important discoveries, and there has been an accumulation of evidence that has required us to revise various aspects of the earlier histories, but the things which reverberate for me are not necessarily the most grand or remarkable discoveries. Instead it is sometimes the more modest or marginal that stick in the memory. Let me give you just a few examples.
As early as 1694 the Press was being used internationally as a point of reference: in that year the printer at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, in Estonia), complained about the modest size of his new premises. His arguments were rebutted by a scholar who recalled visiting Oxford where printing was confined to a single basement. What was good enough for a press that, in the scholar’s own words, was ‘known all over the world’ was certainly good enough for Dorpat.
From Volume II we learn that the Press did not get the return that it was hoping for from its first large-scale set of text books – the Clarendon Press Series – between the 1870s and 1890s. This was due to the fact that it was, against the advice of its London publisher, generously handing no less than 60 percent of its net profits straight to the authors.
In the mid-nineteenth century, boys often under sixteen years old were employed by the Press and used to haunt the ink roller manufacturing room in the hope of getting off-cuts from the rollers. Before rubber and plastic, ink was distributed by a compound made up mostly of glue and molasses; there was just enough syrup amid the glue to make the rollers a possible substitute for sweets. Such materials encouraged mice and rats, and we can even tell you how much the Press paid every ten weeks to support a cat (2s6d [12.5p] in 1819).
Volume III reveals that even as early as the 1960s OUP as a world group was producing 850 new titles every year and was keeping in print no fewer than 17,000 titles in its backlist. Even fifty years ago the Press’s warehouse at Neasden was distributing some 17 million books annually.
Finally, in the History we explore the development of what one would now call the Press’s ‘brand image’. In the nineteenth century, while Longmans, Nelson, and Macmillan were promoting their books under clearly identifiable imprints, the Press often lurked under others’ names. Even in the early 1900s lots of OUP titles mentioned ‘Henry Frowde’ first with Oxford’s name limping uncertainly afterwards. However, by the mid-twentieth century OUP was being consciously promoted as a brand in its own right in places as far away as Japan, where it was reported in the 1960s that ‘Oxford possesses much the same brand image as Burberry, Dunhill, or Johnnie Walker.’
In addition to asking Simon Eliot about the history of OUP we wondered what his view was of the future.
Publishing is changing very rapidly, and publishers are now involved in a number of different types of media, not just print. The impact of the web on scholarly and reference publishing has become very evident in the last twenty years. ‘Print on Demand’ is of growing importance, particularly for an academic publisher who no longer has to keep lots of copies of slow-selling scholarly works in warehouses. Finally, the exploitation of digital rights, and the growing difficulty of defending copyrights in a trade which is now globally linked by the web, presents a relentless challenge to all publishers, even the most well-established, such as OUP. In the past the Press has been characterised by an ability, albeit sometimes employed slowly and reluctantly, to adapt to changing circumstances, to use new technologies, and to exploit new markets. Currently it is displaying all these skills. However, it’s a Darwinian world out there, and continued success is guaranteed to no institution, however venerable.
Professor Simon Eliot holds the Chair in the History of the Book and is Director of the London Rare Books School at the Institute of English Studies (SAS). The three-volume set of The History of Oxford University Press was published by OUP in November 2013and is available from their website.