The gravy days for the Oxford University Press began, they say, in the 17th Century, after a competitor made a small mistake in the Bible he was printing. He left the “not” out of the Seventh Commandment--the one about adultery.
A scandalized nation demanded better quality control over the Holy Book, and the Oxford press was one of the beneficiaries. It was named an official Bible printer of the realm.
Today, more than half a millennium after printer Theodoric Rood reproduced a tract on the Apostles’ Creed, the Oxford University Press is considered to be the English-speaking world’s most venerable publishing house.
It is also one of the largest of its kind, with branches or representatives in more than 50 countries, more than 10,000 titles in print and annual sales worldwide of $175 million. Its American subsidiary is the largest university press in the United States.
Ironically--some say tragically--the root from which this publishing legend grew has now withered.
Earlier this year, Oxford press management voted to close its printing facilities as a serious financial drain on overall business. The company will continue to publish Bibles, dictionaries and other books, but they will be printed elsewhere.
The last locally produced books, “Views of Oxford” and John Guy’s “Tudor England,” are in their final stages, and by May 2, the only thing left of the printing operation will be a museum and a small unit turning out examination papers and university press releases.
Traditionalists call the closing of the press an act of “academic vandalism” and argue that if it were a stately home, it would be protected by the National Trust. Town Council members are trying to raise money to save it, but the decision is said to be irreversible.
It was taken, the Oxford press said in announcing it, “with great regret in view of the long history of the business and the distress this will cause to the staff involved.”
However, it said, despite “substantial investment” in new equipment, the printing house has continued to lose money and has been unable to keep up with the rapidly advancing computerized technology revolutionizing the trade. This year the printing operation is expected to lose the equivalent of 25 cents on every dollar’s worth of work it turns out.
“OUP as a group is no longer able to absorb losses on this scale without prejudicing the needs of its successful publishing operations,” the announcement said.
The staff has already been trimmed, from about 900 to a little more than 200 over the past 20 years, and so much work was being farmed out that the printing house represented only about 6% of total university press business last year.
Roger Elliott, who as Oxford press’s chief executive is presiding over the funeral, commented in an interview, “I think I’d probably rather not have had that as my memorial.”
He said that “the adverse reaction came from people who didn’t understand the current situation.” Quoting one of his predecessors, he said, “We aren’t in business to make money, but we have to make money to stay in business.”
The press’ financial ambivalence stems from its unusual organization, history and mission. It is a department of Oxford University, not a company, and it has scholarly “delegates,” not shareholders. Its stated purpose is to promote learning, not to turn a profit, but at the same time it must compete with commercial publishers.
The Oxford press makes enough money on some of its books to cover the losses incurred by others. But any excess of income over expenditure is officially known as surplus, not profit.
While commercial publishers are anxious to see a quick return on every investment, the Oxford press has been prodigiously patient. A Coptic Bible printed in an edition of 500 copies in 1716 finally sold out in 1907. The manuscript for a chemistry book, contracted in 1901, was finally delivered for publication 70 years later.
In 1878, Charles Darwin persuaded the press to publish “Muller’s Certain Variations in the Vocal Organs of the Passeres That Have Hitherto Escaped Notice.” Over a period of 25 years, 21 copies of this work on songbirds were sold.
Accents in Ancient Greek
The printing operation was famous for its extraordinary collection of type fonts. It could reputedly print materials in 500 different languages and dialects, using a wide variety of alphabets. The labels on trays still stored in its museum safe are a reminder of that versatility: Sinhalese, Armenian, Bengali, Hieroglyphics, Brahmi.
Oxford press compositors were recognized experts in such esoteric skills as placing the proper accents in ancient Greek.
Elliott pointed out that while the press’ range of type faces may have been a major resource in the days when men made printed images with metal type, “some of that you can now do on your computer.”
If some Oxford press traditions have been overtaken by technology, others were admittedly somewhat exaggerated all along.
For example, the press dates its history from Theodoric Rood in 1478, but a university brochure acknowledges that Rood’s business failed within a decade. So did a second attempt to re-establish a press at Oxford a few years later. There has been a continuous operation only since 1584.
Also, while the press has never been caught in an error quite so glaring as the missing Biblical “not,” its record is not perfect. Even Rood’s first work had a misprint in the Roman numerals indicating its date of publication. The printer left out an “X,” so that the date was recorded as 1468 instead of 1478.