Oeds & Bods

By | 9th September 2010

Has the Oxford University Press printed its last book?

This may appear startling to those of you who thought that the OUP was one of the great bastions of the printed word. As someone who passes the premises of the Cambridge University Press each week on the train, and an Oxonian, I was immediately drawn to press comment on the future of the OUP. Could this possibly be true?

William Caxton is credited with establishing the first printing press in England in 1476 and incredibly the OUP printed its first book just two years later. Horrors! Was that proud tradition of printing books really to come to an end after an extraordinary 532 years?

I soon realised I need not have worried!

OUP is the largest university press in the world, beating Cambridge, Harvard and Yale. It made its early money by printing the King James Bible in the 1600s. To give you some perspective the OUP reported a pre tax profit last year of £99 million and contributed over £67 million to is sole shareholder, the University of Oxford. That dividend meant that the OUP had contributed over £500 million to the university over the past decade. By contrast, the CUP had net income of £3.4 million last year and contributed £1.3 million to Cambridge University.

While websites like Wikipedia and Google Earth have limited the demand for the written versions of reference books and maps, the OUP still prints college textbooks, school texts and learning materials for English language learning overseas and 85% of its sales come from abroad. A new 300,000 word English-Chinese dictionary which took 6 years to produce goes on sale shortly.

What caused the ripple of concern about its future as a printer was the revelation that the new 20 volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary produced by over 80 lexicographers over almost 20 years may never be printed. It will exist on line.

Like many organisations, OUP is learning to cope with the age of digital information and how it reacts to the digital revolution will be crucial to its future. I am sure this wonderful institution (and it qualifies as an institution in my book for the huge contribution it has made to Oxford University by partly funding a range of new buildings, refurbishing the New Bodleian Library and paying for scholarships and research) will react positively to the challenges ahead. After all its primary purpose is the dissemination of knowledge.

In a miniscule way we try to do the same with this blog on our favourite subject of Smart e-Discovery and watching how others, and particularly law firms and their clients, cope with this phenomenon is an interesting past time too!