Britain leads the world in university presses—an unsung corner of intellectual lifeby Peter Watson / October 22, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
Every year, Shanghai academics publish a league table of the world’s leading universities. The American Ivy League colleges dominate the list, of course.
But there is one important aspect of university life that is still dominated by Britain—the university press. University presses are, broadly speaking, an English-language phenomenon (there is an associated universities press in France, but that is about it). British pre-eminence in this field is remarkable for two reasons: more than 50 per cent of the presses’ revenue is generated in the US, and British university presses dominate the world of science book publishing, even though America channels so much money into science. (In science journal publishing, Elsevier, the Dutch company, dwarfs all others.)
University presses don’t exist only to publish important academic books. Besides its journals, Oxford (OUP) is strong in English language teaching (ELT), publishing close to 200 English-language dictionaries, textbooks galore, and has an entire division in India devoted to school textbooks for the subcontinent. For Cambridge (CUP) too, journals and ELT are significant activities. But intellectually speaking, it is the important book—the book that makes an intellectual impact, as opposed to the bestseller—that is the hallmark of a university press. And this aspect of their work has grown harder to achieve over the past 20 years. Those of us interested in the health of our intellectual life need to understand why.
One reason for this state of affairs has been the slashing of university library budgets on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, government cut-backs and university expansion have directed public funding into other areas, such as bricks and mortar. And with more graduate courses that are taught, rather than research-based, there is also new competition from graduate-level textbooks: university libraries buy more of these and fewer monographs. Libraries have also spent more on electronic publishing, especially in the sciences.