100 yrs of Oxford University Press: Timeless or antiquated?

Beset by an exodus of talent and new competition, the company that has published everyone from Jawaharlal Nehru to Romila Thapar, lurches toward an uncertain future.

Binoo K John February 05, 2012 09:03:48 IST
100 yrs of Oxford University Press: Timeless or antiquated?

The Oxford University Press (OUP) now completing 100 years in India, has long been a standard bearer of Indian academic publishing. Its well-known dictionaries have taught Indians the correct spellings and meanings of words for over a century, and its reference books have long been an invaluable resource. It has also brought us some of the best-known classics in the humanities by authors such like Andre Betellie, Salim Ali, Ashis Nandy, Romila Thapar, to name a few.

No wonder then the Oxford University Press is synonymous with knowledge and gravitas, and many are the scholars who would give their left arm to be published by the OUP. "I have absolutely no doubt that OUP gave me the reach and stature that I initially needed as a scholarly academic writer," says Professor Nayanjot Lahiri

Being a 100-year-old publishing giant comes with its responsibilities and the OUP has lived up to the onerous task. The 100-year OUP list alone would be enough to tell the entire story of India. So immense has been its achievement.

But the company has had its share of problems in the last few years. Being a firm controlled by its British masters, it has not always been quick to change or adapt. OUP made news most recently for shamefully agreeing not to publish the controversial essays of AK Ramanujam due to fundamentalist pressure. And in doing so, it clearly signalled that what mattered now was selling books and not taking a stand on the ideology of its books.

100 yrs of Oxford University Press Timeless or antiquated

With focus on curriculum publishing, the general academic list has taken a beating. AFP Photo

OUP, like any other institution that has outlived many generations, is in need of a rejig. One way might be to focus on higher quality academic publishing rather than just pulling in the moolah through text books where it enjoys a near monopoly. With the number of private schools and colleges mushrooming across India, OUP has benefitted immensely in terms of revenue as the market leader in the segment.

With focus on curriculum publishing, the general academic list has taken a beating. The other part of the problem is the smugness that comes with age. The editors offer far less personalised attention to top authors, and are not much bothered about wooing the new crop of scholars.

The list of authors who have pulled out of OUP and switched to Permanent Black, and other rival academic publishers like Routledge, is a bit daunting: Sumit and Tanika Sarkar, Romila Thapar, Shahid Amin, Nayanjot Lahiri, Ram Guha, Sudipta Kaviraj, Partha Chatterjee and others. This exodus is a clear indication that OUP no longer has the pull or the editors required to cater to top notch authors.

Since Rukun Advani left OUP more than a decade ago, the publisher has found it difficult to attract editors of the same stature to groom writers and inspire confidence in established authors. Communication levels between authors and OUP too has dropped considerably over the years, a clear sign of an aging and increasingly bureaucratic company. Sridar Balan who worked with OUP’s sales and marketing for over two decades, says:

Academics need to be worked with closely. You also need editors of stature where the dialogue between the author and the editor almost become a dialogue between equals. In the old days , Romila , Irfan or Ashish would spend a couple of hours every week in the OUP office , not just talking business over their manuscripts. I remember when Andre Betellie kicked off the sociology lecture series with an inaugural on MN Srinivas he spent an hour in the office with us talking about its scope and did not just meet sociology editors alone.

Lahiri echoes the criticism, saying, “I decided to leave OUP and withdrew the manuscript of The Decline and Fall of the Indus Civilization because of the way it treated Rukun and Anuradha. Now OUP does not have the editorial quality that it used to have, there is no doubt about it. People like Rukun nurtured academics over the years and chiseled their writings with as much care as diamond cutters.”

Countering this claim, however, an OUP spokesperson points to their list of new authors, including Upinder Singh, Rajan Gurukkal, Kesavan Veluthat, Ramin Jehaanbegloo, Kaveri Gill, Aswini Deshpande, etc. "We continue to be the publishers of first choice in academic, scholarly and reference publishing," the spokesperson said.

Yet despite such claims, the position of OUP as a storehouse of emerging talent is now in doubt. To make matters worse, Harvard University Press has also set up office in India which means there will be a real tussle among publishers to grab talent from the small pool of good academic writers.

“Some of it has to do with the in-bred nature of Indian publishing in English where everyone seems to know everyone else and authors can be convinced to shift publishers through reasons of friendship and personalised persuasion," say social anthropologist Sanjay Srivastava, professor at the Indian Institute of Economic Growth, who has published three books with Routledge and is now contributing editor of OUP's new collection, Sexual Cultures in Contemporary India: A Reader.

Hundred years is a long time for any publisher to survive. All said, it will take a long time for any publisher to match OUPs list of classical texts, especially in the humanities. Jim Corbett's Kumaon series, Nehru’s Letters to My Daughter, and Salim Ali’s books on Indian birds will always remind us of the affable but sluggish giant called the Oxford University Press.

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