Oxford University Press Has Its Own Super Pfund

Niko Pfund, the 43-year-old publisher of Oxford University Press’ academic and trade division, has had one occasion after another during the past few weeks to squeal with delight.

First: two Oxford Daily Show appearances, with The Least Worst Place author Karen Greenberg on Feb. 4 and Two Billion Cars author Daniel Sperling a week later. Then: a Lincoln Prize for Craig Symonds’ new book Lincoln and His Admirals, and separately, a full-page rave in the Feb. 22 The New York Times Book Review for Beverly Gage’s The Day Wall Street Exploded, which gave Mr. Pfund such a thrill that he felt compelled, shortly after reading it, to apologize for his “completely insufferable happiness.”

On Monday night, Mr. Pfund, a handsome, blue-eyed fellow who has been with Oxford for almost 10 years, really went flying, having just flipped through a copy of the new Thomas Ricks book on Iraq and discovered that one of Oxford’s authors—David Kilcullen, whose book on the surge comes out this month—is cited multiple times in its pages and designated with admiration as an extremely influential figure in counterinsurgency policy.

“Check it,” Mr. Pfund wrote in an email to five of his colleagues, before quoting all the parts in Mr. Ricks’ book where Mr. Kilcullen is mentioned and concluding that the “extremely influential figure” bit would be a valuable thing to secure for the back panel of the book’s next printing. “Very, very nice,” Mr. Pfund wrote.

But literary laurels aren’t everything. Oxford’s New York office laid off 60 people last month, reducing its workforce by almost 10 percent, and library and university budgets will likely be slashed this summer when they get recalculated for the first time since the recession started in earnest, a development that will send a delayed shudder through the university presses.

“We are struggling, so I don’t want to paint anything like a rosy picture!” Mr. Pfund admits. But he also argues that Oxford’s culture of controlled print runs, restrained advances, diverse online offerings and a commitment to print-on-demand technology will keep him above water.

“In order to be a good publisher, you do have to succumb sometimes to hopefulness over experience,” Mr. Pfund said by phone on Monday. “You have to say, ‘O.K., this time is different,’ or, ‘This book is so good that it’s going to overcome all these obstacles.’ But I just think that we allow ourselves to do that way, way too often.”

He recalled a vaguely morbid game he and his friend Tim Bartlett (now an editor at Random House) used to play at the London Book Fair when the two of them were colleagues at New York University Press: visiting the wholesalers who sold remaindered books and looking through their titles in search of those that had been remaindered in the largest quantities. 

“The dealers would write in pencil on the first page of each book the number of copies they were selling,” Mr. Pfund said. “One year Tim found one, and it was the autobiography of—shit, what was her name? Who was the sexpot on Taxi? Marilu Henner. It was the autobiography of Marilu Henner, and there were like 32,000 copies all being remaindered. And Tim looked at me and said, ‘You know, it’s a sobering thought that three or four years ago, some editor hung up the phone in New York and pumped his fist in the air and said, ‘Yes! I got the Marilu Henner autobiography!’

At Oxford, even the books that are intended to reach a broad, general audience usually don’t see initial print runs above 7,500, while the really specialized stuff—see The Squid Giant Synapse: A Model for Chemical Transmission—hovers around 250. When something works, Oxford goes back to press again and again until demand tapers off, as it did with Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, which saw almost a dozen reprints in its first year.

According to Mr. Pfund, the team responsible for monitoring inventory and working with the sales staff at Oxford to figure out print runs is “reordering in ever smaller and more frequent increments” in hopes of keeping returns low, and as a result, books like Marshall Goldman’s Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia and Joseph Nye’s The Power to Lead continue to sell instead of coming back in boxes.

In a “previous day,” Mr. Pfund said, those were books that might have been shipped in batches of eight or ten thousand right out of the gate, and more often than not, they’d sit in stores for nine months or so, at which point anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent of them would come back.

Oxford University Press Has Its Own Super Pfund