Oxford University Press Has Its Own Super Pfund

These days, that doesn’t happen at Oxford, and between that and the fact that a couple of titles—namely Massacre at Mountain Meadows and 1994’s Defiance, which was turned into a movie last year by Ed Zwick—broke out head and shoulders above the rest, the house’s trade sales at the end of January were up almost 10 percent for the year.

Big print runs are tempting, though, as they guarantee that a book that experiences an unexpected uptick in demand will be in stock. If Barack Obama is photographed reading a book you’ve published and suddenly everyone wants to read it, you’re basically forfeiting the opportunity if you don’t make sure the thing is widely available.

Only relatively recently, Mr. Pfund said, did print-on-demand technology become sophisticated and cost-effective enough to avoid the big print runs, and today, something like 10,000 previously out-of-print titles from Oxford are available to anyone who wants them.

“When I started out, we had between six and eight thousand books for which we had some demand and that were just in this purgatory of ‘out of stock indefinitely,’” Mr. Pfund said. “Basically readers and booksellers would ask, ‘Hey, can you guys sell us this book?’ And we would reply, ‘No, sorry, can’t do it! Can’t reprint it! Economies of scale! Our bad! Off you go.”

Mr. Pfund said that the print-on-demand business has grown to the point where it brings in “several million dollars a year,” though he would not give a precise figure.

“It is inexcusable to be sitting on this content and not to liberate it somehow if people want it. Especially if you’re a university press, for God’s sake! That’s your job. That’s why you exist.

Mr. Pfund said that Oxford’s expansive online offerings–including numerous subject-based reference databases and dynamic subscription packages like Oxford Scholarship Online–give users access to scholarly monographs and academic journals, and are part of the house’s “raison d’être” as well.

As he put it in an email: “OUP’s challenge is going to be how to transition to an online world where we’re providing the same kind of authoritative service for people as we did when we weren’t all choking on the firehose of data that keeps coming at us faster and faster. We’ve gone from an environment of information scarcity to one of complete overload in just under a generation, and so it’s not a question of more data but of better data.”

Over lunch last Friday at a vegan noodle bar around the corner from Oxford’s offices on 35th and Madison, Mr. Pfund talked about big advances, and why the editors who work for him never offer the sort of exorbitant sums so common in auctions involving big commercial houses.

“You can make all these arguments, as all of us do when we overpay for books, but you’ve gotta attach some parameters of rationality and reason around those numbers!” he said. “I’m just completely unsympathetic when people say, ‘Oh my God, times are so tough.’ But times are so tough because we make them so tough, you know?”

The fact that Oxford has no corporate owners to answer to—the fact that Mr. Pfund’s bosses, as he put it, are academics, and don’t expect anything like 15 percent annual growth—means that Oxford does plenty by just surviving. Paging through Oxford’s 2008 catalog, Mr. Pfund said he saw only a few books that had “completely bombed.”

“People conflate intellectual capital with financial capital,” he said later. “[Laurence Tribe’s new book, The Invisible Constitution] is gonna be one of the most important books we publish this year, but it’s not going to make anybody rich, you know?”

lneyfakh@observer.com

Oxford University Press Has Its Own Super Pfund