A lot of scholars are now writing best-selling novels. Is this a case of publishers losing writers to the commercial, best-selling world? What do you think?
As long as I have been in publishing, I think there’s been a movement back and forth between university presses, academic publishers and commercial houses. And it’s often motivated by what’s working in the commercial world. Occasionally, that will be triggered by one or two best-sellers like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow or Jerry Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.
I think there are always these cycles. It’s what one editor colleague of mine once referred to as, ‘There’s always another drunken sailor on the history publishing waterfront’ because history tends to be the area that attracts the most commercial publishing. I don’t think that is a trend that has accelerated or decelerated in any way that is unusual. Sometimes, houses say fiction isn’t working, let’s go to non-fiction. And sometimes, non-fiction isn’t working, so they look elsewhere. I think one of the things about OUP is that we have been very consistent. It is our belief that often the best trade books are like the stems or branches of the academic trunk. I think editors in the academic world, in many ways, are actually asked to do things that agents do in the commercial world. It’s like they are having to get a sense of what’s going on in the field.
I think that one of the mistakes that all publishers make, whether university press scholars or press commercial editors, is that there’s a saying in publishing that you have to be careful you don’t succumb to the triumph of optimism over experience. But if you don’t occasionally succumb to optimism, you are not a good publisher. You have to be forward-looking and ambitious. In many cases, publishers continue chasing the intellectual, scholarly brain after the primary contribution has been made. I think that is completely understandable. But what we try and do at Oxford is find people who haven’t really written that ‘definitive’ book and then to try not only publish that one book, but publish them as authors over the course of their careers.
With infinite information on the Internet, how do you make sure your content is reliable?
One of the things we can be confident of at Oxford is that we don’t put content out there that has not been reviewed by scholars or not been vetted. One of the few things we did in India a few years ago was to create a committee of delegates. This was the first time it happened outside the US. Every single book, online project, journal is reviewed for quality by this body. It wasn’t a question of more content, but more high-quality content.
Tell us about your regional publishing initiative?
As markets mature, you face a fork-in-the-road decision whether you want to sell in that market yourself or whether you want to license your content to other people in the market. We feel that given the growth in Hindi and Bangla, we can offer high-quality translations. Next year is our first year for the programme and we hope to publish 20 books in a combination of Hindi and Bangla. That number will probably go up by 50-100% in each of the next two years.