Under my byline

Ambiguity is interesting

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 10 January 2009

Henry Reece, head of Oxford University Press, relishes his work at an ancient institution with modern-day challenges

It’s a tiny office cabin, white-painted, glassed-in and stuffy, of the kind that people at middling levels in the corporate hierarchy tend to receive. But today it contains the chief executive himself: Dr Henry Reece, worldwide head of the world’s largest university press, Oxford University Press.

He’s in Delhi for a book launch of more than the usual importance — a special scholarly tribute (alas, in two earnest and bulky volumes) to Nobel Prize-winner and former Cambridge don Amartya Sen by some of his most influential business and academic well-wishers. The PM, an Oxford graduate himself, launched the book with Sen and Reece at his side.

It’s at the end of this high-profile day that Reece meets me in OUP’s Delhi office. Appropriately, the office is a stone’s throw from Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, the astronomical observatory of sorts that is one of the city’s few historic monuments built for the purposes of knowledge rather than power.

Henry ReeceReece is tall, white-haired, light-eyed and spare, and his face is frosted with a permanent silver-white stubble — a deliberate touch, and one without which it would not be easy to guess his age. As it is, Reece is on the verge of retirement, and this year will quit the job he has held for the last 11: as “secretary to the delegates” of OUP.

The old-fashioned title reflects the age of the institution — OUP claims it was founded in 1478 (not long after Gutenberg invented his printing press), although there are doubts about that. The committee of delegates is a frequently changing body of University staff, mostly dons, who appoint the finance committee that actually functions as the board of directors. Having a rotating group of delegates is said to be important because it ensures that OUP represents the interests of all parts and departments of Oxford University in its publishing — an issue which can get contentious. In 1999, for example, there was a terrific dust-up over OUP’s decision to stop publishing English poetry, allegedly a loss-making programme. Storm in a teacup, one might think — but not to these stakeholders.

So it’s a little complicated, but Reece seems to like it. I ask him why he has kept this one job for 11 years, and he says “I’m biased, but I think OUP is far and away the most interesting publishing that you can do, because of the sheer range and internationalism of what we do.” But he also adds: “The aspect of being owned by a university just kind of changes all the dynamics. If you work for a commercial entity it’s much more straightforward: essentially you’re there to maximise shareholder profitability.” Working for a university, on the other hand, “there’s a lot more ambiguity, and that’s just a lot more interesting as well”. Being “non-commercial” hasn’t prevented OUP from making lots of money, though: it grossed £492.3 million in 2007-2008.

As for the internationalism, OUP was among the first publishers to think globally. “The domestic market for Oxford and Cambridge [University Press] has never been big enough,” Reece points out, “so from the 19th century onwards they had to become international… There are very few businesses that actually do 85 per cent of their business outside their domestic market, which we do.”

Scholarly monographs and journals are one thing, but a lot of those overseas sales have to do with OUP’s English-language teaching (ELT) materials, which are welcome in developing markets like India, Africa and Eastern Europe. “A market like Kenya, for example,” Reece says, “has been a very, very good market.”

He offers an anecdote: “I was in Kenya about six-seven years ago for the launch of a new edition of a Kiswahili dictionary, and the government minister who was doing the launch was talking to me afterwards. We had published the first edition of this dictionary nearly 20 years previously and he said to me, ‘You know, Mr Reece, you have no idea what this means. Your English language was codified in the 18th century. For us it’s only happened 20 years ago, and to think that it was an English university press that did it makes us all feel incredibly grateful.’ That’s the sort of response” Reece says, “that makes you keep doing your job.”

Halfway through his career in publishing, well before he joined OUP, Reece changed the kind of job he was doing: he moved from sales to editorial. It’s unusual because the two kinds of work are so different, but he’s glad he did it. “I think sales is a very good place to start because it gives you a very good sense of what life’s like at the sort of hard end of publishing.” Seeing both sides, though, “I think you understand the frustrations salespeople feel towards editors and vice versa… I used to get very frustrated,” he says, “You’d be sitting in the sales conference and you’d hear this explanation [from an editor] as to why this book would be better, because it was very well-written and it was very up-to-date. Yeah, that’s the least it should be! I need three selling hooks, at least! So I thought that I could do this better — a degree of arrogance. I was a lot younger then!”

He did do it better, and the success of OUP is one testament to that. Now that he’s on his way out, he’s looking forward to one more task: “Many years ago… I signed a contract with OUP to publish a book on 17th-century [English] history, and in the tradition of so many authors I dismally failed to deliver. So one thing I want to do is write that book.” A blockbuster? “Oh! This is going to be a pretty specialist work. This is neither going to make nor break OUP’s fortunes, for which I am profoundly glad.”

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