OUP was first exempted from US Corporation Tax in 1972 and from UK Corporation Tax in 1978. As a department of a charity, OUP is exempt from income tax and corporate tax in most countries, but may pay sales and other commercial taxes on its products. The Press today transfers 30% of its annual surplus to the rest of the University, with a commitment to a minimum transfer of £12 million per annum. OUP is the largest university press in the world by the number of publications, publishing more than 4,500 new books every year and employing some 4,000 people. OUP publishes many reference, professional, and academic works including the Oxford English Dictionary, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, the Oxford World's Classics and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. A number of its most important titles are now available electronically in a package called "Oxford Reference Online", and are offered free to holders of a reader's card from many public libraries in the UK.
In 1990 in the UK Court of Appeal OUP lost a legal action brought by philosopher Andrew Malcolm over its breach of a 1985 contract to publish his book Making Names. In 1998 OUP closed down the much-loved Oxford Poets series. In 2001 OUP acquired UK law publisher Blackstone. In 2003, OUP acquired from Macmillan Publishers the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and the Dictionary of Art. In 2005 OUP acquired US law publisher Oceana Publications In 2006 OUP acquired UK publisher Richmond Law & Tax.
Books published by Oxford have International Standard Book Numbers that begin with 0-19, making the Press one of a tiny number of publishers who have two-digit identification numbers in the ISBN system.
William Caxton established the first printing press in England in 1476, following the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in 1450 and the subsequent spread of the technology across Europe. Two years later, in 1478, the first book was printed in the city of Oxford. This book caused something of a sensation among later historians as it carried the erroneous date of 1468, which would have placed it before Caxton in time. However its printing was only tenuously related to the existence of the university. For the next hundred years, books used by or produced for the University of Oxford would be printed by a succession of local independent printers.
In 1586 a decree from the Star Chamber granted the privilege to print books to Joseph Barnes, an Oxford printer who claimed to have the favour of the university; this was at that time one of only two such licences issued to a press outside London. (Cambridge had been granted a charter by Henry VIII in 1534.) King Charles I increased the independence and latitude of the University Press when he entitled the University to print "all manner of books" by granting a Great Charter to the University in 1632 (The University of Cambridge received a similar charter at the same time.) The content of the charter was negotiated by Archbishop Laud, at the time Chancellor of the University, as part of his drive to establish a set of statutes (the Laudian Code) that were to govern the running of the University for the next two centuries.
Delegates of the Press were briskly appointed from among the fellows of the university in 1633 to oversee the matters of this still theoretical entity, but in the absence of an actual press to print books on, the licence languished for a few more years. The Delegates appear to have met in 1668, but the lack of capital and enterprise stayed their hand and in 1672 the charismatic John Fell, Dean of Christ Church and Bishop of Oxford, leased the university's licence to print. Fell set about collecting sets of exotic and rare type fonts in Hebrew, Greek and other classical languages for his learned press which he housed on somewhat dubious authority in the environs of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. On his death in 1690 the press and its furniture passed to the university, and with this there was at last the physical wherwithal to act on the charter to print books.
The Press’s initial fortunes were made on the publication in 1702 of the hugely popular (but historiographically suspect) History of the Great Rebellion by the Earl of Clarendon that charted the progress of the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s rule of the country, and the proceeds went to build the Press a permanent home, Clarendon House. Clarendon’s name, too, came over time to be used, to the puzzlement of outsiders, for a variety of imprints and titles produced by the Press. The Press thus initially developed with two parts: the Learned (Clarendon) Press producing titles by scholars, and the Bible Press, which was set up circa 1690 to print the King James Bible first issued in 1611. The licence to print Bibles had been granted on paper to the King's Printers in London and by the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge. However, the Delegates of the Press at Oxford University soon found that catering to the enormous demand for Bibles was too exhausting for a group of scholars donating voluntary labour, and the privilege was leased out. In 1780, the bottom having fallen out of the American Bible market due to the American War of Independence of 1775, the Delegates of the Press created forty two shares in the Bible privilege and farmed them out to a set of commercial printers in London. Much permutation and combination followed as the shares were subdivided and inherited by this motley crew, until in the 1880s the shares were once again brought under the university's control.
From the 1850s onward the University of Oxford underwent a protracted and painful programme of modernisation, under the aegis of William Gladstone among others. The Delegacy of the Press ceased to be ‘perpetual’ in 1856. It now had five perpetual and five junior posts filled by appointment from the University, with the Vice Chancellor a Delegate ex officio.
As the reform of the University got under way, the Delegates were split into two groups. One, epitomized by Mark Pattison, a classicist whom Mrs Humphrey Ward once described as looking ‘like a discontented lizard with a cold’, believed scholarship was the sole purpose for the Press’s existence; the other, that of Benjamin Jowett, saw it first as a commercial venture intended to sponsor the University’s scholarly pursuits through selling books which the public were ready and willing to buy for hard cash. What was needed was a happy mean between these two, but the nature of the politics and the personalities involved meant that a Manichaean opposition was perceived and fought out between the two camps in true epic style.
The reformist group's first step was to appoint a London agent to act for them in the business of selling books. John Murray III declined, but Alexander Macmillan, who had just moved to London from Cambridge, agreed eagerly and was appointed around 1863. Macmillan and Bartholomew Price began between them to concoct a scheme to be known as the Clarendon Press series, a collection of schoolbooks meant to be cheap, elementary and profitable. This appears to have been the first major use of 'Clarendon' as an imprint, a surprising start to the style that became the Press’s prestige scholarly flagship. Macmillan allowed the Press to take up the proposed New English Dictionary from the Philological Society, a prospective white elephant he did not regret, and he in turn got Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). The New English Dictionary under the editorship of James Murray finally appeared as the Oxford English Dictionary, completed after much struggle in 1910, now the foundation of OUP’s fortunes.
The greatly enhanced volume of business produced by the Macmillan agency began to put pressure on the Oxford administration. G.W. Kitchin, Secretary of both the School Book Committee and of the Board of Delegates as a whole, had no taste for the routine of office, and in 1868 he stepped down in favour of Bartholomew Price. Price declared that he was not to be the Delegates’ clerk but their executive officer, and all the heads of the various departments, the Printing Works, the Bible Warehouse, the bindery and the Wolvercote paper mill, were to report directly to him. He quickly acquired a reputation for moderation and level-headedness and had a knack for settling debate with a few well-chosen words. Factions had no effect on him, and even Mark Pattison, who was constitutionally disposed to dislike everybody, found him tolerable.
The association with Macmillan ended in 1880. This was part of Price’s master plan to end all outside influence, including the Bible partnership, and bring all aspects of the Press’s business more directly under the administration of the Delegates. He cast about for a suitable replacement and soon heard through the Bible trade grapevine that the contract of Henry Frowde, the young assistant to a trader named Mr Stock, was about to expire, and that Frowde was looking for other employment. Stock in fact did business in the name of ‘Henry Frowde’, so by the time Frowde came to the Delegates his name carried valuable goodwill in the Bible trade. Price dropped hints in the right places and on 5 February 1874 Frowde wrote requesting to see him.
Frowde had no doubt that the Press’s business in London could be very largely increased and was appointed on contract with a commission on sales. Seven years later, as Publisher to the University, Frowde was using his own name as an imprint as well as 'Oxford University Press'. This style persisted till recent times, with two kinds of imprints emanating from the Press's London offices. The last man to be known as ‘Publisher to the University’ was John Brown, known to his colleagues as ‘Bruno’.
The distinctions implied by the imprints were subtle but important. Books which were issued by London on commission (paid for by their authors or by some learned body) were styled ‘Henry Frowde’, or ‘Humphrey Milford’ with no mention of OUP, as if the Publisher were issuing them himself, while books that the Publisher issued under the rubric of the University bore the imprint ‘Oxford University Press’. Both these categories were mostly handled by London, while Oxford (in practice the Secretary) looked after the Clarendon Press books. Commission books were intended to be cash cows to fund the London Business’s overheads, since the Press did not lay aside any resources for this purpose. Nevertheless Frowde was especially careful to see that all commission books he published met with the Delegates' approval. This was not an uncommon arrangement for scholarly or antiquarian presses.
Price quickly primed Frowde for the imminent publication jointly with Cambridge University Press of the Revised Version of the Bible, which promised to be a ‘bestseller’ on a scale that would require the employment of all the Press’s resources to keep up with the demand. This was to be a complete retranslation of the text of the Bible from the oldest original Greek and Hebrew versions, superseding the Authorized Version of 1611. Frowde’s agency was set up just in time, for the Revised Version, published on 17 May 1881, sold a million copies before publication and at a breakneck rate thenceforth, though overproduction ultimately made a dent in the profits.
Though Frowde was by no means an Oxford man and had no social pretensions of being one, he was a sound businessman who was able to strike the magic balance between caution and enterprise. From quite early on he had ideas of advancing the Press’s overseas trade, at first in Europe and increasingly in America, Canada, India and Africa. He was more or less singlehandedly responsible for setting up the American Branch as well as depots in Edinburgh, Toronto and Melbourne. Frowde dealt with most of the logistics for books carrying the OUP imprint, including handling authors, binding, dispatching, and advertising, and only editorial work and the printing itself were carried out at or supervised from Oxford.
Frowde regularly remitted money back to Oxford, but he privately felt that the business was undercapitalized and would pretty soon become a serious drain on the university's resources unless put on a sound commercial footing. He himself was authorized to invest money up to a limit in the business but was prevented from doing so by family troubles. Hence his interest in overseas sales, for by the 1880s and 1890s there was money to be made in India, while the European book market was in the doldrums. But Frowde’s distance from the Press’s decision-making meant he was incapable of influencing policy unless a Delegate spoke for him. Most of the time Frowde did whatever he could within the mandate given him by the Delegates. In 1905 when applying for a pension he wrote to J.R. Magrath, the then Vice Chancellor, that during the seven years when he had served as manager of the Bible Warehouse the sales of the London Business had averaged about £20,000 and the profits £1,887 per year. By 1905, under his management as Publisher, the sales had risen to upwards of £200,000 per year and the profits in that 29 years of service averaged £8,242 per year.
Price, trying in his own way to modernize the Press against the resistance of its own historical inertia, had become overworked and by 1883 was so exhausted as to want to retire. Benjamin Jowett had become Vice Chancellor of the University in 1882. Impatient of the endless committees that would no doubt attend the appointment of a successor to Price, Jowett extracted what could be interpreted as permission from the Delegates and headhunted Philip Lyttelton Gell, a former student acolyte of his, to be the next Secretary to the Delegates. Gell was making a name for himself at the publishing firm of Cassell, Petter and Galpin, a firm regarded as scandalously commercial by the Delegates. Gell himself was a patrician who was unhappy with his work, where he saw himself as catering to the taste of 'one class: the lower middle', and he grasped at the chance of working with the kind of texts and readerships OUP attracted.
Jowett promised Gell golden opportunities, little of which he actually had the authority to deliver. He timed Gell’s appointment to coincide with both the Long Vacation (from June to September) and the death of Mark Pattison, so potential opposition was prevented from attending the crucial meetings. Jowett knew the primary reason why Gell would attract hostility was that he had never worked for the Press nor been a Delegate, and he had sullied himself in the City with raw commerce. His fears were borne out. Gell immediately proposed a thorough modernising of the Press with a marked lack of tact, and earned himself enduring enemies. Nevertheless he was able to do a lot in tandem with Frowde, and expanded the publishing programmes and the reach of OUP until about 1898. Then his health broke down under the impossible work conditions he was being forced to endure by the Delegates' non-cooperation. The Delegates then served him with a notice of termination of service that violated his contract. However, he was persuaded not to file suit and to go quietly.
The Delegates were not opposed primarily to his initiatives, but to his manner of executing them and his lack of sympathy with the academic way of life. In their view the Press was, and always would be, an association of scholars. Gell's idea of ‘efficiency’ appeared to violate that culture, although subsequently a very similar programme of reform was put into practice from the inside.
Charles Cannan, who had been instrumental in Gell's removal, succeeded Gell in 1898, and Humphrey S. Milford, his younger colleague, effectively succeeded Frowde in 1907. Both were Oxford men who knew the system inside out, and the close collaboration with which they worked was a function of their shared background and worldview. Cannan was known for terrifying silences, and Milford had an uncanny ability, testified to by Amen House employees, to ‘disappear’ in a room rather like a Cheshire cat, from which obscurity he would suddenly address his subordinates and make them jump. Whatever their reasons for their style of working, both Cannan and Milford had a very hardnosed view of what needed to be done, and they proceeded to do it. Indeed Frowde knew within a few weeks of Milford’s entering the London office in  that he would be replaced. Milford, however, always treated Frowde with courtesy, and Frowde remained in an advisory capacity till 1913. Milford rapidly teamed up with J.E. Hodder Williams of Hodder and Stoughton, setting up what was known as the Joint Account for the issue of a wide range of books in education, science, medicine and also fiction. Milford began putting in practice a number of initiatives, including the foundations of most of the Press’s global branches.
Milford took responsibility for overseas trade almost at once, and by 1906 he was making plans to send a traveller to India and the Far East jointly with Hodder and Stoughton. N. Graydon (first name unknown) was the first such traveller in 1907, and again in 1908 when he represented OUP exclusively in India, the Straits and the Far East. A.H. Cobb replaced him in 1909, and in 1910 Cobb functioned as a travelling manager semi-permanently stationed in India. In 1911 E.V. Rieu went out to East Asia via the Trans-Siberian Railway, had several adventures in China and Russia, then came south to India and spent most of the year meeting educationists and officials all over India. In 1912, he arrived again in Bombay, now known as Mumbai. There he rented an office in the dockside area and set up the first overseas Branch.
In 1914 Europe was plunged into turmoil. The first effects of the war were paper shortages and losses and disturbances in shipping, then quickly a dire lack of hands as the staff were called up and went to serve on the field. Many of the staff including two of the pioneers of the Indian branch were killed in action. Curiously, sales through the years 1914 to 1917 were good and it was only towards the end of the war that conditions really began pinching.
Rather than bringing relief from shortages the 1920s saw skyrocketing prices of both materials and labour. Paper especially was hard to come by and had to be imported from South America through trading companies. Economies and markets slowly recovered as the 1920s progressed. In 1928 the Press’s imprint read ‘London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leipzig, Toronto, Melbourne, Cape Town, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Shanghai’. Not all of these were full-fledged branches: in Leipzig there was a depot run by H. Bohun Beet, and In Canada and Australia there were small, functional depots in the cities and an army of educational representatives penetrating the rural fastnesses to sell the Press’s stock as well as books published by firms whose agencies were held by the Press, very often including fiction and light reading. In India, the Branch depots in Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta were imposing establishments with sizable stock inventories, for the Presidencies themselves were large markets, and the educational representatives there dealt mostly with upcountry trade. The Depression of 1929 dried profits from the Americas to a trickle, and India became 'the one bright spot' in an otherwise dismal picture. Bombay was the nodal point for distribution to the Africas and onward sale to Australasia, and people who trained at the three major depots moved later on to pioneer branches in Africa and South East Asia.
The Press’s experience of World War II was similar to World War I except that Milford was now close to retirement and ‘hated to see the young men go’. The London blitz this time was much more intense and the London Business was shifted temporarily to Oxford. Milford, now extremely unwell and reeling under a series of personal bereavements, was prevailed upon to stay till the end of the war and keep the business going. As before, everything was in short supply, but the U-boat threat made shipping doubly uncertain, and the letterbooks are full of doleful records of consignments lost at sea. Occasionally an author, too, would be reported missing or dead, as well as staff who were now scattered over the battledfields of the globe. DORA, the Defense of the Realm Act, required the surrender of all nonessential metal for the manufacture of armaments, and many valuable electrotype plates were melted down by government order.
With the end of the war Milford's place was taken by Geoffrey Cumberlege. This period saw consolidation in the face of the breakup of the Empire and the post-war reorganisation of the Commonwealth. In tandem with institutions like the British Council, OUP began to reposition itself in the education market. Ngugi wa Thiongo in his book Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom records how the Oxford Readers for Africa with their heavily Anglo-centric worldview struck him as a child in Kenya. The Press has evolved since then to be one of the largest players in a globally expanding scholarly and reference book market.
When OUP arrived on Indian shores, it was preceded by the immense prestige of the Sacred Books of the East, edited by Friedrich Max Müller, which had at last reached completion in 50 ponderous volumes. While actual purchase of this series was beyond most Indians, libraries usually had a set, generously provided by the government of India, available on open reference shelves, and the books had been widely discussed in the Indian media. Although there had been plenty of criticism of them, the general feeling was that Max Müller had done India a favour by popularising ancient Asian (Persian, Arabic, Indian and Sinic) philosophy in the West.
This prior reputation was useful, but the Indian Branch was not primarily in Bombay to sell Indological books, which OUP knew from prior experience sold well only in America. It was there to serve the vast educational market created by the rapidly expanding school and college network in British India. In spite of disruptions cause by war, it won a crucial contract to print textbooks for the Central Provinces in 1915 and this helped to stabilise its fortunes in this difficult phase. Rieu could not longer delay his callup and was drafted in 1917, the management now being under his wife Nellie Rieu, a former editor for the Athenaeum ‘with the assistance of her two British babies.’ It was too late to have important electrotype and stereotype plates shipped to India from Oxford, and the Oxford printing house itself was overburdened with government printing orders as the empire’s propaganda machine got to work. At one point non-governmental composition at Oxford was reduced to 32 pages a week.
By 1919 Rieu was very ill and had to be brought home. He was replaced by Geoffrey Cumberlege and Noel Carrington. Noel was the brother of Dora Carrington, the artist, and even got her to illustrate his Stories Retold edition of Don Quixote for the Indian market. Their father Charles Carrington had been a railway engineer in India in the nineteenth century. Noel Carrington's unpublished memoir of his six years in India is in the Oriental and India Office Collections of the British Library.
By 1915 there were makeshift depots at Madras and Calcutta. In 1920 Noel Carrington went to Calcutta to set up a proper branch. There he became friendly with Edward Thompson who involved him in the abortive scheme to produce the 'Oxford Book of Bengali Verse'. In Madras, there was never a formal branch in the same sense as Bombay and Calcutta, as the management of the depot there seems to have rested in the hands of two local academics.
OUP's interaction with this area was part of their mission to India, since many of their travellers took in East and South East Asia on their way out to or back from India. Graydon on his first trip in 1907 had travelled the 'Straits Settlements' (largely the Federated Malay States and Singapore), China, and Japan, but was not able to do much. In 1909 A. H. Cobb visited teachers and booksellers in Shanghai, and found that the main competition there was cheap books from America, often straight reprints of British books.. The copyright situation at the time, subsequent to the Chace Act of 1891, was such that American publishers could publish such books with impunity although they were considered contraband in all British territories. To secure copyright in both territories publishers had to arrange for simultaneous publication, an endless logistical headache in this age of steamships. Prior publication in any one territory forfeited copyright protection in the other. Cobb mandated Henzell & Co. of Shanghai (which seems to have been run by a professor) to represent OUP in that city. The Press had problems with Henzell, who were irregular with correspondence. They also traded with Edward Evans, another Shanghai bookseller. Milford observed, ‘we ought to do much more in China than we are doing’ and authorized Cobb in 1910 to find a replacement for Henzell as their representative to the educational authorities. That replacement was to be Miss M. Verne McNeely, a redoubtable lady who was a member of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, and also ran a bookshop. She looked after the affairs of the Press very capably and occasionally sent Milford boxes of complimentary cigars. Her association with OUP seems to date from 1910, although she did not have exclusive agency for OUP's books. Bibles were the major item of trade in China, unlike India where educational books topped the lists, even if Oxford's lavishly produced and expensive Bible editions were not very competitive beside cheap American ones.
In the 1920s, once the Indian Branch was up and running, it became the custom for staff members going out or returning to take a tour of East and South East Asia. Milford's nephew R. Christopher Bradby went out in 1928. He returned to Britain just in time, for on 18 October, 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria. Miss M. Verne McNeely wrote a letter of protest to the League of Nations and one of despair to Milford, who tried to comfort her.
Japan was a much less well-known market to OUP, and a small volume of trade was carried out largely through intermediaries. The Maruzen company was by far the largest customer, and had a special arrangement regarding terms. Other business was routed through H.L. Griffiths, a professional publishers’ representative based in Sannomiya, Kobe. Griffiths travelled for the Press to major Japanese schools and bookshops and took a 10 percent commission. Edmund Blunden had been briefly at the University of Tokyo and put the Press in touch with the University booksellers, Fukumoto Stroin.
One important acquisition did come from Japan, however: A. S. Hornby's Advanced Learner's Dictionary.
It also publishes textbooks for the primary and secondary education curriculum in Hong Kong. The Chinese-language titles are published with the brand Keys Press (啟思出版社).
The North American branch was established in 1896 at 91 Fifth Avenue in New York City to facilitate the sale of Oxford Bibles in the United States. Subsequently, it took over marketing of all books of its parent from Macmillan. This office grew in sales between 1928 and 1936, eventually becoming one of the leading University Presses in the United States. It is focused on scholarly and referential books, Bibles, and college and medical textbooks. In the 1990s, this office moved from its original home to 198 Madison Avenue, which was the former B. Altman Company headquarters.
In December 1909 Cobb returned and rendered his accounts for his Asia trip that year. Cobb then proposed to Milford that the Press join a combination of firms to send commercial travellers around South America, to which Milford in principle agreed. Cobb obtained the services of a man called Steer (first name unknown) to travel through Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and possibly other countries as well, with Cobb to be responsible for Steer. Hodder & Stoughton opted out of this venture, but OUP went ahead and contributed to it.
Steer’s trip was a disaster, and Milford remarked gloomily that it ‘bid fair to be the most costly and least productive on record’ of all traveller’s trips. Steer returned before he had covered more than half of his itinerary, and on returning failed to have his customs payments refunded, with the result that a hefty sum of £210 was lost to the Press. The Press was obliged to disburse 80 percent of the value of the books he had carried as ‘incidental expenses’, so even if they had got substantial orders they would still have made a loss. Few orders did in fact come out of the trip, and when Steer's box of samples returned, the London office found that they had not been opened further down than the second layer.
Some trade with East Africa passed through Bombay.
OUP archives held at OUP Headquarters, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford. File headed ‘Henry Frowde, late Publisher’, H.S. Milford’s Letterbooks, Henry Frowde’s Letterbooks, Secretary’s Letterbooks, File DUP/C/3/13
Noel L. Carrington, ‘Initiation into Publishing’, in ‘Ebb Tide of the Raj’, unpublished memoir in the holdings of the Oriental and India Office Collection, British Library.
Harry Carter, A History of the Oxford University Press, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975). Peter Sutcliffe, The Oxford University Press: An Informal History, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978).
Peter Sutcliffe, An Informal History of the OUP (Oxford: OUP, 1972).