The Dark Age to the Digital Age

The Albion Beatnik

Most of you might know that I’m a committee member of the Oxford Society of Young Publishers. I love what the SYP does and what it stands for and I’m proud to be a part of it. I’m even more proud of the people I work with, especially when they put on fascinating events like the most recent ‘The Dark Age to the Digital Age – The Evolution of Publishing‘ at the Albion Beatnik Bookshop.

The event featured two speakers: Martin Maw, Archivist at Oxford University Press and Jane Potter, Senior Lecturer in Publishing at the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies at Oxford Brookes.

I have to be honest – I went to this event with a bit of hesitancy. Digital is so in, you know? It’s the hot topic for all publishing conferences and all speaker meetings. It’s in The Bookseller every day! Well, I really can’t blame them for that…

So I was expecting another kind of rehash of the same old print to digital history. (I should mention now that while I’m on the SYP committee, I don’t really help organise events… this was done by the great Heather Benn!) What I got instead was a brilliant alternative bookshop setting, two wonderful speakers, examples from the Oxford University Press archive and a load of history and exposition on book binding, the growth of Oxford and the shape the publishing industry is taking.

Jane and Martin surrounded by publishers

For example, did you know…

The first print shop in Oxford was set up in the Sheldonian Theatre in the 1660s.

Oxford University Press used to be housed in the Clarendon Building before it moved to its present location in Jericho.

OUP was considered a ‘gentlemen’s press’ and so eschewed commercialisation for customisation until the 19th century when the press took on the Oxford English Dictionary project. At the time, the estimated cost of the Dictionary was £9000 and ten years to complete. The actual cost was £500,000 and 50 years! Needless to say, OUP began looking at commercialisation to turn a profit.

The region of Jericho grew up around OUP with the majority of families who lived in the area also working for the press. Men worked as printers while women were relegated to stitching bindings – even with sewing machines!

While the men made a stable wage, women worked on a system whereby the more they produced the more they earned. Prior to the 1970s, 80-85% of the workforce was male. Now, publishing is a generally female-dominated industry (at least in population).

Music Book from the 15th Century

Some favourite quotes from the evening:

Love is like ice in the hands of children.” – Sophocles, from The Loves of Achilles

Speaking about his own opinion on digital developments versus the beauty of printed and bound books, Martin quipped: “Nobody wants to be associated with a book which is bound to be unread.” See what he did there? Well… I’m inclined to agree.

Then again, some people, like Jane, argued that there will be “coexistence rather than extinction.” There again… I’m inclined to agree.

A great point in the debate was brought up by someone in the audience – Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, introduced paperback novels in 1935 with the intention that books should cost no more than a packet of cigarettes. Many hardcover publishers believed that paperbacks would destroy publishing. Doubleday’s LeBaron R. Barker claimed that paperback books would “undermine the whole structure of publishing.”

In hindsight, it’s easy to see why other publishers were worried. But in the present day, hardcovers still sell, paperbacks still sell and now ebooks sell. They are all coexisting aren’t they?

One Response to “The Dark Age to the Digital Age”
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  1. […] a play happening among all those bindings. Hey – the Society of Young Publishers even held an event here! This brilliant blog post from Trisha Andres lays out the shop in clear terms, but this […]

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