What It Means for Oxford University Press to Shutter Their Printing House

It’s a big deal, but a different kind of big deal than you might think

If your social media feeds are anything like mine, last week was full of people lamenting the news that Oxford University Press intended to close its subsidiary printing house, called Oxuniprint. But I think there’s some misunderstanding about what this decision actually means.

First of all, it doesn’t mean the books Oxford publishes will no longer be printed. It just means they’ll be printed by a different printer, one not owned by OUP. Oxford isn’t going to give all their business to Amazon, or anyone else in the world of digital-only books.

In fact, printer outsourcing has been the case for the vast majority of books and other material printed by OUP for a long time (more than thirty years). That long history of outsourcing is one of the main reasons Oxuniprint is in financial trouble. This is right in the story by The Guardian on Oxuniprint’s closure:

[OUP] has outsourced the printing of its own books since 1989, with subsidiary Oxuniprint in Kidlington the last vestige of its rich printing history, working for clients including Oxford University and the NHS, as well as supplementary material for OUP itself.

Little, if anything, is actually going to change for books published by OUP.

If your main business partner (so to speak) won’t give you their business, it’s really hard to stay in business. At the same time, just as the economics of the publishing industry have concentrated power in the hands of a small number of retailers, distributors, and publishing houses, they’ve concentrated power among an increasingly shrinking number of printers, who are handling the bulk of the print trade worldwide.

Oxuniprint’s closure was condemned by Unite, which blamed OUP’s increasing outsourcing abroad and its failure to take up the government’s furlough scheme.

“This is the final chapter in a distinguished printing history at the OUP, but we feel that there could have been a different outcome if OUP bosses had not been hell-bent on pursuing their outsourcing agenda,” said Unite regional officer Kevin Whiffen. “There is not much loyalty to the centuries-old printing heritage, and those who have given their working lives to it.”

So if you’re going to be upset about the latest harbinger of doom in the book industry, don’t let it be any mistaken idea about a shift away from printed books to digital ones. It’s actually a much grimmer story about global consolidation being used to break local labor.

In short, it is a story about Amazon. Just not in the way you might have originally thought.