The Oxford Handbook of Publishing

Edited by Angus Phillips and Michael Bhaskar (Oxford University Press, 2021), 480pp, £40 (pbk)
ISBN 978 0 1 9284779 9

Reviewed by Alison Shakspeare

Buy this book

The blurb to this volume claims that it ‘marks the coming of age of scholarship in publishing studies’ and it certainly is a scholarly volume. The handbook's editors have sourced material from 24 contributors, some are well-known names, some are academics and, crucially to my mind, some are practitioners (perhaps there are potential CIEP conference speakers among them?).

As the introduction states:

The interplay of history and modernity, tradition and innovation; the excitement of working at the frontiers of thought and culture; the ongoing ability to, just maybe, help change the world: this is why publishing is different.

It is an illuminating book for anybody who wants an overview of publishing, its history and social context, business models and marketing strategies, technology and thoughts on the future. It will certainly be of interest to any editor or proofreader who wants to extend their horizons and understand their role within this vast and valuable (worth $140 billion a year) world – at both theoretical and practical levels.

The 25 chapters apply many perspectives, from wide-ranging global overviews to the minutiae of typography, from theories on the death of the book to market information on bestsellers, from corporate social responsibility to the book trade workforce. All of which reinforce how much it takes to produce the right information, in the right format, for the right audience – and how many teams are involved. You might argue about some of the division of labour, but it is instructive to see the variety of tasks that go into developing, producing and marketing publications of all sorts.

There is certainly a joy in picking up such fantastic facts as: Aldus Manutius (1449 or 1452–1515) being the inventor of the semicolon; research has shown a correlation between ‘reading books (but not newspapers and other types of texts)’ and longevity; and that pocket editions have been around since the 15th century.

Given the main thrust of my own work I was happy to see plenty of discussion on the impact of digital publishing and the growth of self-publishers. But perhaps you want to find out more about copyright or who controls the publishing process or how to futureproof your skills? It's in there. As are: in-depth analyses of readership and marketing; a discussion of the evolution of reading versus writing; an explanation of marketing niches, especially the power of the educational field; the constraints and expectations of book design; and ebook techniques and platforms.

It is a multi-author volume and therefore easy enough to dip in and out of according to your interests or need to know. If you are curious about specific fields or just want to take a punt then dive into the index, which seems pretty thorough. However, it will be a lucky dip, as some chapters are easier to read than others and some are better edited than others (no surprise there).

The final chapter provides a great overview of the future of our magnificent industry through eight thought experiments, which should excite those debating the speed of change and the impact of technologies on a practical, not purely an academic, level.

Although facts and figures within some chapters will already be out of date (it was ever thus), there is still plenty of meat in The Oxford Handbook of Publishing to satisfy any spirit of enquiry about the publishing field. However, at £40 a pop for the paperback it might be worth accessing it via your local library or academic institution.

Reviews of other business titles All book reviews