Cambridge University Press: Too Old to Fail

In this era of government bailouts, you’ve no doubt heard the phrase “too big to fail”. Most of the time this phrase is aligned with banks and insurance companies who are so interconnected with other industries that if they were to go out of business, the result would be a complete collapse of whole economies. According to Washington, being too big to fail means you automatically get a life extension, whether you deserve it or not.

None of this is lost on the publishing industry apparently. While no single book publisher can claim they are too big to fail, employees of one in particular believe their publishing house is too old to fail. Cambridge University Press recently announced plans to cut 150 jobs due in part from changes being forced on them as the book industry moves from lithographic to digital publishing. Critics of the staff reduction claim that this is just the beginning of the end for the publisher.

The CUP is a charity that is supervised by a “Syndicate” of 18 academics from the highest echelons of the university.

Representatives from the shop floor and the Unite union took their case direct to the Syndicate, which is chaired by Dr Gordon Johnson, the president of Wolfson College, and includes economist philosopher Amartya Kumar Sen, former master of Trinity College.

They say their arguments were sympathetically received and that this has led to a change in tack from the former accountant and current chief executive of the press, Stephen Bourne and his fellow-managers.

Tomorrow, Unite is set to meet CUP management again, amid mounting hope that at least half of the jobs threatened by the restructuring will be saved in what looks like a U-turn by the publishers.

But the management is more cautious. Peter Davison, CUP’s corporate affairs director, confirms that the company is trying to soften the blow in a harsh employment environment but says structural change in the printing industry has swept away pretty much every lithographic printing company in the high-cost south of England.

“We needed to take action because we saw losses of £2m annually for the next three years. We estimate that if we reduce the number of redundancies to 60 it would mean ongoing annual losses of £300,000 which we can tolerate for the time being, but it’s not as though we are free from the technological writing which is on the wall,” says Davison.

Clearly, the decision to eliminate staff is a purely economic one. It’s math, plain and simple. If you want to be around next year and the year after and so on, you need a sound financial plan. Losses of 2 million pounds are catastrophic, and while smaller losses of 300,000 pounds can be tolerated, it’s not a plan for long term viability. Understandably, no one wants to lose their job or make decisions to eliminate jobs. It’s painful. Yet, it seems the intentions of the critics are confused. One the one hand, they complain that job elimination means the end of their beloved press, yet they are confronted with the reality that financial losses also mean the end of their beloved press. You can’t have it both ways. So, rather than confront the lesser of two evils, they collude with the members of the “Syndicate”, career academics without real business experience, to garner their sympathy. Perfect! Go and complain to the very people who champion the inherent value of traditions and resist change at most every level.

Let’s face it, change happens, no matter how much we conspire against it. Cambridge University Press, like many other publishing houses, must confront the changes occuring in the industry in order to stay in business. If this means they do it without pomp and circumstance, then so be it. If it means they can no longer afford to be the “printer to the Queen”, then that’s the way it must be. If it means they can no longer sustain the cost of weekly air shipments of thousands of pounds of printed paper, then they’ll have to find another way. But, if the people who claim to care so much about the future existence of the 425 year-old publisher continue to cling to a sentimentality of the past, they will ultimately succeed at insuring the very thing they fight against.


  1. MAS1916 says:

    Team Obama may truly be considering a bail out of all things print-related. With failures of the Sun Times, Post Intelligencer and soon to be Sacramento Bee, Obama sees his base of propaganda support eroding.

    Be prepared to be taken over and having a new CEO with significantly Liberal viewpoints installed.

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