LETTER:Charitable charade of academia

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From Mr Peter Michael Johns

Sir: I fear that Conrad Russell (Letters, 3 October) has himself fallen victim to the fallacy that university presses exist purely for the advancement of scientific knowledge.

Oxford University Press has for many years published student textbooks. It recently acquired the textbook list of Weidenfeld & Nicholson. Among the titles on that list is one of the leading introductory economics textbooks, of which it has published a new edition in 1996 using four-colour production in the text.

University presses have paid five-figure royalty advances: not big in the Martin Amis or Jeffrey Archer stakes but commercial publishing in anyone's terms. The real danger is that they will match the pattern in the US market where royalty advances as high as $80,000 have been offered by some university presses. Acquisitions, introductory texts, large royalty advances: this is not the world of university press publishing described by Professor Russell.

I do not object to the principle of university presses acting in an aggressive, commercial manner. It does, however, seem absurd to provide them with the support of charitable status and, thereby, subsidy from the taxpayer. The university presses seem to relish operating in the market. I suggest the playing field should be levelled so that commercial publishers can challenge them on equal terms in the market.

Germaine Greer correctly identified a problem: the charade is even more grotesque than her description.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Johns

Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire

3 October

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