One of the best features of working at OUP is having constant access on your office computer to The Oxford English Dictionary. There are also now some rather good foreign language dictionaries, as well as all of Oxford’s on-line monographic and text content. It’s amazing we ever get any work done! The OED is a huge project having a staff of its own which is larger than many publishing companies. Last week, one of these, Jesse Scheidlower (author of The F Word), published a piece in the New Yorker blog. One of the things he points out is the current on-going revision of the dictionary which is constantly being updated on-line. Recently OUP’s new President slightly incautiously said to reporters that he thought it unlikely that the next edition of the OED would ever be printed. It’s a mark of how integrated into our cultural life the OED is that this lead to a storm of journalistic comment, which I expect made him wish he’d kept his mouth shut. The same hoop-la can be seen each year when “The Word of the Year” is announced.
We are reprinting the current edition in China. It takes forever — there are 20 volumes, over 16,000 pages. When we first set up the files over there we had the printer scan the negatives from UK, and we all spent what seemed like weeks checking blues. We are still making corrections to the scans — and haven’t managed to get to press yet.
A few months ago I sent an email describing the manufacturing process for the Compact edition of the OED to a teacher in the Glasgow School of Art.
For as long as we can remember this book has been being printed in the USA, though the latest printing, this year, is being done in China.
Origination was done in Britain, as related on the copyright page of the book, but we think that even the first printing was done in America as that’s where the larger demand was. Printing was done by conventional sheet-fed litho (offset as we call it over here) at Rand McNally’s Taunton, Massachusetts plant. This plant was subsequently acquired by Quebecor, then World Color and ultimately Quad Graphics. Print numbers are not entirely certain, but some quite large runs have been made: for instance the 2-volume edition was offered as a premium by Book-of-the-Month Club, which must have resulted in sizable printings. Over the years print runs have been getting smaller and smaller, to the point where it has now become advantageous to print in China.
Printing at Taunton was on 30# “Bible” paper, 1010 ppi (pages per inch: my blog, Making Book
gives instructions on converting to caliper
). 30# means 30 pound basis weight — again see my blog post
, which explains the concept and gives the conversion factor for gsm. Printing this book is in principle no harder than printing any other — after all an offset press can place a halftone dot with pretty decent precision, though I expect they would run it as less than maximum speed with a good deal of checking running sheets. The China printer will be using a 45 gsm Bible paper. The Book-of-the-Month Club edition (which I have) came with a Bausch and Lomb magnifier, and this was what was in the earlier printings of the book. We now use a domed magnifier which because of its shape draws in all available light, and provides a superior view. This magnifying glass was originally sourced by a man in Peekskill, New York, who got the glass from France and assembled the magnifier here. Later on he would get the glass from China, and with this latest printing the whole thing is being sourced in China: shipping back and forth is obviously not economical.
Binding has to have maximal reinforcements, is sewn, and is cased in with the pages flush at the foot of the case. It is then inserted into a slip case, and placed into a cardboard box which also contains the magnifier and an Instruction booklet. This box is then packed in a mailer carton with a good deal of padding to protect it in shipping. The cartons are shipped to us on pallets. The book is 2424 pages, 10″ x 14″ trim size, and weighs 17.74 lbs. One of the problems in getting a book like this done is finding a press that can print (economically) this large trim size on this light a paper.
As you are no doubt aware, offset printing in USA requires negative film which is right reading emulsion down, whereas most of the rest of the world goes the other way. This meant that we could not send our US negatives over to Hong Kong and hope for a good result: with such small type (2pt after the reduction of the original pages) the distortion caused by contacting would have introduced a totally unacceptable blur. This means that we had to have the negatives scanned. Scanning was done at 1800 dpi, and is still on-going as the Chinese printer works though the whole book, finding pages where the scanning has left feint type (particularly prevalent in italics apparently) which requires rescanning of some pages. The Chinese printer is going to be printing with a process black rather than a PMS black as this provides better readability.
I hope this provides some of the information you need. With these long term projects so much of what was done becomes lost in the mists of time.
With the dictionary now constantly undergoing revision, as a digital entity, printing in the future will in fact be easier than it has been in the past. Of course by the time the new edition is complete, conditions could well have changed, but looking at it today it would seem to a quite probable that a printing might in fact be justified.