Oxford University Press is publishing Measurement as its 500th title in the Very Short Introductions series. The series launched in 1995 as a general knowledge series for intelligent readers, and has sold more than eight million titles worldwide in 50 languages.
You might imagine that in an age where we automatically go online to find information, reference books might be out of fashion. Oxford University Press would beg to differ.
Its series of Very Short Introductions (VSIs) – 150-page books explaining anything and everything - Accounting to Zionism; Combinatorics to Water; Pain to Privacy – have sold more than eight million copies to date and been translated into 50 languages. The VSI Facebook page is active and has nearly 12,000 likes – this list of books has become something of a cult for knowledge-seekers around the world, and the literary critic Boyd Tonkin called it ‘a thinking reader’s Wikipedia’.Very Short Introductions (VSI) is a book series published by the Oxford University Press (OUP) since 1995
It seems that even in an internet-dominated age, there remains a powerful appeal in picking up a well-written book on a tricky subject. Andrea Keegan, VSI’s UK editor for humanities and social sciences, says: ‘I like the idea someone can get on a plane to Spain and, within a flight, learn something about Shakespeare.’
The more difficult, complex or abstract the subject matter, the more compelling the idea of condensing the basics into 150 pages. Who could resist flicking through a short guide to The Meaning of Life, Nothing, or Reality?
2016 is the 21st year since OUP first spotted a gap in the market for short general knowledge books. The first VSI, Classics, by Cambridge professors Mary Beard and John Henderson, remains a series bestseller, and this November will mark the publication of the 500th – appropriately titled Measurement. The press is planning to celebrate the occasion with events around the country and in Oxford.
With the list of VSIs spanning just about every educational field including science, arts, geography, history, philosophy and social studies, from the abstract (Knowledge) to the concrete (Coral Reefs), how does OUP decide what subjects to cover?
Keegan explains: ‘We look at what’s popular now, and we also look at what people are studying at universities. We don’t do really obscure things, but we do the odd quirky title.’
The quirkiest is probably Angels by Dr. David Albert Jones, director of Oxford’s Anscombe Bioethics Centre, which, says Keegan, was ‘really different and fun to do. It covers history and theology and philosophy; [Jones] talks about why people want to believe in them.’The VSI series has been very commercially successful, with sales of over eight million copies so far
One of Keegan’s biggest struggles is trying to predict how well a subject will do – ‘it’s very hard,’ she says. The list’s bestseller by a long way is Globalization, by Professor Manfed B. Steger of the University of Hawaii. ‘I think it’s because it’s a topic that cuts across so many different areas,’ Keegan says. ‘Anyone studying history, politics, economics, even science – it’s a good basic book for them to read.
Other bestsellers include the religion titles – like Buddhism and Islam – ‘people have a general interest in world religions,’ notes Keegan - and The European Union, plus Logic, Literary Theory, The Palestine-Israeli Conflict, and The Philosophy of Science. Straggling behind, Keegan confesses, is ‘poor old Engels – I think he’s out of fashion – but he could come back!’
The series is a carefully curated mirror of what people want to learn about, and what sells is often surprising to Keegan. Dante, for instance, is a VSI she thought would be a good, but not great, seller, which is doing ‘really, really well’. She thinks ‘it’s because he’s difficult.’ Another high-selling title in the UK is The French Revolution – while Fossils, for instance, sells many fewer copies. Why one subject should be more interesting to readers than the other ‘always puzzles’ Keegan.
Is there anything they wouldn’t cover? ‘God, we reject so much!’ says Keegan. Wannabe writers – mostly academics but also students - pitch her, and science editor Latha Menon, daily. Recent rejections included ideas for VSIs on food in San Francisco, Olivia Newton John, and Star Wars. Popular culture is covered on the list – titles include Hollywood and Science Fiction – but Keegan notes: ‘we tend to take broader topics’.
The OUP rejects most people who pitch VSIs to them – 95% of Keegan’s commissions are ones that she has personally headhunted. Authors, of course, have to be proven experts in their field, so 99% are academics, usually professors, though Keegan is always looking for junior academics who are rising stars. There’s no preference for Oxford University authors, but, says Keegan, ‘we get approached by, and I get recommendations for, an awful lot of Oxford people.’
57, so more than 10%, of the VSI titles, are authored by Oxford University academics. Two of the most recent are Modern China by Professor Rana Mitter of St. Cross, and Nelson Mandela by Professor Elleke Boehmer of Wolfson. Professor Dame Hermione Lee, President of Wolfson, has written on Biography; Professor Sir John Krebs, the former president of Jesus, on Food; and Roger Scruton, a visiting professor at Oxford, has written three: Beauty; Kant; and Spinoza.
What makes it possible to cover such immense bodies of knowledge in only 30-35,000 words per book is that authors are asked ‘to write about what they want to write about, not necessarily ticking every box,’ says Keegan. ‘We try to let authors have a voice. They’re not allowed to be total idiosyncratic; they’ve got to cover the bases; but it’s not so much a statement of facts, like Wikipedia.’
Over the decades, she adds, the books have become more readable and shorter. Pleasingly, academic jargon is banned. ‘I play bad language bingo with words like “discourse” and “normative”,’ says Keegan. ‘Authors go: “Well, I like to use the word normative,” and I’m like: “Well, you can’t!”’
Readers can be ‘anyone’, though the books are, of course, popular with students. The reader is presumed to be ‘intelligent’, but writers are told they must make subjects accessible so anyone can pick a title up and read it without knowing anything on the subject. ‘Some of our books do get quite difficult,’ says Keegan, ‘but we like to draw the reader in and explain everything.’
Having focused on engineering and business titles over last few years, the next step will be to up the science titles. Still, while it motors ahead, the press continues to struggle with a few key books which, for one reason or another, have yet to come to fruition. Keegan says: ‘I’ve always said I’ll retire when Philosophy of Religionpublishes – we’ve not quite got it right yet.’ Another book – Keegan declines to say which - took nine years for the author to complete.A sea of Very Short Introductions at Gower Street Waterstones in London
The list expands so rapidly that Keegan still hasn’t been able to read all the books herself. Although this year will see it reach 500, OUP has already commissioned dozens more, and is planning publications ahead as far as 2018. So what does it think people will want to learn about next? Look out for titles in the next two years on Eugenics, Populism, Islamic Ethics, War and Technology, Pandemics and, indeed, The Future.
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