Any Final Say in War of Words?

Review of Andrew Malcolm, The Remedy

The Times Higher Education Supplement, 30 March 2001
(with some editorial changes reversed)
Andrew Malcolm has written two excellent books – an engaging and original introduction to philosophy in dialogue form, and this gripping story of the alleged ineptitude and skulduggery with which he was treated by a publisher to whom he offered it. But because he has published both books himself (without indexes, criminally), they have not been accorded the coverage or achieved the sales they deserve. Indeed, the almost total silence of the media is mildly sinister.

Why was Malcolm not published in the normal way? Because he fell victim to an internal disagreement at Oxford University Press, one of whose senior executives overruled an editor’s favourable view of Malcolm’s first book. The editor liked this unusual work, Making Names, despite its rejection by numerous other publishers, and decided to stick his neck out and publish it.

As at any university press, this decision had to be ratified by an internal committee and by the board of dons (‘Delegates’ at OUP) finally responsible for its publishing decisions. The editor was confident of this ratification, if only because at that point he had the strong support – later withdrawn for reasons he never fully understood – of one of the Delegates. So he told Malcolm what he wanted to do, mentioning the formal limit to his authority, but also saying that he foresaw no problems.

How wrong he was. The Press committee happened to be chaired on the relevant occasion by the aforementioned executive, who refused support and even issued the editor with a disciplinary warning (overturned by an internal tribunal) for supposedly exceeding his authority. What he could not know was that this was the one author in a million who would refuse to accept what he understandably saw as being mucked about. Malcolm sued.

Many years of Dickensian litigation followed. Malcolm lost the case but won on appeal. He claimed that he effectively had a contract with OUP, even though no formal document had been issued. Amid shoals of expensive red herrings, this claim was upheld and OUP paid very substantial undisclosed damages in an out-of-court settlement. This outcome was certainly in accord with natural justice. As the original judge put it: ‘Mr Malcolm has been harshly and unfairly treated. I think he had a strong moral [...] commitment.’ He was a David pitted against a Goliath, a litigant in person confronted by legal experts, and one would like to cheer unreservedly at his victory. However, the appeal judgement did not reflect the facts.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the trial was Malcolm’s reliance on tape-recordings of telephone conversations with the editor, made without permission. But this evidence was not complete. On one occasion, Malcolm rang the editor back, after a long conversation about revisions to his typescript, to ask whether he could go straight ahead with them or should wait for the formalities. Rather crucially, the editor, stressed in the witness box, forgot that this exchange was separate from its predecessor, into the transcript of which it plainly did not fit. His testimony was discounted by the judge. But it was especially in this conversation that the editor had made clear that his wish to publish had to be approved both by OUP management and by the Delegates.

In the face of the tortuous legal shenanigans to which he was subjected, Malcolm’s admitted obsessiveness and sense of persecution increased to the point where he cannot now trust any publisher. He has a conspiracy-theory view of the world of publishing, especially OUP. Whoever is not 100 per cent with him is utterly against him. The editor, despite his consistent support for Making Names, is accused of dishonesty and betrayal because he disagrees with Malcolm on the legal issue. Communication between the two ceased, as a result of which Malcolm embarked on an avoidable, irrelevant and heart-rendingly wasteful wild goose chase intended to prove that the Delegates had after all approved his book, which they hadn’t. The editor’s smile of commiseration at the end of the first hearing becomes a ‘sickly grin’. His voluntary departure from OUP for more congenial (full-time) employment prompts Malcolm to state that he was ‘gently relieved of his job’ and now holds a ‘sinecure’. And so on.

Malcolm’s distrust and hostility does help make the book more entertaining, if less reliable, so it is difficult to regret it too much. The Scarfean caricatures of key players are wonderful, though the relentless hyperbole and disparagement do at times become wearisome. Some of the courtroom scenes are hilarious too – Malcolm has a real gift for farce – and the portrayal of muddle and evasiveness on the part of the publishing grandees and their legal representatives is intensely tragicomic. In particular, the final speech by one of the lawyers about how to calculate lost royalties should be carefully avoided by those with weak ribs.

What might have happened in a sane world? If the executive at OUP had let Making Names through and told its editor to be more careful in future, enormous sums of money would have been saved, and we should now know whether the book had the qualities to be a critical and/or commercial success. (At one point, Malcolm showed the book to Karl Popper, who apparently gave it a warm endorsement: it would have been good to know whether his view was echoed in the philosophical community.) More importantly, Malcolm, whose talents are considerable, would have been free to live and write without this hideous shadow hanging over him.

On the other hand, without the trial, we would not have The Remedy, which every publisher and perhaps every author should read, including the useful appendices on print-on-demand publishing and on the exemption of OUP and Cambridge University Press from tax, an exemption that is hard to justify, at least as a blanket provision. It may in any case be under threat. I have just learnt that a recent ruling in the Supreme Court of India deprives OUP of its tax-exempt status in that country, leaving it liable for nearly 30 years of back taxes. Malcolm believes this may have implications for OUP in the United Kingdom and the United States, though the court’s arguments seem specific to India.

Full information on the Indian case and on Malcolm’s own action against Oxford, and much material on publishing law, can be found on his website: This voluminous precipitate of Malcolm’s ineradicable preoccupation with his lawsuit and its implications makes fascinating reading.

But where (I hear you cry) does my inside information come from? I see you haven’t guessed why I do not name the editor whose enthusiasm lit the fuse of this sad saga ...

Henry Hardy was an editor at Oxford University Press from 1977 to 1990. Now a Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, he edits the unpublished writings of Isaiah Berlin. See