It is more than a little ironic that Stephen Bourne, who confesses to having been 'not particularly interested in books' while he was studying modern languages at Edinburgh University, should now be chief executive of the world's oldest printers, Cambridge University Press, which traces its origins to a 16th-century grant of 'letters patent' by King Henry VIII of England. There is an extra twist: when visiting Hong Kong recently as part of a worldwide celebration of 425 years of continual publishing, he was also overseeing a significant reduction of the company's workforce in England. A new electronic age of publishing - of which Kindle might be the most prominent example - pays little heed to traditional methods, no matter how distinguished their pedigree. 'Having to cut the workforce is awful, just awful,' says Bourne, who first came to Hong Kong in 1977 as a fledgling accountant. 'Negotiations are still going on, but we will end up with about 100 printers and we will have fewer as time goes on. For many of those we are letting go printing is all they know, so we are looking at getting retraining for them. 'Publishing is a desperate business right now; I know of at least 10 companies which have failed in the last couple of years and nobody wants to be in it. 'We are the only significant publisher outside the news industry in Britain with our own presses. People might ask why we keep going, but I'm a fighter. I struggled for eight years to show a profit after joining the Press 12 years ago while the market fell away.' Diversification has proved the only way forward and sales are now a reasonably healthy GBP200million (HK$2.27 billion) a year, with 16 per cent growth compared to the previous year. The educational side of the business, as opposed to academic publishing, is up about 26 per cent. 'We have about 25,000 authors on our royalty rolls, with around half of those in the US and half of them in California. We have many in this part of the world too, such as Professor Amy Tsui [Bik-may] at the University of Hong Kong. 'Books are going to be with us for some time, but in about 50 years I would venture to say that they will have become a niche product, something for people who appreciate fine things. Already academic journals are online, especially scientific ones, and the technology is around to print one-offs rather than several hundreds or thousands.' Bourne's game plan to ensure Cambridge University Press makes it as far as its next significant anniversary embraces modern technology, with a breadth of vision and commitment. 'Firstly we are looking at overseas markets - in times like these we are really glad that around half our income is in US dollars,' he says. 'We are also broadening our markets, looking beyond the purely academic, although our back list is extensive and accounts for about 4 per cent of our earnings - especially towards English-language teaching, which is a very attractive business. 'Our other main thrust is towards online digital publishing: we have an extensive digital archive of great interest to academic institutions. If there's one book in a library only one person can borrow it, but if it's online, 100 people can read it at the same time.' The Press is also looking at increasing its offerings beyond just books by providing additional teaching materials to accompany textbooks, and wherever possible customising its products to suit local markets. 'This might be something relatively simple like providing pronunciation guides that would be especially relevant to residents of Beijing, something that would fit in with the local accent; or again, it might address certain points of grammar that a Chinese learning English would stumble over, but which would seem quite straightforward to a Portuguese, for example.' The problems of the Press are exacerbated by the global economic situation, but Bourne notes that 'education is not discretionary'. 'I love publishing, love it,' says Bourne with a broad grin. 'My wife is as sick as a parrot as she always wanted to go into academic publishing, but she was employed by the government here and is still very good friends with one of her old colleagues, Donald Tsang. 'I'm 57 and I intend to stay in the job for a maximum of eight years. Both our children are at university. I tell them a career is about what you do, and the satisfaction you gain from it, not about what you earn. 'I'm ending my career on a pinnacle and these are such interesting times nobody in their right mind would walk away now.'