The Nineteenth-Century Literary Marketplace
The Nineteenth-Century Literary Marketplace
The nineteenth century brought about dramatic changes in the production and distribution of books and periodicals in Europe and America. Technological innovations, economic changes, and social and political factors together resulted in an explosion of printed material designed to meet the needs of an increasingly literate population. Authors once dependent on the support of literary patrons or subscriptions were now subject to the greed of publishers and the whims of public taste, which often tended toward the simplistic and sensational.
Technological developments in the early part of the nineteenth century, among them improvements in the printing press and the invention of steam-powered printing machines, made possible the rapid dissemination of information to the growing populations of Europe and America via the newspaper. According to Marjorie Plant, “the newspaper, which in former years had served as a basis of gossip or as a means of literary intercourse, had come to be an essential source of commercial information.” Increased literacy rates brought the demand for greater access to books as well; the middle class could obtain the latest novels from private circulating libraries, but the poor were unable to afford the fees they charged. Although a small number of public libraries had existed in England from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they were of little use to the general reading public. Few had endowments that would enable them to add to their original collections, and most were devoted almost exclusively to religious tracts and antiquities. Richard D. Altick suggests that libraries did little to encourage visits from the poor and even those institutions that were in theory “public,” such as the reading room of the British Museum, were in fact limited to those with connections to important members of the government.
Despite increased readership throughout the nineteenth century, authors were often impoverished due to a variety of factors ranging from the greed of publishers to the vagaries of copyright law. The first Copyright Statute in 1709 favored the publishers who could buy copyrights from authors and hold them in perpetuity; authors, meanwhile, could hold their own copyrights for a limit of twenty-eight years. Writers in need of money would often sell their copyrights for a flat fee and if the book became successful, they would see none of the profits, which could be considerable. Others operated on the half-profit system, whereby author and publisher split the profits after expenses were met. Many authors complained that production costs were inflated by unscrupulous publishers and even best sellers yielded no profits to their authors. James Hepburn describes conditions in 1847: “Only one book in thirty brings any money at all to the author; on the rest he either makes nothing or loses.” Until 1891, due to loopholes in international copyright law, American publishers frequently pirated the work of British authors, which hurt writers in both countries since there was no incentive for publishers to pay royalties to American authors when the work of British authors could be obtained for free. Writers on both sides of the Atlantic, with the exception of established, well-known authors, were hard pressed to earn a living from their trade. Such writers often obtained temporary relief from the Royal Literary Fund, founded in 1790 to provide financial assistance to authors in need. Petitioners normally had to have their requests sponsored by a prominent citizen or government official.
While members of the middle class had difficulty achieving financial success from their writing, members of the upper class were constrained from making money in the book trade—either as writers or as publishers—by a tradition that suggested such work was not respectable. Gaye Tuchman reports that “literary histories abound in stories of how ladies and gentlemen sought to avoid the opprobrium of having their names on their poems or novels. They did not want it known that they had written for money.” Women, especially, would face condemnation if it became known that they wrote for financial gain, one reason so many of them produced their works anonymously or under a pseudonym. Tuchman offers the example of Fanny Burney, who wrote at night in order to hide her activity from her parents, and who sent her brother in disguise to communicate with her publisher.
Even as writing became more respectable and more profitable later in the century, serious authors were forced to consider the changing tastes of their readership. According to Lee Erickson, “the standards of style and tone inevitably suffered as authors sought to accommodate their greatly enlarged audience, while those concerned with creating new literary forms (especially the poets) quickly became alienated.” Serious literature was subsidized by the British government in the form of the Civil List pension, usually granted to older writers whose works were no longer popular; Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Southey were among the recipients of Civil List pensions. Critics claimed that the pensions—which had to be procured for authors by members of the government or those in positions of power outside the government—were actually rewards for authors' support of government policies. Erickson reports that more liberal writers, such as Robert Browning, expressed, through their poetry, their “disdain for those co-opted by the government.”
In America, in addition to the problems caused by violations of the copyright laws, authors suffered from prejudice that favored English literature over American. Early in the century the new nation had not yet developed a national culture of its own and both publishers and readers preferred the products of England's established literary tradition. By mid-century, though, American authors were successfully producing novels—the preferred genre—often in serialized form in periodicals such as Harper's Monthly. William Charvat reports that there was little market for short fiction, as illustrated by the career of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose collections of tales were unprofitable. “He had tried five times in twenty-five years to circumvent this fact by setting a group of tales in a framework which would make them resemble a novel, but publishers were not interested,” according to Charvat. The boom and bust cycle of the American economy also had a profound effect on the book trade. James J. Barnes's examination of the effects of the 1837-1843 depression on American publishing found that hard-pressed consumers who could still afford reading material often preferred cheap periodicals over more expensive books. As a result, prices for both books and periodicals fell drastically and even when times got better, Barnes reports, “a mania for cheapness had descended upon the trade, and things would never be the same again.”
The hardships that befell writers in general afflicted women writers even more. Nigel Cross has studied their situation in nineteenth-century Britain and claims that female authors were inevitably paid less than their male counterparts and were excluded almost entirely from certain categories of literature such as history and literary criticism. While women were discouraged from entering the profession, there were few other options open to them if they had no independent source of income. Examining the records of the Literary Fund, Cross notes that “the majority of women began writing to support their families, errant husbands included, or to survive as widows or discarded wives.” Desperate financial straits forced many women to accept a pittance for their work in advance since they could ill afford to wait until their books turned a profit. There were, of course, numerous exceptions to this bleak picture. In Britain, the works of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë were tremendously successful, and in America, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Louisa May Alcott enjoyed widespread popularity. Nonetheless, publishers treated successful female authors differently. Susan Coultrap-McQuin recounts a story of the twentieth anniversary dinner of Atlantic Monthly magazine, held in Boston in 1877. The guests included prominent contributors to the magazine such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain. However, despite the large percentage of female contributors to the Atlantic over the twenty-year period, not a single woman was invited to participate in the celebration.
House of Longman (1724)
Important British publishing house established by Thomas Longman. Noted for producing high-quality reference titles as well as fictional works, Longman published some of the best-known dictionaries and thesauruses of the nineteenth century.
Authors published by Longman include:
Samuel Johnson, author of:
A Dictionary of the English Language. 2 vols. [editor] (dictionary) 1755
Peter Mark Roget, author of:
Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases [editor] (dictionary) 1852
Sir Walter Scott, author of:
Rob Roy. 3 vols. (novel) 1818
William Wordsworth, author of:
Lyrical Ballads [with Samuel Taylor Coleridge] (poetry) 1798
The Excursion, Being a Portion of The Recluse, a Poem (poetry) 1814
Civil List Act of 1782 (England)
Edmund Burke's legislation to provide pensions to writers unable to sustain themselves through their work.
Minerva Press (1790)
Minerva Press, British publishers of sentimental and Gothic fiction, founded by William Lane. Produced large quantities of ephemeral literature, most authored by obscure writers.
Authors published by Minerva include:
Robert Bage, author of:
Hermsprong; or, Man as he is not. 3 vols. (novel) 1796
Mark Meeke, author...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Altick, Richard D. “Public Libraries.” In The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900, pp. 213-39. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.
[In the following excerpt, Altick examines early public libraries in England, many of which were devoted to theological works and antiquities of little interest to the general reader.]
As early as the fifteenth century, posthumous benevolence in England sometimes took the form of library endowment. Here and there, instead of leaving part of one's fortune to found and maintain a grammar school, or to relieve future generations of the worthy poor, a decedent provided for the establishment of a library which he usually directed was to be freely open to the public. In Bristol one such library (endowed by various members of the Kalendars guild) was begun in 1464, and a second in 1613. In Manchester the merchant and cloth-manufacturer Humphrey Chetham, who died in 1653, left a fund to establish a library bearing his name. In London in 1685, Rev. Thomas Tenison, then rector of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields and later Archbishop of Canterbury, varied the pattern by performing the same worthy act during his lifetime. When some thirty or forty young clergymen in his parish told him they repaired to taverns and coffee-houses only because they had no books to read, he forthwith built a library for them....
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SOURCE: Hepburn, James. “The Historical Background: The Long Quarrel Between Author and Publisher.” In The Author's Empty Purse and the Rise of the Literary Agent, pp. 4-21. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.
[In the following excerpt, Hepburn discusses the animosity between authors and publishers in the nineteenth century, theorizing that this tension was the result of developing ideas about ownership and originality, and the uneasy relationship between art and commerce.]
What, art thou not cured of scribbling yet?
No, scribbling is as impossible to cure as the gout.
And as sure a sign of poverty as the gout of riches.
—Henry Fielding, The Author's Farce, 1730
According to Samuel Smiles, it was Thomas Campbell and not Byron who said that Barabbas was a publisher. Whoever it was, by the early nineteenth century the publisher was fit subject for the suspicions of authors, having by then established himself as the dominant figure in the commerce of books. A hundred years before, he was just coming into prominence as an independent figure; and in these and earlier years he had to share his dubious character with the printer, the bookseller, and the patron. The root of the trouble lay in the profession of authorship itself. When Chaucer complained of...
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SOURCE: Bonham-Carter, Victor. “Chapter Four.” In Authors By Profession, Vol. 1, pp. 71-89. Los Altos, Calif.: William Kaufmann Inc., 1978.
[In the following excerpt, Bonham-Carter discusses developments in international copyright law in the mid-nineteenth century and the founding of the Society of British Authors.]
It has been shown how, after about 1830, periodicals and part publication provided authors with the main means of communicating new works to the public en masse. Such means did not inhibit publication in volume form, indeed serialisation usually preceded it, by which time a work could be issued as a relatively cheap reprint. But to launch a new book in volume form tended to restrict sales owing to cost—a ‘three-decker’ novel being commonly priced at 31s 6d the set.
In 1823 there were only a handful of guinea-and-a-half novels, but by 1840 fifty-one out of fifty-eight new novels bore this price … The result was that fiction-lovers flocked, not to the bookshops, but to the circulating libraries … and the libraries became more firmly established as the publishers' best customers. Publishers could afford to be indifferent to the fact that they had priced their wares out of the individual buyer's reach: so long as the libraries took a substantial part of an edition, their profit was safe … The average edition of a serious book was around...
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Criticism: The British Literary Marketplace
SOURCE: Myers, Robin. “Writing for Booksellers in the Early Nineteenth Century: A Case Study.” In Author/Publisher Relations During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, edited by Robin Myers and Michael Harris, pp. 119-55. Oxford: Oxford Polytechnic Press, 1983.
[In the following essay, portions of which previously appeared in the British Library Journal, Myers describes the grim life of an early nineteenth-century journalist and literary hack, Joseph Timothy Haydn, who wrote for forty years and barely earned enough to support himself and his family.]
To become an author by profession is to have no other means of subsistence than such as are extracted from the quill; and no-one believes these to be so precarious as they really are, until disappointed, distressed and thrown out of every pursuit which can maintain independence, the noblest mind is cast into the lot of a doomed labourer. Literature abounds with instances of ‘Authors by Profession’ accommodating themselves to this condition … merely to ‘Keep his Mutton twirling at the Fire’.1
Isaac D'Israeli's picture is supported by Michael Harris's description of the operations of the ‘penny-a-liners’ who scratched a bare living in eighteenth-century Grub Street.2 The disreputable, nondescript gentlemen of the Press gave way, in the early nineteenth...
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SOURCE: Tuchman, Gaye. “Writers and the Victorian Publishing System.” In Edging Women Out: Victorian Novelists, Publishers, and Social Change, by Gaye Tuchman with Nina E. Fortin, pp. 22-44. Binghamton, N.Y.: Vail-Ballou Press, 1989.
[In the following excerpt, Tuchman explores the Victorian writer's dependence on publishers, some of whom were interested in appealing to the masses and earning short-term profits, and others who were devoted to the production of high-culture texts that would amass profits over a long period of time.]
To grasp the opportunities and obstacles that women novelists confronted, one must understand the position of all Victorian authors, especially their dependence on publishers. Then as now, authors needed to locate a publishing house willing to invest its capital to transform their manuscripts into books.1 Especially when not well established, an author may be financially at the publisher's mercy, for publishers do not issue books for the sheer pleasure of doing so.
Book publishing is a culture industry. By this we mean that publishers and those with whom they are associated—writers, printers, and, in the nineteenth century, circulating libraries—deal in books to make money. To earn profits, they produce books that they expect will appeal to contemporary readers and perhaps to posterity as well. Even when a publisher invests in a book that he...
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SOURCE: Erickson, Lee. “Traffic in the Heart: English Literature in the Publishing Market.” In The Economy of Literary Form: English Literature and the Industrialization of Publishing, 1800-1850, pp. 170-90. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
[In the following excerpt, Erickson discusses the pressures of the marketplace on nineteenth-century authors, many of whom were forced to abandon their literary standards to meet the demands of their audiences.]
Just think what a horrible condition of life it is that any man of common vulgar wit, who knows English grammar, can get, for a couple of sheets of chatter in a magazine, two-thirds of what Milton got altogether for Paradise Lost!
—John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera
English publishing in the early nineteenth century expanded at an even greater rate than it had in the eighteenth century and followed the rise in the general standard of living and the growth of the economy. As the audience for printed material increased, innovation in and development of printing technology were encouraged and they brought into being economies of scale that dramatically drove down the relative cost of books despite a rising demand for them. Within a decade the technological developments lowered the cost of books by roughly half and brought into being further economies of...
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Criticism: The French Literary Marketplace
SOURCE: Barbier, Frédéric. “The Publishing Industry and Printed Output in Nineteenth-Century France.” In Books and Society in History, edited by Kenneth Carpenter, pp. 199-230. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1983.
[In the following essay, Barbier explains the growth and evolution of the publishing industry in nineteenth-century France, focusing on changes in marketing and demographics.]
In recent years, French as well as foreign scholars1 have cast light on the profound changes in the economics of publishing that occurred in the nineteenth century. Nearly four centuries after the Gutenberg revolution, there took place what can be called the “second revolution of the book.” It was characterized, first of all, by an enormous jump in the bulk of printed output, in which the periodical press played an ever increasing role. Simultaneously, production and distribution were radically altered. Yet, despite this transformation, which is at the basis of the publishing industry as we know it today, only a few monographs have dealt with the subject. Indeed, one must concede, a synthesis is to a large extent beyond the present state of our knowledge.2
The goal of this chapter is to gather into a coherent picture all the information we possess on the evolution of printed output in nineteenth-century France3 and to show how it was affected by the economic and social...
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Criticism: The American Literary Marketplace
SOURCE: Charvat, William. “Author and Publisher.” In Literary Publishing in America, 1790-1850, pp. 38-60. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959.
[In the following excerpt, Charvat explains the relationship between nineteenth-century American authors and the evolving publishing business.]
The first era of successful professional authorship in America began in the years 1819 to 1821 with the publication of Irving's Sketch Book and James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy. The twenty years that followed were notable for a tremendous expansion of the national economy. Except for minor recessions in the late twenties and in 1834 and 1837, which the book trade duly reflected,1 it was, to use Irving's phrase, a time of “unexampled prosperity.” Equally unexampled in the history of the profession were Irving's income of ＄23,500 in the year 1829—all from books—and Cooper's average of ＄6,500 a year in the 1820's. No first-rate author of the brilliant fifties—the years of the American renaissance—came even close to such affluence. The reasons are many; for the major ones we must look into the book trade economy and the changes in it between 1820 and 1850.
On December 19, 1819, Mathew Carey of Philadelphia—publisher, bookseller, and chief jobber for the southern states, sent what was probably, in America, a record-breaking order for a purely...
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SOURCE: Barnes, James J. “The Depression of 1837-43 and Its Implications for the American Book Trade.” In Authors, Publishers, and Politicians: The Quest for an Anglo-American Copyright Agreement, 1815-1854, pp. 1-29. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974.
[In the following excerpt, Barnes traces the devastating effects on American publishing of the 1837-43 depression, which brought about a long-lasting emphasis on producing literature as cheaply as possible.]
Perhaps nothing in the nineteenth century so influenced the American book trade as the depression of 1837-43. Established firms faltered but somehow carried on. New publishers sprang up only to disappear a few years later amidst the ranks of debtors and insolvents. Editors moved from one journal to another, seeking to stave off the inevitable. Prices for books and periodicals fell lower and lower, till proprietors began to wonder if it would not be cheaper to suspend business altogether. A mania for cheapness had descended upon the trade, and things would never be the same again.
England was undergoing a rather similar time of trouble, but this was small comfort to the average American bookman. If he paid any attention to the economics of the situation, he knew that British sterling was at a high premium, and American bank notes almost worthless. This was especially true in the spring and summer of 1837. It was brought...
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SOURCE: Johanningsmeier, Charles. “What Literary Syndicates Represented to Authors: Saviors, Dictators, or Something In-Between.” In Fiction and the American Literary Marketplace: The Role of Newspaper Syndicates, 1860-1900, pp. 99-125. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
[In the following excerpt, Johanningsmeier examines the relationship between late nineteenth-century authors and the literary syndicates, which often provided lesser-known authors with an opportunity to broaden their readership.]
A great many stories are published in the papers and sent out by these syndicates, but the competition of writers is so exceedingly great in this matter that the rates are not worth working for.
William H. Hills, editor of The Writer, 1888
The Sunday newspaper magazine, supplied with fiction by the syndicates, “has lifted the man of letters out of the slough of despond and given him a chance in the struggle for existence. It has eliminated Grub street [sic], and has enabled genius to market its literary wares at a figure somewhat commensurate with their value. The author of merit no longer burns the midnight oil in a garret; oftener than otherwise he revels in the blaze of electricity and lives in marble halls, because he is able to reach a world of readers through the Sunday magazine. That he can...
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Criticism: Women In The Literary Marketplace
SOURCE: Cross, Nigel. “The Female Drudge: Women Novelists and their Publishers.” In The Common Writer: Life in Nineteenth-Century Grub Street, pp. 164-203. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
[In the following excerpt, Cross documents the economic hardships common to nineteenth-century women writers, torn between society's expectations of the female's proper role and the necessity of earning a living.]
Throughout the nineteenth century and especially in the Victorian age women writers were distinguished from men not so much by their works as by their sex. Women of such different styles and temperaments as Caroline Norton, Charlotte Yonge and George Eliot were lumped together in the catalogues and literary histories simply because they were women. There were no books or articles on Notable Male Authors of the Day, Silly Male Novelists, the Masculine Lyric, Memoirs of the Literary Gentlemen of England. There is undoubtedly a womanly quality in the best work of women writers which cannot be concealed behind a male pseudonym. Few doubted that Currer Bell, the author of Jane Eyre, was a woman, even if only one who, in Lady Eastlake's words, had ‘long forfeited the society of her sex’.1 Conversely, it is often extremely difficult to distinguish the sex of inferior writers: many young men read John Strange Winter's tales of military life, never dreaming that the secrets of the...
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SOURCE: Coultrap-McQuin, Susan. “Why Try a Writing Career?: The Ambiguous Cultural Context for Women Writers of the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” In Doing Literary Business: American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 2-26. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Coultrap-McQuin discusses the overt discrimination against women writers by the male literary establishment and publishing industry in nineteenth-century America.]
On December 17, 1877, H. O. Houghton and Company, publishers of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, hosted a dinner party to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their literary magazine and the seventieth birthday of one of its major contributors, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Among the sixty guests were such famous writers as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Held in the East Room of the fashionable Hotel Brunswick in Boston, the event included a seven-course dinner, served with various wines and followed by lively speeches marking the historic occasion.1 But one group of Atlantic contributors was missing. Women had not been invited to the celebration, even though they were a considerable percentage of the contributors to the Atlantic in the 1870s, had been a significant part of the American literary community since before the...
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SOURCE: Judd, Catherine A. “Male Pseudonyms and Female Authority in Victorian England.” In Literature in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century British Publishing and Reading Practices, edited by John O. Jordan and Robert L. Patten, pp. 250-68. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Judd examines the practice of female authors writing under male pseudonyms in the nineteenth century and finds that their reasons for doing so were various and complex.]
It has become a critical commonplace to assert that the use of male pseudonyms by Victorian women writers, especially domestic novelists, illustrates the repression and victimization of the female writer. Male pseudonyms, so the argument goes, bespeak the struggle of women writers for authority and acceptance. By shrouding the “disability” of femininity, male pseudonyms offered a way for women to overcome the prejudices of the marketplace. Patricia Lorimer Lundberg, for example, asserts that “female writers, especially those nineteenth-century novelists struggling to write in a patriarchal society, often have taken male pseudonyms to disguise their identities.”1 In specifying “especially … nineteenth-century novelists” as needing to hide behind a male pseudonym, Lundberg's assertion dodges the question of why femininity would disable domestic novelists more than it would women writing in other genres....
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Myers, Robin. The British Book Trade From Caxton to the Present Day. London: André Deutsch, 1973, 405 p.
Provides a bibliographical guide to issues of authorship, bookbinding, printing, publishing, and bookselling.
Barnes, James J. Free Trade in Books: A Study of the London Book Trade Since 1800. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964, 198 p.
Discusses various booksellers' committees and associations, the relationship of publishers and authors, and the introduction of inexpensive literature.
Baym, Nina. Novels, Readers, and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984, 287 p.
Examines the distribution and reception of American novels, primarily concentrating on the years 1840-1860.
Briggs, Asa, ed. Essays in the History of Publishing in Celebration of the 250th Anniversary of the House of Longman 1724-1974. London: Longman, 1974, 468 p.
Provides a collection of essays on the history of publishing in general and on the House of Longman in particular.
Collins, A. S. The Profession of Letters: A Study of the Relation of Author to Patron, Publisher, and Public, 1780-1832. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1929, 279 p.
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