The Nineteenth-Century Literary Marketplace Introduction - Essay


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.