The Nineteenth-Century Literary Marketplace Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Representative Works

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 of:
The Abbey of Clugny. 3 vols. (novel) 1795
Count St. Blancard, or the Prejudiced Judge. 3 vols. (novel) 1795

Royal Literary Fund,...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Richard D. Altick (essay date 1957)

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...

(The entire section is 10515 words.)

James Hepburn (essay date 1968)

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.

(The entire section is 7336 words.)

Victor Bonham-Carter (essay date 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 9115 words.)

Criticism: The British Literary Marketplace

Robin Myers (essay date 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 10603 words.)

Gaye Tuchman (essay date 1989)

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,...

(The entire section is 10110 words.)

Lee Erickson (essay date 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 9945 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 11438 words.)

Criticism: The American Literary Marketplace

William Charvat (essay date 1959)

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...

(The entire section is 6512 words.)

James J. Barnes (essay date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 13215 words.)

Charles Johanningsmeier (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 14223 words.)

Criticism: Women In The Literary Marketplace

Nigel Cross (essay date 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 18256 words.)

Susan Coultrap-McQuin (essay date 1990)

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 entire section is 12638 words.)

Catherine A. Judd (essay date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 7504 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 640 words.)