Search This Blog

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Apples Have Always Been Rolling

Someone dropped off bales of hay for the deer
I am being led to a conclusion can only be provisional at this stage, but what I’m thinking is that the world of publishing and bookselling, at least as far as the English language is concerned, has always been in a state of upheaval. One historian wrote the following in 1889, reflecting on the English book world of the 1500s:
In prosecuting an inquiry into the general state of bookselling just three hundred years ago, a frequent and not altogether explicable circumstance is that in relation to the different imprints which appear in some cases in the same year on one work. There was practically no such thing as copyright; and the moment a manuscript left the author's hand, and found its way into the printing-office, all claim on the part of the author ceased. If one bookseller had sufficient confidence to publish a poem or a play, and it proved successful, the chances were a thousand to one that rival tradesmen would offer rival copies. – William Roberts, The Earlier History of English Bookselling, 1889
Now, you know those warnings on DVD movies about piracy not being a victimless crime? It isn’t a new crime, either. Nor was it the only concern in the book world of the sixteenth century. As might readily be imagined – and, in fact, as we all learned in our history lessons back in high school – the introduction of the printing press brought challenges to political and religious authority. If ordinary people became literate and could read the Bible for themselves, what was to stop them from interpreting it for themselves? From thinking for themselves on all matter of questions?

For example, parallel to revolutions in politics and theology came a revolution in medicine, the idea that every literate Englishman might be “his own doctor.”
Just as the publication of the Bible in the vernacular eventually made ministers redundant, by selling printed matter that enabled every man to become his own doctor, which the title of one publication proposed, London bookmen undermined the legal monopoly of the traditional medical establishment and assured the success of its challengers. – Elizabeth Lane Furdell, Publishing and Medicine in Early Modern England (University of Rochester Press, 2002)
The bare notion of medical books being published in English rather than Latin was deemed dangerous by many in the Royal College of Physicians of London, those Furdell refers to as the “philosopher-kings of medicine” of the time, although Sir Thomas Elyot, author of Castle of Helth [sic], published in 1543, defended the practice by bidding his critics
“...remember that the Greeks wrote in Greeke, that Romaines in Latin, Avicinna and the other in Arabick, which were their owne proper and maternall tongues.” – quoted in Furnall, ibid.
Sixteenth-century medical books for the general public included botanicals, herbals, astrological treatises, recipe books “with lists of ingredients and directions for usage,” the line between cooking and preparation of remedies blurred in literature as well as in practice.

In early modern England, the “author” of a book (especially a foreign author whose work might be translated and published without his permission, let alone any remuneration) had little standing unless he were also a printer, and a printer might begin in a small way and work up to maintaining his own bookshop -- vertical integration at the very birth of the business of publishing and bookselling! Publishers of medical books often sold the remedies, also, in their combination bookshop/drugstores. Self-publishing and one-stop shopping!

Rivalry among printer/publisher/booksellers was fierce, too. Any “stationer” could record the name of a work (this had to be done in person) in the books kept at the Company Hall of the London Company of Stationers (“a union of printers, booksellers, bookbinders, and a few paper merchants”), which was chartered in 1557 to self-police the book trade. Along with recording the work, the union “stationer” paid a fee to register it, thus effectively blocking anyone else from publishing it, and not surprisingly cutthroat practices developed, such that “an ambitious printer ... registering a sweeping series title for anticipated books” could block rivals out of an entire topic or category.

Who owns a name? Today’s copyright and patent wars are nothing new; they have roots at least as far back as the sixteenth century.

Picture a struggling bookseller of the 1500s -- burdened with a large capital investment in printing presses, threatened by jealous physicians and clerics, harassed by government censors, set about by unscrupulous rivals – did he manage to get any sleep at all? Or did she? in those cases (and there were several) where a wife inherited her husband’s printing business and continued it herself, sometimes marrying a young apprentice printer to share the work.

The Charles Dickens biography I read recently shed a little light on nineteenth century practices, both in England and in America. Dickens had his first success, Pickwick Papers, with the publishers Chapman and Hall in London. Robert Seymour, a caricature artist, had suggested a series of sporting plates to Mr. Chapman, and Mr. Hall invited Dickens to contribute “letter-press,” or text to accompany the illustrations. The serial publication of the work was a flop (the publishers nearly abandoned it after a few numbers), but Dickens had a huge success from the subsequent book. Dickens received £2,500 and a share in the copyright, while the publishers’ profits were over £20,000. Thirty-two manuscript pages of Pickwick sold for $775 in 1895, according to Leacock, and for $35,000 in 1928. What would those pages bring today? Of course, Dickens did not see these later amounts, but he was even in his day a rich man, made rich by his writing, though others did the printing, publishing, and selling of his work.

To return to the knotty business of piracy-- the United States in the nineteenth century, at that time a young country, had no respect whatsoever for copyrights issued overseas, and Charles Dickens was terribly affronted by the publication of his works in America, earning him no royalties. In fact, while his first American tour began with loud, effusive mutual admiration and gratitude, Dickens and the Americans seeming completely in love with one another, the longer the tour went on, the more Dickens found the issue of nonpayment of royalties rankled. According to Leacock, along with slavery and tobacco-spitting it formed a triumvirate of offenses committed by the former colony.

(When did American publishers first begin paying royalties to foreign authors? The first step in that direction was the Copyright Act of 1891, but I seem to remember (vaguely) that one prestigious American publishing house was ahead of the curve, making a corporate decision to do the right thing before they were forced to it. The question is, which publisher was it? I don’t recall and am too impatient to keep searching for the answer this morning.)

Sometimes in my random reading, an unintended theme emerges, and so it has been this March. Discovering the English travel writer Norman Lewis (I have yet to read any of his novels), I find myself following a minor thread in his book The World, The World, namely, his relationship, and those of a few others, with his publisher Jonathan Cape. In 1948 Lewis took a novel to Routledge, where a friend of his regretfully told him it was “publishable ... but perhaps not for us.” It was suggested that he try Jonathan Cape, then the top of the English publishing world.

Here is one bit I liked: One man’s way of sorting through manuscripts was to read a few pages and then, if those pages passed muster, to set the manuscript aside to take home. This man read about ten manuscripts a week. The method of the second man was to read the first page of the manuscript, two or three at random from the middle, then the end, taking only about fifteen minutes at the task. Lewis remarks that he was fortunate in the pages Daniel George read from the middle of his own work. He was also fortunate in his contract with the publisher, apparently. Not so fortunate had been Mary Webb, as Lewis relates.

The publicity campaign for Webb’s Precious Bane is a story in itself (did Jonathan Cape invent hype in the 1950s?), but her treatment at the hands of her publisher were of a very different order. Sensing a bestseller, Cape bought up copyrights for Webb’s previous “near-flops,” which in the wake of Precious Bane “shared enough of the limelight to become commercially viable,” but then refused to pay “anticipatory release” of royalties.
She remained short of cash and her appeals for loans were turned down. Jonathan refused to see her and his deputy Wren Howard put her off and got his face smacked. By this time her health was failing. She was reduced to keeping a flower stall on Shrewsbury market, and with her books selling by the thousands – as they continued to do for many years – she died in near poverty. – Norman Lewis, The World, The World  (NY: Henry Holt, 1997)
Scraping along as a flower-seller until her death in “near poverty” while her books were selling “by the thousands”! There is a story! The prize studs in Jonathan Cape’s stables were T. E. Lawrence and Ian Fleming, and it was through Fleming that Lewis came to meet Ernest Hemingway, whose first book Cape had published. Mary Webb, it seems, was only the goose roasted for the others’ Christmas dinner.

A blink in time's eye
My point in all of this is simply that there probably has never been, since the beginning of books printed, published, and sold in the English language, any time when the book trade was settled and secure. Self-publishing is not new; vertical integration is not new; public desire for direct access to medical information is not new; piracy is not new. 

We tend to think of the constant change and reshuffling of our own time as the upsetting of a long-stable apple cart, but the truth seems more like a continual upsetting over the course of more than five hundred years. 

All God's creatures scrabbling to make a living --


Gerry said...

I loved "We tend to think of the constant change and reshuffling of our own time as the upsetting of a long-stable apple cart, but the truth seems more like a continual upsetting over the course of more than five hundred years."

I think that applies to every aspect of history, including the way we use and mis-use the land. The way that boom is followed by bust, as the lumbermen, railroads, oil drillers, developers--fill in the blank--depart, leaving a ruined landscape to the shell-shocked (and now unemployed) residents. I just finished George Packer's The Unwinding. I am on a tear.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, when people speak of the "global economy" as something new, I always think of the market for beaver hats in England and trapping in North America. When men stopped wearing beaver hats, a lot of trappers were up a creek.