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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Ringing the Changes

[Not sure how much general interest this post will have, but I'm sure my fellow booksellers, along with publisher and author friends, will light on some of the quoted lines like ducks on June bugs.] 
From the earliest times, booksellers sprang up with mushroom uncertainty and irregularity, and, again like fungoid growth, they passed into nothingness. In many instances their very names are buried in the depths of obscurity, and no amount of delving amid the strata of literary rubbish will bring them to the surface. – from Chapter IV, “Bookselling in the Seventeenth Century,” in The Earlier History of English Bookselling, by William Roberts, originally published in 1889 and reprinted in 1967
What a fate, no? To be “buried in the depths of obscurity ... amid the strata of literary rubbish”! Who would court such an end? As you see, my reading into the early history of bookselling has continued this week,. Clarification, however, is in order. In the early days of “bookselling,” the term comprised also printing and publishing.

Going back to the years before printing, we all know that “books” were literally manuscripts, that is, written by hand. And so, says Roberts, “The monks may be regarded as our very earliest booksellers.” Monasteries were able to create considerable revenue streams by the copying of books not otherwise available.
‘...The Countess of Anjou paid for a copy of the Homilies of Haimon, Bishop of Halberstadt, two hundred sheep, five quarters of wheat, and the same quantity of rye and millet.’ - Histoire Littéraire de la France par des réligieux Bénédictins, quoted in Roberts (from Robertson)
Gradually the monasteries, seeing a good thing, filled whole rooms, scriptoria, with monks engaged in this money-making activity, and it wasn’t surprising that secular copyists soon wanted in on it, too, and competition was born. But change didn’t stop there.

Along came printing. In 1450 Gutenberg printed the “Constance Mass Book.” The first known printing press in England was that of William Caxton at Westminster in 1477, and, according to my trusty friend, The Timelines of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events (New Third Revised Edition, 1991), in the year 1492 (does that date ring a bell?): "The profession of book publisher emerges, consisting of the three pursuits of type founder, printer, and bookseller."

So there you have it. Monks, or at least monasteries, were booksellers, but only with the advent of printing in the 15th century came the rise of independent publishing. The “booksellers” mentioned in my opening quote, then, were not merely shopkeepers but also printers and publishers.

The first piece of the vertically integrated profession to break off and go its own way was printing. But then, oh, the howls from printers, on the one hand, and authors, on the other, over the rapacity of “booksellers”! – who were still, you recall, publishers as much as shopkeepers and respecting nothing like copyright in either capacity. Printing was costly, but the number of copies many of any edition was set, “so that the master-printer was put to the cost of resetting his book in type, even in cases where he was certain of a larger sale.” As for the unhappy authors –
The war between the bookseller and the author almost synchronized with the introduction of printing; and it still goes merrily on! [Remember that this was written in the late 19th century.] They appear to agree only in regarding their interests as antagonistic.
Authorship was slightly younger than publishing. For some time, you see, among educated, literate people, it was considered “vulgar” to print or publish. Instead, private copies were circulated among friends – until they “fell into the hands of some enterprising bookseller.” From then on, where one publisher/seller met with success, others were eager to follow. Authorized? Hardly! So imagine the case of an author looking to make a living by his pen. Barnaby Rich wrote in the preface to his own book,
It is but a thriftless and a thankless occupation, this writing of books: a man were better to sit singing in a cobbler’s shop, for his pay is certain a penny a patch! but a book-writer, if he get sometimes a few commendations of the judicious, he shall be sure to reap a thousand reproaches of the malicious.
Roberts observes, “The howl of the author may be reckoned in an inverse ratio to the comfort and opulence of the tradesman.” ("Opulence"? Don’t look to my modest lifestyle for "opulence"!)

It’s interesting that the online behemoth (no names, please) is reintroducing vertical integration to the world of books, perhaps (retaining income stream, reducing costs drastically) phasing out printing altogether. That would leave the author completely alone, on his or her own, with no line of defense against the behemoth’s wealth and power. But we’re not quite there yet. We’ve entered a new century, but independent printers and publishers and booksellers have come into it, along with readers and writers, and this bookseller’s heart is warmed by professional authors (and I don’t want to name any and leave others out – love you all!) who recognize the value and champion the cause of independent bookstores.

The only certainty the future holds is that change will continue to occur, but aren’t we fortunate to have, for now, a ringside seat?
In the history of the whole world no movement can be pointed at whose inception involved so many issues, or whose importance has proved so universal and so enduring, as the history of books, which is practically the history of human thought himself. – William Roberts, 1889


Anonymous said...

I'll take 200 sheep for a copy of any of my books any day. How come we don't get paid like that any more? Elizabeth Buzzelli

P. J. Grath said...

Of course, that copy would have been handwritten and maybe even illuminated....

Gerry said...

Well, certain unkind critics have suggested that I write in crayon, and that I might be pretty well lit. How about 150 sheep?

BB-Idaho said...

I'm not familiar with the cost roll out on books, author cut,
publisher percent, book seller
profit, etc. But, it seems once in awhile there is a major perturbation like J.K Rowling's
works (which I have not read) which seem to attract a huge
niche readership. Textbooks, with their huge cost, seem to
be a niche of a different sort and we note the Glenn Beck books
which sell well to a certain sector. I have read some Garrison
Keillor, another niche. I am
a sucker for most history from
paleo to current times and although I buy many books, am not the type to walk into a bookstore (or even a library) and take out something I'm not interested in.
The 'kindle' thing must have an impact, but to me that is TV, not
a book!

P. J. Grath said...

There’s tons of “information” on the web about how much money writers can hope to make (leaving aside the sites saying you won’t make any), but here are two very recent, truly informative pieces for anyone who wants to read more on the subject.

Don’t quit your day job:

A new threat to American authors’ incomes:

Gerry – crayon? I don’t think so! BB, aren’t you glad you went into engineering?

Anonymous said...

- Benjamin Busch

P. J. Grath said...

Everyone, go follow Ben's link and read his piece. It's great! Thanks, Ben. And remember how we sold just about as many books in Northport as you'd sold in Ann Arbor? Dog Ears Books was proud to be the third bookstore on your nation-wide tour!