A History of British Publishing

John Feather

For a writer to encounter a history of British publishing by an academic librarian that treats books merely as items of commerce and defines the publisher as "the capitalist of the world of books" is both humbling and infuriating.

There is nothing inherently wrong about a book that takes a supply-and-demand approach to literature; in fact, every aspiring writer with dreams of immortality should perhaps be required to read Professor Feather's cold anatomy of the mechanics of publishing. But there is something chilling, to my mind, about a book about books that says so little about the passions of authorship, reading and book collecting.

Of course this comment is totally unfair. John Feather, who is Professor of Library and Information Studies at the University of Loughborough in Leicestershire, has accomplished thoroughly and carefully what he set out to do: to produce a concise and accessible history of the business of publishing in Britain.

The principal themes of his book are "the organizational role of the publisher" and the "the central importance of copyright." Both are expertly explored as he leads us from the book trade before the invention of printing, when manuscript books were available only to the rich and powerful, to the paperback world of today when books are available in every supermarket and drugstore. Along the way he describes the evolution of the industry from a medieval craft guild tightly controlled by the state to an association of merchant-publishers in the seventeenth century striving to find a modus vivendi between "licence and liberty."

Feather's pages are crammed with information, all of it carefully documented. From the beginning, as he informs us, the publishing industry "relied on books which could command a large market." By the middle of the sixteenth century, "how-to" books on such subjects as law and medicine, almanacs, and books of prognostication were being published alongside classical authors from antiquity, academic books, and religious works. By the end of that century, according to Professor Feather, "literature, in the broadest sense, had become a commercial commodity."

As the industry expanded, it struggled to reconcile freedom of expression with restriction of trade. This history makes it clear where the interests of publishers usually resided. Acquiring and protecting rights in literary works and maintaining an orderly market protected from outside competition were their constant preoccupations. Only in the nineteenth century, when the spread of literacy and mass production of books created an unprecedented demand for new works, did publishers turn their eyes from marketing books to the process of making them. Authors, aided later by agents, began to claim a share of their attention and profits.

As an example of commercial considerations dictating literary form, Professor Feather cites the influence that circulating libraries in England had on the publication of three-volume novels in the mid-1890s. Between 1894 and 1897, annual production of "three-deckers" dropped from 184 to four simply because circulating libraries decided that single-volume works would be more profitable. The change had nothing to do with the preferences of writers or shifts in public taste.

The invention of Penguin paperbacks in 1933--those slim volumes that became a trademark of aspiring intellectuals during my adolescence--is similarly brought down to earth. Not only was the format copied from a German model by British publisher Allen Lane but the bold experiment might have been a dismal failure had not Woolworth's decided to stock Penguins in 1935.

Professor Feather's book contains so much enlightening information that it seems almost petty to wonder if it might not more accurately have been called a history of British book publishing. References to newspaper, magazine and pamphlet publication are few. Although the author mentions in his preface that about 40% of British book publishing is for export, he pays little attention to the importance of this market for publishers or the impact of this activity on Britain's colonies. More serious, in a book first published in 1988, is the failure to relate publishing in Britain to the international publishing conglomerates that have taken shape in the 1980s or to describe the consequences of computerization on the production of books and the economics of publishing.

And I waited in vain, as I read the chapter on "The Publishers and Authors" in Victorian England, for at least a mention of "New Grub Street," George Gissing's classic portrait of London's literary society at that time. It might have qualified Professor Feather's rather nonchalant comment that "almost all the major Victorian novelists, a few poets and many minor authors found themselves very wealthy indeed by the end of their careers." Forgotten in this assessment were all the struggling journalists, authors and poets for whom a librarian's salary would have seemed riches indeed and who were sustained by a passion for literature which this book only dimly reflects.



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