In the eighteenth century, copyright shares were sold and bought by established booksellers at auctions
In the eighteenth century, copyright shares were sold and bought by established booksellers at auctions

In this post, I would like to put in conversation James Raven’s The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade with some of the works I’ve previously read, some of which have been recent nonfiction works and others early novels. Both Catherine Seville’s Literary Copyright Reform in Early Victorian England: The Framing of the 1842 Copyright Act and Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class pursue a different approach to understanding book history and culture, yet some of the topics they address, such as British copyright law and education, cross paths with Raven’s work. Unlike Seville and Rose, Raven is concerned with presenting books as a commodity within a burgeoning print market. His perspective is a business one but also emphasizes the ways in which the book trade was dependent on copyright law or the sale of copyright as a “tradable asset” (126). Additionally, Raven attempts to chart the history of the book trade since its inception, and so, details moments in history that highlight the significance of the sale of copyrighted work for successful bookselling. Raven’s work illustrates how many entities within the book trade, including bookselling publishers, printers, distributers, and binders, depended on the sale of copyrighted work.

Pamela with the incorrigible Mr. B.
Pamela with the incorrigible Mr. B.

Raven cites Richard B. Sher’s study of the publishing market during the British Enlightenment, agreeing with its conclusion that contractual agreement between author and bookseller was more diverse than the usual “surrender of copyright [by the author]  in advance of publication” (242). Some authors devised a profit-sharing plan with booksellers while others sold their copyright to more than one bookseller. Some, like Samuel Richardson, resorted to self-publication and received handsome profits from their printing business. As a printer and publisher, Richardson determined the length, content, and style of his work. He wrote his novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded in two volumes, often revising and editing it according to public taste. Although it is written in the epistolary mode, it also paved the path for a newly developing genre, namely the novel. Its content is daring and controversial as it focused on a female protagonist who defies both gender and class norms. Richardson, unlike most authors, had the authority to both experiment with his writing and promote its moral value. For instance, he acts as both an editor and author, when in his title he not only extols his work but also claims to be offering a truthful account of historical events.

Rose contends that in the eighteenth century, working class readers read classical works, such as Shakespeare and Robinson Crusoe, for their appeal to common man ideals. Raven, however, notes that “antiquarian” (194) books began to gain fashionability in the second half of the eighteenth century, and so, were significantly expensive (194). While Rose argues that it is because canonized works were cheap and accessible that the working class reader appropriated them, Raven elaborates that “imported books with good binding” were of high-value, and therefore,  inaccessible commodities. Thus, it might have been reprints and second-hand books that accounted for working class’s growing literacy. Like Seville, Raven argues that the business of second-hand books proved to be one of the most successful. Booksellers in not only Britain but also in Scotland and Ireland printed and sold books outside the bounds of copyright law.

The mechanical, steam-powered printer enabled mass production, permitting growing literacy rates in the nineteenth century
The mechanical, steam-powered printer enabled mass production, permitting growing literacy rates in the nineteenth century

Raven also warns readers of conflating literacy rates in the eighteenth century as the prices of books and periodicals fell during the early nineteenth century. This was primarily because of the advent of mechanical, steam-powered printing (222). According to Raven, it was in the nineteenth century that the working class was introduced to a highly commercialized print culture. He contends that prior to this change, working class readers had at their disposal “The humble almanac, chapbook, and broadside” (262), arguing instead, that it was the changing social context in which people read newspapers that contributed to an increase in literacy.

Although Raven, Seville, and Rose’s works pursue different perspective on the book trade, Raven particularly focusing on international influences on the books trade, much of the conclusions that they arrive at focus on some of the same questions and concerns, namely the influence of the book trade on literacy rates or the law. All offer illuminating accounts of print culture and history that further inform one’s understanding of literature and writing at that time.

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