Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ghosts of Publishing Past and To Come

Everyone knows about Gutenberg and the Bible, but it was William Caxton who was the first English printer of record, and who created editions of The Canterbury Tales and Le Morte d’Arthur in the fifteenth century. But note, he was a printer and entrepreneur, not a publisher as we know the term. There was no copyright, but nor were most of his authors living.

For the next few centuries, authors came to printers to have their works mechanically reproduced. They either paid for the printing themselves, or had a patron or investor who paid for the work. To the extent that a bookseller (ie, someone with a bookshop) paid for printing costs, he might be considered a publisher of sorts. There eventually arose a system by which shares were sold to investors, who would then retain rights to any profits from a book. Nevertheless, the writing was entirely the author’s responsibility, unless the writer was working for hire, usually to create a pamphlet attacking or supporting one of the political parties or, in some cases, an individual. Those writers who took on this sort of work were known as hacks, and their place of abode was Grub Street, near Westminster.

The individuals Alexander Pope rails against in his scathing Dunciad, initially published in 1728, were the booksellers and hack writers of his day—not publishing companies, which didn’t exist as yet. It is no accident that the ever-prescient Marshall McLuhan focused on Alexander Pope and the eighteenth century London book trade as a pivotal point in the history of the printed word (vide The Guttenberg Galaxy).

Around 1800, the Rivingtons and Longman were among the first in the London book trade to dispense with the retail selling of books; instead they selected works to publish, print, and subsequently sell wholesale to bookshops. In A History of British Publishing, John Feather states the definition of a modern publisher as someone who “no longer lived over the shop” (ie, didn’t sell books to the public). The further distinction is that the publisher paid for the printing but was also responsible for collecting any revenue from the booksellers and for paying the author. The man who “no longer lived over the shop” became the proprietor of a company with an office and employees.

Throughout the nineteenth century, these family businesses expanded, and others joined them. The Longman name still exists, though not as an independent company. Harper & Brothers was one of the first such companies in the United States, founded in 1817 as a printer, but operating as a publisher from 1833. Scribner’s and Dutton came later in the nineteenth century. The modern book publishing industry is scarcely 200 years old.

Writers and Publishers

Writers have thus been around far longer than either book publishers or the printing press (ie, several millennia). It is a safe bet they will be around long after book publishing as we know it has ceased to exist.

Remember, no one edited Jane Austen. No one told her where to put a comma. No one told Henry James to add more action to his narrative, though they may have tried. It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that we see publishers and their editors emerging as the overseers of the writer’s work. This trend has accelerated from the 1940s onward, to the point where the published author is often no more than a worker on an assembly line—and is treated as such.

Electronic publishing offers an opportunity to alter the dynamics of writing and publishing, to shift the power relationship in the writer’s favor to a considerable degree. Book publishers are attempting to adapt to the new technology and to incorporate it into their customary way of doing business. They will no doubt succeed, in part. But there is an entirely different business plan that emerges.

What if writers assumed responsibility for their own works, what if they hired an editor, a publicity person, and, yes, an electronic distributor as necessary? Doesn’t this at least diminish the gate keeping function as practiced by publishers, with all the clich├ęd thinking, ingrown practices, and mediocrity the traditional industry entails? No marketing meetings, no more selection of titles by committee. No more editing of manuscripts by people who don’t understand or even like them. No more coloring by the numbers.

This is an industry that, with a few exceptions, turns out a distinctly mediocre product: second-rate literary fiction, commercial thrillers that don’t thrill, practical nonfiction books that take 200 pages to tell you what could be clearly said in twenty. I don’t think all this will be swept away, but it will have less of a rationale for existing. There will be less of a safety net for mediocrity.

My guess is that some books will be a lot worse. And some will be far, far better. With millions of would-be writers clamoring for attention, the situation will be chaotic—much like the eighteenth century in England, in the era before the emergence of publishing companies. Ultimately, readers would decide what they wanted to read, and writers would decide what they wanted to write.

There is such a thing as freedom of expression. And it does count.


  1. Interesting article - thanks. The publishers in their gatekeeper role also(I suppose)filter out the real bad stuff. Now it will be up to the readers, I wonder if some sort of global rating system will start emerging so that one doesn't have to browse for days to find the occasional nugget.

  2. Hello dear.You have written a great post. Going to share with my followers on twitter. Thanks for sharing.