John Sutherland writes about the history of publishing

  • From Author to Reader: A Social Study of Books by Peter Mann
    Routledge, 189 pp, £8.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 7100 9089 7
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, edited by Nina Burgis
    Oxford, 781 pp, £40.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 19 812492 9
  • Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens, edited by Margaret Cardwell
    Oxford, 923 pp, £45.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 19 812488 0
  • Books and their Readers in 18th-Century England edited by Isabel Rivers
    Leicester University Press, 267 pp, £15.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 7185 1189 1
  • Mumby’s Publishing and Bookselling in the 20th Century by Ian Norrie
    Bell and Hyman, 253 pp, £12.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 7135 1341 1
  • Reading Relations by Bernard Sharratt
    Harvester, 350 pp, £18.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 7108 0059 2

Publishing History has something of a Balkan status in this country’s universities. Bibliography, sociology, economic history periodically lay claim to it: none is prepared to grant it the dignity of a subject or area of study in its own right. In the past few years there were signs that publishing history might form itself into something coherent. There was the foundation of the learned journal, Publishing History, in 1977. Its publishers, Chadwyck Healey, embarked on a laudable, if sisyphean, programme of microfilming whole sets of publishers’ records. Meanwhile libraries – notably that of the University of Reading – systematically acquired and sorted publishers’ archives. But we still lack anything comparable to the German Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens. Nor does Britain have an equivalent to John Tebbel’s multivolume history of American publishing. The student of the subject in this country (particularly if he is interested in contemporary matters) will find himself dredging through the pages of more or less hagiographic ‘house histories’ and the nuts-and-bolts trade material to be found in the weekly columns of the Bookseller. Direct approaches to publishers and agents (though some are helpful) are commonly turned away. And, one suspects, many British publishers have simply junked their dead files.

Crusoe-like, the student of current publishing history is obliged to make his own tools before he can achieve anything. This, presumably, is the primitive need which Peter Mann’s From Author to Reader is intended to supply. Mann’s perspective is severely sociological, and his aim to lay a groundwork of conceptual starting-points. From Author to Reader has a superficially theoretic aspect: but it aspires to construct a model from which systematic fieldwork, survey and market research will take off. Mann’s model is prefigured in the circuitry of his title. The study traces the printed message from its point of origin (‘author’) to its destination (‘reader’) via various primary (‘book’) and secondary (‘library ... bookshop’) channels of communication. Mann’s deadpan datum – ‘the book as means of communication’ – usefully plays down the mystical, bibliophiliac ‘books are different’ ethos in which the subject is usually discussed by ‘bookmen’. There are no Miltonic genuflections here to books as the noblest products of the human spirit. Mann approves, for instance, W.L. Saunders’s wryly barbarous definition of the book as ‘that on-line, real-time random-access storage device’. Whoever destroys a book destroys not a man, but merely does the equivalent of wiping a tape.

The core of Mann’s book is fieldwork, some of which he has written up and about elsewhere. The best-known of his market researches was that into Mills and Boon romances. His surprising discovery, from returned questionnaires sent out with the pap, was that a large number of M&B readers were not, as prejudice had it, the descendants of mill girls, but well-educated Class A ladies. Another nugget of research aired again here is the survey undertaken in 1970 into the distribution of bookshops in England. (No surprises: ‘the best provision of bookshops per head of the population is found in the south-east.’) More recently, Mann has questionnaired academics as to their motives and rewards in publishing scholarly monographs. (Even less of a surprise: they don’t do it for the money.) One of the most interesting pieces of research, which seems to have been specifically undertaken for this book, is into the readership of ‘quality’ fiction of the kind normally provided in new hardback by public libraries. What Mann ingeniously did was to select 20 current ‘serious modern novels’. (He recruited an expert panel for the purpose – the sociologist is disarmingly modest about his literary critical skills.) He then dispatched a one-in-five mail shot to his Sheffield University colleagues, inquiring which of these much discussed books of the day they and their spouses had read. The response was grim and philistine. Mann concludes: ‘interest in, and readership of, the modern literary novel is restricted to a very small minority of the population who are lucky to have supplies provided for them by a publicly financed service.’ So much for the one bright book of life.

In addition to his own fieldwork, Mann draws extensively on the statistics which the British book trade and Euromonitor nowadays put out. From Author to Reader provides a handy digest of increased production, cash turnover, variations annually within category, and so on. This technicality (which regrettably will make some of the book obsolete within a year) is interspersed with a ‘don’t be frightened of the subject’ folksiness. Thus, from his window on campus, as it were, Mann observes: ‘simply to carry books around the university often seems to give students confidence and one does at times wonder if they believe that the information in the book will in some miraculous way transfer itself via hand, arm and shoulder into the head – just as one does sometimes wonder if people believe that photocopying a page of a book is as good as reading.’ Many academics must have so mused, and been rather pleased with their smartness. But it hardly merits hard covers and could well have been reserved for the author’s next Don’s Diary.

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