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.

For all its scrupulosity in experiment, Mann’s circuit begins and ends in mist – at least where ‘literary’ works are concerned (a category of book by which he is fascinated and baffled). The genesis of ‘creative’ work has rarely been satisfactorily described. The consumption of all kinds of book is problematic. Purchased books may not be read; books which are read may be taken or mistaken in a multitude of ways. There is no ratings system which will tell us for books, as for television, what gratifies and what does not. All we have are the crude and unreliable best-seller lists (and they’re also rather feeble in Britain). Even with Mann’s best-known discovery, it could be argued that what he established was not that educated women enjoy pulp romance but that they are more likely to return any questionnaire they come across in a book’s pages. The obscurity surrounding the origin and destinations of books (pre-eminently ‘literary’ books) may be taken as an Orwellian guarantor of personal liberty. Books, in their making and consumption are very private things. Winston Smith’s prime acts of rebellion against the state are to write a book (his journal) and to read a book (Goldstein’s). Eliminate this privacy, and we are in the totalitarian world represented by Mao’s Little Red Book where ‘reading’ is on the agenda of the mass political rally. What happens between the Western reader and his book will always be intriguing. But short of some bibliometric equivalent to Masters and Johnson, it’s hard to see how the sociologist can ever penetrate the mystery.

A question which recurs time and again in reading Mann is why sociology doesn’t work for literature. Take his stab at defining the ‘serious’ novel, so as to bring it into line with other printed, bound, merchandised commodities: ‘To read a “serious” novel ... is to accept a form of stimulus which will require the reader to undertake an intellectual form of exercise if any real benefit or understanding is to be gained. Literary novels do not set out simply to entertain and give enjoyment; indeed they can be tremendously depressing. Nevertheless these books are intended for leisure-time reading by a general readership – not for scholarly analysis in the seminar room.’ Mann tries, but one cannot help thinking that, as Lawrence would put it, the ‘serious’ novel has walked away with his sociological nail. Not that he hammers all that hard: he approaches the Aristotelian crux of why we find ‘pleasure’ in tragic art (Oedipus, Lear, Anna Karenina) and takes refuge in the Baden-Powellish formulation that it provides an ‘intellectual form of exercise’. It does for the novel what Bitzer’s definition did for the horse.

This dilemma of how to fit ‘serious literary’ work into his frame vexes Mann. When, for instance, he turns to ‘functionaries’ in the communication process he thrashes in methodological agony over what constitutes a ‘great writer’. Charles Dickens would certainly qualify – but what about Fanny Craddock and Harold Robbins? The less fastidious literary critic customarily cuts through this problem by a brutal triage. Commonest is some variant of Raymond Escarpit’s notion of separate cultural ‘circuits’ or Queenie Leavis’s more homely stratification into high, middle and lowbrow. As Mrs Leavis trenchantly proposes, ‘criticism’ is appropriate to ‘literature’. For the sub- or non-literary product, the proper analytic apparatus is ‘anthropology’. (Had she been writing in the 1960s rather than the 1930s, she would have used the term ‘sociology’.) The mass of books, even the mass of fiction, is thus generically outside the literary student’s province – somebody else’s worry.

Fettered by sociological principle that will allow him no such economy, Mann slithers about searching for the ‘continuum’ which will bind the AA Book of the Road to Iris Murdoch. Connections can be found: in cross-subsidisation (‘schlock pays for art’), for example. It is possible to set up polar models with customer-oriented products (M & B romances) at one extreme and creative literature (Murdoch) at the other. But the attempt to focus on books which are held to be culturally important and books which are merely adjuncts to practical activity is finally too much. What one ends up with is either so qualified as to be unusable, or so simplified as to embarrass the user. For instance: ‘readers to whom I have spoken about their interests seem to feel that the reading of modern fiction helps them extend their understanding of human life and its problems.’

Peter Mann is acknowledged as a pioneer in investigating how the modern British book trade works. He is unusual, perhaps unique in being an academic trusted (and on occasion financially sponsored) by professional bodies within the trade. His findings have been genuinely illuminating, even where they merely consolidate the prior impressions of common sense. But he will, I think, have to find some way out of the paralysing bind which his discipline’s repudiation of ‘value judgments’ imposes on him. Alternatively, he will have to surrender his evident interest in fiction and other ‘creative’ literature and become a book-market researcher pure and simple.

Mann’s title sails uncomfortably close to Philip Gaskell’s From Writer to Reader (OUP, 1978). Gaskell’s book, subtitled ‘Studies in Editorial Method’, was as bibliographical as the other is sociological. What intervenes between writer and reader for Gaskell is not the undifferentiated commercial-commodity ‘book’ but the pre-selected cultural-icon ‘text’. Textual status is conferred honorifically on canonical works, those particularly valued by our culture. As such, they merit the attention of custodial editors. For Gaskell, the canon of edit-worthy literature is agreed; it is not his business as bibliographer to quarrel with its contents. The aim is to perfect methods for establishing texts. The editor charged with this responsible task needs to pay close attention to publishing history. Indeed, unless he creates an exhaustive publication profile for the work entrusted to him, he cannot properly edit.

One of Gaskell’s case-studies is David Copperfield. To establish the text of this novel, the well-intentioned editor must survey the number plans and MS (which, thanks to Forster, survive); the proofs which Dickens corrected for the first serialised-in-monthly-numbers issue, put out by Bradbury and Evans in 1849-50; volume versions prepared for the European and American markets; and three single-volume reprints, published by Chapman and Hall, and allegedly ‘carefully revised’ by Dickens. In her copious and lucid introduction to the Clarendon edition (which had not appeared when Gaskell set out the problems) Nina Burgis gives the evolution of David Copperfield from Dickens’s first recorded thoughts to the last revisions in his lifetime. She traces the career of the novel from its contract definition to its cheap mass-market reprints and the revenue they brought the author. The Clarendon edition, along with the Pilgrim Edition of the Letters and Robert Patten’s Dickens and his Publishers (OUP, 1978), will eventually provide us with the fullest account yet of Victorian fiction publishing.

The tailor-made publishing history offered by the Clarendon editor is absolutely crucial in the case of Martin Chuzzlewit, the latest volume in the series. This novel was put out at a turning-point in Dickens’s career. Because of the disappointing sales it produced, Dickens switched to Bradbury and Evans for his first-form fiction, leaving reprints with Chapman and Hall. This transfer accompanied a distinct change in authorial strategy. Henceforward, Dickens wrote more carefully, with deeper planning, and ‘worked his copyrights’ more intelligently. In this instance, publishing history traces a significant twist in the novelist’s career.

As Gaskell records, ‘serious work on the textual bibliography of Dickens began with Butt J. and Tillotson K., Dickens at Work 1957.’ Their pioneering study demonstrated how solidly pre-publication material (letters, contracts, plans) and publication evidence can contextualise a major work. With Dickens, attention to how his fiction was published is particularly urgent: the serial form in which most of his novels initially appeared was not just a convenient sales strategy but a mode of artistic organisation.

Illuminating as the Clarendon Dickens (and the subsequently begun George Eliot) are in this respect, there remain shortcomings. Dickens was so inimitably powerful an author that he dominated and deformed conventional Victorian publishing practice, rendering it serviceable to his particular needs. In this respect, Dickens’s triumph flies in the face of his age’s book trade wisdom, and he is the least exemplary of writers. This would not matter were it not for the fact that around Dickens there is a huge vacancy in our knowledge of what normal Victorian publishing practice actually was. There exists no account, scholarly or even anecdotal, of Bradbury and Evans (who, in addition to publishing Dickens, were Thackeray’s main employers and founded Punch). There is, as it happens, a house-history of Chapman and Hall. But Waugh’s A Hundred Years of Publishing (1930) politely skirts round all the precise business information which interests the publishing historian. We know to the penny how much these firms paid Dickens, because his accounts are in the V & A’s Forster collection and have been carefully sifted by Patten. But their day-to-day and year-to-year operation as publishers when they were not dealing with Dickens remains elusive. There is available a greater supply of scholarly information than we often want about the minor Victorian novelists over whom Dickens towered. But we know next to nothing about the major Victorian publishers who were his partners. An exception is Richard Bentley, whose publishing career was extensively dealt with in Royal Gettmann’s A Victorian Publisher.

There are objections to Peter Mann’s attempt to flatten out the distinction between literary and non-literary books. So, too, are there objections to traditional literary-editorial practice whereby publishing history is merely the handmaiden of the received master work. This spotlight and solo figure approach accompanies a pool of obscurity about the larger publishing history field.

There is something heartening in the Leicester University-backed collection, Books and their Readers in 18th-Century England. The core of the book is traditional English department expertise; most of its essays are spun off from the main-line literary research of experienced 18th-century scholars. The overall perspective derives largely from Richard Altick’s seminal The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (1957). Partly, too, it derives from the Leicester-orientated journal Prose (i.e. non-fiction prose), whose first editor, Ian Hilson, killed in a car accident, is here commemorated. The body of the collection aims to specify the mosaic of specialist reading publics and reading vogues which co-existed and competed within the total area of 18th-century taste and book culture. The general business set-up within which the contributors’ particular investigations range is described by Terry Belanger in the leading essay, ‘Publishers and Writers in 18th-Century England’. Unlike his fellow contributors, Belanger is a book trade historian, and the introduction he offers here is excellent. Undaunted, it starts from the observation that there is no pre-existing map or overview of the period’s book world to draw on. From scratch, Belanger offers a miniature of what such a project should cover: he deals summarily with the relationship of London and provincial publishing, the emergence of copyright legislation, the structure and operation of the book trade, subscription publishing, congers, libraries, contract relations between authors and publishers, and systems of patronage. For Belanger (perhaps biased by his intimacy with the period) the 18th is the century when, quite suddenly, the book trade evolved in its modern form. ‘Put in simple terms, England in the 1790s was a well-developed print society; in the 1690s, especially once we leave London, we find relatively little evidence of one.’ It’s a challenging historical proposition. If upheld, it would support starting any history of publishing from 1690, rather than from aboriginal Caxton or Assyrian baked clay cylinders.

The chapters which follow Belanger’s deal less with production and more with categories of finished book and the age’s plural reading publics. Pat Rogers discusses the percolation down-market from the civilised circuit to chapbook mass consumption of works like Crusoe and Gulliver. His sharp description of the aesthetics of degentrification fits nicely with Louis James’s parallel survey of Dickens vulgarisation in Fiction for the Working Man (1963). The effect of both studies is to arouse interest in the largely unexplored interactions of mass and minority publics, and the incursions they make on each other’s territory. Other essays (all very readable) include W.A. Speck’s examination of subscription lists for evidence of political partisanship; Penny Wilson on the vast readership for Classical poetry; Isabel Rivers and Thomas Preston on the still vaster religious reading public; J.V. Price on philosophical literature and G.S. Rousseau on the science book in the period.

But when all the nice things are said and done, Books and their Readers in 18th-Century England has the disabilities of that most unsatisfactory of critical enterprises, the ‘symposium’. Typically, the hobbyhorsical or contrary tendencies of the contributors run away with whatever overarching theme (usually conveniently vague) is proposed. That disintegration has been largely averted by Rivers here. But the ad hoc mobilisation of various writers, from various institutions, with different career and research interests, means that the achievements of this volume cannot be built on. The editor piously concludes her preface: ‘It is hoped that the publication of this volume will stimulate further research of the same kind.’ It won’t. Excellent as the symposium may be, scholarly excellence alone will not initiate any purposive programme, organise teamwork of a collaborative (rather than opportunistically assembled) kind, nor attract the necessary funding that a comprehensive account of British publishing and the British reading public requires.

Ian Norrie’s Publishing and Bookselling (of which this is the triumphant sixth edition) had a strange birth. It rises, Columbia-like, from the back of F.A. Mumby’s book of that name, first put out (by Cape) in 1930. Mumby’s original offering was a ‘history from the earliest times to the present day’. His approach was sweepingly retrospective and anecdotal. Norrie, a successful independent London bookseller, was contracted to update the survey in 1967, after Mumby’s death. His addenda have now, in this new volume, taken on the status of a separate, single-authored work in its own right. There is little of Mumby’s historical perspective left in Norrie’s book. What he principally provides is a handbook to the complex set-up of the current book world. He explains the intricate interlockings of group publishers, the role of libraries, the network of British bookshops, the role of trade fairs and the nature of the specialist book producers operating in the British Isles today. Anyone wanting to know such things as how Heinemann relates to Tilling, how Secker and Warburg relate to Heinemann and how the Alison Press relates to Secker and Warburg will find a clear exposition. Norrie is particularly useful, I think, in setting out the function of such bodies as the Publisher’s Association (and indeed the limitation of that function). But it might be objected that as a bookseller himself, Norrie’s attention to publishing is occasionally perfunctory. Thus, while we have extended description of Thin’s of Edinburgh and such matters as their quirky disdain for the computer, all we get on John Calder is the grossly unfair ‘publisher of the French avant-garde and, more profitably, of Henry Miller’s Tropics’. Whatever his faults of garrulity, anecdotalism and belletristic indifference to scholarly citation, Mumby was concerned with the history of publishing and its evolution over time. Norrie is concerned to provide a current trade directory. As such, this book will be indispensable.

New apertures may be opening, favourable to the entry of publishing history into the English curriculum. This would seem to be an implication of Bernard Sharratt’s upsetting book, Reading Relations. Sharratt assumes a general shaking-out of the subject as his starting-point. There is, he perceives, a kind of generational war between the traditional and time-honoured organisation of English studies and younger, more subversive forces allied with structuralism and neo-Marxism. Extending the Arnoldian precept to a positively anarchic play of mind over the subject, Reading Relations offers a ‘menu’ of critical treatments of representative texts. Like Professor Zapp in Changing Places (David Lodge’s novel is clearly a favourite of Sharratt’s), the book sets up to exhaust literary criticism by covering every approach. The Shandyan joke at the heart of Sharratt’s enterprise is that after the furious discharge of all his energies, he is no further forward than when he was with his ‘Hors d’Oeuvre’.

Sharratt acknowledges the Goon Show as a source of inspiration; and in one of its many parts, Reading Relations is a literary critical jest book. There is, for instance, a central Althusserian fantasia ‘Reading Literary Relations’ by Anne Arthur (i.e. ‘An other ... an author’), published by ‘Theoretical Parody Publications’, 1987. But among all the goonery (much of it effective, I found) there are some shrewd insights into the value of publishing history for the materialist analysis of literature which, in more serious moments, Sharratt advocates. Along these lines, there is a long conjecture as to the significance of the printers of Herbert’s The Temple (the larger context is a transcribed seminar discussion, which may, or may not, have taken place at Kent where the author teaches). In his final section, ‘Suite Talk’, Sharratt faithfully records the process by which his own book came into being: from publisher’s commission, through composition, reader’s report to (fantasised) reviews. Isolating a single element in a book as wantonly diverse as Reading Relations is like catching sparks from a Catherine wheel. But in the post-revolutionary curriculum Sharratt envisages, we can expect more attention than previously to the production of books, as well as to the dismantling of texts.

There is, undeniably, a need for a general history of British publishing. Something on the lines of Belanger’s chapter, together with David Foxon’s Sandars lectures, The London Book Trade in the later 17th Century (1976), could be a pilot. Such a venture would necessarily be a team effort. Tebbel’s history of American publishing, for all its informativeness, suggests that the area is too large even for the most energetic of freelance scholars. It would involve a lot of difficult categorisation and boundary marking. What to do about music publishing? About magazines? On another front, it would be welcome if more scholarly monographs on book trade topics were to be encouraged. CUP apparently have a five-year programme to do this. But the real impulse needs to come from those who suggest and approve PhD topics. Thirdly, somebody – perhaps the Publishers’ Association – should take in hand the systematic retention and archiving of publishers’ and literary agents’ records (where, that is, the owners are disinclined to keep their own house archives). All this would require the organised co-operation of literary scholars, business historians, librarians and book trade people. It will never happen.