Monday, January 28, 2013

The Tribulations of Publication in the Eighteenth Century

For aspiring authors, nothing much has changed, by Diane Scott Lewis

Firstly, the Georgian author would struggle to find a publisher. Aspiring authors sought these prestigious men—for you’d be hard-pressed to find a lowly woman with their feeble brains in this profession—at the many booksellers’ shops that huddled in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. They would cart their precious manuscript to the Chapter Coffee House in Paternoster Row, where several stationers, booksellers and printers conducted their business.

If you lived in the provinces, too far from London, you had to use the postal service. The author would choose a bookseller, often after local advice, whose imprint he’d seen in newspaper advertisements or on a book’s title page. 

In 1759, Laurence Sterne, an obscure cleric in York, sent his unsolicited manuscript of Tristram Shandy to Robert Dodsley on the recommendation of John Hinxman, a York bookseller.Sterne’s accompanying letter assured the publisher that his book had both literary and commercial value. 

Dodsley wasn’t impressed. He refused to pay the £50 Sterne requested for the copyright. The novel was rejected by a few publishers, but eventually achieved critical acclaim.

Whether the author approached a bookseller or used the post, his reception was usually quite chilly.
The arrogance of the bookseller was a common grievance among novelists, as depicted in Thomas Rowlandson’s drawing of 1780-84. 

Though booksellers like Edmund Curll abused their position and their writers, many in this profession were honest and prudent men. They bore the burden of publication and profit and were inundated with manuscripts, most of which had no commercial merit. The sheer volume of submissions made it hard for them to discriminate. Most stayed with established figures rather than risk their money on an unknown author.
The hapless writer often resorted to appealing to the publisher’s personal interests, such as politics, religion, children’s literature or poetry. The astute author needed to research whom he’d submit to.

From the booksellers’ perspective, the letters Robert Dodsley received over thirty years showed authors as exacting and demanding in their requests, extolling their works as the perfect creations whose publication was eagerly awaited by the entire world, and they would "allow them to pass through his firm."

Aware of the fragile ego and financial status of writers, a few booksellers formed literary circles where authors could slake their thirst with food, alcohol and conversation. Brothers Charles and Edward Dilly, who published Boswell’s Life of Johnson, were famous for their literary dinners.

When an author approached a bookseller, he could also verify the merit of his work if he found a famous author who would publicly endorse it. Dodsley’s literary career was promoted by Daniel Defoe. Despite bickering and competition, brother writers stood together to brace one another up in this risky endeavor.

Literary patronage—via a rich gentleman or the Court—was another way for an author to find publication, though this was fading by this century. Still, some thought of patronage as prostitution. Poet Charles Churchill proclaimed: "Gentlemen kept a bard, just as they keep a whore."

Subscription was another way to secure publication: collect pre-payments for a book not yet published. Dr. Johnson organized many subscriptions for unknown writers that he admired. He wasn’t always successful.

Constant rejection drove several authors to self-publish their works, which mirrors the Indie authors we have today. The uncertain road to publication over two hundred years ago seems much the same as the present.

Information garnered from: The Pleasures of the Imagination, English Culture in the Eighteenth Century, by John Brewer, 1997.
To see my extensive research into the eighteenth century, read my historical adventure set in England during the French Revolution: Betrayed Countess, available from Amazon.

Purchase Betrayed Countess
Visit my website for more info on my historical novels.



  1. It was wonderful to see Tristram Shandy mentioned. Of all of the books I read in college, it is the one with page after page of special vignettes that I remember easily. I loved the humor, the discussion of how Tristam's life was ruined by the midwife who squashed his nose, and how Stearne leaves a black textless page in memory of Yorick, so he can be appropriately mourned. For all of Stendahl's art and Flaubert's artistry, it is Laurence Stearne who is etched in my memory of 18th century English literature. It is a pleasure to find him in a the midst of such an interesting piece.

  2. I loved Tristram Shandy too, it provided comic relief in a string of very dull other uni lectures.

  3. How little has changed! Thank you for sharing!

  4. Plus ca change ...

  5. Excellent article, Diane. Amazing how little some things change.

  6. Thank you for your comments, everyone. I was surprised by how little has changed in this difficult, and often frustrating, business.

  7. Ahh! What I enjoyed most was the confirmation that writers were submitting their work, confident it was "best-seller" material since the beginning of the industry. Do we not all waver between 'this is great/this is rubbish'? I've seen example of pompous submissions--always good for a laugh.

    Mailing a big box of manuscript paper to multiple editors seems like ancient times now. Imagine having to peddle it door to door?
    Hit Send may be just as frightening but we can stay in our pajamas.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.