Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Future of Publishing is Behind Us

Authors, editors and publishers who are currently agonising over sales, ebooks, and the general decline of Western Civilisation, may take some small comfort from this piece, from a book written in 1837:

"About twenty years ago, the literary tide set in favour of fiction. The extraordinary success of the Waverley Novels stimulated a host of writers to apply themselves to works of a similar class. If those who, after Sir Walter Scott, were the earliest in this literary field, did not acquire the same fame, or derive the same pecuniary advantage as the Magician of the North, they were sufficiently successful to encourage them to make new efforts, and to induce others to follow their example. Hence, about ten or twelve years since, when the mania for works of fiction was at its height, it was calculated that from two to three hundred appeared in the course of a year. All of them of any note could boast a sale of from 750 to 1000: decidely good ones often reached a sale of from 1500 to 2000 copies. A striking change has since come over the spirit of this class of literature. The authors, whose works of fiction a dozen years since commanded a sale of from 1500 to 2000 copies, cannot now command a sale of 500. I could mention many instance in confirmation of this, but it would be equally invidious to authors and publishers. I may state in general terms, that on one day, about six months ago, four novels, two of them by authors of great celebrity in the high and palmy days of works of fiction, were published by different houses. and that the sale of neither of the works exceeded 350 copies; that of three out of the four was under that number. Publishers have now come to the conclusion - a conclusion forced on them by painful experience - that the days of this class of works are past for ever. Authors may continue to write, but publishers will not publish, except in comparatively few cases, even though the copyright were offered them for nothing. If authors will write novels, they must publish them at their own risk. This, indeed, has been the case, though the public are not aware of the fact, in many instances of late years, as I shall have occasion afterwards to show at some length. The truth is that, with the exception of the works of fifteen or twenty authors, no individual ever now dreams of purchasing a novel for his own reading. The only copies bought are for the circulating libraries."

James Grant, The Great Metropolis 1837

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