A Brief History of Publishing

Writing had always been the purview of the elites. For the lower classes, narrative was in the form of oral cultures – storytelling and theatre. Books were for the priestly classes. The European social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries changed all that. As education expanded, so did potential readership. The rapid shift in society and technology caused two things: the need for information in written form – both for political advantage and as a means to provide a grounding for those multitudes who had been culturally displaced – and a new class of artists and writers who were opposed to the established ways. A settled population that lives off the land needs reassurance that cycles of nature will persist but a society in transition needs discourse and debate. The book itself had evolved from illuminated manuscripts, meticulously reproduced by hand, to rapid replication by the letter press. In the aftermath of the industrial revolution not only were the mechanisms for dissemination of information dramatically transformed but the need for art and literature which helped define the individual’s place in a very confusing world was becoming more critical. The new European novel which emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries found a ready and widening audience in the displaced and educated urban masses – not only from the middle classes but also the newly emergent workers movements which saw as its mission to have a literate proletariat capable of absorbing the writing they hoped would help transform the world.

So how did writers publish novels back then? Who were the novelists and where did they come from? Certainly not from university creative writing classes. Most often, writers were freelance journalists hustling space in newspapers or small magazines. There were hundreds of these journals – cheap to produce and cheap to distribute. As the urban culture transformed, so the manner of writing changed as did the means of distribution. The growth of the city, the development of suburbs, the establishment of mass transportation systems to shunt a workforce into town and then back home again, provided an opportunity for a new mass audience looking for a convenient way to bide their time or to distance themselves, mentally, from their tedious nine to five worlds.

But who was writing? How did they get published? How did they begin? Balzac, whose father came peasant origins, worked several years as a law clerk before becoming a journalist. His first attempts at writing novels forced him to become publisher, printer, and typesetter. In those days the ordinary way of getting started as a novelist was by hiring a printer to publish 200 or 300 books and to circulate them oneself to the multitude of bookshops springing up throughout the left bank. Printers themselves more and more became publishers, sometime commissioning work they felt they could easily sell but still mainly servicing authors who wanted to make their mark in the literary world.

On the other side of the channel a decade or so later, there was Charles Dickens, the son of a penurious civil servant. Dickens himself started working at the age of twelve, notoriously pasting labels onto jars of boot black. Like Balzac, he eventually became a law clerk and then a journalist. His early novels were serialisations which were marketed to the new breed of rail commuter. Dickens was keenly aware of the opportunities made available by the rapid economic transformations. He was successful not only because he was a brilliant communicator but also because he knew how to take advantage of changing forms of transmission. Throughout his career he worked as author, publisher, editor and publicist without making a distinction between those various roles.

When Jerome K. Jerome was 13 years old, he was forced to quit his studies and find work collecting coal that fell along the railway sidings, a job he did four hard years. He too became a writer through journalism. The Idler Magazine, which he started in 1892, became a vehicle for a group known as the New Humourists. There were periodic meetings held informally at Bloomsbury cafes that included young, up and coming authors like Zangwill, Bernard Shaw, Barrie and Conan Doyle. Each of these writers in their own way was breaking new ground and each was subject, in the beginning, to atrocious reviews from established critics who strongly objected to their use of the vernacular in print and the social content of their narrative.

The Kelmscott Press, founded by William Morris around the same time, showed what influence book design could have on literature, coming out of the small studios of the Arts and Crafts movement. Not too many years later, Virginia Woolf found that in order for her work come to life she needed the support of her husband, Leonard, and the publishing house he built for her. Hogarth Press became an important vehicle for the literary group that fluttered around it. The evolution of the book was becoming a joint venture between artist, artisan and writer.

Even in recent years the relationship between writer, publisher and movement can be studied by looking at bookshops cum publishing houses like Shakespeare & Co. in Paris or City Lights Books in San Francisco. Ferlinghetti who published his own work along with the works of his friends, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, has become a cultural icon just a few decades after having almost been run out of town.