University of Virginia Library


When, in the early seventeenth century, leadership in all the activities connected with the printing press passed from Germany and Italy to France and the Netherlands, England was still very far behind. It produced very little paper, for instance, and all its type was imported or of foreign design. In the next hundred years, however, the picture changed dramatically: in 1686 the many efforts to manufacture good white paper for printing had succeeded sufficiently for the White Paper Makers to be incorporated, and by 1713 two-thirds of the country's requirements were being produced at home; as for type, Caslon set up his foundry in 1720, and from then onwards his ideas, and later Baskerville's, turned England into an exporter of type and a leader in typographical design.[1]

We find very similar contrasts when we turn from methods of production to types of publication. In the early seventeenth century, for example, Holland and then France led in the field of the newspaper, but the world's first daily, the Daily Courant, came out in England in 1702. The foundation of the Journal des Savants in 1665 exemplifies France's earlier prominence in another kind of periodical, the learned review; but the foundation of the Tatler and Spectator shows the England


Page 5
of Queen Anne initiating quite a new periodical genre which became very popular abroad; and Cave's Gentlemen's Magazine, founded in 1731, was equally novel and influential. Among the many other signs of England's increasing prominence two other important innovations in the world of letters may be cited: in England the effective development of the circulating library began in 1740, whereas the spread of the cabinet de lecture in France came later, in about 1763; and there is a similar twenty-year priority in the matter of encyclopaedias—that of Diderot published between 1751 and 1776 followed the example set in England by the printer Ephraim Chambers in 1728.

I make these contrasts only to underline the fact that the appearance of the Dunciad in 1728 coincides with England's very recently achieved leadership in a great number of publishing activities, activities which set the pattern for future developments both there and elsewhere. The main causes of these developments, I suppose, are the same as those which had brought about England's commercial expansion in general; but one of them seems to be of special importance: the ending of Stuart absolutism, with all its traditional and restrictive social and economic attitudes, by the Glorious and Protestant Revolution of 1688, with its encouragement of free individual enterprise in every field. The importance of this changed commercial and ideological background can be estimated either by looking at how the Stuarts had earlier attempted in innumerable ways to control and restrict the development of printing and bookselling, or at how in France authors, printers, and publishers alike remained subject to every kind of harassment at the hands of autocratic and clerical power until the French Revolution.

In the eighteenth century, then, the English book trade in general flourished as never before; it remains to inquire why it was the booksellers rather than the printers who held the dominating position; and, first of all, therefore, to inquire what the division of functions actually was. For, in the present context, the term "bookseller" is itself very confusing; there was no real eighteenth-century equivalent to our booksellers today, men exclusively devoted to the retailing of books; and on the other hand the convenient practice of equating the "bookseller" of the eighteenth century with the "publisher" of today is also misleading, since at that time no one was exclusively engaged in the publishing business either.

There are really five main roles in the business of getting a book into the purchaser's hands: first, of course, the writing of it; second, the transfer of the manuscript to the printer; third, the printing itself (in which category I include, as the eighteenth century did not, folding,


Page 6
tying and binding the printed sheets); fourth, the storage and distribution of the finished product; and fifth, the retailing of it to the buyer in a shop or through some other channel. Today, we usually think of the publisher as one who undertakes or controls the middle three of these operations: getting the copy from the author, arranging for the printing, and lastly, storing the book and sending it out to the retail booksellers. From the Elizabethan period until quite late in the nineteenth century, however, almost any permutation or combination of any of the five functions was possible, although the increasingly common practice in the eighteenth century was for the booksellers to perform not only the three functions we now expect of a publisher, but also the final one, that of selling the book to the public.

The 1757 edition of Campbell's The London Tradesman makes the position reasonably clear: the bookseller's function is "to purchase original copies from authors, to employ printers to print them, and publish and sell them on their own account, or at auctions, and sell them at an advanced price: but," the writer adds, significantly, "their chief riches and profit is in the property of valuable copies." It is the "property of valuable copies" which occasioned not only the many legal battles of the booksellers in the eighteenth century, but also most of the public attacks against them; and it is this control of copies which I shall have primarily in mind when I refer, as I normally shall, to booksellers or publishers without distinction as far as the eighteenth century is concerned. I should perhaps add that contemporary usage of the term "publisher" was itself confusing: normally, as in Swift and Pope, it refers to whoever is responsible for making a book available to the public, under whatever conditions, but later a more technical sense also appears, confined to the wholesaling, and perhaps the retailing, of the finished book, and specifically excluding responsibility either for printing or for ownership of the copy.

The division of labor in the book trade in the eighteenth century, then, had not yet crystallized into its present form, although we must remember that it has not done so universally even today, especially in backward areas: University Presses, for example, often both print and act as publishers. Compared with the earliest days of printing, however, when Caxton had personally written the text, set it up, printed it, and sold it, the division of labor had gone fairly far by the time of Pope; in fact it is not a gross oversimplification to say that the big London booksellers, the Tonsons, the Lintots, Andrew Millar and Robert Dodsley, carried on their business very much as publishers do today, except that they also happened to run bookstores.


Page 7

In the general history of the book trade the crucial separation was that between printer and bookseller, usually said to have begun with Anthony Koberger as early as the end of the fifteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth century the English printers were already loudly complaining that they could hardly make a living because the booksellers, through their complete control of the retail market, were able to dictate their own terms and had forced printing prices down very severely. The main reason for the economic advantage of the bookseller, I suppose, is that by its nature printing requires both a large initial capital outlay, for the press, type and so on, and a considerable regular volume of business to meet costs and wages. Bookselling, on the other hand, needs no staff, and very little in the way of premises or equipment; while in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, at least, it was very easy to acquire a stock. John Dunton, one of the Dunces attacked by Swift and Pope, describes in his Life and Errors how, in 1681, he merely "took up with half a shop [and] a warehouse," published one religious work, Thomas Doolittle's The Sufferings of Christ, and then, "exchanging it through the whole trade" of booksellers "furnished my shop with all sorts of books saleable at that time."

It was easy, then, to become a bookseller. To trade with any security, however, also involved being a member of the Stationers' Company and this normally required a good deal of capital: the commonest way of becoming free of the Company was by serving a seven-year apprenticeship, and the average premium charged by master printers, for example, during the eighteenth century was about twenty pounds, a very considerable sum in those days. But that was the only hurdle, at least after 1695 when the Licensing Act of 1662 had lapsed, and with it the restrictive powers both of the Stationers' Company and of the "Surveyor of the Imprimery and Printing Presses," a post created by the 1662 Act and long filled by the notorious Sir Roger L'Estrange.

The end of licensing had even more important indirect implications for the development of bookselling, since it terminated the many government efforts to hold the number of printers down to the theoretical legal limit of twenty which had been set by the Tudors and reaffirmed by a Star Chamber decree of 1627. By 1724 there were seventy-five printers active in London, and by 1785 the number had risen to 124. Nor does this alone fully indicate the scale of the increase after 1695: the number of presses in an individual printing office, which had previously been limited to two in most cases, was now free to go up, sometimes to as many as nine; and even more important, perhaps, printing in the provinces, which had been forbidden by a Star


Page 8
Chamber decree of 1586, spread rapidly—in 1724 there were already at least twenty-eight provincial printers at work.

The development of the provincial market no doubt helped to foster the spread of the reading habit on which the prosperity of eighteenth-century booksellers was partly based; and so did the increase in newspapers which was much stimulated by the ending of effective censorship. Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that, compared either with their former condition or with that of their French counterparts, the booksellers of the Augustan period were extremely well off. The bookseller Thomas Guy, helped it is true by a variety of speculative enterprises, was the most eminent charitable endower of the time—Guy's Hospital is but one of many benefactions; Jacob Tonson paid over twenty thousand pounds for his country estate, Hazel; and a generation later both Andrew Millar and William Strahan left fortunes of nearly a hundred thousand pounds. They and a good many others, booksellers such as the elder Thomas Osborne, Awnsham Churchill and Bernard Lintot, printer-publishers such as Samuel Buckley, John Barber and Samuel Richardson, were as wealthy as all but the biggest London merchants and financiers. The improved social and economic status of the paper, printing, and bookselling trades in general is further suggested by the fact that the Stationers' Company, which had produced no Lord Mayor of London during its first hundred years, produced no less than five of them during the eighteenth century.[2] The solid prosperity of the bookselling trade in particular is attested by the fact that several publishing houses were founded which continue today—Charles Rivington set up shop, for example, in 1711, Thomas Longman in 1724, and John Murray in 1768; while John Brindley, in 1728, started a bookshop in New Bond Street which still survives, under the name of Ellis's.

The contrast with the position in France is striking. The greatest of the booksellers there, Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, made only a very modest fortune—"une honnête aisance"—and that right at the end of the eighteenth century. Until then the chief authorities[3] agree that the very dark picture of French eighteenth-century bookselling painted by Diderot in his Lettre sur le Commerce de la Librairie (1767) is in the main justified. It is true that Paris had always had many more booksellers


Page 9
than London, some 235 in 1600 apparently, a figure which was certainly not equalled in London until the end of the eighteenth century; and also that in the early decades of the seventeenth century publishing flourished, with Scarron earning as much as a thousand livres—some fifty pounds, perhaps—for one book of his Virgile travesti, and with the bookseller Claude Barbin occupying a privileged position among literary men somewhat like Tonson's in England half a century later. But from the time of Louis XIV onward printers, publishers and authors alike were increasingly subject to a crippling interference and persecution from church, state and nobility: most of the great French writers of the eighteenth century knew imprisonment or exile, and many of their works—perhaps the majority—were published abroad, banned, or only issued posthumously. As for the booksellers, they were, for example, forbidden to set up shop anywhere except in two of the quarters of Paris, so that the police could keep their eye on them more easily; further, they needed official approval before any book could be published; and even so the royal imprimatur was always liable to be suddenly revoked—as happened in the famous battle between Diderot and the Jesuits over the Encyclopédie.