University of Virginia Library

The rise of the professional author is perhaps the most neglected topic in the history of the book trade; the author, the fountainhead of the trade, has been ignored by historians both of publishing and, in his capacity as paid worker, of literature. This is especially true of the eighteenth century; A. S. Collins's pioneering studies have not yet been bettered, partly because so little research has been undertaken.[1] More recent general studies, based almost entirely on materials known to Collins, have been at best cursory[2] or misleading,[3] and at worst inaccurate;[4] all, moreover, have tended to treat the eighteenth century as a mere prelude to the great age of the periodical and the popular novel. Yet all these scholars agree that it was in the eighteenth century that authorship, for the first time, became a viable profession for a substantial number of practitioners. It is only through the study of individual authors and publishers that we can begin to understand how this happened, and what the rewards of authorship actually were, especially for those who wrote at the lower levels of literature, the so-called 'hacks'. Many literary biographers attempt to assess their subjects' earnings, but only one scholar has offered a detailed analysis of a major author's finances,[5] and there is only one general history of eighteenth-century authorship which has attempted a scholarly synthesis.[6] This paper, based on the agreements, accounts, and correspondence of John Nourse, is intended to go some way towards filling the gap;[7] it is a study of one publisher's dealings with a group of authors, offered as an attempt to establish a context for the more familiar literary copyright agreements, and to show how the trade dealt with authors of no great fame or merit.

John Nourse was known in his own day as a publisher and importer of


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French books, and of scientific works, which some of these agreements reflect, and also as bookseller to George III; when he died in 1780 he had been in the trade for about half a century, and had established a good reputation both with the public and with his fellow booksellers.[8] Like most of his contemporaries he was a retail bookseller as well as a publisher, although he was one of those whose publishing activities overshadowed his retailing, and who led the way towards the emergence of the publisher in the modern sense. These agreements suggest that he was not ungenerous to some of his authors, and his interest in the plight of the professional author, a matter of concern to any professional publisher, is further attested by his acting as one of the booksellers for the Society for the Encouragement of Learning between 1735 and 1749.[9]

In considering the agreements, we have to distinguish between various categories: firstly, Nourse purchased copyrights, both of books which he commissioned, and of unsolicited works, in both cases on differing terms; secondly, he secured various rights in the future publication of an author's books. Fortunately, enough documents survive for us to construct a wideranging picture of his dealings with authors, and to draw some conclusions about their income and his profits. These matters occupy Part I of this paper; in Part II, I have attempted to provide a context in which the Nourse documents can be compared with other, and more familiar, records.