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Page 217


Although the surviving agreements represent only a small proportion of Nourse's dealings with authors during his career in the trade, they are notable for their variety. Nourse commissioned manuscripts; he bought them; he bought editions of printed books; he bought and sold rights in copies, translations, abridgements, adaptations, and future editions. His fees were variable, but within fairly restricted limits, and he varied his means of payment for his own and his authors' convenience. In this variety he was typical of eighteenth-century English publishers, for we can find parallels for almost all of Nourse's forms of agreement. Commissions by the sheet were common, although perhaps more usual for periodicals than for books; Mark Akenside, for example, received £100.os.od. per annum for writing The Museum in the 1740s, and was required to produce 1½ sheets in Small Pica every fortnight.[17] It was not unknown for poets to be paid by the line; even Dryden at the height of his fame had a contract of this sort for the Fables (Saunders, p. 130). There were, however, profit-sharing agreements, parallel to that between Nourse and Le Moine; such was the arrangement between Gibbon and Cadeil for Decline and Fall, under which the author apparently had a right to ⅔ of the profits.[18] Outright purchase was nevertheless the most common form of agreement, even for unsolicited works; it continued to be so until the middle of the nineteenth century, and, according to Diderot, the same was true in France and in other European countries during the eighteenth century.[19] In this respect, Nourse was entirely typical.

Literary scholars have frequently misunderstood the relationship between authors and their publishers in the age before royalties, and have consequently condemned the trade unfairly. A famous example is that of the copyright of Paradise Lost for which Samuel Simmons agreed to pay the poet £5.5s.od. for each of three editions of 1,500 copies; in all, Milton and his widow received £18.os.od.[20] The general implied condemnation of Simmons is more than a little unfair. He was taking a political as well as a commercial risk in publishing a poem by an unrepentant republican who was lucky to have escaped with his life, and a poem moreover which was both long and difficult, and unlikely to appeal to the reading public of Restoration London. Even so, Milton's contract was generous, including as it did an agreement to pay additional fees when further editions were published. It is unlikely that Simmons made a great profit from this unfashionable and expensive book. It took half a century for Paradise Lost to be established as a classic and, while it is true that a number of eighteenth-century booksellers


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made a great deal of money from it, this was not least because Milton's cause was so assiduously promoted by one of their number, Jacob Tonson.[21]

By the middle of the eighteenth century competent writers could and did command high prices for popular books. Fielding's £700 for Tom Jones (Saunders, p. 139), and Smollett's £2,000 for his History of England (Ransom, p. 61) were exceptional, but the unknown Samuel Johnson was paid £15.15s.od. for his Life of Savage in 1743 (Fleeman, p. 212), a figure not unlike those paid by Nourse for commissioned works of a similar length. The equally unknown Alexander Pope received £16.2s.6d. for a translation of Statius at the beginning of his career (Saunders, p. 135), and for an undistinguished translation of Don Quixote Dodsley gave Charles Jarvis's widow £21.os.od. and 15 copies of the book (Straus, p. 87). Lintot paid Theobald 4d. for 3 lines of Sophocles, and 6½d. for 3 lines of Horace, the former to include a commentary, but this was a low rate.[22] At the very lowest level of literature, the political hack and failed lawyer William Arnall earned nearly £11,000 in four years from Walpole, which, with the pension on which he retired, was a more than adequate financial reward, and perhaps even offered some comfort for his appearance in The Dunciad.[23]

This is the context of Nourse's agreements: purchase of rights was not universal, but it was usual, and payments reached £100 only for a few writers and works, or in exceptional circumstances. Moreover, we have to remember that a large number of eighteenth-century authors, indeed probably the majority of them, were not, unlike Arnall or Johnson, dependent upon their pens for a living. This was certainly the case with Nourse's writers. George Ayelette was a surgeon; Theodore Barlow was a lawyer, and so, probably, was Joseph Shaw; James Greenwood was Sur-Master at St. Paul's School; John Landen was surveyor to Lord Fitzwilliam; Abraham Le Moine was Rector of Evereley in Wiltshire; William Lewis was a practising physician; Elias Palairet was a clergyman on the first rung of the ladder of preferment as chaplain to the Bishop of Bangor; John Palairet was London agent for the Dutch government; and John Robertson taught mathematics at Christ's Hospital.[24] The professional authors were the exception amongst those with whom Nourse was dealing, and the receipts of the others have to be seen as supplementary income.

Robert Dossie, described as a gentleman of St. James's, Westminster, does not seem to have had any profession other than writing, although he may have had other sources of private income. Even if this were not the case, he did not starve. From March 1757 to December 1760 he was continuously at work for Nourse, writing five works, three of them in two volumes. For


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these labors he received a total of £347.11s.od., an income of nearly £100 per annum (Table IV). Moreover, this represents only his income from

Robert Dossie's income from Nourse 1757-60

Income  Year totals 
Date  £  s.  d.  Book  £  s.  d. 
Mar  15  15  Elaboratory Laid Open  
Aug  27  ibid. 
Sep  31  10  Handmaid, vol. 1 
74  11 
Feb  31  10  ibid. 
Mar  10  10  Handmaid, vol. 2 
May  31  10  Institutes, vol. 1 
Jul  52  10  Handmaid, vol. 2 
Sep  31  10  Institutes, vol. 2 
157  10 
Jan  31  10  Institutes, vol. 1 
Apr  31  10  Institutes, vol. 2 
May  26  Pharmacoepia  
Dec  26  ibid. 
TOTAL  347  11 
Nourse in a limited period of time. Dossie wrote other books for Nourse, and for other publishers, in later years, including a play, The statesman foil'd, in 1768. Nothing is known of him, but it seems likely that the gentleman of St. James's, Westminster, was an amateur scientist and an aspirant playwright who supported himself largely by his writings.

None of the other authors worked for Nourse regularly enough for comparable calculations to be made, or, if they did, the evidence has not survived. We have already noted, however, that Nourse and Vaillant paid Deletanville at regular intervals while he was at work on the French dictionary, and that Nourse paid Vieyra regularly for the Portuguese dictionary for as long as there was evidence of progress. John Nourse never made his authors rich, but he did not cause, or allow, them to die in garrets.

The inevitable concentration on relationships between literary writers and their publishers has disguised some essential facts about the role of the author in the eighteenth-century book trade. Firstly, he was often not a professional author at all, but a clergyman, a schoolmaster, or other professional man, seeking to increase his reputation and only incidentally his income. Those who were professional authors seem to have been paid reasonably


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well as long as they kept their side of the bargain and wrote their books.[25] Secondly, although there are examples of publishers making large profits from books whose authors did not benefit from them, in most cases the author received a fair reward for a work which was never likely to make a fortune for anyone. In such circumstances, the sale of rights was preferable to profit-sharing, for not only did it simplify the publisher's accounting, it also guaranteed the author at least some income, even if only in the form of one or two cash payments and a few books. When there was a reasonable expectation of large profits, payments to authors were normally correspondingly large; or, as in the case of Tom Jones, there were negotiations, or ex gratia payments. Indeed, if John Nourse is typical of the leading members of the trade, as he seems to be, we can conclude that eighteenth-century English authors were not ill-treated by their publishers as long as they were able to produce saleable work without too great a delay.