Sher’s Chapter 3: The Rewards of Authorship

Sher’s The Enlightenment and the Book

Chapter 3: The Rewards of Authorship

As Sher indicates in his introduction, copyright supplies only one thread of a much larger story about authorship in the eighteenth century. Transformations in conceptions of ‘authorship’ and what it meant to be an ‘author’ occurred within and across various spheres, especially during the second half of the century. These spheres could be broadly categorized as consisting of the legal, aesthetic, commercial, and sociocultural realms. At times these transformations overlapped with one another, and at other times they occurred independently, sometimes unfolding far more slowly or swiftly in one sphere than another. Sher’s third chapter focuses foremost on the commercial realm, though it does address elements that overlap with the sociocultural sphere. Such a focus is a welcome one, for not only has the commercial realm been understudied but general pronouncements about the rewards of authorial labor benefit from the careful examination and testing they receive here.

The chapter’s first two sections address authorship in terms of patronage. Opening with James Boswell’s account of Samuel Johnson’s view of booksellers as the “patrons of literature” (195-6), Sher notes that this well-known episode “implies a general progression in the eighteenth century from aristocratic patronage to patronage by the booksellers or, to be more precise, publishers” (196). Although some scholars such as Alvin Kiernan and some contemporary remarks by eighteenth-century authors such as Oliver Goldsmith and even Johnson, point to the public as being the new patrons, the booksellers-as-publishers operated as “‘the cultural middlemen’ …between authors and their publics” (197). To test the validity of these formulations, Sher then proceeds to flesh out claims that booksellers served as the new patrons of author with specifics. Besides copy money, an issue Sher tackles later in the chapter, he identifies three other prime ways publishers exercised their roles as patrons. The first involved the commissioning and funding of large scale, financially risky projects (198), and the second encompassed the “social support system” that publishers provided for their authors (198-9). This system ranged from providing hospitality to banking to emotional support, and multiple examples are offered as support and illustration. The final form of patronage concerns the intermediary role booksellers performed between authors and the “public,” a word whose multiple connotations could designate “the reading public,” “buyers of books,” or “public opinion” or all three (201). Besides this useful reminder about the multiple meanings the term “the public” could signify, Sher’s discussion also reframes notions of the “rapacious booksellers” whose self-interest robs authors of their just dues in terms of the bookseller as representing and protecting the interests of the public against authorial self-interest (203).

After exploring concrete ways in which booksellers served as the patrons of authors, Sher turns to examining “traditional patronage transformed” (203). Here he extends the work of Dustin Griffin, who argues that the eighteenth century “is best characterized as ‘a mixed system of patronage and market,’” to Scottish Enlightenment authors (203-4). And indeed, while aristocratic patronage was altered, the death of the practice has been greatly exaggerated and in fact extended into the nineteenth century. One of the key forms that patronage by the socially and politically powerful assumed was the professional appointment. As Sher explains, positions in universities, the church, government, and the like gave authors the security and means to write (204). [See also Edward G. Andrew, <i>Patrons of Enlightenment</i> (Toronto, 2006).] Noting that “the line between aristocratic and government patronage was often invisible in the eighteenth-century,” Sher points out that a growing number of authors during the century “obtained pensions, ecclesiastical offices, regius chairs and other academic professorships, civil service positions, and various kinds of sinecures from the government” and did so not because they performed propaganda services for the government but rather as “a reward for having made significant contributions to literature and learning” (207). Again, extended examples are offered as illustrations. [I did wonder about the use of the word “places” in the title to this two-part section, “Patrons, Publishers, and Places,” and whether it referred to positions of employment given to support authors.] This section concludes by offering a more nuanced understanding of patronage that stresses the transformation of the practice that offered indirect rather direct assistance to authors. In short,

In this new form, patronage served to establish professional autonomy, and professional autonomy enabled the majority of Scottish Enlightenment authors to deal with the book trade on terms of strength rather than weakness, according to their own individual motives and objectives. (209)

The remainder of the chapter deals with the numerous ways Scottish Enlightenment authors approached remuneration and the commercialized literary marketplace. The first approach is that of the “gentleman-author” who claimed no interest in monetary returns from their work. While most authors did not have the means to adopt this attitude, those who enjoyed success could eventually adopt this pose if so desired (209). Noting that most frequently these authors were “landed gentlemen whose books were written solely for scholars and who were not likely to make a profit anyway” (210), Sher offers an example of James Hutton who financed the production of his work but sought Strahan and Cadell to “respectably announce[.. it] to the world” (210). The example serves to demonstrate the importance of the publisher and the sociocultural cache that having a prestigious bookseller-publisher in a work’s imprint carried. [This point arguably bears some relevance to our discussion of generic hierarchies in comments on Sher’s introduction.] Sher deems publication projects whose profits would be donated to a charitable society or to an author’s family or estate as a variation of the “gentlemen-author” approach (212-13). In these cases authors sought the best price for the work, but the lack of financial reward to the writer perhaps justifies its classification under this rubric.

Almost all other Scottish Enlightenment authors, however, sought the best terms they could secure for their work. The unpublished author was typically in the most disadvantaged position to bargain, but once proven he or she would have more latitude to do so. While the goal was the best financial remuneration, authors had a diversity of arrangements they pursue to achieve this goal:

  • compensation by the sheet or by the job (215-16).
  • self-publication (pp. 216-24)
  • subscription (multiple types) (pp. 224-35)
  • profit-sharing (pp. 235-40)
  • sale of the rights to a single edition (pp. 240-44)
  • sale of the copyright in advance of publication for a set amount (pp. 244-55)
  • The labels for these various categories of payment may seem fairly self-explanatory, yet several involve variations or are more complex than their rubric might suggest.

    Writing for a piece-rate—typically by the sheet but sometimes a lump sum given for the project as a whole—carries connotations of Grub Street and often entailed the pressures of writing for a deadline, but authors sometimes made out well under this arrangement (215). As the examples reveals, an author could be paid by sheet for the first edition and receive an additional yet lower fee per page if the work warranted a second edition. Johnson’s Dictionary and his Lives of the Poets are offered as examples for which an author was paid for a commissioned project.

    Authors often undertook self-publication to exercise control over their work. This arrangement typically still required the services of a bookseller to market and distribute the work, though the rare author—Sher offers the case of James Ferguson who had a globe shop as one example—performed these tasks, too. Because of the time-consuming nature of self-publication, it was not unusual for an author to sell the copyright to a bookseller and any unsold copies or the rights to publish a subsequent edition or editions. Sometimes, as in the case of William Buchan, the sale of the copyright also included provisions for additional compensation based on sales or the preparation of subsequent editions. The account Sher provides of Boswell’s anxiety over what arrangement to strike for his Life of Samuel Johnson illustrates both the uncertainty facing authors in determining what path to take as well as the gambles involved. Like other sections, the details about production costs, marketing expenses, copyright payments and the like advance in important ways our understanding of the economics of the trade from the perspective of author and producer.

    Addressing the common association of subscription publishing as “‘a way-station on the road from personal patronage to commercial authorship,’” Sher notes that this form of subscription publishing is only one kind and “may be described as traditional or elitist” (225). Including a list of subscribers whose names frequently provided cultural value and normally produced “in quarto or even folio” and sold “at inflated prices,” works published by traditional subscription resulted in the author receiving profits from its sales (225). These works were not exempt from losing money as the case of Robert Adam’s Spalatro–what Sher describes as “an aristocratic showpiece, intended to enhance the reputation of the architect-author at a critical time in his career—demonstrates (226). A disadvantage of this type of publishing was the risk it carried for painting the author as avaricious.

    Sher identifies another type of subscription publishing that he calls “commercial.” Works published this way lacked subscriber list and were normally less expensive than standard book prices, thus making them attractive to potential purchasers for their affordability. Subscription sellers would receive a commission, and this method enabled first-time authors a way to control their work and potentially earn more profits while maintaining a fairly low profile (228). As with other arrangements, “many variations and combinations of subscription were possible” (228). In one example offered, what had started as a publication by subscription project become a work published by the sale of copyright in advance of its publication, “using the considerable number of subscriptions … already secured as collateral for the copy money” (229). In the case of Robert Burns, the poet initially pursued subscription publishing to finance his emigration to Jamaica, but the success the first effort altered his plans to go abroad, and the second subscription edition, one resembling the traditional variation of this method in some ways but departing in its modest pricing, helped transform him “from a regional to a national—and international—poet” (231). Burns then sold the copyright to Creech, but the bookseller’s slow payment caused friction that eventually was replaced by satisfaction. As Sher claims, the case of Burns’s poetry displays the variations that subscription publishing could take as it also details the shifting relationship an author could experience with his or her bookseller (234-35). Besides the variety and flexibility of subscription publishing, two other key points in this section are the need to look beyond subscription lists to understand the full range that this method of publication could take and the fact that subscription publishing among Scottish Enlightenment authors was not common (235).

    A third method of publishing that Sher examines is profit sharing. Under this arrangement, “the publisher paid for all or part of the expenses of production and promotion and then shared profits with the author for a single edition” (235). Such an arrangement was appealing to an author over self-publication because while he or she kept the copyright, the arrangement involved little if any financial risk for the author; eliminated the need to handle firsthand production and marketing duties, and avoided the an imprint which declared that the work was self-published (236). Sher offers several examples of bestsellers published this way, including Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as well as an example of one that did not yield its author the financial rewards he expected.

    Sale of the copyright for just a single edition was yet another arrangement, and this method enabled the author to retain his or her copyright in any other editions published. Once again, this arrangement could take various shapes such as when authors financed the production and “then sold all the printed copies to a bookseller whose name appeared in the imprint as the publisher” (242). Even though registration of the copyright in the Stationers’ Company Register could be costly (nine copies of the work, be it a single or multi-volume, had to deposited as part of registration), Sher draws attention to the relatively substantial number of authors or editors whose names appear as the owners (243-44).

    Selling the copyright outright in advance of publication was nonetheless attractive to authors. For one, how well a work would sell remained a gamble, so even though the author who had retained the copyright in a work that subsequently proved popular was a in a better negotiating position to sell his right, there was no guarantee pre-publication that a given author would find himself or herself in this position. Plus, some authors preferred to “avoid the Trouble and Perplexity” entailed in negotiating terms and/or becoming more involved in the business details (244). Sales of copyrights could, however, involves terms for future editions or provisions if a work sold better than anticipated, so there was once again room for misunderstanding, hard feelings, disagreements, and additional rewards. As was the case with Hugh Blair, publishers at times provided additional cash gifts to an author beyond that paid for the copyright when a book proved highly popular. Some contracts could allow for the author to receive a specified number of the published work, too. Hard bargains that seemed to favor initially the author, however, could prove disappointing when charges and expenses were deducted from any agreed payment. The success of some authors in receiving large payments generated false hopes for others (249). As Sher intimates in discussing William Robinson’s quarto histories and Beattie’s octavo philosophers, certain genres commanded far greater rewards than others—and these differences were materially represented in the very format chosen. Moreover, this state of affairs encouraged less talented, would-be authors to try their hands at favored, high-yielding genres like history, yet cases such as Thomas Sommerville reveal the disappointing results that often ensued (250-51). His case also illustrates how sale of a copyright in advance of publication can also combine aspects of conditional publishing (252). Some contracts for copy money contained clauses that resulted in hardship for the unwary, overly optimistic author—such as the one Adam Ferguson signed for his History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic in which he had agreed “to buy back all the copies that were unsold eighteen months after publication, at the wholesale price” and then found himself having to pay for the large number that remained at the end of the year and a half (252). The clause was no doubt included because of the very high figure Ferguson insisted on receiving for the copyright. Sher closes this section with a general discussion of copyright sums according to genre and authors. The copyrights for novels, as is generally known, commanded usually low sums, and even some histories in quarto garnered “relatively modest amounts” (254).

    The chapter closes with two codas of sorts (typographically constructed through spacing and asterisk and having overlaps). The first reiterates the variety and combinations of publishing arrangements available to Scottish authors. Noting that “certain variables such as format and genre operated as constraints,” Sher underscores that these factors still left ample room for negotiation—and thus “for contingency, conflict, and cooperation—in the arrangement and implementation of the terms of publication” (256). The reminder of this section addresses the author as driven by monetary rewards. While acknowledging that financial returns were often a motivation, Sher also draws attention to other attitudes, pointing out that even Johnson wrote pieces without compensation and addressing the stigma that some held towards writing for financial gain. Summing up that Scottish authors’ motives were varied and that no correlation can be easily made between quality and success, Sher notes that on the whole that Scottish authors did quite well financially (257). Moreover, the solid if not substantial returns these authors enjoyed began in the second half of the century and, contrary to some accounts, were not a result of the 1774 decision in Donaldson v. Becket. His findings also counter those of book historians who have relied on payment to novelists in their claims about authors of the time being very poorly paid (258). What is perhaps most interesting here is that Scottish writers fared so much better financially than English authors (with some exceptions such as Edward Gibbon) (259). The second “coda” first summarizes the points about patronage from the opening of the chapter and then returns to the phenomenon of “Scottish authors … looking forward to receiving higher amounts of income from their books than had ever been known” (361). It concludes by acknowledging the dual validity of the ways that publishers had become the “new patrons of authors” and that the “‘public’ had become had become the true patron of authors deemed worthy of its support” (361).

    I have once again primarily summarized the chapter (I was under the misconception that this was the prime initial task from which critical discussion would ensue. Before writing and posting this summary, I had not read Dave’s engaging, thoughtful posts for chapter 1 and 2; I wish I had because they provided a better idea of what I could have done. Nor  did I see his pre-questions until then).  Interweaving an examination of common conceptions about author-bookseller relationships, this chapter advances an argument for the ultimately collaborative nature of those relationships. The way in which its argument unfolds, coupled with the detailed evidence and examples offered, makes this characterization hard to resist, let alone contest.  While a  few of its points–such as university positions and patronage or forms of subscription publishing, to name two–have been touched upon in other studies,  Sher casts these points in a new light by treating them as part of the broader context of  the publishing  avenues available to Scottish authors. Along with this detailed, often analytical synthesis of publishing arrangements, Sher’s attention to economic details represents another strength of this section.

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    5 responses to “Sher’s Chapter 3: The Rewards of Authorship

    1. Eleanor, I think this is an excellent summary of Sher’s excellent summary of the variations on author-publisher relations in eighteenth-century Scotland. Many of the same variations can be found in author-publisher relations in England as well (and many variant variations as well!).

      It’s so helpful that someone has done this work, which has been somewhat lacking in works like St. Clair’s (which is in many other ways admirable scholarship). I shall no doubt consult this chapter in the future.

      Joseph Byrne

    2. Eleanor Shevlin

      Thanks, Joseph

      Yes, my own experience on less-well known London publishers has revealed similar collaborative practices as well as arrangments, and I’ve been focusing more and more about teasing out these networks within the trade–as well as the affiliations and intersections that the book trade had with other trades and cultural sites/institutions. That James Ferguson (discussed in Sher’s book, p. 217) was a globe manufacturer as well as the self-published author of Astronomy Explained, for instance, suggests a tight marriage of interests and markets. The surfaces of globes were printed matter, so he would have had firsthand experience working with printers, engravers, and the like. Plus, the title of his work suggests that it was aimed at a general audience interested in a type of (self-?) education, and globes,too, were common teaching tools. That he himself was self-educated also speaks to my remarks elsewhere that we should remember that authors and poublishers were also members of the public and brought their experiences as such to their occupational roles.

      Additionally, the collaborative nature of the author-bookseller relationship and the multiple various arrangements for publishing also occur on the Continent (though of course with notable variations stemming from cultural, political, commercial, social differences). Pamela Selwyn’s study Everyday Life in the German Book Trade: Friedrich Nicolai as Bookseller and Publisher in the Age of Enlightenment (Penn State 2000) offers a case in point.

      I am also very glad that you mentioned St. Clair’s approach to the economics of the trade as a point of comparison. As I have already noted, St. Clair’s study is an impressively ambitious work and deserves praise for resurrecting and pursuing an interest in recovering the economic aspects and financial factors of the trade and integrating these strands prominently in book history. But his macro-narrative does not always match his ambitions. In this light it is worth remembering Sher’s claims that his attention to commercial matters and the economics of production proffers a means of better undertanding the reception of works in the absence of other evidence. St. Clair, of course, also focuses on reading and reception and uses economics as a tool for recovering their history–with quite different results.

    3. Much of my work, for my dissertation, is on the bookseller and publisher Joseph Johnson. I noted quite a few points of comparisons between the publishers Sher is dealing with (particularly Creech) and Johnson. Particularly in the most recent scholarship (Helen Braithwaite’s monograph, and Marilyn Gaull’s articles), there is much more emphasis on Johnson’s contributions to medicine and the sciences, as well as for publishing different genres and translations of continental authors, in service to Enlightenment ideals. Paraphrasing Gaull, it is the Enlightenment Johnson, rather than the supposed radical Johnson, who is the more influential.

      And as for St. Clair, he has earned my hosannas just for his appendices, and his argument (as it seems it does for you) works up to a certain point. Sher’s argument seems less complicated–and then he has some his own fabulous appendices!

      Joseph Byrne

    4. Jill Domschot

      I find this a fascinating discussion. In particular, I’ve been meaning to explore self-publication in this time–who did it, how successful they were, etc.

    5. Eleanor Shevlin

      Among others Cheryl Turner discusses self-publication (as well as other methods) in Living by the pen: women writers in the eighteenth century (Routledge, 1992).