Pitiful authors!!!

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Leiden Uninersity
Faculty of Arts
English Department
Book and Digital Media Studies

Pitiful authors!!!

Comments on John Brewer's Authors, Publishers and Literary Culture

Olivier Nyirubugara
28 October 2005

Olivier Nyirubugara, June 2005

Olivier Nyirubugara
Graduate in Publishing and Digital Media Studies
Graduate in American Literature.

I would like to discuss the reward-related debate from page 245 to the end. The reason is because the first part about a number of successful authors seems not to depict the actual situation of the majority of authors in the 18th century.

From the little literature I have so far come across during the course, I came to the conclusion that the author was the most forgotten, the most unfortunate and even the only loser in the whole chain of book production.

John Brewer writes on page 245 that authors of the 18th century England (this can also be applied to western Europe) could be divided into two camps: “those who write to edify, amuse and instruct but who shunned [avoided] monetary reward” and “those who wrote for money”. My focus is on the latter camp, which was commonly laughed at. Brewer writes that at that time “writing for money not only reduced authorship to a mechanical trade but subverted [destroyed] the value of the work…”(p. 245)

By viewing them that way, society was unfair because the same was not applied to the printers/publishers and booksellers whose work was to exploit and take advantage of the raw materials provided (and not sold) by the author. He is the starting point and the only one not to gain a penny from his own work.

Since this situation was common to the whole West, I would like to mention the book production costs in the early 19th century Netherlands. BPM Dongelmans details in Bibliopolis, page 183, the costs of ‘Alwin en Theodoor’, a popular child book, but the author (CFW Jacobs) appears nowhere on the list. The publisher and booksellers made huge profits from it and confirmed Febvre and Martin’s assertion that “the bookseller…was not normally willing to include the author in his profits”(page 164).

I personally wonder why authors, who knew that they were making the fortune of publishers and book sellers, watched powerlessly their works being ruthlessly exploited. Why didn’t they strike? They could take let’s say one year without writing ( which would change nothing in their financial situation) and all publishing houses and bookshops would go bankrupt. To avoid that, publishers would certainly hasten to re-consider the authors’ rights and yield a small percentage of their profit to “the raw material provider”, who was indispensable in their business.

Instead of doing so, authors became “beggars” running here and there in search of jobs as translators, correctors (sometimes for their own work), journalists, etc. Labourers in printing shops would successfully strike to claim better labour conditions but authors never dared. In my opinion, more reflection is needed on this subject.

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