were tied down to narrow views, and their timidity is characteristically shown by the fact that to publish a book of any importance required the co-operation of a number of booksellers who shared the expenses and the profits.
Enterprise could not be expected from a committee of that kind and of that composition; hence there was not merely an opportunity, but a clamorous demand for men of larger ideas and wider outlook to undertake the proper business of publishing, unhampered by the narrowing influences of retail trade.
Besides unconsciously improving the position of authors by enabling them to appeal to the public instead of to patrons, whom Johnson classed with other evils in the line “toil, envy, want, the patron and the gaol,” the bookseller-publishers gave them, or many of them, steady employment as literary assistants and advisers.
As the demand for books increased, these worthy tradesmen felt with growing acuteness their own want of literary ability and of education. They called in men of letters to supply their own deficiencies. No doubt they expected the lowest kind of hack work from their assistants, no doubt the pay was poor, no doubt they trampled upon the sensibilities of the man of letters, and no doubt he irritated them by his businesslike habits. Still, the association was useful to both parties; and indeed, one may lay down many books at the present day with a sigh of regret that the writers had never been compelled to go through an apprenticeship of the kind.
The emergence of the publishers as a separate class was accompanied by differentiation of the functions of their literary assistants. The routine drudgery which men of education and ability formerly had to undergo fell to a class now known as “proof readers,” who are on the watch for typographical errors, grammatical slips, ambiguities of expression, obvious lapses of memory and oversights of all kinds. Men of letters became “publishers' readers,” and their duty was to appraise the worth of the manuscripts submitted, and to advise their employers as to the value of the matter, the originality of the treatment, and the excellence of the style. Their advice was also sought upon literary projects that may have suggested themselves to the publishers, and novel suggestions emanating from themselves were welcomed. Men of letters in positions of that kind could obviously exercise very considerable influence over the proceedings of the publishing firms to which they were attached, and many an unknown writer has owed the acceptance of his work to the sympathetic insight of the publishers' reader.
The man of letters as publisher's reader is, however, a transitory phenomenon in the evolution of the publishing business. His primary function is to tell the publisher what is intrinsically good, but probably he has always to some extent discharged the secondary function of advising the publisher as to what it would pay to publish. The qualities which make a man a sound critic of intrinsic worth are quite different from those that make him a good judge of what the public will buy. When books were comparatively few, and when the reading public was comparatively small, select and disposed to give considerable attention to the few books it read, the critical faculty was of more importance than the business one. But when the output of books became large, and when, as the consequence of educational changes, the reading public became numerous, uncritical and hurried and superficial in its reading, the importance of the critical faculty in the publisher's reader dwindled, while the faculty of gauging the public mind and guessing what would sell became increasingly valuable. The publisher's literary adviser belongs to the period when the publishing business had expanded sufficiently to compel the publisher to look for skilled assistance in working more or less upon the older traditions. But when, as is now the case, expansion has gone so far as to swamp the older traditions, and to make publishing a purely commercial affair, the literary reader gives place to the man of business with aptitude for estimating how many copies of a given book can be sold. This is practically recognized by at least one London publisher, who in recent years paid no salary to his reader, but gave him a small commission upon every copy that was sold of any book the publication of which he had recommended. Nothing could more plainly indicate that literary faculty is not wanted, and that the reader's function is to judge, not literary value, but commercial utility.
The market is flooded with books badly written, badly constructed, as poor in matter as in style, hastily flung together, and outrageously padded to suit conventional relations between size and price. They are books which no man of literary taste or judgment could ever recommend for publication on their merits, but they are published, just as crackers are at Christmas, on a calculation that a certain number will find buyers. Even if the publisher sees no prospect of an adequate sale, he publishes the books all the same, upon terms which ensure to him a manufacturing profit and throw the risk of loss upon other shoulders.
There is no reproach, stated or implied, to the publisher. He is merely a man of his age carrying on his business upon terms which the age prescribes through a number of concurrent causes. Any reproach that may fall upon him he invites by sometimes giving himself the airs of one belonging to an earlier age, and claiming credit for acting upon principles that are obsolete.
An author, even if he be an immortal genius, is, from the economic point of view, a producer of raw material. A publisher, however eminent, is from the same point of view a middleman who works up the author's raw material into a saleable form and places it upon the market. The relationship between the two is one that occurs with great frequency in business, always giving rise to efforts by each party to adjust the division of profits for his own advantage. If there be anything peculiar to the publishing business it is that the party who in that business most successfully adjusts matters for his own advantage is liable to be charged by the other with some form of moral obliquity. The diatribes of authors against publishers are familiar to every one; and publishers on their side have some hard things to say about authors, though their sentiments are less piquantly and less publicly expressed. The publisher is usually a more or less capable man of business, while the author is generally—though there are very notable exceptions—quite ignorant of business and apparently incapable of learning the rudiments. It necessarily follows that the author, left to himself, accepts agreements and signs contracts which are much less favourable than they need be to his acquisition of a due share of the profits jointly made by himself and the publisher. What makes his position still worse is the circumstance that each author fights for his own hand, whereas the publishers, although in competition with one another, are also to some extent in combination.
In these circumstances it occurred to Sir Walter Besant and some others that a remedy for this inferiority in position might be found in a combination of authors for mutual help and protection. After a troublesome period of incubation the Society of Authors was established in London in 1883, with Lord Tennyson as its first president, and with a goodly list of 35 vice-presidents. It offered useful assistance to authors ignorant of business in the way of examining contracts, checking publishers' accounts, revising their sometimes too liberal estimates of costs of production, and giving advice as to the publishers to be applied to or avoided in any given case. It has no doubt been of great service in checking the abuses of the publishing trade and in compelling the less scrupulous among the publishers to conform more or less exactly to the practice of the more honourable. On general questions such as that of copyright it serves to focus the opinions of authors, though here it champions their interests against the public rather than against the publishers. But the society has never been an effective combination of authors; and indeed the obstacles, material and moral, to such a combination are so great as to render complete success extremely improbable. Nothing could better illustrate this difficulty than the fact that, concurrently with the Society of Authors, a totally different machinery for the furtherance of the interests of authors came into existence. The “literary agent” made his appearance about 1880. He is supposed to be an