Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/January 1879/Herbert Spencer Before the English Copyright Commission I

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617469Popular Science Monthly Volume 14 January 1879 — Herbert Spencer Before the English Copyright Commission I
Herbert Spencer


QUESTION (Chairman). I need hardly ask, you are a writer of philosophical and scientific books?

Answer. I am.

Q. Would you give the commission your experience of the terms on which you published your first book?

A. I published my first work, "Social Statics," at the end of 1850. Being a philosophical book, it was not possible to obtain a publisher who would undertake any responsibility, and I published it at my own cost. A publisher looks askance at philosophy, and especially the philosophy of a new man; hence I published on commission.

Q. Would you like to state what the result was?

A. The edition was 750; it took fourteen years to sell.

Q. Then with respect to your next work?

A. In 1855 I published the "Principles of Psychology;" I again tried in vain to get a publisher, and published again at my own cost. There were 750 copies, and the sale was very slow. I gave away a considerable number; the remainder, I suppose about 650, sold in twelve and a half years.

Q. Have you had any other similar cases?

A. Yes; I afterward, in 1857, published a series of Essays, and, warned by past results, I printed only 500. That took ten and a half years to sell. After that a second series of Essays and a little work on Education, which both had kindred results, but were not quite so long in selling. I should add that all these sales would have taken still longer but for the effect produced upon them by books published at a later period, which helped the earlier ones to sell.

Q. Have all these subsequent works to which you now refer been published in the same way?

A. No. Toward 1860 I began to be anxious to publish a "System of Philosophy," which I had been elaborating for a good many years. I found myself in the position of losing by all my books; and, after considering various plans, I decided upon the plan of issuing to subscribers in quarterly parts, and to the public in volumes when completed. Before the initial volume, "First Principles," was finished, I found myself still losing. During the issue of the second volume, the "Principles of Biology," I was still losing. In the middle of the third volume I was still losing so much, that I found I was frittering away all I possessed. I went back upon my accounts, and found that in the course of fifteen years I had lost nearly £1,200—adding interest, more than £1,200; and as I was evidently going on ruining myself, I issued to the subscribers a notice of cessation.

Q. Was that loss the difference between the money that you had actually spent in publishing the books and the money you had received in return?

A. Not exactly. The difference was between my total expenditure in publishing the books and living in the most economical way possible, and the total returns. That is to say, cutting down my expenses to the smallest amount, I lost £1,200 by the inadequate returns, and trenched to that extent upon capital.

Q. But you continued afterward, did you not, to publish?

A. I continued afterward, simply, I may say, by accident. On two previous occasions, in the course of those fifteen years, I had been enabled to persevere, spite of losses, by bequests. On this third occasion, after the issue of the notice, property which I inherit came to me in time to prevent the cessation.

Q. May I ask how long it took before you began to be repaid for your losses?

A. My losses did not continue very long after that: the tide turned, and my books began to pay. I have calculated what length of time it has taken to repay my losses, and find they were repaid in 1874; that is to say, in twenty-four years after I began I retrieved my position.

Q. Then the commission understand that your books are now remunerative?

A. They are now remunerative, and for this reason: As I have explained, I had to publish on commission. Commission is a system which, throwing all the cost upon the author, is very disastrous for him if his books do not pay, and, as you see in this case, has been very disastrous to me; but when they do pay it is extremely advantageous, inasmuch as in that case the publisher who does the business takes only ten per cent., and the whole of the difference between cost and proceeds, minus that ten per cent., comes to the author. I have calculated what are my actual returns, on two suppositions. I have ascertained the percentage I get upon 1,000 copies, supposing that I set up the type solely for that 1,000 copies—supposing, that is, that the cost of composition comes into the cost. In that case I reap 30¾ per cent. But I reap much more. I was sanguine enough, when I began this series of books, to stereotype. The result is, that now I simply have to print additional thousands as they are demanded. If I suppose the cost of composition and stereotyping to have been paid for in the first edition, and only estimate the cost of paper and printing in the successive editions, then I am reaping 41¾ per cent. The actual percentage, of course, is one which lies between those two; but year by year, with each additional thousand, I approach more nearly to the limit of 41¾ per cent. I should point out that the result of this is that I receive, as may be supposed, a considerable return upon the moderate numbers sold.

Q. And that being so, can you tell the commission what in your opinion would have happened had there been in existence a system under which three years, say, after date of publication any one could have reprinted your books, paying you a royalty of ten per cent.?

A. The result would have been that my losses would not have been repaid now. After twenty-six years' work I should still have been out of pocket; and should be out of pocket for many years to come.

Q. (Mr. Trollope). Under such a system do you think that you would ever have recovered that money?

A. I am taking it on the most favorable supposition, merely supposing that all other things but percentage had remained the same.

Q. (Chairman). Assuming the system of royalty to be in existence, what would be the result on your present returns, supposing losses to have been repaid?

A. Between two-thirds and three-fourths of those returns would be cut off. They would be reduced to little more than a fourth of their present amount.

Q. (Sir H. Holland). How do you arrive at that result?

A. By comparing the supposed percentage with the percentage I actually received.

Q. Assuming a royalty of ten per cent, upon the retail price?

A. Yes.

Q. (Chairman). Would it not be probable that the reduction in price of your books would so increase the sales that you would reap a larger return than you have supposed in the estimate that you have now given?

A. I think not, or very little. First of all, for the reason that the amount of reduction would not be anything like so great as at first sight appears. If a publisher issued rival editions of my books without my assent, on paying a royalty, he would only do so to make a profit beyond that which mere commission would bring. My present publisher is content with ten per cent, commission. A publisher who competed as a speculation would want to make his profit beyond the ten per cent, commission; as I ascertain, probably, at least a further ten per cent. Then there would be my own ten per cent, royalty. So that I find the reduction in price under such a royalty system would only be about fifteen per cent. That is to say, the reduction would be from 20s. to 17s. Now I am of opinion that a reduction of the price of one of my books by that amount would have but a small effect upon the sales, the market being so limited. Let me use an illustration: Take such a commodity as cod-liver oil, which is a very necessary thing for a certain limited class. Suppose it is contended that, out of regard for those to whom it is so necessary, retailers should be compelled to take a smaller profit, and you reduce the price by fifteen per cent. The consumption would be very little influenced, because there would be none except those who had it prescribed for them who would be willing to take it, and they must have it. Now take one of my books, say the "Principles of Psychology." Instead of calling it "caviare to the general," let us call it cod-liver oil to the general; I think it probable that if you were to ask ninety-nine people out of a hundred whether they would daily take a spoonful of cod-liver oil or read a chapter of that book, they would prefer the cod-liver oil. And if so it is quite clear, I think, that no lowering of the price by 3s. out of 20s. would in any considerable degree increase the number of persons who bought the "Principles of Psychology." The class is so limited and so special that there would be no increase of profit of a considerable kind in consequence of an increased number sold.

Q. (Mr. Trollope). But are there not many people who would have benefited by cod-liver oil who cannot get it at present because of the price?

A. I think in all those cases in which they would be benefited they get it by hook or by crook when it is prescribed for them.

Q. And in the same way with your books, you think?

A. Yes. For instance, university men have to read them, and they would buy them in any case.

Q. (Chairman). What would have happened to you originally had there been a law giving a copyright only of short duration, under such an arrangement of percentage as that which you have just named?

A. I think it is tolerably obvious, from what I have already said, that I should not have been wholly deterred. I should have gone on losing for many years; but I think it is also clear that I should have stopped short much sooner than I did. Every author is naturally sanguine about his books; he has hopes which nobody else entertains. The result is that he will persevere, in the hope of at some time or other reaping some return, when to other persons there seems to be no probability of the kind. But supposing it becomes manifest to him that the copyright law is such that when his books succeed, if they ever do succeed, he will not get large profits, then the discouragement will be much greater, and he will stop much sooner. If I, for instance, instead of seeing that under the system of commission I should eventually, if I succeeded, repay myself and get a good return, had seen that eventually, if I succeeded, I should receive but small gains, I should have given it up.

Q. Are there other publications which you have undertaken besides those to which you have already referred?

A. Yes. About ten years ago I commenced preparing works now published under the name of "Descriptive Sociology," in large folio parts, and containing tables and classified extracts representing the civilizations of various societies. I employed gentlemen to make these compilations.

Q. Do you wish to state what has been the result of that undertaking so far?

A. Yes. I made up my accounts last Christmas. I had then in the course of those ten years expended £3,958 odd upon eight parts (five published and three in hand), and my net return from sales of the five parts published in England and America was £608 10s.

Q. May I ask whether you ever expect to get back the money that you have expended?

A. I may possibly get back the printing expenses on the earliest part, and most popular part, that dealing with the English civilization, in 1880, at the present rate of sale. The printing expenses of the other parts I do not expect to get back for many years longer. The cost of compilation I expect to get back if I live to be over a hundred.

Q. (Mr. Daldy). You spoke of the circulation in England and America. May I ask, do you send stereotype-plates to America?

A. I did at first send stereotype-plates to America, but, the thing having proved to be so great a loss, I now send a portion of the printed edition.

Q. (Chairman). May I ask why do you expect repayment of the cost of compilation to be so slow as you stated in your answer to my last question?

A. The reason is, that I made a promise to the compilers entailing that. The compilers are university men, to whom I could afford to give only such salaries as sufficed for their necessary expenses. To make the thing better for them, and to be some incentive, I told them that, when the printing expenses on any one part were repaid, I would commence to divide with the compiler of it the returns on subsequent sales; the result being that the cost of compilation comes back to me only at half the previous rate. I name this because it shows that, in the absence of a long copyright, I could have given no such contingent advantage to the compilers. I wish to point out another way in which a short copyright would have impeded me. As a further incentive to these compilers to do their work well, as also to make the prospect better for them, I gave them to understand that the copyrights and the stereotype-plates would be theirs after my death. Of course, with a short copyright I could not have done that.

Q. Then in your opinion it is only by a long duration of copyright that you can be enabled to recover any considerable part of the money that you have sunk in these publications?

A. Certainly. If it were possible for any one to reprint, such small return as goes toward diminishing this immense loss would be in part intercepted.

Q. But if this work, which you call "Descriptive Sociology," is so unremunerative, how do you imagine you would be in danger of having it reprinted under the suggested system of royalty?

A. It appears at first sight not a rational expectation, but it is perfectly possible. Each number of the work consists of a set of tables and a set of classified extracts. It was suggested by a reviewer of the first part, the English part, that the tables should be separately printed, mounted on boards, and hung up in schools. The suggestion was a good one, and I have even had thoughts of doing it myself. A publisher might take up that suggestion, and might issue those independently of me, and diminish what small sale I now have. Again, the work is very cumbrous and awkward; that can hardly be helped; but a publisher might see that the extracts arranged in ordinary volume form would be valuable by themselves apart from the tables, and might get a good sale independently; and again my small returns would be cut into.

Q. (Sir H. Holland). That objection of yours would be partly met by the suggestion of Mr. Macfie, who brought this question of royalty before us, because his suggestion is, that no reprint is to differ from the original edition without the author's consent, either in the way of abbreviation, enlargement, or alteration of the text. Therefore, under that regulation, if that is carried out, a publisher could not print half of this book without your consent?

A. That would so far, if it can be practically worked out, meet my objection.

Q. (Mr. Trollope). But you have stated that you thought yourself of using this form of abridgment to which allusion is made?

A. I have.

Q. And if this form of abridgment when made by you could be republished again by anybody else, then your profit would be interfered with?

A. No doubt of it.

Q. (Chairman). Supposing the suggested system of short copyright and royalty had been in force, would you have undertaken these works to which you have referred?

A. Certainly not. The enterprise was an unpromising one, pecuniarily considered, and it would have been almost an insane one, I think, had there not been the possibility of eventually getting back some returns from sales that were necessarily very slow. Moreover, the hopes under which the compilers have worked I could never have given to them.

Q. Then are we to gather from your evidence that the system of short copyright and royalty would be injurious to the books of the graver class which do not appeal to the popular tastes?

A. I think so; it would be especially injurious to that particular class which of all others needs encouragement.

Q. (Sir H. Holland). As requiring most thought and brain-work on the part of the author?

A. Yes, and being least remunerative.

Q. (Chairman). I understand you to say that in all these cases you have not parted with the copyright yourself?

A. No, I have not.

Q. Now, assuming that the authors of these graver books sold their copyrights, do you think that this royalty system would still act prejudicially upon them?

A. I think very decidedly. I have understood that it is contended that authors who sell their copyrights would not be affected by this arrangement. One of the answers I heard given here to-day sufficed to show that that is not true; inasmuch as a publisher who had to meet these risks would not give as much for copyright as he would otherwise give. His argument would be unanswerable. He would say: "Your book is a success, or not a success; if not a success, I lose what I give you for copyright; if a success, I shall have it reprinted upon me, and again I shall lose what I give you for copyright. I must, therefore, reduce the amount which I give for the copyright." Moreover, I believe that the reduction in the value of copyrights would be much greater than the facts justified. In the first place, the publisher himself would look to the possibility of reprinting with a fear beyond that which actual experience warranted. Frequently a suggested small danger acts upon the mind in a degree out of all proportion to its amount. Take such a case as the present smallpox epidemic, in which you find one person in 30,000 dies in a week; in which, therefore, the risk of death is extremely small. Look at this actual risk of death and compare it with the alarms that you find prevailing among people. It is clear that the fear of an imagined consequence of that kind is often much in excess of the actual danger. Similarly, I conceive that the publisher himself would unconsciously over-estimate the danger of reprints. But beyond that he would exaggerate his over-estimate as an excuse for beating down copyright. He would say to the author: "You see this danger; I cannot face so great a risk without guarding myself; and you must submit to a large reduction."

(Mr. Spencer was subsequently called before the committee again, and we shall give his interesting evidence next month.)

  1. Tuesday, March 6, 1877: Lord John Manners, M.P., in the chair. Members of the commission present, Sir Henry T. Holland, Sir Louis Mallet, Sir Julius Benedict, Farrer Herschell, Dr. William Smith, J. A. Froude, Esq., Anthony Trollope, Esq., F. R. Daldy, Esq.