How has publishing changed in the last 300 years?

Posted on 8th June 2015 by Jonathan O'Brien
Antonia Hodgson and how self-publishing, crowdfunding and ghostwriting aren't as new as we'd like to think.

In the winter of 1716 Alexander Pope the most celebrated poet of his age deliberately poisoned a bookseller. Its fair to say that this was a low point in author/bookseller relations.

My new novel, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins - a sequel to The Devil in the Marshalsea - is set in 1728. It features a bookshop called The Cocked Pistol, which sells curious (i.e. erotic) literature under the counter. Its based on a real Covent Garden print shop, run by an infamous bookseller and publisher called Edmund Curll. He was so unscrupulous, so disreputable, so universally loathed by writers that he was known as The Unspeakable Curll.

Curll had absolutely no regard for authors copyright partly because it was a new phenomenon. The first copyright act was passed in 1710, and its fair to say that it took a while for people to get used to it. Piracy was rife (as was actual piracy, come to think of it) and Curll in particular was renowned for publishing popular works without first securing the authors permission. He made a fortune, while the author received nothing.

He was also a master at securing the personal letters of public figures, then printing them for profit. (The Georgian equivalent of phone hacking.) In 1716 Curll printed three private poems by an anonymous writer. In fact he knew full well that they had been written by the poet and courtier Lady Mary Montagu, and that their publication would cause huge embarrassment and scandal. In fact he was relying on this to boost sales. But Curll made a tactical error. Hoping to stoke up further debate, he hinted that the poems might have been written by Alexander Pope.

Furious at being dragged into this sordid business, Pope plotted his revenge. At a carefully orchestrated meeting, he pretended to forgive the bookseller and the two men settled down for a few drinks. When Curll was suitably relaxed, Pope slipped a powerful emetic in his drink. Curll was violently, explosively ill.

He recovered and went straight back to work. In fact he rushed out a pamphlet telling the whole story.

This was a kind of Extreme Publishing, closer to tabloid journalism. He was considered excessive, even to his contemporaries. But in fact there are a lot of similarities between the eighteenth-century book trade and the modern industry. Here are a few examples.


Unbound - an eighteenth-century subscription model

Unbound is a successful crowdfunding company. Authors pitch book ideas to the public. If enough people sign up, the book is published. It tends to work best if an author already has a platform. This subscription model was very popular in the eighteenth century, and not just with writers. Hogarths prints of The Harlots Progress and The Rakes Progress were sensationally successful - and entirely crowd-funded.  As for having a platform, hanging out in taverns with other authors often helped. 


Open All Hours

Increasingly, we expect stores to open late at busy times such as Christmas, and of course online stores such as never close In the early eighteenth century, many shops, including bookstores, would open at seven in the morning and close at eight in the evening. And if there was a busy spell, they would remain open to cover the demand. Shop store workers campaigned throughout the century for shorter working days - and in the end were successful. These days with email and social media, the hours have stretched again for many people...



In 1695 the Licensing Act was allowed to lapse. This is not the most exciting sentence I have ever written, but bear with me. At that moment, pre-publication censorship came to an end. In other words, you no longer had to submit your work for official approval before getting it printed. This led to an explosion in printing - and many books were privately published.

Ghosting - and other ways to make a living

In 2013, typical author earnings dropped to £11,000 per annum. Eighteenth-century authors would sympathise. Daniel Defoe - arguably the inventor of the British novel - struggled with debt all his life. (Partly because of book piracy by the likes of Edmund Curll.) In fact Defoe was hiding from his creditors when he died. To supplement his income, he became a writer for hire. He even ghosted the biographies of condemned criminals - books that were then sold on hanging day.

As for Edmund Curll, he died a wealthy man. But then he did publish such literary classics as Cases of Unnatural Lewdness and The Benefit of Farting Explained. Sex and fart jokes - they wouldnt be out of place on a publishers non-fiction list today. We havent changed all that much in three hundred years.


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