Customer: How do booksellers go about selling and making money in the eighteenth century?
Tonson: Making money involves four steps of consideration, and a number of initial payments have to be made before a profit can be earned. First, there is the procuring of the copy of the text from the author. The author receives a payment based on the expectation of profit. For example, John Nourse paid Alex Blackwell the high price of 150 pounds for a 1/3 share in 500 copies of his wife Elizabeth Blackwell's Curious Herbal, 80 copies of which had already been published. After procurment, the seller has to produce a certain number of copies based on projected sales. Though often evaded, the Stamp Act, starting in 1712, placed a 2 shilling tax on every copy of the publication made, which of course has to be calculated into sales accounting. Once the copies are made, promoting becomes the main issue. Two shilling ads in newspapers, printed proposals describing the work, and actual free samples from the work are the major forms of advertising.20 You can visit a small gallery of ads here.
An expense for the circulation of the proposals and samples needs to be factored into the overall accounting scheme as well. There often exists a great dichotomy in how much promotion goes into which work. For instance, D. Soyer paid printer William Strahan 2 pounds, 5 shillings for 2000 copies of proposals for a translation of Blainville's Travels, while Joseph Davidson spent just 4 guineas for 5000 copies of proposals and specimen pages of the works of Horace and Virgil in Latin and English.21 It all depends on the purpose and pocket of the seller. Other forms of promoting include ads on the blue paper covers of books and special offers of premiums from magazines. The final aspect of bookselling is distribution, which is done either by one seller or through agents or a warehouse. Once costs for all these have been considered the seller figures out cost per unit, and then with the number of units sold, pays off the expenses and takes the rest for profit, which is standard business practice.22
The financial agreement concerning the publishing of Elizabeth Blackwell's Curious Herbal.23
Customer: It sounds like the bookseller does more than just sell books then.
Tonson: That's exactly right: a bookseller acts as publisher, editor, promoter, distributor, and seller all at once. Sellers like me are all over the place in terms of duties and tasks. Speaking of promotions, booksellers are not afraid to advertise themselves and anything they are selling. For example, Shirly Woolmer of Exeter advertised in the Exeter Flying Post on November 15, 1787 that he "has now 20,000 volumes of books on sale by catalogue with their prices," and he goes on to encourage readers to bring in their own books to him for eventual sale:"Utmost value in ready money given for libraries and parcels of books-likewise books exchanged."24 Barnabas Thorn advertised for his bookshop in the Old Exeter Journal of June 12, 1772 with the following:
At the shop of Mr. Thorn may be had, books in all arts and sciences, memorandum books of all sorts, accompt books, letter cases, writing paper of all sorts, magazines, warrants of all sorts, viz. land tax, window tax and highway &c. all sorts of paper hangings of the newest patterns, with every other article in the stationary way: likewise all sorts of patent medicines.25
This ad speaks to the vast volume of items that booksellers sell and how they definitely desire to get their name out in the public sphere and distinguish themselves from others, considering the vast amount of booksellers around in the period. In addition, successful sellers have to be quite aggressive. For instance, Robert Dodsby actively sought out quality manuscripts, as well as encouraging certain writers like the poet Sherstone to write, almost in a mentor capacity.26
Customer: What should I know about 1732? I heard it was an important year for publishing and selling.
Tonson: 1732 was an extremely significant year in bookselling, as the industry experienced a huge boom, due primarily to growth in literacy and economic prosperity. All aspects of the business were profiting in 1732: the sellers, the printers, the papermakers, the pressers, typesetters, and warehouses.27 Printers were even selling their own work: Thomas Salmon published his own Modern History monthly for 14 years. However, one group was not profiting quite as well in 1732: the authors. Authors had to hope for at least a second edition of their book in order to turn a profit; otherwise, the seller took all the left over money, aside from the initial fee given to the author. So 1732 was basically the peak of economic prosperity in the book industry, but arguably the most important figure in the process was not seeing quite as much of that success. The Grub Street culture best exemplified the struggle of many writers. Grub Street, the name Pope and Swift gave to the London subworld of writing, included many struggling writers who actually had to get jobs in book factories to make ends meet.28 Johnson summed up the typical Grub Street author with the following from his Life of Mr. Richard Savage:
He lodged as much by accident as he dined. He composed his verses in his head while walking the streets, stopping in shops to cadge pencil and paper to jot them down. He passed the night sometimes in mean houses, which are set open at night to any casual wanderers, sometimes in cellars, among the riot and filth of the meanest and most profligate of the rabble; and sometimes, when he had not money to support even the expences of these receptacles, walked about the streets till he was weary, and lay down in the summer upon a bulk or in winter, with his associates in poverty, among the ashes of a glass-house.29
This is not to say however that Grub Street writers were poverty-stricken geniuses either, for most were indeed bad writers. Still, it would have been nice to see more writers make out better financially in this period.
Customer: Is there any genre that booksellers have particular sales success in during the eighteenth century?
Tonson: That would be serial publications, which are writings sold in parts and include everything from novels to newspapers. Buying one big book at once for one big price scares people. However, serial publishing, allows the bookseller to sell that one big book in many small parts for a small price, which basically fools the customer into thinking he is getting a good deal when he is still ultimately paying the same price. The seller of course makes a killing. Here's an example of a serial publication: Eprahim Chamber's Cyclopedia, 512.5 sheets long, was sold in part for 6 pence per week, which totaled up to 4 guineas overall, which was the original price of the book anyway. Most of these serials are of very low quality in terms of literary value, a fact that was satirized in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones.30
Customer: What are some other examples of these serials?
Tonson: Well, little books of plays by John Dryden, Nathan Lee, and others are sold in parts, each designed to keep the buyer coming back. Newspaper selling is based on this strategy. Even supplements are sold; a supplement isthe front pages of a newspaper, published separately for preservation.
An actual front page of The London Packet from the late 18th Century.31
Customer: What about book sales globally at this time? How does that work?
Tonson: The order and priority of book sale diffusion is first to local, then national, then international; global sales were not the priority. Still, it is a busy and profitable trade, growing especially as the century progressed. Here are some graphs illustrating the expanse of the global book trade in the eighteenth century:
A chart showing the volume of British book imports from 1700-1780.
A chart showing the volume of British book exports from 1700-1780.32
There is clearly a general increase in exports, while imports are a little more variable, as England has less of a need for importing, given the enormity of their own book production. The top place that England exports to is Ireland, and for the first time, exports also make it to North America and India. For imports, Holland is the leader, accounting for 30% of bound and 61% of unbound imports between 1700 and 1780. Germany and Italy contribute a fair share of imports too.33
Customer: Where can I see price lists?
Tonson: There are some figures below with some comparison prices for reference. Many books were quite expensive at this time due to labor and cost, which definitely put pressure on the sellers to sell a lot. Other written materials were quite affordable, for if they were all ridiculously expensive, then nobody would be buying them.
Paradise Lost by John Milton (1739): 3.5 shillings
Iron Pot (1742): 1-4 shillings
Old and New Testaments with Notes (1735): 6 shillings
Tea Table (1742): 17 shillings
The London Merchant by George Lillo (1747): 1/2 shillings
Curtains (1742): 1-4 shillings
A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell (1741): 1 shilling
Pewter (1742): 1-2 shillings.