Thursday, 9 May 2013

Legacy Publishing by Julia Jones


 From the Penny Dreadful to the Halfpenny Dreadfuller by Robert J. Kirkpatrick – it's my current reading and what a handsome volume! Published by the British Library, 576 pages, copiously illustrated  indexed, appendicised, footnoted, bibliographed; rrp £50 and weighs in at a thunderous 1.6kg. It almost certainly costs more (£6.50, second class, £7.95 first) to post a single copy than the hapless author or even the publisher will expect to earn.

I mention this fact not only as a thank you to Robert for his generosity in sending me this copy (and because I'm incensed by the current Royal Mail hike in parcel costs) but also as a passing reminder that every development in publishing is inextricably linked to the current state of the distribution network. As a print publisher I howl with anguish every time I do my sums and remind myself that to post a single copy of even my paperback books costs almost as much as I paid to have them printed. As an e-publisher I tremble to think what would happen to our business if we could no longer take our electricity supply or the internet as completely for granted as we currently take .. let's say water. Imagine this dystopian future or think back to the powercuts of the 1970s (or even droughts and hose-pipe bans). Even now digital publishers would be wise to bear in mind the inequalities in the broadband system. I live in the country, lucky me, but please don't bother sending me your promotional videos – with a 10KB/s download speed I'm unlikely to click the link. I can only hope that, after Royal Mail has been cynically sold off, I'll still see the postman come staggering up the path.

From the Penny Dreadful to the Halfpenny Dreadfuller is a bibliographic history of the boys' periodical in Britain from 1762-1950. It therefore pre-dates both the coming of the railways and the penny post. Two developments which began to revolutionise the reading – and publishing – habits in this country. Before that, as Kirkpatrick mentions, distribution was very much more a by-hand affair. Some of the earliest periodicals for children were either linked closely with the book trade and published by subscription (eg Newbery) or were instructional in content and circulated via closed communities such as the public schools. The available means of distribution defined the content. I would suggest that it still does.

I wondered why I didn't entirely agree with Kathleen Jones's admirably polemical blogpost “A Short History of [Self] Publishing” and I realised that we may have a different understanding of what constitutes a “publisher”. The most basic form of publisher, for me, is the one who gets the writer's content to the public. A disseminator, in fact. Pure self-publishing is when you produce the content, pay the printer (or act as your own printer) and then distribute to readers whose interest you have personally solicited. If you, as author, take responsibility for the dissemination, you can write what the heck you like (as long as it's within the law). As the biographer of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, KJ understands this very well: “Back in the 16th and 17th centuries all you needed was a purse stuffed with cash and a printer.” You could give your work away if you had the distribution sorted. 

Robert Kirkpatrick points out that the huge success of the tract movement and juvenile religious magazines in the first half of the c19th was partly due to the fact that distribution could be managed for nothing through altruistic volunteers – all those eager Sunday School teachers and philanthropic visitors in poor areas. We can still do this if we choose. The pure self-publishers are those (like Dan Holloway?) who retain the direct disseminating link between themselves and their readers – who do not, for instance, use Amazon as their publisher / bookseller / distributor, as most of us do.

Even in the c16th and c17th if an author or a printer wanted to reach the masses but had the commoner type of purse that required cash-replenishment, they had to use middle-men for dissemination. These were the chapmen. The writer wrote, the printer printed and the chapmen set off into the countryside with a stack of ballads or adventure stories in their sack. When they came back for more they paid for what they'd sold. Okay, so chapmen were itinerant booksellers rather than publishers but they were integral to the system. Some types of story sold better than others in different areas and to different purchasers -- so the printers printed more of those. The means of distribution began influencing the balance of content. Thrilling stories of devils and heroes were more commercially successful in a peddler's pack than philosophical treatises – and I suggest that in the current ebook market this is equally the case. 

The biggest of all the factors that influenced reading, writing and publishing, even before education, was urbanisation. By the mid c19th Britain was the first country in the world where more people lived in towns than in the country. That, coupled with the advances in communication (represented by the railways) and the advances in technology (represented by steam-power), meant that there was plenty of room – and even a need – for additional middlemen between writers, printers, distributors and the toiling masses who needed just a little something, apart from gin, religion or sex, to beguile their leisure moments. These additional middlemen were organisers and facilitators. They were obviously publishers and they often added a flair for knowing what the public would enjoy even before the street-sellers reported back. They played their part in moving the industry on.

Robert Kirkpatrick charts the spectacular rise of the 'penny blood' in the entrepreneurial hands of Edward Lloyd and GWM Reynolds during the 1830s and 1840s, then its much more significant development via the 'penny dreadfuls' of Edwin Brett or the Newsagent Publishing Company or the Emmett family (or anyone else whose products you disapproved of – and who therefore deserved this opprobrious term). The spread of education and literacy, new technology and suburbanisation then spawned the vastly successful 'halfpenny dreadfullers' of the Harmsworth brothers of the 1890s.
The Harmsworths (founders of the Daily Mail) appeared to take the side of the moral majority (eg as represented by the Religious Tract Society, publishers of the Boys' Own Paper) and pretended to disapprove of the penny dreadfuls whilst re-using their most successful motifs with what Kirkpatrick calls “panache, style and breathtaking hypocrisy”. They assumed control of the means of production (from pulp-producing forests to word-producing authors), introduced new technology  streamlined distribution and cut prices to the consumer. No wonder their newspapers and magazines were successful far into the twentieth century. And, as I discovered in Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory my biography of Herbert Allingham, their writers could prosper with them – as long as they were prepared to accept anonymity and powerlessness. I could think of the Harmsworths as the Amazon of their day -- except that part of my belief is that different periods have different circumstances and writers within those periods all have to find their different answers to the same question: how to get words to readers. There must, I suggest, almost always be something or someone in the middle.

“The story of the boys's periodical,” concludes Kirkpatrick, “was not only one of rivalry and fierce competition and particular type of sensational literature, but it was also a story of opportunism  persistence, optimism, ambition, guile, hypocrisy, financial ineptitude, hard work and inventiveness. Only a few of these involved are known and recognised today, while most – writers, editors publishers – have left little mark on history, having lived and died in relative obscurity. Perhaps this book should be regarded as their memorial.” 

If we play the substitution game and pick from this list of value words to describe “the story of independent e-publishing” I wonder which ones we'd choose? Not, I think “rivalry and fierce competition” – amongst ourselves, at least. Though we might want to keep a check on the way we think and speak of others whose work is published differently. Different publishing modes may suit different authors and different types of work. It need not be polarised between Good and Bad.

Kathleen Jones did not use the term "legacy publishing" in her post but it was used in the comments and I spent a little while thinking about the way it has come to be used in the indie publishing community. It originated in the US in the early summer of 2011 as a term of opprobrium. As Courtney Milan explains, “the point of using the term "legacy publishing" is that it conveys instantly what you think of traditional publishers: that you think they are old and inefficient and outmoded”. She dislikes this. “Vocabulary matters. Vocabulary that is chosen to insult people … has an effect. It immediately closes down conversation with people who do not agree with you.” Rather like stigmatising something as "penny dreadful"? I think in our (semi) independent-sector we have experienced enough linguistic contempt NOT to want to indulge in retaliation. Hypocrisy is possibly a besetting British sin – that and a propensity to disapprove of the neighbours (in this case "legacy publishers") . I think we could usefully cross hypocrisy off our personal list and be a little more thoughtful about our choice of words.

I think a legacy is a good thing – if it's a good legacy. I was able to write Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory because of a legacy. That legacy was an archive that could not be shared in its current form: it needed work to turn it first into a thesis (available free at www.fiftyyearsinthefictionfactory.com or via the British Library lending service as Family Fictions). Then I turned it into a biography which I disseminated as a paperback and as an ebook for the general reader. I was surprised at the difficulty of the changes I needed to make just to alter from thesis to biography. Format and content were a complex mix.

Back cover - copious illustrations throughout
From the Penny Dreadful to the Halfpenny Dreadfuller is a hugely impressive bibliographic achievement. Robert Kirkpatrick hopes that his book will become “a memorial” – a tribute to the forgotten workers. Not so far from a legacy? He must have devoted decades to gathering the material necessary for his comprehensive checklist of over 600 titles – and that's without the knowledge and insight required to order his research into an interesting and non-simplistic historical narrative. If I suggest that this is obsession on the grand scale I intend a heartfelt compliment. As I tried to find my way through the publishing exuberance and the writerly activity of the late c19th and early c20th I felt a profound gratitude for the collectors and the list-makers and the fact-checkers who have not only spent time in storage rooms and libraries but who have swapped and shared and debated learned articles on infinitesimally fine points. They are the unsung heroes of book history. I hope that Kirkpatrick's achievement will be SUNG. I hope it will endure and be his legacy. I notice that it is only currently available as a hardback print publication. I wonder whether the British Library intends that it should stay that way?



7 comments:

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I think you'll find, if you dig a bit deeper, that although some indie writers and publishers do seem to assume that the term legacy is a term of disapproval, in reality, it was a term borrowed from the IT industry and no bad thing. I think Courtney Milan is wrong. Let me quote from the always perceptive IT expert 'William Ockham' commenting on a Barry Eisler post on The Passive Voice:

'One particularly amusing (to me) part of this kerfuffle was the objection to Barry’s use of the term “legacy publishing”. This is a term borrowed from the IT world where a legacy system is one that was designed and built around past requirements. As the business and technology change, supporting a legacy system can be a real challenge.

Many legacy systems remain in place because they produce real value and, despite the pain of keeping them going, they are superior to the alternatives. Other legacy systems are just dragging down productivity.

The amusing part about “legacy publishing” is that the term isn’t inherently derogatory. It’s a very apt description of reality. Traditional publishing is a system designed to meet the requirements of the pre-ebook world. It’s a system that can adapt and change or ossify. Yelling at Barry is a sign of ossification.'

I agree that the term is often used carelessly and as a borderline insult, but I suspect that for many of us (me included!) William's definition is much more apt and satisfactory.

julia jones said...

Sorry - a couple of irritating typos here. The research page that has my PhD thesis and other appendices is at www.fiftyyearsinthefictionfactory.com
alias http://golden-duck.co.uk/family-fictions-phd-thesis

julia jones said...

I read about 'legacy publishing' as part of a Joe Konrath / Barry Eisler dialogue and it seemed pretty clearly intended to be derogatory (cf their use of a Wikipedia entry and the general tone of their discussion). Then I read rather a trivial article by Barry Eisler 24.4.2012 and a dignified riposte from Stephen Page at Faber. @Publishers should be proud of their legacy'. The debate was taken on by Mike Shatzkin 4.9.2012 with the suggestion that 'trad' publishers should be called 'full-service' publishers. It was actually quite an interesting article -- all about which bits of a publishing business could sensibly be out-sourced but I thought his 'full-service term might reasonably produce derision.

Jan Needle said...

thanks for that, julia. your massive input of time, knowledge and intellect shame me, as ever, but then i was trained as a tabloid sub. talking of which, i loved the bits about the harmsworth brothers.

'The Harmsworths (founders of the Daily Mail) appeared to take the side of the moral majority...and pretended to disapprove of the penny dreadfuls whilst re-using their most successful motifs...with “panache, style and breathtaking hypocrisy”. ' plus ca change, eh?

talking of garish ways to a attract attention (were we?) i found the constantly changing pictures down the right band side of the post made concentration a real struggle. should i have been pleased that some of the 'adverts' were for my books? in fact i kept wondering why the light show was there at all. does it have to be?

(please don't accuse me of bullying, mr christian. i submit...)

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Konrath is generally extreme and often derogatory! Although a lot of his advice is very sound. I like reading his posts from behind a cushion, so to speak - it's a bit like standing in a cold shower, but after half a lifetime spent on the 'legacy' end of things in all kinds of ways, I find it very stimulating! Speaking as one who is still 'traditionally published' - by the excellent Nick Hern whose company seems to be very much a labour of love - I'll go with whatever seems best for me at the time. But whatever I do, I can't do any worse than the legacy boys and girls have done for me over twenty five years of bad advice. Which is probably a topic for my next post!

julia jones said...

Thanks Jan - there's a much more enjoyable read via the Golden Duck news page http://goldenduck.squarespace.com/news/2013/5/9/peter-duck-outwits-the-weather-fairy.html

And THANK YOU Catherine - first for helping me sort my typos and then for the memorable image of reading Joe Konrath from behind a cushion. Love it. (Note to self: must read the Passive Voice more - you seem to find a lot of good things there)

Kathleen Jones said...

Interesting post Julia - and yes, I deliberately kept my post simple on the publishing aspect and didn't go into the complications of distribution! And I try not to use the phrase 'legacy-publishing' because I'm not sure it has an exact meaning yet - people tend to sling it about in a vague kind of way.
Sad that such fascinating books are so expensive, when they could offer them as e-books for a fraction. Except that they don't. Many academic books are over £50 and even libraries can't afford them!