TC TO JOHN CHAPMAN ; 3 May 1852; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18520503-TC-JCH-01; CL 27: 99-102
TC TO JOHN CHAPMAN
Chelsea, 3 May, 1852—
Unluckily I shall not be able to attend your meeting on Tuesday Evening;1 but I can have no hesitation in testifying my concurrence with the object of it,—which I understand, in brief, to be Free-trade in Books, or the first step in a course leading straight towards that.
Free-trade, in respect of Books, and indeed of most other objects, is by no means the ultimatum one aspires to, or the perfect condition that will satisfy the world's want in the matter; very far from that in many cases; and in the case of Literature, farther than in any other whatsoever. But surely in all cases, and in that of Literature too, free trade is better than trade unjustly crippled by monopolies which are merely blind and greedy: in present circumstances, free trade were a clear improvement; and moreover, in the actual disposition of the world, it is a first stage thro' which all faulty things must pass, and only beyond and after trial of which can any progress that will prove true and lasting be looked for.
For the rest, I fear there are few branches of human industry, and most clearly Literature is not one of them, in which the shopkeeper spirit (so we may call it, for the sake of definition) will suffice to regulate “production and distribution” according to the world's real want and interest: in regard to very many, there is perpetually needed a generous merchant spirit (which, it may be feared, free trade and active competition will not much tend to develope among us): and in regard to some, there is needed a spirit higher than any kind of merchandise, and not looking to profit-and-loss for advice at all. Now certainly, beyond all other objects, Literature, in its higher forms, belong to this latter class: to these two latter classes it belongs in all forms of it that have any value to mankind: for the mere shopkeeper spirit, looking only to the visible vicinity, and sharpened into ever greater eagerness for immediate returns, is smitten with eternal incompetence in even the finance of Literature, and can do no good whatever there that would not otherwise be done, and does immensities of mischief there which perhaps might otherwise remain undone.
All this is true even of the finance of Literature:—and alas, Literature has many elements besides the financial, and far more important to it than the financial; in regard to all of which it would so gladly cease to be anarchic, and become well-ordered, and well-governed, if it only could! Truly, to consider how Society at present stands related to Literature may well fill the thinking man with astonishment, with anxiety, almost with terror. The duties of Society towards Literature, in these new conditions of the world, are becoming great, vital, inexpressibly intricate,—little capable of being done or understood at present, but all-important to be understood and done, if society will continue to exist along with it, and it along with society. From the highest provinces of spiritual culture and the most sacred interests of men, down to the lowest economic and ephemeral concerns where “Free Press” rules supreme, Society may see itself, with all its sovereignties and parliaments, depending on the thing it calls Literature; and bound, under incalculable penalties, to very many duties in regard to that! Of which duties, I perceive, finance alone, and free-trade alone, will by no means be found to be the sum.— But such considerations lie far beyond our present business; and must not be more than alluded to here.
What alone concerns us here is to remark that the present System of Book-publishing discharges none of these duties,—less and less makes even the appearance of discharging them;—and indeed as I believe is, by the nature of the case, incapable of ever, in any perceptible degree discharging any of them in the times that now are. A century ago, there was in the Bookselling Guild,—if never any royalty of spirit, as how could such be looked for there?—yet a spirit of solid merchanthood, which had its value in regard to the prosaic parts of Literature and is ever to be thankfully remembered there. Of this solid merchant spirit, if we take the victualling and furnishing of such an enterprise as Samuel Johnson's English Dictionary for its highest feat (as perhaps we justly may), and many a Petitot's Mémoires, Encyclopedia Britannica2 &c &c in this country and in others, for its lower, we must gratefully admit the real usefulness, respectability, and merit to the world.— But in later times, owing to many causes which have been active not on the Book-Guild alone, such spirit has long been diminishing; and has now as good as disappeared, without hope of resuscitation in that quarter. The spirit of the Book-trade, it is mournfully evident, is that of modern trade generally, no better and no worse; a hand-to-mouth spirit, incapable of ever again paying for even a Johnson's Dictionary; not what I can call a merchant spirit, but (on the great or on the small scale) a shopkeeper one. Such is the melancholy fact, so far as my experience and observation have taught me to form an opinion: if my vote is enquired of in the matter, I grieve to say, and am not conscious of either anger or of favour in saying, it is authentically this. Which leads me, and indeed has long since led me, to infer that the Publishing Guild, taking large wages for doing indispensable work, and quite omitting to do it, is in no safe or lasting position before the Public, and will prove incapable of standing unless it can escape being inquired into.
If the Public itself (as I by no means believe or ever believed) is adequate, by free-trade or otherwise, to remunerate Literature, the Public ought to have at least a chance of trying to do it. The present System,—by which above one half of the selling-price of a Book (“from 55 to 65 per cent, including advertisements”) is paid over to a man or set of men, not who write it or print it, or bind it, or make paper for it, but who shove it across the counter and draw in the money, remains, to all that look at it in this point of view, one of the most astonishing ever seen in Human Commerce; and seems to me, in these days, destined to speedy abrogation when once the Public has got eye on it.
My own interest in the business, I confess, is not of a lively nature; nor are my hopes for the world, from such a revolution, what they once might have been: but such is, and has long been, my view of the case now come in hand. No duty being done to Literature but a shopkeeping one, let us have at least the eligible kind of shopkeeping,—your 55 per cent reduced gradually (as we find it in America just now) to 15 or 10; with Books about half the price they now bear, and with 20 times or 40 times as many readers to them as now. After that, we shall see!—
In haste, I remain, / Sir, / Yours very truly
John Chapman Esq, Publisher