Publishing in Austen’s time

pandp_title_first_ed2wJane Austen wrote at a time when women authors were not seen with good eyes by society. A woman’s reputation could be seriously damaged by assuming the authorship of published works, especially novels, and profiting from its selling. Being published exposed a woman to the public eye, and the consequence was her loss of femininity, which was defined by her modest behaviour, domesticity, submission to the male authorities in her life and so on. This led many women writers of the time to publish their first novels anonymously, among them were Sarah Field, Frances Burney, and Ann Radcliffe. Some of these women would start publishing under their own names after they achieved a certain reputation as novelists, but Jane Austen never changed her preference for keeping herself away from the public eye, choosing to have all her books publish only as “by a Lady”.

At her time, Austen and any writer, known or unknown, had four options for publishing their novels: by subscription, by profit-sharing, by selling copyright, and on commission, also known as publishing for oneself. In the subscription method, the author offered subscriptions on a projected book and would keep records and collect money of the subscribers, who would have their names printed in the book when it came out (you can relate it to the Pledge Music method many artists have been using to record their albums nowadays). By Austen’s time this method of publication was declining due to its demanding nature that did not always turn lucrative.

In the profit-sharing method, the publisher would assume the expanses of printing and advertising and, after the selling of the book paid their expanses, they would share the profit with the author. This method was usually offered to new authors whose success or failure could not be predicted; it was safer for both publisher and author.

The sale of the copyright guaranteed the author that they would receive the agreed fee for the rights of publication of their works, but it also excluded them from any future claim to their work and its profit in the market. This method was risky for both author and publisher. On the one hand, if the book did not sell well the publisher would still have to pay for the copyright fee and the printing and advertising costs which would be lost money for him, but would be good for the author that would be paid something anyway. On the other hand, if the book was a success, chances are that the author would have been able to earn more if they had not sold the copyright for the work and the publisher would be the only one to profit of their work. Jane Austen sold the copyright of Pride and Prejudice in November 1812 by £110 (about £ 6.418,74 today) to the publisher Thomas Egerton; This choice would prove to have been unwise when the novel became a success and gave Egerton a profit of more than £450 (about £25.614,11) considering only the first two editions.

When publishing on commission the author paid for all the expanses of printing and advertising and the publisher distributed the books charging a commission of 10 per cent for each sold copy. This was a very risk method for the author; if the book did not sell enough to pay the expenses, the author would still have to pay the publisher for printing and advertising besides the commission for any copy sold. Austen mostly used this last method to publish her works.

That’s all for today people! Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for more about Pride and Prejudice.

This post was based on Jan Fergus chapter “The professional woman writer” of The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, edited by Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Published by the Cambridge University Press in Cambridge, 1997.

The value of the pound today was calculated with the Bank of England Inflation Calculator.


1 Comment

Filed under English Literature, Literature, Women Writers

One response to “Publishing in Austen’s time

  1. Pingback: Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice | A Thousand Lives

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