‘Now Barabbas was a publisher.’ The joke was made by Thomas Campbell, once a great editor, now a forgotten man. I suspect that many authors, looking at their six-monthly royalty figures, have invoked the line. If every translator, following the Italian, is a traitor (traduttori, traditori), many publishers might be thought robbers. One recalls the tenner Milton received for Paradise Lost and the £20 Anna Sewell was paid for the whole copyright of Black Beauty. Perhaps the thieves on the cross would be even more appropriate if we’re thinking Jesus, the author of all those wonderful parables. The connection of publishers and thievery is proverbial. Thackeray quipped that their offices ought to be carpeted red, since they trade in authorial blood and brains.
High (possibly tops) in the publishing rogue’s gallery is Henry Colburn (1784–1855). It’s not a name that rings loud in the annals of literature, but his legacy is detectable on every high street and in every electronic bookshop. Circumspice, as the Latin instruction puts it. Opprobrium of Colburn was, in his day, staple book-trade fare. He was slandered as a ‘guttersnipe’ – no gentleman publisher, he – and excoriated as a mortal threat to the honest author. In Disraeli’s pungent description, he was a publishing ‘bawd’, a pimp. Dickens described him as a ‘sneaking vagabond’ who conducted business like a pawnbroker on a Saturday night.
Colburn inspired innumerable contemptuous book-trade jests. Many still amuse. Bulwer-Lytton (who received a small fortune from Colburn in payments) imagined God going round London hawking the copyright to the Bible:
When He calls at New Burlington Street Colburn does not dispute the general merit of the work but doubts it will take with the fashionable world. He suggests … a few piquant anecdotes about the Court of King Herod.
Ho ho. And yet, as the bibliophile Michael Sadleir (who loathed Colburn) conceded, ‘Henry Colburn revolutionised publishing in its every aspect. His kind are with us to this day.’
What, then, were the Colburn revolutions? He was notoriously the ‘Prince of Puffers’, the first publisher to spend more on advertisements than payments to authors. And his advertisements were downright vulgar – hype, as the word then wasn’t. Colburn’s primary article of faith was that there is no such thing as a good book that doesn’t sell.
Not that he screwed his authors. He was the first publisher routinely to give his top writers jaw-dropping thousand-pound payments – and make the fact known (more puffery). He raised the living wage of literature; all the boats floated higher. He invented, with his partner Richard Bentley, the two-stage
publishing pattern that persists today – first hardback, later paperback – with the three-decker (priced at 31s 6d) followed, a couple of years on, by the more affordable ‘Standard Novel’ (6s). Colburn’s there every time you say, ‘I think I’ll wait for the paperback.’ And, at the end of it all, he published a quantity of good literature. Like human birth, it may not have been a pretty sight to watch, but the product was worth some mess in the conception and delivery.
It was Colburn who published Disraeli’s Young England trilogy, at a period when the author was flat broke and unwanted by genteel houses. Sybil, Coningsby and Tancred laid the foundation of One Nation Conservatism. Colburn is invisibly in the air at every Tory Party conference.
Colburn, who was as interested in magazines as books, invented the machinery of fiction reviewing as we know it with the Literary Gazette. The TLS and LRB, unproud as they may be of the fact, have some of Colburn in their DNA. He also pioneered the more ruminative literary journal (like this one) with the New Monthly Magazine, edited by the above Thomas Campbell.
Colburn gave writers such as Anthony Trollope, Frederick Marryat and a band of female novelists (notably Trollope’s mother, Frances) their starts in literary life. There were several historical works he was intensely proud of being the first to publish, including John Evelyn’s and Samuel Pepys’s diaries. His most significant contribution to literary history was to make, with Richard Bentley, Jane Austen a bestselling novelist.
What makes Colburn relevant is that we urgently need publishers of his inventive, break-the-mould kind today. The phenomenal success in the modern book trade is Jeff Bezos. Bezos is now, we learn, the richest man in the world, said to be worth $105 billion. More to the point, Amazon has made books available on a scale unprecedented in literary history. Good for Jeff.
But Bezos is a salesman. He does not originate. Quantity is great, but qualitatively things are worse than bad. Columbia Journalism Review published an article recently by Michael J Socolow entitled ‘As an Industry Rots, Michael Wolff Laughs His Way to the Bank’. The rotting industry is book publishing. Wolff’s sign-of-the-times bestseller, Fire and Fury, is a shower of excrement over the White House. It’s worthless compared to Disraeli’s Young England manifesto in fiction.
The Arts Council a few weeks ago bemoaned the condition of literary fiction in Britain. Picking up on its dire conclusion, The Guardian has argued persuasively that a morally healthy country needs the empathy literary fiction generates, as healthy humans need sunshine – or as the Tory Party needed Disraeli.
To bring forth fresh literary fiction, we need a new generation of publishers who appreciate that making good books may be a dirty business but that someone, unafraid of getting their hands dirty, has to do it. Like Henry Colburn.